At 5 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, I took the chicken out of the oven and put the finishing touches on the ravioli sauce. My salad was already assembled, and I continued to ignore the flickering lights and the weather reports, blaring across the radio waves, warning of Hurricane Sandy's imminent approach. We live in an evacuation zone, and by that time, I had already lost touch with neighbors who described the same flickering lights about a half-hour earlier.
Minutes later, we were in the dark. All I could think about was the food that filled my refrigerator and freezer. This was the food that took me hours to shop for, pack up, and unpack; it included the best produce I could pick, fresh fish and poultry, and enough milk, cheese, and yogurt to make a dairy farmer smile. All would be destroyed within hours. And then I thought of all of the people who go hungry each night, and how much they could benefit from my loss. This was a painful gap that could not be bridged.
The wind outside our home was howling, creating a duet with my dog, who was more frightened by the dancing streams of light from our flashlights than the branches hitting our doors and windows. We ate dinner by candlelight, played an intense family game of Monopoly, and then went to bed before midnight, the hour at which Sandy was due to arrive in full force.
On Tuesday morning I realized that, although my cooktop had an electronic ignition, it was gas-powered and could be lit with a match. That opened a world of possibilities for me. Oatmeal for breakfast, tuna with beans for lunch, and salmon and veggies (from the freezer) with pasta for dinner. The next few days were going to be a challenge, but thanks to constant reports on TV and radio, anticipation and action helped to ease the anxiety.
You can't always plan for emergencies, but when possible, planning in advance can make the difference between whether you are safe or in danger. Here are some tips that I've found to be most helpful to weather the storm and prevent foodborne illness:
• Buy plenty of bottled water in a variety of sizes.
• Be sure to have food and appliance thermometers. Your fridge should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and the freezer should be at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit. If you have any doubt about whether a food is safe, you can check its internal temperature with a food thermometer, and remember the dietitian's motto: "When in doubt, throw it out."
• Purchase canned foods that can be combined together to create a meal, including protein and side dishes. Buy canned tuna or chicken, an assortment of beans, canned veggies, and fruit. Be sure to keep a manual can opener nearby, and purchase the smallest-sized jars of mayo and mustard to avoid excess waste.
• Be sure to have plenty of paper goods on hand, including plates, bowls, plasticware, cups, and napkins.
• Keep ready-to-eat cereals on hand as well as shelf-stable cow's milk, soy milk, or canned or powdered milk. A bowl of cereal with milk, dried fruit, and nuts can make a hearty meal for adults and kids.
• Stock a variety of nut butters, like almond, peanut, and cashew butters. They pair deliciously with some whole-grain crackers and a fresh apple for a quick breakfast or snack.
• Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. An unopened, full freezer can hold foods safely for about 48 hours. A half-full freezer will keep food for 24 hours. A refrigerator will only keep your food safe for about four to five hours. The internal temperature of food should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to be considered safe to eat.
• Never eat food that seems like it could be spoiled. The money you waste by throwing it out is far less costly than what you'd have to pay to treat a foodborne illness.
• If you can spare the room, keep several gel ice packs in your freezer just in case you need to keep refrigerated foods chilled. If necessary, these packs can be placed in a cooler to keep several items chilled if the power is out for more than four hours.
There's no doubt that I feel fortunate to now have our electricity turned back on and that our home sustained minimal damage. My heart goes out to all those who suffer from the devastation wrought by Sandy, which, when looking at photos, still seems somewhat surreal. May this be the worst storm we will ever witness in our lifetimes. Times like these bring neighbors, friends, and family together.
For a wealth of information on food safety tips in case of an emergency, please visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website at: http://ow.ly/1PhXYY.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.