People are often left without power when a storm strikes. Here’s how to avoid spoiled food and wasted money.
Plan ahead. If the weather forecast predicts serious storms, or a tornado, an excellent non-electric cooling system is dry ice, but its popularity could make it to be tough to find.
A free alternative is to fill empty plastic milk containers or juice or water bottles with water and freeze them. The solid block of ice will help keep food cool in inside your freezer or a well-insulated cooler for 24 hours or more.
Frozen gel packs work, too. My refigerator/freezer gave up recently after more than 20 years of devoted service. I used a combination of gel packs and frozen plastic bottles in insulated picnic bags to hold the contents of my freezer and refrigerator while I waited for the delivery of my new one. (My new Energy Star eco-efficient unit has dropped my electric bill by around $20 a month, but that’s another story for another time.)
It goes without saying that larger containers take longer to freeze, but they also take longer to melt down.
(Editor from Florida’s note: If you live in an area that’s prone to hurricanes, don’t stock up on frozen or perishable foods during hurricane season. Eat down your freezer and shop more often.)
During the outage. Open the refrigerator or freezer door as little a possible. Every time you open it, cold air escapes. That’s both obvious and easy to forget.
After an outage. Deciding what to keep and what to toss is both a health decision and a financial one. It’s not worth making yourself or your family sick by eating spoiled food. The general rule, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is that any perishable that stays over 40 degrees for more than four hours should be tossed.
Here’s a quick guide from the USDA’s Food Safety website:
- What to toss. Meats, fish, seafood, poultry, soy meat substitute, eggs, leftovers, milk, yogurt, mayonnaise, lunch meats hot dogs, bacon. Also, soft cheeses such as mozzarella, queso blanco, brie, cottage cheese and any cheese-filled pastries or pies. Also toss leftovers from pre-outage meals.
- What to keep. Hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan are OK, but not if they’ve been shredded. Fresh, uncut fruits and veggies are safe, unless they are the packaged, pre-washed kind. Fruit juices in glass or plastic bottles or containers are OK to keep, but not juices stored in open cans.
Never taste food to determine its safety. The USDA advises that you can’t rely on appearance or smell to determine whether something is safe for your family to eat.
If you aren’t sure, these hotlines have answers – assuming you have a working phone that doesn’t depend on electricity to work or recharge. Food information hotlines: USDA Meat and Poultry, 800-535-4555; FDA Seafood, 800-FDA-4010; FDA’s Food Safety Information, 888-723-3366.
When in doubt, throw it out. It just isn’t worth saving $20 worth of food that could wind up costing 10 times as much in medical bills.
And one final tip: It’s not enough to stock up on batteries before a storm. You should load flashlights with the new ones, keep them handy and easy to find.
As I wrote on NYC on the Cheap, you can also cut your electricity bill, and perhaps help save your local power grid from overloading, by unplugging smartphone chargers and small appliances when not in use. Such “vampire” power can add up to 10% of a monthly residential bill.