By Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
On a late summer evening, fine bands of grey clouds begin to spiral out of the northwest sky. According to weather reports, a hurricane is coming. Its outer edge is already overhead. Bands of rain will start in a couple of hours. And soon, the wind and rain will rail full force.
Maybe, rather than rain, the first light flakes of snow will descend in a couple of hours. A nor'easter is on the way. You start to wonder if there's enough food in the pantry to eat healthy during the storm. If not, there's just enough time to run out to the grocery store.
Do you know what to have on hand and how to keep your food safe if you lose power in any season? Here's what you need to know.
Back to top
Hydration Comes First
The body can dehydrate quickly, especially if the temperature rises. So water — for drinking, cooking and cleaning kitchen utensils — needs to be your first priority in an emergency.
When a storm is expected:
- Stock at least 1 gallon (about 4 liters) per person per day for 3 to 7 days. Stock more in hot climates, for pregnant women, the elderly and for anyone who is sick.
- Store water out of reach of possible flood waters.
- Safe water sources include commercially bottled water or water stored in food-grade containers (such as those from a camping supply store).
You'll find more information about safe water supplies on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Emergency Preparedness website.
Back to top
Healthy Eating Without Electricity
Before the storm, stock up on healthy, shelf-stable foods. Many of the foods listed below, including canned foods and nuts, come in "no added salt" or "low sodium" versions. Store brands often have their own low-sodium products. These often cost less than name brands.
- Tuna, salmon, sardines and chicken in cans or single-serving pouches
- Whole, sliced or crushed tree nuts, such as walnuts, pecans, almonds and cashews
- Sunflower or pumpkin seeds and soy nuts; these are especially handy for those allergic to tree nuts and peanuts
- Peanut butter and other nut butters in shelf-stable, single-serving containers
- Protein bars for snacks; look for no more than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 200 milligrams of sodium per bar
- Fresh fruits that can be stored on your counter top, such as bananas, apples, mangos and oranges.
- Natural applesauce in single-serving containers
- Canned fruit in its own juice (a lower carbohydrate alternative to canned fruit in syrup)
- Dried, unsweetened fruit; if you have diabetes or another blood-sugar disorder, use these in small amounts and with a source of protein.
- Fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplant and jicama, that can be stored on the counter top
- Frozen vegetables stored in a cooler (They will help keep the cooler's temperature lower for longer.)
- Canned vegetables, such as stewed tomatoes
Dairy and dairy substitutes
- Sterilized milk (like Parmalat®, a well-known brand) in family-size or single-serving containers
- Powdered milk, a low-cost option, that you can mix up in any amounts needed whether large or small
- Soy milk in family-size brick packs or single-serving containers
Whole grains and other healthy, slowly digested starches
- Whole grain crackers, bread, tortillas, wraps and granola bars (Make sure the first ingredient listed on the package is a whole grain.)
- Canned corn, legumes, garbanzos, peas and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Pre-prepared popcorn or uncooked popcorn to cook on a camp stove
- Infant food and formula for young children
- Dried spices or fresh onion for seasoning
- Low-sodium canned soup or soup with no added salt
- Pudding cups
- Instant coffee or espresso, and flavorful teas for something comforting
- Healthy oils to add balance and flavor to meals
Back to top
Keeping Food Safe
The best way to preserve food when the power is out is to keep the freezer and refrigerator doors closed.
While preparing for the storm, fill the freezer with containers of water or perishable food and beverages from the refrigerator. A full freezer will keep food safe for two days, as long as you don't open the door while the power is out. Do not plan to use this food or water for the first two days. If you cannot fill your freezer, group all the items in it together in the middle to help them retain their temperature as long as possible. (If the foods still have ice crystals in them when the power comes back on, they can be re-frozen.)
With the door closed, a refrigerator will typically keep food at the safe temperature (40° F or less) for only four hours without block or dry ice. Harmful bacteria thrive when food hits 41° to 140°. Food is unsafe to eat once it's been in this "danger zone" for two hours.
When the power returns, you'll have to decide which food is safe to eat. Remember the expression, "When in doubt throw it out." The risk and expense of foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning) will be more costly than buying more food. It can be fatal for someone with a weakened immune system, and very unpleasant for anyone. Keep thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer so you can check the temperature. The look and smell of food may not change, so use time and temperature as your guide to food safety. (See the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service's website for more information.)
Back to top
Food-Related Emergency Supplies
- Keep a thermometer inside the refrigerator and freezer. Most fridges have a warmest area. This is the best place to put the thermometer.
- Block ice or dry ice will keep the refrigerator colder.
- An electric cooler or cube refrigerator will use less of a generator's energy than a full-size refrigerator. Look for brands that will cool to below 40° rather than just a certain amount below the ambient temperature. In hot weather, the temperature could rise above the danger zone.
- Camping supplies such as a cook stove are handy if you have an outdoor area for cooking.
- Keep a supply of disinfecting wipes, disposable napkins, silverware and flatware.
- A manual can opener is a must.
- Consider investing in a combined crank flashlight and radio; choose a radio that picks up AM and FM channels, as well as NOAA Weather Radio stations.
Beth Klos, RD, LDN, is a Senior Nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of Rhode Island and her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She enjoys providing nutrition counseling to her patients and teaching counseling to Brigham and Women Hospital's Dietetic Interns.