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In an emergency, there should be two sources of food for your family: the canned goods you have put away for emergencies, and stores in the kitchen of the food you eat all the time. What do you want to have on hand? Basically, you want things that make a meal and do not require cooking. You also want food that is fairly high in calories for the amount it weighs and the space it takes up. Forget the green beans. They are low in calories, high in salt and no one wants to have a meal of just green beans.
Start by putting away a store of canned goods. Pick a place inside the house that is not going to be in your way. The bottom of a closet or the back of the pantry is perfect. You need about 20 canned meals for each person. This is three cans a day for a week. Each can should have about 300 to 400 calories in it. Most canned soups say they have two servings in a can. That is true if you are eating a sandwich or a salad with it, but we are talking about survival rations. One can should be one meal for one person. Get a selection of cans of soup, spaghetti, baked beans, stew, chili, Spam, whatever your family will eat. Condensed soups that require water are OK. Don't stock anything that requires adding milk or other foods, and don't stock canned fish like sardines or anchovies.
In addition to the canned meals, put away about 20 cans per person of things to improve the meals or to use as snacks. Get starchy vegetables like corn, peas or beans and fruits in heavy syrup. Remember that you are not going to worry about getting fat or ruining the kids' teeth. These are emergency stores. Get the beans in sauce and the fruit in syrup so you have more calories per can.
With the exception of cans of fish, you don't have to worry about rotating the canned goods in your emergency supply. They have opened cans of food that are a hundred years old and found that they were still safe. You wouldn't want to eat them, but there was no bacterial contamination. The stuff you have stored in a closet, that has not been under water or in high temperatures, will easily be perfectly good for 10 years.
Cans of fish are different because some types of fish can decompose in the can and become toxic. Don't put whole fish like sardines and anchovies in the storage. If you store tuna or salmon, rotate the cans every two or three years. You might want to rotate all of your stock every few years just to keep it appropriate for your family. Put new cans in the storage and take out what you have to use it up. Or, think about giving what you have to a food bank when you stock the storage with your current tastes. That way you can get a tax deduction.
Most households have a fair amount of food that is stored in the cupboard all the time; cookies, crackers, cereal and peanut butter. The trick to having these when you need them is to keep an extra supply. You handle this like the batteries and the gas in the car.
Keep an extra box or bag of every kind of cookie and cracker and cereal that your family eats all the time. When you open the last unopened box of something, put it on the grocery list and replace the spare immediately. That way you always have a box and a half instead of half a box.
Most cereals are designed to be eaten with milk but they make a good snack food right out of the box. Cookies are designed as a snack food. You want to double up on things like peanut butter, jellies, honey and syrup as well. Crackers with peanut butter and a sweetener on them can keep the kids happy for a long time.
When the power goes out, you have about two hours for most refrigerated foods. Once they have been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, the refrigerated foods are not fit to eat. Take this very seriously. Food poisoning is very common, because most people think it is okay to make potato salad before church and leave it in the car until the picnic at 3 PM. It is not okay, and half the people who eat the potato salad end up with "a touch of the flu". No one wants to think that Auntie's special potato salad made everyone sick, but it did.
Fortunately, there are some foods that we normally keep in the refrigerator that will actually keep at room temperature for several days or even weeks. This food can be more of your emergency supplies. Butter and margarine, hard cheeses like cheddar and swiss, and baked goods that do not have a cream filling are safe for a few days. These foods often have sell-by dates several months in advance. If you normally keep these foods in the house, keep extra on hand at all times. Cheese sandwiches make a welcome change from the canned goods. Anything that is high in salt or sugar, like pickles or jelly, may actually keep for weeks. Remember to throw out anything that gets moldy or has an unusual odor or color.
If the power is out temporarily, leave the freezer door closed. A full freezer will keep the food good for about two days. If it is half full, the food will last about one day. It is safe to refreeze food once, if it is still cold to the touch or has ice crystals in it. If the power comes back on in time, you can let the food refreeze. If it does not, then all the food in the freezer has to be cooked or thrown away.
Do some meal planning as you go through the first day without power. You want to eat up the food that is going to spoil first. If you have no way to cook, most of the food in the freezer is going to be a dead loss. There is nothing to do with raw meat except throw it away. If you have prepared meals that are fully cooked, you can eat those as they thaw. However, don't try to eat frozen dinners after they have been at room temperature for more than two hours.
If you have a grill or some way to cook food, the first two days without power may be feast days. Cook and eat all the frozen foods that you hate to lose, like the meat. Remember that you don't have any way to keep it fresh and safe after you have cooked it. Keep the meat cold until you cook it. Once it is cooked, eat it or discard it within two hours.
Ice cream is the first thing to eat up. If it is thawed but still cold it is OK to drink it. Tell the kids you made them milk shakes. Once it is thawed, treat it like milk. It is safe for only two hours once it reaches room temperature.
If you are coming back to a house that has been damaged or may have lost power, there is always the question of what food is still fit to eat. If there has been water damage, you need to throw out anything that is open or packaged in cardboard or plastic since it may be contaminated. Also throw out cans that are dented or bulging and anything in food containers that have screw-on or snap-on lids, crimped or twist caps or flip tops. None of these seal well enough to protect foods from water damage.
You can salvage intact cans. Remove the labels, wash the cans with soap and water, and then disinfect them by dipping them in a bleach solution, made up of a quarter cup of chlorine bleach in a gallon of water. Set the dipped cans out to air dry and relabel them with a marker.
If you have been gone for more than a few hours, it can be hard to tell whether you lost power long enough to ruin the food in the refrigerator. There are two simple ways to know if the food has gotten warm. These have been used in vaccine freezers for decades. Freeze two ounces of water in a small paper cup and set a penny on top of the ice. If you come back and the penny is at the bottom of the cup, you know the ice has melted and refrozen and your food is bad. The other way is to fill a jar a third full of water and lay it on its side to freeze. When the water is frozen, set the jar upright. If you come back and the water is frozen at the bottom of the jar, the power was off too long.
If the freezer was out long enough to melt the ice in your test, you can count on the refrigerator having been too hot for too long as well. Throw out all the perishable food in both compartments. Obviously, you have to prepare this test in advance but it can be very useful. How many times do we come home to see the clock on the stove blinking? We know the power has been out, but with all the clocks being battery powered or electronic, we have no way of knowing how long the power was off. Check the penny in the freezer and you will know.
Anything that is not fit to eat should be bagged and discarded as garbage. It is not going to get any better by sitting around and it may contaminate other food. This is particularly important for foods in the refrigerator and freezer. If the power is out and you know that you are not going to be able to salvage what is left, clean out the refrigerator, wipe it down and prop the door open. This will prevent the spoiled food from ruining the refrigerator. In prolonged power outages, many refrigerators and freezers are ruined because the spoiled food permeates them with a stink that cannot be removed.