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8 Tips for Eating Safely During a Power Outage or Boil Water Advisory

A photo of equipment for use during a power outage like bottles of water, candles, and flashlights.

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Eating food beyond the expiration date or not storing perishable food properly are steps most people know are necessary to avoid foodborne illness. However, if you find yourself without electricity or clean running water, it can be challenging to eat safely.

Food safety practices are difficult to maintain when the daily norm has changed. Usually, we can rely on the ability to heat our food with our oven, cool our food in our freezer, and sanitize our dishes with hot running clean water. It's not as easy to take these steps in situations when water and electricity might not be available, like natural disasters.

When we don’t have proper refrigeration or clean water, the risk of food-borne illness increases. However, there are some things you can do to stay nourished, hydrated, and safe.

Verywell asked experts to weigh in our how to safely navigate the kitchen during a power outage or when you lack clean water. 

Check Your Appliances' Temperatures

"Make sure you have an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer,” Bob Gravani, PhD, a member expert at the Institute of Food Technologists and professor of food science at Cornell University, tells Verywell. “Your refrigerator should be at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and your freezer should be at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ensuring that the appliances in your home are maintaining proper temperatures can reduce the risk of harmful bacteria growing in your food and potentially making you sick.

Know When to Toss Food

If the temperature isn't consistent in your fridge and freezer, you might have to part with some of the food in it. "When in doubt, throw it out," says Gravani. “If at any point food is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours or more, throw it away."

Don't assume that microwaving dodgy food or popping it in the oven will make it safe. Also, never taste food to decide if it’s safe to eat. Instead, rely on factors like temperature and the amount of time it has been stored. Gravani warns that "eating food not kept at the proper temperature may cause illness even if it is thoroughly cooked.”

Overall, if you have any doubt that food has been safely stored, throw it out.

Check Your Pantry

“Times of crisis can often lead to empty shelves at grocery stores,” Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, Colorado-based registered dietitian nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices, tells Verywell. 

Your options might be limited to what you already have at home—but that doesn't necessarily mean you're without options. You just might have to get creative. "Turn to shelf-stable ingredients to make your own dry soup mix," Burgess says.

To make a satisfying soup that serves six and has 15 grams of plant-based protein per serving, Burgess suggests combining items that you may already have in your pantry: lentils, brown rice, split peas, and spices. To cook, "simmer with water or broth for 40 minutes to soften everything."

Plan for Your Health Needs

If you or someone in your home has special dietary needs, like a gluten-free diet to manage celiac disease, make sure that you have factored in food needs in your disaster planning. Similarly, if you are managing a health condition like diabetes, it's crucial that you plan ahead for your unique nutritional needs during times of crisis.

Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDCES, FAND, author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition For Dummies, advises that people with diabetes check their blood sugar often to help guide their food choices.

“For instance, if your blood sugar drops to 70mg/dl or below, make sure to eat a fast-acting carb snack like 1 tablespoon sugar or honey," Smithson says. "And recheck in 15 minutes to assure your reading is coming up above 70mg/dl. If your blood sugar is running above 180mg/dl, choose to have a lower carb food like canned tuna or if your refrigerator is still working, cheese or a hard-boiled egg.”  

Smithson also advises combining a source of carbohydrates with a source of protein at snack and mealtimes. For example, cheese and whole-grain crackers.

Don't Put Food Outside

If your power goes out during a blizzard and it's freezing (or below) outside, you might think the logical solution to your food storage problem is to put the contents of your warming fridge and freezer on the porch or in a snowbank. However, this is actually not a safe solution.

"Storing your food outside in piles of snow is not advisable, because the heat from the sun could thaw out certain parts of your food without you realizing it,” Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and author of A Balanced Approach to PCOS tells Verywell. “Plus, storing food outside can often be unsanitary, opening yourself up to being exposed to certain bacteria.” 

Instead, use a cooler to store your frozen 1.    What do the initials J.N. in J.N. Pham stand for? (I was planning to think up names but wanted to check with you, the playwright first).

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Keep Things Clean

Don’t neglect the importance of thoroughly washing pans, dishes, and utensils with soap and water. When possible, use hot water. If you typically use a dishwasher, you can hand-wash items by boiling them in clean water first. If you have a water boil advisory, use boiled and cooled water for your kitchen washing. 

If you can't boil water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that you mix 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available) for 15 minutes.

Feeding Little Ones

If you are formula-feeding and using powdered infant formula, make sure the water you are using is safe before mixing. Make sure to boil and cool your water if there is a boil water advisory). Do not mix infant formula with anything but water.

For babies who are eating solid foods, keep in mind that a few days without fresh fruits and vegetables won't have a major effect on your child's health. Options like mashed canned beans, smooth nut butter, and even canned tuna fish are all safe and easy choices.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Refrigerator thermometers - cold facts and food safety. Updated October 30, 2017.

  2. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Emergency disinfection of drinking water. Updated February 9, 2021.