Refrigerator food

Severe climate change-related events – hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and sky-rocketing temperatures – are leading more and more people to have to put up with electrical blackouts. Among the many negative implications of those blackouts are the effects on what’s going on in our very own kitchens and refrigerators.

Interrupted refrigeration, and given enough time also thawing of freezers, is another common side effect of climate change, whether the result of wildfire-related shutoffs in western states, or downed lines from increasing hurricanes or severe storms in other parts of the U.S.

Depending on your region and the cause for your outage, there are some cases where your utility or homeowners insurance may cover food spoilage or loss that’s been caused by an outage. But the possibilities here are hit-or-miss at best, so don’t bank on them.

The best thing to do is to stay vigilant during your region’s severe weather season, and be prepared to execute the following power outage food safety tactics.

Before the outage

You’ll sometimes get at least some advance warning that a power outage could be on the way. If you hear reports that a fire-related shutoff or severe weather is imminent, take these steps ahead of time to reduce the risk of food spoilage:

1) Consider how long the outage could last, and assess the contents of your fridge and freezer accordingly. If an outage seems likely to last no more than a day or two, then it may make sense to put as much of your perishables as you can in the freezer – and leave them there. If the door is kept closed, food will last up to 48 hours in a full freezer, 24 hours in a half-full freezer, or four hours in an unopened refrigerator.

If the outage could last longer, then consider foraging through your freezer and fridge to prep food ahead of time. For example, you might toss a random mix of veggies and meats into a clean-out-the-fridge soup, or whip up an egg, cheese, and veggie frittata. These you could either eat ahead of the potential outage period, or store in a container to keep in the cooler as an easy meal option in the early stages of the weather event. Use up those frozen bananas for homemade banana bread-making for an easy, tasty breakfast or snack during the outage.

2) Make a shopping run. During fire or storm season, it’s wise to keep your pantry stocked with shelf-stable fare like nut butter, pasta, and canned beans, soups, and sauces. Take a quick inventory of your pantry now to see if any of those provisions are running low, and then head to the store to stock up on extras and on bread and produce that won’t require refrigeration.

If you’re a coffee drinker, do yourself (and your family) a favor by ensuring you have access to your morning joe, whether that’s by grinding a few days supply of whole beans ahead of time or keeping things even simpler by using ground coffee beans or even buying instant coffee packets. Beats an early a.m. rise and shine without that extra boost of caffeine so many have become accustomed to.

Also consider picking up block ice, dry ice, a good cooler, and/or a couple of appliance thermometers so you can be sure the fridge or freezer has kept food above the threshold temperature for food safety. (That’s 40 degrees or less for the fridge, or 0°F or below for the freezer, according to the CDC.)

3) Prepare your cooling supplies. Stock up on ice, either by bagging what’s already there and letting the freezer make it, or by freezing gel packs and water in containers. All that extra ice can help keep your freezer, fridge, and cooler as cold as possible, for as long as possible.

Once you’re ready to close the doors for the duration of the outage, bring ice to the front for the freezer and fridge, because most cold is lost through the doors. Add the rest to a cooler so you can keep some items cool for a little while without having to worry about opening the fridge or freezer.

During the outage

1) First and foremost, keep those refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as you can and for as long as you can. Opening those doors is a sure way to quicken their rising inside temperatures.

2) Know your cooking options. If you have a gas stove, you can still cook on the stovetop – you’ll just need some matches or a lighter to carefully light the surface burner. The oven is a no-go. If you’ve got an electric stove, you might use a grill outdoors – remember, never indoors! – once the storm has passed but the power outage hasn’t.

3) Keep yourself and your family nourished with simple snacks and meals until the lights come back on. Bonus points for options that don’t require a lot of cooking or dish-washing. For inspiration, here’s a sample blackout-friendly menu:

– Breakfast: Pre-made banana bread or muffins. Or, if you can boil hot water, try quick-cooking oatmeal with brown sugar, raisins, and cinnamon.
– Lunch: Peanut butter and honey sandwiches and carrots from the cooler.
– Dinner: This one-pot chili recipe calls for pantry staples and a couple of peppers. Or consider this easy Butternut Squash soup, which packs in flavor with outage-friendly ingredients like canned coconut milk. If you don’t have a means of heating, bean tacos are a great go-to. This white bean salad is also loaded with nutrients thanks to the addition of tuna, avocado, and tomato.
– Dessert: Treat yourself with Peanut Butter-Chocolate No-Bake Cookies.

Whatever you make, try to avoid creating leftovers that would need to be refrigerated.

After the outage

The No. 1 rule of thumb: When in doubt, throw it out.

If you have an appliance thermometer, check to see if your freezer, fridge, and cooler are still at or cooler than the appropriate safe temperature. If they’re still below that threshold, you may be able to keep the contents.

Either way, toss perishables like meat, fish, cut fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, and leftovers if your refrigerator has gone for more than four hours without power or a sustained cold source like dry ice. Foodsafety.gov has a handy chart detailing when to save something, or when to throw it out.

Prepare now, save later

Power outages may be on the rise amidst the escalating impacts of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires, but food waste doesn’t have to be.

Wildfires and climate change: What’s the connection?

By taking a proactive approach to food safety, you can stay nourished during a power outage and save money on groceries. What’s more, you can play a small part in leaving food waste – and its climate impacts – in the dark.

Topics: Food & Agriculture