What To Do With Your Frozen Food If The Power Goes Out

Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason October 16, 2018 10:47

What To Do With Your Frozen Food If The Power Goes Out

Freezing food is a great way of preserving it. If you can keep food at 0°F or lower you can delay spoilage for months or even years, and best of all, frozen food keeps most of its taste, texture and nutritional value. In fact, your freezer would be the ultimate prepping tool if it wasn’t for one thing – it needs constant electrical power to keep running.

Many preppers have a generator or other replacement power source lined up, ready to take over if the mains power goes out in a crisis, but you still can’t guarantee you’ll be able to keep your freezer running all the time. In fact, you don’t even have to wait for a crisis. What if there’s a power outage while you’re at work, and you come home to find that the freezer’s been off all afternoon?

This has happened to most of us at some point, but unfortunately a lot of people – even preppers – don’t know what to do next. Does everything in the freezer have to be thrown out? Is it OK to just power it back up and let the contents freeze again? Or can you keep some things, but not others? Here’s what happens in your freezer when the power goes off, and what you should do about it.

Power Goes Off

The inside of your freezer stays cold through a combination of active heat removal and insulation. When the power goes off the cooling pumps shut down and you’re just relying on the insulation. Don’t panic, though – the insulation can still keep the interior below 40°F for up to three days, even in summer, as long as you keep the door closed.

When you open your freezer, heavy cold air will spill out the bottom of the door and be replaced with warm air drawn in at the top. Normally that isn’t a problem. The coolant pumps will kick in, and inside a few minutes the warm air is as cold as what it replaced. With the power out it’s a different story. The warm air will still cool down, but it does that by warming up your food.

Basic physics says that heat will flow from a warmer body to a cooler one, until their temperatures are equalized. Inside a powered-down freezer it flows from the warm air that just came in the door to the frozen food, until air and food are both at the same temperature. Of course, air doesn’t hold a lot of heat, especially compared to frozen food, but in summer the air in your kitchen can easily be 80° or 90°F hotter than your collection of steaks. That means opening the door just once can raise the temperature inside by several degrees.

Even if you don’t open the door, heat will still be flowing from the air to your food. The insulation on a modern freezer is good but it isn’t perfect, so some heat will still make it through the walls. That warms up the air inside, which circulates, slowly warming up your food as it does. The more air in the freezer, the quicker it will warm up.

One way to keep your freezer cold as long as possible if the power goes off is to keep it full. If there’s less air and more food, the food will soak up less heat from the air. If you don’t have enough food to keep the freezer well filled, try filling old soda bottles with water and freezing them.

If the power goes out they’ll soak up massive amounts of heat, and if it doesn’t you can cut the plastic bottles away, smash the ice and use it to chill your beer in summer. You can also fill any spaces with closed cardboard boxes. That’s not as effective as more food or water, but it will cut down how much air circulates (and escapes when you open the door).

Related: Powering an Off the Grid House (Cost-Effective)

What Food To Keep?

Anyway, the power went off and your freezer warmed up, but you’ve got it running again. Now what? How much of the food that was in it can you keep, and what’s now a health hazard? Well, a lot of that depends on how warm the freezer got and for how long. If the food was kept below 40°F for a maximum of two days, or still has ice crystals in it, it should be safe to refreeze. If the inside of the freezer reached 50°F, everything in it needs to be used immediately (unless it’s already spoiling) or thrown out. That still leaves a gray area, though, so here’s a handy guide:

  • Fish and seafood. These foods go off very quickly, and they can become harmful to eat even if they look fine. If any kind of seafood has thawed out, discard it. If there are still ice crystals throughout the package – not just a few in the middle, surrounded by a mush of defrosted prawns – it’s safe to refreeze or eat immediately.
  • Once vegetables have thawed, bacteria can grow on them very quickly. Like seafood, only refreeze them if there are ice crystals throughout the package. If there’s no ice left but the vegetables still feel cold you should be able to use them immediately, as long as they’re well cooked. Canning is also an option, if there’s too much to eat immediately – but be very careful with temperatures, because you need to be certain that any bacteria are killed.
  • If thawed fruit isn’t visibly spoiled, and tastes normal, it can be safely used or refrozen. If it’s started to ferment it should still be safe to eat but might not taste quite right. You can still use it for cooking, though, as long as it doesn’t actually taste bad.
  • Ice cream and dairy. Once dairy products have thawed they shouldn’t be refrozen. Cheese should be OK to use. You can extend its life by coating it in wax. Milk and ice cream should be disposed of. They’re perfect breeding grounds for bacteria.
  • Check every package of meat and poultry. If it’s been above 40°F for more than two hours, get rid of it. If it’s still cold to touch you should be able to use it if you cook it immediately. Don’t refreeze poultry that’s thawed out, but other meat that was kept below 40°F should be safe to refreeze.
  • Frozen dinners. If frozen ready meals have thawed, don’t refreeze them. If they still feel cold, cook and eat them immediately. If they’re at room temperature throw them out.

