Stock Your Kitchen in Case of Disaster

Last Editorial Review: 8/25/2006

Be prepared for an emergency with these pantry essentials.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Charlotte Grayson Mathis, MD

Hurricane season serves as a reminder that disasters can happen when you least expect them. But if you take care to be prepared ahead of time, it can help you and your family stay safe and healthy when disaster strikes.

Stocking your kitchen with the right ingredients and equipment ensures that you'll be able to prepare healthy meals even in times of crisis. To help you prepare, WebMD sought advice from the government and food safety experts on how to be disaster-ready in your kitchen.

Stocking Your Kitchen

Stocking your pantry with a variety of canned, dried, and jarred foods will allow you to prepare healthy meals without electricity. Sheah Rarback, RD, a Miami resident who has survived numerous power outages and hurricanes, suggests thinking outside the box when choosing pantry items.

"Go to the grocery store in search of different shelf-stable foods, such as [canned or jarred] artichoke hearts, roasted bell peppers, dried fruits beyond raisins, all kinds of nuts, hummus, ramen, or Asian rice noodles so you are ready to prepare meals," she says.

Since canned foods tend to be high in sodium, she recommends stocking up on any lower-sodium foods that are available. Make sure your pantry has a variety of food that you can combine for healthy meals and snacks for up to three days.

Shelf-stable foods to keep on hand include:

  • Beans, dried and canned.
  • Grains - rice, pasta, cornmeal, rice in pouches.
  • Dried and canned vegetables.
  • Pickled foods.
  • Dried and canned fruits.
  • Juices and other beverages (instant coffee, tea).
  • Breakfast cereals.
  • Ready-to-eat foods such as nuts, granola bars, peanut butter, jams and jellies, crackers, and trail mix.
  • Powdered or shelf-stable milk.
  • Dried or canned soups, stews, and chili.
  • Canned tuna, salmon, chicken or other meat, or beef jerky.
  • Reconstituted baby formula and baby food.

Don't Forget Water

You'll also need water - several gallon jugs of it, if space permits.

"Ideally, you should store a gallon of water per person per day for up to three days," says Rarback.

Along with a well-stocked pantry, you'll need some equipment. First, make sure you have thermometers to check the temperature of both your refrigerator and freezer compartments. Your goal is to maintain the freezer at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and 40 degrees for the refrigerator. Don't wait for a disaster; put thermometers in the compartments today.

Other equipment that will come in handy: a manual can opener, waterproof matches, heavy-duty aluminum foil, paper towels, paper plates, plastic utensils and cups, dry ice packs, an outdoor grill or camp stove, and fuel for cooking.

Food Safety

Losing power for up to four hours should not affect the safety of the food in your refrigerator or freezer, says Ruth Frenchman, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. But keep in mind that every time you open the door of a powerless refrigerator, the temperature drops.

"Keep the doors closed as much as possible to keep the food cold," she says.

Rarback suggests making a list of the contents of your fridge and freezer, so you'll know just what you have and can retrieve items quickly.

Packed freezers will stay cold for up to two days, unopened; the cold will last only one day if the freezer is half full. If your freezer isn't full, group items together to keep them colder longer.

It you know a storm is coming, fill quart-sized, zip-up plastic bags with water and put them in your freezer to help fill it. If you lose power, you can use these ice blocks to chill coolers and, ultimately, as drinking water.

Another option: Keep frozen gel packs in your freezer to use in coolers or the refrigerator compartments, or find out where you can get blocks of ice or dry ice to help keep refrigerators cool.

Keep two coolers on hand, one for drinks and the other for highly perishable foods, and pack both with ice or ice packs.

Food Risks

And which foods are considered highly perishable?

"Lunch meats, meat salads, raw meat, poultry, seafood, raw eggs, soft cheeses, milk, cream, mayonnaise, and leftovers are the most perishable foods that should be cooked and eaten or moved to the freezer (this will keep them at a safe temperature for a longer period of time) or into a cooler packed with ice," says Rarback.

Other foods, such as fruits, vegetables, jams, butter, salad dressings and condiments, should be safe to eat without refrigeration for a few days.

At room temperature, most food will stay safe for up to two hours. That time drops to one hour if it's hotter than room temperature. "Think two hours as a guideline," says Frenchman. "After that, you need to cook the food well, get it into a cold cooler or toss it."

When your power returns, check the temperature of the freezer. If it is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the food inside can safely be refrozen. Foods with ice crystals can also be refrozen.

Still, "When in doubt, throw it out," is the mantra of food safety experts.

"Use common sense and be especially vigilant with protein foods," says Rarback. "If it smells off, looks bad or is no longer cool to the touch, toss it and keep in mind that some food can appear fine and still have harmful bacteria."

Err on the side of safety, because you certainly don't want to get food poisoning when you are already under stress says Rarback.


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Keep in mind that any food that has come into contact with floodwater is not suitable to eat, even if it's in unopened containers.

When it comes to the safety of drinking water, tune into your local authorities. Never assume the water is safe to drink after a flood or hurricane without health authorities giving the green light.

No-Power Meal Ideas

You can still cook, even without electricity. Gas ranges, wood fireplaces, outdoor grills, a small campfire, or a camp stove are all ways you can cook a meal.

Use up the most perishable foods first. Ask your family if there are any favorite comfort foods that will help cheer them. Be creative; use your spices and seasonings to jazz up pantry items.

Rarback recommends planning family meals to help keep morale up.

"It is fun to eat by candlelight and have some sense of normalcy during the stressful time," Rarback says.

Here are a few ideas for putting together meals from the pantry:
  • Mandarin oranges, nuts, and canned chicken topped with chow mein noodles.
  • Vegetable stew made from chick peas, tomatoes, green beans and carrots, spiced up with raisins and Moroccan spices.
  • Beans or chickpeas with artichoke hearts and roasted bell peppers, served over prepared rice in a pouch.
  • Three-bean salad mixed with Italian salad dressing, and drained canned tuna with crackers.

If you live in an area prone to power outages, consider investing in an emergency generator. Electricity from the generator will keep your refrigerator and freezer working until the power is restored. According to Rarback, many people in Miami are investing in whole-house generators that keep their homes cool and refrigerators humming even during power outages.

Published August 26, 2006.

SOURCES: FDA. CDC. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, director of nutrition, Mailman Center, School of Medicine, University of Miami. Ruth Frenchman, MA, RD, spokesperson, American Dietetic Association.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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