5 Common Mistakes People Make When Trying to Keep Food Cold

With the recent arctic blast of cold air still fresh in our minds, keeping something cold doesn’t feel like much of a challenge. That unwelcome polar vortex covered nearly the entire country and resulted in ridiculously low temperatures for over a week. 

But now that America has thawed and we can move our fingers and toes again, we’re reminded of something. Keeping food cold when the power is out is not so simple. No matter how cold it is outside. 

During a power outage, food can spoil quickly. As a general rule, food in a refrigerator should be good for four hours after the power goes out. In a freezer, it should stay safe for 24 to 48 hours. 

Obviously when an outage lasts longer than that, you’re in danger of losing the food you worked hard to buy. And what you need to feed yourself and your family.

These errors could cost you 

Unfortunately, too many people have wrong ideas about how to protect their food. And then they pay a price for their errors.

Best case scenario, they have to throw out food they thought they were protecting. Worst case scenario, they get sick from eating it. 

Today I want to share with you what I consider the 5 most common mistakes folks make while trying to keep their food from spoiling during a blackout.

So, let’s get started.

Please… DON’T store your food in the snow 

Sometimes what seems to be perfectly logical is not necessarily a good idea. Taking food that’s starting to get warm and putting it in something cold would seem like the right thing to do. 

Alas, that’s not the case with placing food in snow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns against this practice. 

One reason is that the sun’s rays (even through clouds) could warm your food more effectively than snow will keep it cold.

A second reason is that critters could access your food. Or at the very least, contaminate it with their very natural but unsanitary habits.

Stop checking on it

During a power outage, there is a natural tendency to want to make sure refrigerated and frozen foods are still good. 

But unless you have a little man inside your fridge calling you to communicate that information, opening those doors is a mistake. Each time you do it, warm air gets in, which shortens the lifespan of your food.

So, unless you need to remove an item from your refrigerator or freezer in order to eat it or cook it, keep those doors closed.

In order to keep your refrigerated food at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, keeping the door closed should give you those four hours you need to avoid spoilage. 

There IS a right way to load up your fridge & freezer  

A second common mistake when it comes to trying to keep food cold during an outage is randomly placing food in your fridge.

First of all, try to keep your fridge and freezer as full as possible. Food stays safer in fuller compartments than in half-full ones. If that is impossible, at least group your foods together rather than having them spread out. 

Also – and this is equally important – strategically place your food in the fridge depending on what it is. Keep fruits and vegetables on higher level shelves, with meat, poultry, and fish on lower level shelves. 

Why? Because heat rises, even inside a refrigerator. The bottom section of your refrigerator is colder than the top, so that’s where you want to place foods that benefit from colder temps. Such as meat, poultry, and fish.

Ice is your friend in an outage 

If a blackout lasts long enough, you’re going to need to transfer food from your fridge and freezer to a cooler. If you have ice you can place in that cooler, it will significantly lengthen the life of your food. 

So, keep a bag of ice in your kitchen freezer, as well as in your basement or garage freezer, for this situation. And, of course, make sure your kitchen freezer ice trays stay full. You can also use frozen gel packs.

Freezing water in Tupperware containers is another way to have ice available. Be careful not to fill those containers, however. They could break because water expands when it freezes.

What if you have food in a cooler with ice but the outage continues? Eventually you’ll want to put that cooler outside. Just make sure no critter can get inside it.

When in doubt, throw it out

Some people make a decision as to whether to eat something by the way it smells. Or by taking a small taste of it. That’s like determining whether or not a gun is loaded by pulling the trigger.

Some foods can start to spoil without any telltale signs. It may smell fine or may even taste OK. But if it’s starting to spoil, you could get sick from it.

The best way to ensure if a food item has spoiled in a fridge or freezer that has lost power is with a thermometer inside it. They’re affordable and very useful. If you have a newer fridge, it will display temperatures on the outside of the door. 

If you don’t have a thermometer or a newer fridge, err on the side of caution. And remember this phrase: when in doubt, throw it out.

A lifesaving 25-cent hack

Before I let you go, let me share a hack you may not be familiar with. Let’s say you’ve been outside your home for a while. When you come home, you realize the power is out. But you don’t know how long it’s been out.

The solution to this dilemma is to have a cup of frozen water in your freezer with a quarter placed on top of the ice. 

When you return home, if you see that the coin sank into the ice, that means the power has been out for a while. If it’s still on top of the ice, then the power must have gone out very recently. 

The key is to use wise methods to keep your food cold in an outage, and avoid the 5 common mistakes above. If you have any other tried and true methods to accomplish this goal, please share them in the comments section.


  • Suzanne Williams - February 09, 2024

    Thanks so much for all your information!

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