It won’t be long until thunderstorm season is upon us. Those powerful storms can down trees and power lines in their wake. Staring into a refrigerator full of food during a power outage can spur anxiety and questions: Will I need to throw away all my food? Should I put food outside to keep it cold? Could I have done anything to prepare? 

Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, shared advice on how to prepare for a power outage and how to preserve and manage food when one occurs. 

Before a power outage: 

 — Store ice packs in the freezer, or fill a container with water and freeze it. If the power goes out, put the ice packs in a cooler to keep some of your food cold. Bucknavage noted this is especially useful for expensive food, such as steak. 

— Stock your pantry with nonperishable items. Bucknavage likes to keep canned vegetables, tuna and soup on hand. “Always make sure it’s something you’ll eat at some point,” he said. “You don’t want to buy something and store it, only to end up throwing it out because the need never comes up.” 

— Lower the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer. Bucknavage explained that 40 degrees Fahrenheit is the maximum recommended temperature for a refrigerator. “If people have their fridge already at 40 F and the power goes out, there’s not a lot of room to play there,” he said. The colder your food is, the longer it takes to thaw. He recommends setting the fridge at 34-36 F and setting the freezer at 0 F or colder. “Starting off that way puts you in the best position if the power does go out,” Bucknavage said. 

— Obtain thermometers. Bucknavage recommends having thermometers for the freezer and refrigerator, as well as a digital thermometer for cooking. “They’re going to be so important for determining whether your food is at the appropriate temperature once the electricity comes back on,” he said. 

— Manage your freezer. “Look at your freezer and see what you have,” Bucknavage said. “If you’ve got pork chops that are three years old, they’re going to be in the back of your freezer.” He explained that items in the back of the freezer often stay frozen longer during a power outage because they are more insulated than items in the front. Unfortunately, the front of the freezer tends to contain recently purchased food at most risk of spoiling during a power outage. Those old pork chops may survive the outage, but do you really want to eat them? 

“Manage your inventories,” Bucknavage said. “Food is so expensive and such an important commodity. It’s a shame to have to throw food out.” Instead of wasting valuable freezer real estate with long-forgotten leftovers, Bucknavage suggests storing jugs of frozen water to help keep food cold. 

When the power goes out: 

— Check the time when the power goes out. Do not open your refrigerator or freezer. “The Food and Drug Administration states that food will be safe for about four hours in the refrigerator if the door remains closed,” Bucknavage said. 

— Avoid putting food outside to keep it cold. You cannot maintain the outside temperature, Bucknavage noted. Also, food left outside may attract mice and other critters. “You always want to make sure the environment in which you store the product is controlled,” he said. 

— Consult government guidelines for food safety during power outages. Bucknavage suggested using this chart from to determine when to keep and when to discard food. Some items people can keep include hard cheeses, butter, uncut fruit, bread and fruit pies. The website recommends discarding refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers after four hours without power. Bucknavage encouraged people to remember the food safety adage, “When in doubt, throw it out!” 

Additional information on food safety during a power outage is available on the Penn State Extension website.

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