When you buy meat in bulk, or in partial/full-animal quantities, or simply stock up when it goes on sale, an extended power outage can end up being a very expensive unexpected event.

In advance of Hurricane Irene’s arrival, I had just stocked our chest freezer with 30 lbs of bulk ground beef, plus a number of other bits and pieces (pork belly, anyone?).  I took several steps to help preserve our perishable food stores, allowing us to keep them at safe temperatures for the 60 hours that the power was out, and it could have lasted for several days longer if I had needed it to.  (The prediction as of Monday night was that we’d have to wait until Friday – which would have been 7 days!!  Luckily it came back on Tuesday.  It would have really been pushing it if we’d had to hold out until Friday!!)

One of the nice things about a hurricane is that you get plenty of warning before it shows up.  So I had some time to prepare, which made a big difference.  When we got hit by a freak hail storm last summer, and then the power was out for three days, we had no prep time, and things were much more frantic.  Luckily in that situation, we were headed out of town the next day, so the fridge was mostly empty already, and it was just a matter of trying to keep our chest freezer, which is much more efficient and better insulated than our fridge, cool.  If we had been planning to eat at home in the days following that storm, or if the outage had been for more than three days, we would have had a lot more food spoil.

On that occasion, I was lucky enough to get one of the last bags of dry ice available in the area, and happened to have sufficient room in the freezer to pack it in on top without much extra space.  So we left the next morning for vacation, with the power still out, and hoped for the best.  When we got back, everything was fine, nothing had spoiled, and we felt very lucky!

And so, with those two experiences now under my belt, here are a few things that I try to do to keep things cool for as long as possible if I know there’s a good possibility of an impending outage:

  • A couple days in advance, pack freezers as full as possible, only with things that need to stay frozen (i.e. no nuts, grains, or spices, which can sit at room temp for a few days and not spoil), and fill the rest of the space with freezer blocks and 3/4-full (to leave room for expansion) plastic or metal containers of water.  Fuller freezers, full of dense things like meat and solid blocks of ice, stay colder longer.
  • A couple days in advance, if possible, and you have it available, pack refrigerated items into a dorm/mini fridge so that there is less air space, which warms up quickly when you open the door.
  • A couple days in advance, turn all fridges and freezers to as low a temp as possible.  These can take 24 hours or more to reach a newly set temperature, so it’s important to do this well in advance, especially if you’ve filled the freezer with room-temp water containers, which will take a fair amount of energy to freeze.
  • Keep a little baggie holding a couple ice cubes in the freezer;  if the power goes out, when it comes back on, check the bag.  If the ice cubes are still in ice cube form, and not a big blob, then you can be fully assured everything stayed frozen.  This is particularly helpful if you leave town for extended periods of time and have a power outage while you’re away;  even if the water refreezes when the power comes back on, it won’t be in the shape of ice cubes any longer so you’ll know things probably thawed.
  • Consider in advance what you might eat for the next several days, and put that food in your fridge (or fridge freezer, if you have a chest freezer).  Especially if you have a chest freezer, pull any items you might want during the outage while prepping in the days ahead of the storm.  The less you can open the door, the better the freezer will keep things cool.
  • Though we still keep using the fridge after the power has gone out, we open the fridge door as little as possible;  we strategize and plan what we’re going to take out before opening the door, and make it quick and swift!
  • The day of the storm, before the power went out, we made a big pot of soup/chili in the crock pot (we could have done this on the stove after the power went out, if we had needed to, since we have a gas stove).  When the power went out, the crock pot stayed pretty warm for quite a while.  We left the soup in it overnight, and the next morning had the soup for breakfast after reboiling it in a pot on the stove.  We actually ate it for several meals over the next couple of days.  This helped us from going into the fridge a whole lot.  We made sure to reboil it every night with the tight-fitting lid on it, and boiled it again before we ate it.  Tho apparently some people think this isn’t perhaps a great idea, especially if you have any starchy stuff in the soup, which we didn’t, but we’ve never gotten sick doing this.  I’m sure it doesn’t hurt to add some good probiotics in the bowl once the soup is cool enough to hold a finger in it!
  • After 3 days or so, when the pre-frozen ice starts to thaw, you can usually obtain a bag of dry ice – often not a possibility the day immediately after a storm;  locations for dry ice should be listed in your phone book.  When I got mine last summer, it was from a place that supplies medical stuff – oxygen, other gases in tanks, etc.
  • If your neighbors are lucky enough to have power, and are close enough to run an extension cord to, ask really nicely if you can plug your fridge or freezer into their house.  Even if you can only use it for a few hours per day in order to share it with other neighbors who also don’t have power, those few hours will help extend cold time significantly.  (And the last thing you want to do is put too many fridges on an extension cord — how embarrassing to have to run over to the already extremely generous neighbor’s and say, “I think I just flipped a circuit breaker!”)  And if they’ll take it, offer your generous neighbors help to offset their higher electrical bill.  Fridges (and freezers, too) use a remarkable amount of electricity!
  • Know that if you get your meat directly from a responsible farmer (one who takes good care of the animals, feeds them the foods their bodies evolved/were designed to eat, doesn’t treat them with all sorts of artificial hormones, antibiotics, etc., and employs well-trained, responsible butchers) you can generally get a lot more freezing-thawing-refreezing mileage out of the meat than conventional grocery store meat and still have it be safe to eat.  Our farmer and his wife used to be truckers who hauled meat for grocery stores, and they observed that this meat often got frozen and thawed a couple of times before it hit the shelves.  This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t thaw and refreeze conventional meat, the other one being that conventional meat is much more likely than healthy, happy, appropriately-raised meat to contain toxic feces-originating pathogens, which can proliferate in the thawing-refreezing cycle.  But with our farm, the meat gets frozen at most once before it lands in my hands, sometimes not at all.  So if my freezer does end up thawing some in a power outage, but doesn’t get above normal fridge temps, I’m ok with having the meat in it refreeze and still be safe to eat.
  • If all else fails, have a BBQ and invite the whole neighborhood!