Obviously, the important thing when the power goes out is to keep the inside of the freezer below 40°F for as long as possible. Do that by keeping the door shut, sheltering the freezer from direct sunlight, and insulating it as well as you can. Wrap it in blankets and quilts, and if you can fit a layer of wadded-up newspaper in there that’s great too. If you can get your hands on some dry ice, put a block on the top shelf. The cold gas it releases will sink down through the freezer, cooling the contents as it goes, and extend the life of its contents by hours or even days.

As well as this advice, always apply the basic rules of food safety. If something smells funny or looks like it’s starting to change color or otherwise spoil, get rid of it. When in doubt, chuck it out. There’s no mileage, especially in a crisis situation, in risking food poisoning. But if you can salvage any food after a power failure you should certainly do it, and now you know how.

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Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason October 16, 2018 10:47
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  1. Graywolf12 October 16, 14:31

    When we lost power due to an ice storm we took out enough food to cook on the grill and in the fireplace for about 4-5 days. We closed it up and covered with blankets. Power was off 3 days and once it came back on the food in the freezer looked as if it had never been off.

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  2. Rick Fortune October 16, 15:29

    If you still have the ability to cook without electricity, why not start canning everything that you can. The meat and vegetables thaw at different rates, giving a little time to get them in jars and into your pressure canner.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dinie October 16, 18:18

      That’s what I think as well, but depending on the size of your freezer you may not have time to get to all of it. And if the power goes off suddenly are you going to be ready to be canning right away? I’m trying to transition to canning more meats and veggies so that I’m not relying on my freezer as much. There is always a risk with using the freezer, but for some things I’m willing to take the risk. Such as ice cream.

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      • red October 25, 02:38

        Keep your freezer. Do you have a solar dryer? They’re not hard to build, basic carpenter skills. As I’m dairy intolerant, I have no answer about ice cream but to eat that first. Right now, most of what is in the freezer is barrel cactus waiting to be made into jam and fruit leather. A lot is various flours, which don’t depend ion the freezer, but stay fresh there.

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    • Graywolf12 October 16, 18:25

      My wife is no longer able to can. Her health and mental state would make that a very dangerous activity.

      Reply to this comment
  3. red October 16, 16:26

    When power goes in SHFT, we’ll dry the food fast. We live in Arizona, so it’s a given. Any meat, if you have the salt, can be salted, but watch it for spoilage. Frozen veggies, again, dried or make a brine and pickle them, then dry because the bacteria fermenting them won’t stop when they’re pickled. Even dried, they’re still higher in protein and much better than simply dried. Anything naturally fermented is. Cheese is ‘aged’ commercially in salt brine. X-number of hours in the brine equal so many months natural aging, and brined cheese should keep longer, especially is dried or smoked. Beware of brine worms, a maggot that’s harmless, except it’ll eat everything.

    Canning, Ball now guarantees anything canned with their lids is good for 18 months.

    In a visit to Penna, we went to the Grocery Outlet and purchased a lot of out-of-date canned goods. This is peppers and so on, in addition to the 80+ lbs of roasted peppers already in the freezer. ASAP< the cans will be drained, the juice (roasted peppers are high in sugar) fermented for salsa picante, and the peppers frozen till we have time and space to dry them. We also picked up a lot of pineapple and other fruit, and the same goes for them. Once winter sets in, it should all be done, and plenty of stuff from the cabbage family will be getting ready for harvest. We're also getting Granny Smith apple trees, and some peach trees in the spring.

    A neighbor gave me Mexican domesticated nopale (prickly pear/thornless) cactus, and we've been trading in the area for other things. Also, been gathering cactus fruit and a lot of mesquite. We have Apache jam, made from barrel cactus (this cactus *must* be cooked or you can get sick from it) and fruit. The jam can be dried for fruit leather. Picked up heads of cabbage for kraut, as well at .29c/lb.

    Collards will grow in most Planting Zones, and I highly recommend planting it for an all-seasons green.QWe planted a lot of scarlet runner beans, which like cool nights better than cowpeas. They should produce till a frost knocks them back, and then, if the roots don't freeze, will resprout for early beans.

    In addition, there's plenty of free-for-the-hauling firewood around. Figure one cord per month in a small house for heating and cooking.

