If you have ever found yourself in the middle of a hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disasters that cause a power outage, there are always questions about the food in your refrigerator and freezer. How long will the food be okay to eat? What should I throw out, and when?

Emergencies often come with extreme weather conditions and having a good plan in place before a power outage is a good strategy to have. However, if you haven't had time to prepare, knowing how to properly handle your food when the power goes out can prevent you from having to throw out a few things, and keep you from eating something that could be unhealthy.

As soon as your power goes out, mark the time, so you know what to do moving forward.

Safe Temperatures

fruit with a refrigerator thermometer

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the proper temperature for your refrigerator is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with the perfect range being between 35 and 38 degrees. As for your freezer, you want to keep that at zero degrees. If you don't have appliance thermometers, put a couple of ice cubes in a plastic Ziploc bag, once they start to melt you will know that your freezer is above 32 degrees and getting close to dangerous temperature levels

When the power goes out, a refrigerator can keep the proper temperature for about four to six hours if you can avoid opening the doors too much. And, a fuller refrigerator stays colder longer than an emptier one. For a full freestanding freezer, it can keep an acceptable temperature for 48 hours if the doors remain closed, 24 hours if it is half-full.

Michigan State University recommends covering your refrigerator and freezer with newspaper and blankets (just don't cover the vents) to slow down the rising temperature.

When Your Four to Six Hours Are Up

woman with spoiled food

If your power has stayed off for more than four hours, it is time to start making decisions. Hopefully, you have a refrigerator thermometer to help you track the temperature because this will help you determine what is safe to keep and what to throw out.

Once your refrigerator's temperature rises above 40 degrees, you only have about two hours before you have to pitch perishable items. So, at that point, it is time to fire up the grill and get to cooking or get your trash can ready.

What To Discard

refrigerated dairy to discard

FoodSafety.gov says that the items that you need to pitch when they have been above 40 degrees for more than two hours are:

  • Raw, thawing, or leftover cooked meat such as poultry, fish, or seafood
  • Salads such as egg, meat, tuna, shrimp, or chicken
  • Canned meats and fish, especially those that say "keep refrigerated"
  • Lunch meat, sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and dried beef
  • Soft Cheeses, such as camembert, ricotta, mozzarella, muenster, Monterey jack, cottage cheese, and cream cheese
  • Any shredded cheese
  • Dairy products such as milk, sour cream, eggs, and yogurt
  • Opened dressings and sauces
  • Refrigerated biscuits, cookie dough, fresh pasta, pasta salads
  • Pre-cut, pre-washed packaged greens
  • Cooked vegetables, baked potatoes, soups, and stews

What To Keep

keep refrigerated condiments

Safe items in your refrigerator include --

  • Raw vegetables
  • Fresh Fruit
  • Breakfast foods such as waffles and pancakes
  • Bread, rolls, muffins, tortillas
  • Peanut Butter
  • Condiments such as ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, and Worcestershire
  • Canned fruit and fruit juices
  • Butter
  • Processed cheese
  • Hard cheese such as cheddar, parmesan, provolone, Colby, Swiss, and Romano

How To Prepare Yourself for a Power Outage

emergency kit
  • Purchase appliance thermometers for your refrigerator and freezer, so when the power does go out, they can help you monitor their temperature and determine what is safe.
  • Freeze items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry that you don't need right away so they can stay at a safe temperature longer.
  • Freeze containers of water so that you have ice to help keep your food cold if the power goes out. And, this also helps if you don't have access to water because the melting ice can be your drinking water.
  • If you group your food together in the freezer, it will help the food stay colder longer.
  • Purchase a cooler or two so you can keep your food refrigerated if your power goes out for more than four hours. Also, make ice cubes in advance or freeze gel packs.
  • Check your local area to find out where you can buy dry ice or block ice, just in case. And, make sure to store a supply of bottled water.
  • Also, if you think a power outage could be a possibility because of oncoming bad weather, lower your refrigerator and freezer temperatures because the lower the temperature of your food, the longer it takes for it to thaw.
  • If you do experience an extended power outage, remember not to taste the food to determine how safe it is. Also, don't rely on appearance or smell. And, when your power does come back on, check out your freezer food for ice crystals. If they are still there, you can refreeze.
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