 

In the future, there are a few things I would do differently:

  • I would turn the freezer above my fridge upstairs as low as it would go.  I didn’t realize that there was a thermostat control in the back of the freezer because I was so focused on filling it up with water containers!  I just saw it yesterday when I cleaned them out!
  • I would not use any wide-mouth quart jars to freeze water in.  I’ve frozen stock in these many times with no problems, but apparently water freezes differently.  :(   All three of the jars that I used shattered.  Dealing with thawing ice and glass shards is not fun.
  • I didn’t move things into our mini dorm fridge until the end of the second day of the outage.  I would start with as much fridge stuff packed into this mini fridge as possible, with lots of ice packs/water containers stuffed into its “freezer compartment”, and leave only the things that I didn’t mind if they spoiled, or weren’t absolutely essential to keep relatively cold (like fermented foods), in the larger fridge.  I would still pack the upstairs freezer full of ice containers, tho, in part to keep the fridge cold (fridges need to stay cold, otherwise they can rapidly develop mold), but also because those ice containers would stay frozen much longer than the ones in the mini fridge, and I could switch them out as needed.

 

Luckily, our power came back on a lot more quickly than we feared it would, and we didn’t lose any food in the process.  Considering the reports I read this morning that over a million people along the East Coast still don’t have power, I feel pretty grateful.  I think we probably could have made it a few more days, but I’m really glad I don’t have to worry about my ground beef any more!

Ice blocks melting in my sink after the power came back on (they stayed this frozen for 60 hours).

 

Photo Credit:  NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr.

 

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, Gluten Free Wednesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Healthy2Day Wednesday, Women Living Well Wednesday, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter Thursday, and Paleo Rodeo.

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4 Responses to Preparing Frozen Foods for a Power Outage

  1. Wenchypoo says:

    I too was in Irene’s way, but thankfully, our town never lost power. I lived through Isabel back in 2003 though, and that taught me a couple of freezer things:

    1. No matter how you stock your chest freezer, it’s only good for about 4 days as a freezer. Then it becomes a refrigerator.

    2. Covering the freezer with a thick blanket (such as a quilt) helps insulate it from the warm/hot outside air in the room.

    3. When your meat ends up thawing no matter how well you prepared, cook it and RETURN IT TO YOUR FREEZER-NOW-FRIDGE. If you can just keep the cooked meat cold and not frozen, you can re-use it after the power comes back on. You just have about a week’s worth of pre-cooked meat for fast and easy meals that need no defrosting.

    4. Once meat is cooked, it can be re-frozen once the power comes back on. DO NOT re-freeze raw meat!

    5. A trick I learned AFTER Izzy came and went: why freeze meat when you can put it up in jars like canning veggies? With canned meat, you’re no longer subject to the whims of The Angry Sky God. Drying and canning are perfect ways to have formerly-frozen foods available whether there’s power or not.

    http://wenchwisdom.blogspot.com/2010/10/how-to-pull-plug-on-your-best-friend.html

    • Megh says:

      Wow, thanks so much for all those great tips!! I’ve never put meat up in jars before — do you have to have a pressure canner to do that? I’ve only done hot water bath canning, and I know you need to have sufficient acidity and salt for that, I didn’t think you could do meat safely that way. I would definitely love to cure more meats myself, but haven’t quite taken that plunge now.

  2. Jenny says:

    Great ideas! I especially like the blanket idea and the filling empty spaces with molded frozen baggies AND the ice cube thing for the “did it stay cold?” visual.

    We have only lost power for longer than a few hours during the winter. I am terrified of loosing power for too long during a heat wave. We were out for nine days during and after an ice storm. Ambient(room) temperature makes a HUGE difference in how long a freezer keeps cool. We had zero loss of food, not even any defrosting, because the freezers were in the unfinished basement which stays about 42* in winter. We used icicles for the fridge and kept it closed and coolers for multiple grab items…like milk. Our little wood stove melted icicles for water for the animals, cooked our food and tried to keep the house warm. It is amazing how much heat the appliances DON’T give out during an outage. Add to that multiple overcast days…you can have 10-20* difference in room temperature.

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