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Prairie Fare: What to Do with Perishable Food When the Power Goes Out

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

When I looked out the window during our recent two-day storm, I noted that our icicle-shaped Christmas lights and cords were drooping with real icicles. Some lines of lights had fallen under the weight of the ice.

Falling Christmas lights are a little annoying, but they’re just an inconvenience. Being originally from a rural area with above-ground power lines, I knew that heavy ice buildup on power lines could lead to power outages. That can be a dangerous situation.

While I didn’t directly experience the recent power outages, many of my friends did. For some, the power outage lasted for days.

Hopefully, we won’t have another similar situation this winter. Just in case, here are some questions and answers about storing perishable foods during power outages.

1. When the power goes out in the winter, is it OK to put frozen food out in the snow to keep it cold?

Keep in mind that a full freezer of food usually will keep about two days, if the door is kept shut. A half-full freezer will stay cold enough about a day. If you find that the power will be out longer, you may need to resort to other methods to preserve your frozen food. If it’s short-term, the best thing is to keep the freezer closed.

It’s tempting to use our giant outdoor “walk-in freezer” to store food, but storing food outside is not recommended by the USDA due to potential variable temperatures, unsanitary outdoor conditions and/or disturbances by animals. There can be temperature fluctuations from the sun’s rays, which could thaw the food.

Depending on the outdoor temperature, you may be able to store the food in impermeable covered plastic containers in an unheated garage or other place where the food won’t be disturbed. Monitor the temperature and the state of the food.

2. The power’s back on. Is it OK to refreeze foods that have partially thawed?

If the food contains ice crystals and is 40 degrees or lower as measured by a food thermometer, it’s safe to refreeze. The quality may be lessened, but it’s safe. Discard food, such as a previously opened bag of frozen fruit or bread, if it has been exposed to juices from thawing meat.

Discard foods that have been warmer than 40 degrees for more than two hours. If the ice cream has thawed, it’s best to discard it because of quality issues.

3. My basement became very cold and some canned food froze. Is it safe to eat?

Canned food that has been frozen accidentally generally remains safe. Ask yourself if the cans were in good shape prior to freezing (no bulging, rusting, leaking, etc). Thaw the cans of food in the refrigerator. If you detect off-odors or other abnormalities upon opening the can, don’t taste the food. Discard it where no one will come in contact with it.

All this talk about chilly weather issues makes me think about warm, comforting soup, such as this chili recipe.


White Chili

1 medium onion, chopped
1 4-oz. can chopped green chilies
2 16-oz. cans of cooked Great Northern beans
3 tsp. ground cumin
3 c. cooked chicken or turkey, diced
2 14-oz. cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 c. Monterey Jack cheese or other cheese of choice
Optional: Assorted toppings, such as shredded cheese, chips, sour cream or salsa

Combine 3 cups of broth, onion, chilies, beans and cumin. Simmer for an hour. Add cheese and chicken. Cook until chili is thick, adding additional broth as needed. Top with shredded cheese, nacho chips, sour cream and salsa if desired.

Makes 12 servings. Each serving has 350 calories, 42 grams of carbohydrate, 9 grams of fat and 14 grams of fiber.

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