Make your food last as long as possible in an outage


Keep the doors shut on your refrigerator and freezer

When the lights go out, it's frustrating, concerning, and when it comes to the food in our fridges, it can be downright problematic. Many of us immediately start worrying about the mayo and last night's leftovers – how long can the power be off before our groceries become compost?

At BC Hydro, we do our best to minimize outages, and work to restore power as fast as possible when it does go out.

But outages can happen anytime, and it's best to be prepared. One way to prepare is knowing how to maximize the length of time that food will stay safe in your fridge or freezer.

The best thing you can do? Keep the door shut. Each time you open the door to grab an item (or just to check how warm things are getting), huge amounts of valuable cold air will escape. The aim is to maintain the cold temperature that you had when the power went out, for as long as possible.

It might be helpful to think of it like a countdown – items inside your fridge or freezer start "warming up" as soon as the power goes out, but they have cooler temperatures to get through before it hits dangerous territory, when it comes to food safety.

A fridge or freezer that's unplugged isn't immediately warm; the door helps seal cold temperatures inside. By keeping the door shut, you can dramatically slow down the warming and keep food at a safe cool temperature for much longer.

A freezer that is fully packed will hold food safely for 48 hours. A freezer that's half full will hold food safely for up to 24 hours – assuming that you leave the door shut. Your fridge should keep food cold for about four hours with the door shut.

Store containers of water (such as plastic food storage containers or old milk jugs) in your freezer to fill up extra space and maintain cool temperatures when the power is out. It's also a great way to store drinking water for emergencies.

Watch for four hours of 4 C or more

Most refrigerators are set to between 2 C and 3 C. Keeping the door shut will help you maintain the temperatures needed for food safety, but in an extended outage, you'll need to pay attention to which items are still safe to consume, and which need to be discarded.

For any outage that's four hours or less, food in the fridge or freezer should be safe to consume.

Health Canada says that any food that has ice crystals or feels refrigerator-cold can be refrozen once you have power back.

If food has been held above 4 C for more than four hours, there are some items that should be discarded. A fridge thermometer is inexpensive, and will help you know when to start removing items in a longer outage. But resist checking on items too early. If you can keep the fridge closed for at least four hours, you'll keep items fresher longer.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food Safety offers some general guidelines on which foods are safe to keep, and which should be discarded.

Food Held above 4 C for over 4 hours
Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes
Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef Discard
Soft cheeses (blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella etc.), low-fat cheeses, shredded cheeses Discard
Hard cheeses (Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano etc.), processed cheeses, grated cheese in a can or jar Safe
Dairy products (milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk etc.) Discard
Butter, margarine Safe
Baby formula, opened Discard
Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products Discard
Fresh fruits (cut/sliced), cooked vegetables, tofu, pre-washed greens Discard
Fruit juices, raw vegetables, canned fruit, fresh fruits Safe
Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish Discard if above 10 C for over 8 hours
Peanut butter, jelly, vinegar-based dressings relish, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives, pickles Safe
Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, Hoisin sauces
Fish sauces (oyster sauce), creamy-based dressings Discard
Cooked pasta, fresh pasta, rice, potatoes Discard

For longer outages during the winter, coolers and ice can help you keep food at a safe temperature. But health authorities caution against putting food outside where it could be contaminated by dirt or animals. Instead, use milk jugs, plastic food containers and bottles to make ice outside, then transfer the ice to coolers to keep your food cold. Frozen gel packs are a great option and take up less space in the cooler.

Use your best judgement when it comes to deciding what to discard. Food can be contaminated and not look or smell spoiled, so if you’re in doubt, throw it out.

But keep those doors shut, and you’ll be off to a good start.