    Next trip to Penna will be in the summer to again load-up. Why travel 2,300 miles? Family. They come here in winter, and we go there in summer. Niio.

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    • Greytiels October 17, 01:56

      What part of Pa?

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      • red October 25, 02:42

        Central. Man, but I hate going there. Penna is not home and never was. too liberal, too racist and the politicians greedy, uncaring, cold, and pedophiles.

        Reply to this comment
    • CarmenO October 17, 09:03

      “Ball now guarantees anything canned with their lids is good for 18 months.” That shocked me, because what they are telling us is ‘our lids are garbage now’ taking into account that if you kept canned food out of the light, up to now, they could last for decades. Yes, people have opened jars from grandma and the food still was good. Not that I would tell anyone to keep them for a few decades before eating. As long as the seal holds the food should be good (out of the light, like I mentioned).

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      • Wannabe October 17, 12:47

        I have opened jars canned four years ago and it was fine. Can properly, store properly and most of it is okay. My Father-in-Law canned smoked salmon, was found twelve years later and tasted great.

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        • JJ October 17, 18:24

          Is this a ploy for two reasons?? To sell more lids.
          To sell more canned goods because the preserved won’t last but 12 months??
          I, luckily, have shoe boxes of lids bought at a Mennonite facility years ago.
          I listed lids on CL until I read the notice about shelf life and have them safely stored away now.

          Reply to this comment
          • CarmenO October 18, 01:04

            I agree it’s a ploy to sell more, because I have lids in storage and the new ones are identical and you can bet that some people will throw out the ones they have that are more than 18 months old. I’m buying more because without lids you can not can, and I suspect the next thing is to continue increasing the prices while claiming they last “18 months”. I’ve been going over my canned jars and I have some that are quite old, as in years to use them first. They last forever unless you have them in a place that is humid because they can develop rust due to humidity, so do not get rid of them because jars without lids are worthless.

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            • Rydaartist October 20, 17:14

              How about protecting the company from Law Suits?? We are always so happy to trash a company. Maybe this was a good “expire” date.

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            • red October 25, 02:46

              Ball made this comment because of government interference. The FDA had some crap up about not keeping home-canned for more than a year. It’s like the ex-date on medicines and box goods. I’ve had juice canned in bail jars from before we got into steel lids, and it was all right. Still tasted like Concord grapes. 🙂

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    • Just Rex October 24, 12:29

      good info thanks for it

      Reply to this comment
  4. mbl October 17, 00:53

    Thanks for the info. That gray area has had me scratching my head a few times. I do follow the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule because food poisoning is no fun.

    Fortunately, the last time i experienced an extended outage, we had loads of snow on the ground, so i shovelled some of that into contractor bags and placed them in the fridge and freezer. Also only opened the fridge once or twice a day to keep as much cool air in as i could.

    On the last day of the outage, I figured i could take out food that i planned on eating over 48 hours and put it in my cooler and pack the cooler with snow. That way, i could open and close it pretty much at every meal and not compromise the other food. The power returned before I implemented that plan, but i won’t wait so long next time to think of that.

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    • red October 25, 02:52

      Bro, do you have rosemary in the pantry? I have a bush, but live in Zone 9B, no snow. Dried, sealed, the leaves will keep for decades. For food poisoning: One level teaspoon of whole leaves in a cup, pour boiling water over them and cover for 10 minutes. Sip it slowly. No more than 2 cups! Rosemary can become toxic in the system, but it’s reason in cooking is because it’s suppose to prevent food poisoning. As I don’t eat meat aged like they did prior to refrigeration (except when I was cowboying, we killed a ‘beef’ and hung it in the shade to age and it worked). Rosemary is vital in the medicine cabinet because it neutralizes toxins in the system. Niio.

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      • mbl December 2, 21:15

        Yes, and in zone 5, rosemary is an annual unless you bring it inside to winter over. I had one plant for years that finally gave up the ghost, and got another but it was fussier and didn’t live, so I’m using up the needles from that one now.

        Thanks for the food poisoning tip!

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  5. The Grey Ham October 17, 02:41

    I bought a 1K generator that runs on gas or propane. I have a 250 gal propane tank and the generator is wired into my bugout home. It’s set up so I can run the freezer for a bit, then lights/fans/etc so I can switch back and forth to operate various other things.

