Hurricane season has arrived, which brings an increased chance of power outages and flooding in many areas throughout the country. Being prepared before a hurricane hits and knowing what to do during and afterward can help minimize stress and prevent foodborne illness.
Preparing for a Hurricane
The news will often warn you if a hurricane is approaching. Here are several things you can do to prepare:
Check the refrigerator temperature. A refrigerator helps extend the shelf life of food for a short period of time, but the temperature must be set correctly. Studies have shown that many refrigerators are too warm, providing the perfect environment for harmful bacteria to grow. Many refrigerators don't tell you the exact temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. Use a thermometer to check the temperature inside your refrigerator. It should read no higher than 40 F. Regular maintenance of your refrigerator can also help ensure that your food is being held the proper temperature.
Purchase nonperishable foods. Choose nonperishable food that does not need to be refrigerated after opening or is in a small enough package that you won't have leftovers. Your shopping list should include the following:
-- Grains: Whole-grain cereal, whole-grain bread, breakfast or granola bars, crackers and rice cakes
-- Fruits: Single-serve portions of canned fruit (packed in water or in their own juice), whole fruit (apples, bananas, peaches or plums), dried or freeze-dried fruit and 100-percent juice boxes.
-- Vegetables: Uncut vegetables, such as grape tomatoes, snap peas, mini cucumbers, bell peppers and freeze-dried vegetables
-- Proteins: Peanut butter, nuts and cans or pouches of tuna or salmon
-- Dairy: Aseptically packaged single-serve milk, low-fat chocolate milk or soy milk and non-refrigerated pudding cups
-- Bottled water
-- Quick-cooking grains, such as rolled oats, rice and pasta
-- Canned goods, such as beans, lentils and vegetables
Check if you have a gas or electric stove. If you have a gas stove, you can prepare foods and boil water on your stovetop. Stock up on matches or lighters and clean pots and pans.
Stock up on ice. If you are expecting a prolonged power outage, buy dry or block ice to help keep your refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a standard 18 cubic-foot, fully stocked freezer cold for up to two days.
During a Power Outage
Once the power goes out, the refrigerator and freezer doors should be kept closed as much as possible in order to maintain the cold temperatures. Your refrigerator will keep food cold for around four hours if it's not opened. A freezer will keep the temperature for about 48 hours if it's packed and 24 hours if it is half-full, as long as the door is kept closed.
As time elapses, spoiled food should be tossed. Although the food may not smell or taste bad (yet!), it can contain harmful bacteria that will make you and your family sick. This is especially true for those with weaker immune systems, such as young children, pregnant women and older adults. The following foods should be discarded from your refrigerator after a four-hour period has lapsed:
-- Cooked or raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs milk and dairy products
-- Any leftover foods, such as tuna salad, cooked rice, cooked pasta, vegetable salads and fruit salads
-- Condiments indicating to "keep refrigerated after opening," such as salad dressings, jelly and jarred tomato sauce
If you're not sure if a food is safe to eat, then toss it out. Once the refrigerator has been without power for more than four hours, the above foods should not be cooked. Cooking will not destroy all the harmful bacteria, and these foods can still cause illness.
Once Power is Restored
Now it's time to determine if your food is safe to eat. If you kept a thermometer in your freezer, and the temperatures is lower than 40 F, the food is safe. You can also check each package to determine safety. Although looking and smelling the food is not a good indicator, if the package still contains ice crystals or is 40 F or below, it can be refrozen or cooked.
All spoiled food from the refrigerator and freezer should be discarded, and the refrigerator should be thoroughly cleaned. Once the refrigerator has reached a temperature below 40 F, then it can be restocked with food.
If Your Home is Flooded
Hurricanes are often accompanied by flooding, which can contaminate the public water supply. This makes your tap water unsafe to drink. Check with your local health department, or look for announcements that provide updated information. Until the water is determined to be safe, boil water or use bottled water.
If your home is flooded, be sure to follow these tips:
-- Do not eat any food that has come in contact with flood water.
-- Do not eat food from packages that have come into contact with flood water.
-- Toss soda bottles, home-canned foods and food and beverage containers with screw-caps, snap lids, twist caps and flip tops if they have come into contact with flood water. These items cannot be disinfected.
-- Commercially prepared canned food in all-metal cans can be disinfected. To do so, remove the labels, thoroughly wash the cans, rinse and then disinfect with a solution composed of one tablespoon bleach per gallon of drinkable water. Relabel these containers with the expiration date and contents with a permanent marker.
[Read: How to Avoid Food Poisoning .]
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations, including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.