With millions of Americans enduring a power outage in Texas as a deadly storm brought snow and freezing weather, many are wondering how to feed themselves and their families. With the clock ticking on the food in your fridge and freezer, it's not easy to know what's safe to eat and what cannot be salvaged. And even without the lights on, people still need to eat and are turning to their pantry and old-fashioned can openers to make a meal.
Ready.gov recommends stocking up on the following items in case of an emergency:
- Ready-to-eat canned fruits, vegetables and meats, along with a can opener
- Protein or fruit bars
- Dry cereal or granola
- Peanut butter
- Dried fruit
- Canned juices
- Non-perishable pasteurized milk (or non-dairy milk)
- High-energy foods
- Food for infants
- Comfort/stress foods
"Not all emergencies can be planned for ahead of time, but when possible, planning in advance could make a difference between whether you are safe or at risk," Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of "Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table" told TODAY Food.
Taub-Dix said that in these situations, having food and appliance thermometers can be a lifesaver. "Your fridge should be at 40 degrees F or below and the freezer should read 0 degrees F or lower," she said. "If you have any doubt about whether a food is safe, you can check its internal temperature with a food thermometer, and remember the dietitian's motto: 'When in doubt...throw it out."
You can prepare for power outage by making sure you have bottled water and other items on hand. In fact, you probably have many canned goods that can be put together to make a nutritious meal.
"Purchase canned foods that could be combined together to create a meal including protein and side dishes," said Taub-Dix. "Buy canned tuna or chicken, an assortment of beans, canned veggies and fruit. Be sure to keep a hand-held can opener nearby and purchase the smallest sized jars of mayo and mustard so that you could use them once and discard the rest." You can also check your kitchen drawers for leftover takeout condiment packets.
It's also a good idea to have plenty of paper goods on hand including plates, bowls, plasticware, cups and napkins for when the dishwasher can't run or there is no running water.
Other meal possibilities you may not have considered include canned soups and cereal. "Keep ready-to-eat cereals on hand as well as shelf-stable almond milk," said Taub-Dix. "A bowl of cereal, dried fruit and nuts can make a hearty meal for adults and kids."
For those who eat nuts, nut butters such as almond butter can deliver protein in a pinch. "Nut butters pair deliciously with some whole grain crackers and a fresh apple for a quick breakfast or snack," said Taub-Dix.
As far as logistics go with the food in your fridge and freezer go, you can extend the clock on many items by simply not opening the doors to keep the temperature stable.
"Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible," said Taub-Dix. "An unopened full freezer can hold foods safely for about 48 hours. A half full freezer of food will last 24 hours. A refrigerator of food will only remain safe for about 4-5 hours. The internal temperature of food should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to be considered safe to eat."
This is where a large cooler and ice packs can come in handy — if you have them you can keep those refrigerated foods chilled for longer.
If you don't have this option, keep in mind that anything with ice crystals on it or that has a funny odor, color or texture needs to get tossed. The USDA has a guide to food safety for storms and hurricanes where you can check most foods on whether they can be safely saved or if they need to be discarded. At the end of the day, a power outage can be a dangerous and costly ordeal, but when faced with the choice of throwing food out or potentially getting sick, Taub-Dix said it's a no brainer.
"Never eat food that seems like it could be spoiled," she said. "The money you waste by throwing it away is far less costly than the doctor bills you'd have to pay if you developed a foodborne illness."