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  6. Chris F. October 17, 03:25

    Like GreyWolf12 our biggest threat to electricity each year is ice storms, in 2009 just before we got here our neighbors lost all power for a month, then in 2014 we ourselves experienced what “lighter” ice storm events can still do. Since we hunt and store most of our meat for up to three years at a time we’re very sensitive about what could happen if any of our four chest freezers go out for any reason. As of last year I think we’re finally properly prepared for dealing with long very periods of no electricity, keeping hundreds of pounds frozen for at least over a month to buy time for salting, smoking, canning, and otherwise saving up to three years worth of assorted meats.

    This advice probably won’t be of any use to those of you living in cities or urban areas, yet perhaps if you have bug-out properties or hope to plan for eventually having one these thoughts may still be of potential use.

    To start with, we have livestock and poultry flocks that need bedding throughout the year, so each year we finally learned to buy 60 to 80 straw bales all at once just before winter hits. It’s a big investment up front, but then we’d be spending the same amount of cash for animal housing sanitation throughout the year anyway. By fall we’re basically out of the last year’s purchase of straw, so by the new early winter we have all the straw bales needed for the coming year delivered all at once.

    Then last year we saved up enough to buy a massive Yeti Tundra 350, even empty it weighs over 100 pounds, and it has enough room to fit all the very carefully packaged meat we have in all four chest freezers (enough to last us three years, rotated of course). Obviously even the best non-electric freezer on the planet won’t keep anything frozen for more than a few weeks, but by packing several feet of straw bales all around the Yeti (underneath and on all sides) we’re very confident that we’ll be able to buy ourselves the six weeks minimum necessary for preserving all the meats (and cheeses, and milk and vegetables and more!) using alternate methods.

    This is the short version of our preps for preserving the meats we have in the freezers, much more can be said about how exactly we package them up in the first place (very important) but then this isn’t a PhD thesis either (thank Gads).

    This was a great article indeed, very close to my heart, since so much time over here has gone into thinking about what we would lose if the freezers go out. Comforters are essentials when frozen supplies are running low… and so are those cheap rubberized yoga mats out of Walmart, for layering between different “zones” of what you have access to within a deep-storage non-electric chest.

    In the end we can do with very little meat in our own diets (4 oz. average per person daily certainly works for us), yet heaven forbid if the livestock guardian dogs run out for more than a few weeks. They KNOW the chickens, ducks, and turkeys pay them daily for their protection services with yummy eggs, but too long without meat dished out by us humans could eventually be the end for some of our weaker or more elderly wildlife or even farm animals. It’s a trade-off in the end, having such large protecters who also don’t want to starve in case of a very serious long-term SHTF emergency.

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    • red October 25, 03:04

      Do you have a chipper shredder? Granaries used to give away corn cobs, and corn stalks, already baled were a lot cheaper than straw. Warmer, as well. Problem with corn cobs is, they’re high in feed value and when used as bedding, the animals will eat them. Leaves from the stalks, as well, but that was all right.

      Juliette de Baïracli Levy was the top natural animal veterinarian. She and others using natural methods stated their dogs had to be allowed to hunt and also ate grain from the granary. Some times it was necessary to kill an older sheep to feed the dogs. She stated they never became stock killers.

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  7. left coast chuck October 17, 05:07

    I thought someone else would mention it, but there are two methods to determine just how warm your freezer or fridge got. Get a wide mouth plastic jar, put some water in it and freeze it. Put a quarter on top of the ice. Leave it in your fridge or freezer. If the juice stops flowing and the ice starts to melt the quarter will sink. If it is at the bottom of the jar, your food is probably toast.

    Alternatively, take a 1 liter soda bottle fill it half full of water. Freeze it. Stand the bottle up. The ice will melt as the fridge/freezer warms up. If all the water has collected at the bottom of the bottle, your food is again probably toast.

    A simplistic and not totally accurate method, but it will give you an idea of how much your packaged up food has thawed. This also works if you are not at home when the electricity goes off and come home after it has come back on where the water or the quarter is in the ice field is a good indicator of how long the juice has been off.

    If you really want to find out how long it takes for the quarter to move or the ice to melt, the next time you clean out your fridge or freezer, turn the f/f off and keep the bottle or jar in there and check it at 15 or 30 minute intervals to chart how much it thaws per 15/30 minute segment.

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  8. CarmenO October 17, 08:53

    I had the experience of my freezer dying without me noticing and having to throw out a lot of things. Since the meat still was still cold and had some frost, I gave it to a friend of my daughter and son-in-low with a group of large dogs. He cooked the meat and then froze some and gave his dogs some of it. As to all the vegetables and fruits I ended up burying them in my vegetable garden for compost the next year. Sad for me, but at least the dogs had plenty to eat. Right now, because I live in Minnesota, I’m planning to move all the meat to the freezer I keep in my spare bedroom, and use the one in the basement for vegetables and fruits (I grow a lot of the last). I can close off that room and open the windows once it gets below freezing, very soon, if the energy goes.

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  9. Wannabe October 17, 12:43

    If you have chickens or pigs then the thawed vegetables and fruits not edible can be fed to them. Save on feed help that to last. If not then throw it in your compost or garden plot and let it add nutrients to the soil. Cleaned out freezer beginning of summer and all packs of Vegas and fruits freezer burn went to the chickens. They gobbled it up. Did not have to give them grains for two days. Meats that are too far gone cats and dogs will take care of them. Nothing has to go to waste. I agree with canning, especially meats. If done right and stored properly they will last for years. Canned salmon and opened two years later and was just as good as the day canned. Canned salmon that was in freezer for five years and turned out good. Always two or three ways to skin a cat.

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  10. Dinie October 21, 04:23

    To all those freaking out about “expired lids” I switched to tattler lids. Yes, they are plastic, but they are reusable. And when your lids are being tossed out I can wash and sanitize my lids and keep on canning. I have 50+ of regular and wide mouth sizes. Im all set.

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    • 50yrcanner November 29, 16:53

      If you have a freezer full of meat, you may want to up that lid count. One pint is about one pound, quart =2 pounds. So, 100 lids can only do 100 qts or 200 # ,at best. Hunters, farmers and homesteaders can easily have more pounds just of meat.

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  11. Rydaartist October 25, 02:49

    Learned this in a Restaurant, first to spoil is blood, then fat, skin and finally bone. Bone by the way is the worst as the meat is throughly spoilt inside.

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  12. red October 25, 03:07

    We still have and use bail jars. Donno is the tattlers will work on them, but they’re supposed to in European glass lid canning jars.

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  13. TheSouthernNationalist December 1, 16:29

    I built an outdoor fridge out of wooden slates to use if the power goes out during the winter time.

    I pack a layer of snow about a foot thick at the bottom then place my items on the snow.
    Then cover the items with more snow and close the lid. There are small gaps in between the boards to allow water to run out as the snow melts.

    Reply to this comment
    • mbl December 2, 21:28

      SouthernNationalist, you don’t have a problem with animals taking away your food when you do that? I like your idea, and have a few pallets where i can try this out this winter, but I also don’t want it to be a haven for vermin and other critters who sniff a meal they can dig out of the snow.

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  14. left coast chuck July 4, 22:49

    To make your food last longer, before this week is out, locate as many dry ice vendors in your locale as you can. Immediately upon noticing that the electricity is out, get thee to the dry ice store and purchase a large block of dry ice. The dry ice in my area comes with a chart that gives recommendations as to how much you need for how long.

    Put it in your freezer and also put as large a chunk as will fit in the freezer section of your refrigerator. You can open the door more frequently than with ordinary ice in the freezer. With a chunk of dry ice in the freezer section of your refrigerator, it will also keep the rest of the fridge cold. You might move stuff you don’t want frozen to the upper shelves.

    Watch your veggies. Some vegetables don’t freeze well. I made that mistake the first time I used dry ice on a camping trip. Lettuce, celery and tomatoes do not freeze well. They turn to an unappetizing mush when thawed. I have first hand knowledge of that. It is not theory.

    Red onions freeze okay and carrots freeze okay. You can be guided by what vegetables are sold frozen in the frozen food section of your local grocery store. If you don’t see frozen lettuce from Birds-eye, you can pretty well figure it doesn’t freeze well.

    Assuming that all other utilities are not out and trucks are still running, your local supplier will continue to have dry ice in stock. If it is the end of the world, once the supply is gone, there will be no more, but you will have a head start on keeping your food safe longer. It is a little on the pricey side, but in my view at least, better than throwing out a lot of expensive food. And if it is the end of the world you don’t want to throw out even one scrap.

    Reply to this comment
    • ~T August 22, 02:11

      Chuck, I have the feeling. You know, when a mom knows a kid is sick. When a wife knows a husband is up to something. When a prepper knows it is about to happen. Chuck, I have been following you for years. I have never replied. I have just learned. And I have learned A LOT. Now I have the feeling. We live in Connecticut. We are homesteaders. I work for the Government. Husband is retired. Just something in my gut is telling me SOMETHING is about to happen. We are stocked for three months. I mean STOCKED. We have learned to make alcohol out of mint. We have enough beans and rice for six months. We have enough coffee. We have flour and sugar and potato flakes. PLEASE tell me to buy cheap. We just bought a car cash so our savings is low. Cheap and long storage. The feeling will not go away.

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