Emergency Preparedness For Your Freezer

Photo: Tom Biro

I don’t have a traumatic, gripping, or even interesting story to tell you regarding my recent freezer debacle. It happened just recently, when my curious 9-year-old filled a balloon with water and placed it inside my deep freeze door to see if it would expand (as detailed in her science lessons.) Her science project was successful, the balloon grew to twice its size, and my freezer door popped open and sat unattended for almost 30 hours. When I found it, most of my meat had thawed considerably, and some funky fruit had made its way to my garage floor.

I wasn’t prepared for how to handle this. What meat could I keep? Would I have to cook it all before refreezing? I thank my lucky stars that I stumbled upon a freezer disaster guide from the Michigan State University Extension. I’ve highlighted the best parts for you below:

Plan for the worst. If you know you’ll lose power to your freezer ahead of time, don’t just sit there! Keep the door closed and cover the entire freezer with blankets (keeping the air vent unobstructed.) If it happens to be more than a day or two without electricity, go ahead and add dry ice to your freezer. The University recommends 25 pounds per 10 cubic feet of freezer space. (Be sure the area your freezer is stored in will be well-ventilated, as the ice will melt to form Carbon Dioxide gas.)

Increase your odds. Certain factors will help to keep your food frozen longer in an emergency. A freezer will stay coldest when it is:

  • Full
  • Filled mostly with meats (as opposed to fruits and breads)
  • Running at a colder temperature
  • Better insulated

Know how to handle thawed foods. Even with the best preparation, things may thaw out. It is best to toss anything that looks thawed and is at room temperature, smells funny, had a significant color change, and has any apparent mold or bacteria growth. It is generally OK to refreeze food that is safe to eat (although the quality may be affected.) For the best possible quality, follow the guidelines for each type of frozen food, which include:

Meat (whole cuts of red meat, pork, and cured meats) – Refreeze only those packages that are cool to the touch or contain some ice crystals. Ground meat must be handled more carefully, and shouldn’t be refrozen if it has completely thawed. (Use it right away, or cook and refreeze.)

Poultry – Only refreeze poultry that it still partially frozen. Completely thawed poultry should be cooked immediately and can then be refrozen if desired. (Be sure to keep poultry drippings away from other foods, and repackage it, if needed.)

Fish – Only refreeze fish that is solidly frozen. Partially thawed or completely thawed fish should only be used it if is still very cold. Cook it and use it immediately!

Fruit – Refreeze anything that still looks good or consider using it in a nice pie or homemade jam.

Vegetables – If there are still ice crystals, it can be refrozen. If not, it must be cooked and used right away or refrozen.

Baked goods – If your frozen bread or hard rolls have thawed, do not refreeze them. Store them in the fridge and bake them within a day or two.

Miscellaneous – Do not refreeze ice cream, thawed cheese, thawed juices, or prepared foods (TV dinners). Use them up right away and discard anything you can’t.

This handy list helped me to avoid panic and let me safely use only those foods I needed to. I also learned a lot about what to do the next time this happens. (Although I may consider adding a safety device to my freezer like I did with my refrigerator .) All in all, I only had to use up a few tortellini’s and a bag of peas. Not bad!

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Guest's picture

Fill unused freezer space with containers of salt water. Salt water will thaw faster tan your food. It's amazing how long the food will last if the freezer is full of heavy stuff that thaws faster than the food.

Guest's picture

Great information here, especially with the possibility of so much stormy weather in the summer.

Also, props to MSU. Go Green! :-P

Linsey Knerl's picture

Cool tip!

Guest's picture

One of the biggest negatives about keeping a stocked freezer for frugality is the risk of that investment vanishing during the first power outage of the summer. I have nightmares about finding my freezer door ajar. Nice to know I dont have to throw it all away. Although I don't think I'd be willing to try the dry ice trick in the event of a hurricane. Too afraid I'd kill us all...

Guest's picture

I always thought I would just have a big ol' neighborhood BBQ if something happened to my freezer. I would just break into the rest of my stockpile and feed the neighbors - at least all the little ones who are constantly over here. Perhaps they'd feel my pain and offer some frozen meat. Perhaps not. We usually have our freezer well-stocked, so I know it would take a while for it to really start warming. Perhaps wrapping it (if there was an outage) would also help. We have a large spool of reflective insulation in our garage. We could wrap the freezer many times with that.

Guest's picture

I once refroze ice cream. I remember the taste to this day and it was an episode of enlightenment for me on the importance of good freezer etiquette ;)

Guest's picture

You know I am surprised I don't hear more horror stories about freezer's going out. I have a freezer that is about 30 years old that I bought used. It hasn't gone out yet, but I'm setting some money aside to buy a new one in case it does.

Guest's picture

YOu might want to spring for a new one anyway, as the energy costs of running a 30 yr old freezer are much much higher than running a new enrgystar-certified one. Probably you would get your money back within 3-4 years of electricity savings, then after that the addittional savings would be gravy.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Linsey, this really is a cool article, but I just can't stop chuckling over your intro . . .

Funny, and yet I'm sure it was a total pain in the neck to deal with. Ah, motherhood. And I think I have a tough time with our labrador retriever.

Good piece.


Guest's picture

We lost a fully loaded upright freezer while out of town for a week. Everything thawed and went bad and the resulting ooze ran out onto the floor. The house smelled like a slaughterhouse and the cleanup was a big pain. The ruined contents amounted to 2-3 times the cost of the freezer (inexpensive gift from in-laws). Now we split frozen items between the two refrigerators (the old one is in the garage) knowing we won’t loose it all when (not if) one of them quits working.

Guest's picture

I had a similar problem last month. I went on vacation for a week, and about halfway through a friend of mine (who had been looking in on my pets) called and told me the freezer door was open. Since he only came by a couple times during the week, it could have been opened for anywhere from a few hours to a couple days. To make matters worse, he shut the freezer door again, refreezing everything into a massive, sticky clump (I don't blame him to for shutting the door, it wasn't his stuff, after all).

I lost several pounds of ground beef, a couple chicken breasts, a ton of frozen veggies, a quart of ice cream, a pound of bacon, a box of popsicles (melted into a puddle and then refrozen) and a package of hot dogs!

How the freezer door got open is a mystery to this day. My theory is that the cats managed it somehow..

Guest's picture

It's beginning to sound like one thing to do when travelling is tape the door shut...!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good idea!

Guest's picture

If possible, you might consider switching to a chest freezer, which opens upwards. For one thing, it's less likely that the door can be ajar, since it always closes itself. Even if there's enough stuff inside to pop the lid up slightly, the cool air tends to stay down and not simply flow out as in an upright model. It's more of a pain to get things out of it, but perhaps a small price to pay for some protection against accidental whole-freezer thawing.

The other thing, which I think was mentioned earlier, is to create giant ice-packs inside your freezer in the unused space. We fill our old 1-gallon plastic milk jugs with water and keep them in the freezer as space allows. Don't fill the jugs all the way, to allow the ice some room to expand. With 5 or 6 of these in a chest freezer, it can hold the cold for quite a long time, even if the power goes out.

Extra bonus: when you go grocery shopping and need some extra cool in your cooler (for those that take along coolers for the cold stuff) you can just grab one or two of these ice jugs and you've got some decent refrigeration for a few hours. When you get back, just put the jug back and it'll refreeze for the next time.

Guest's picture

When I was in high school I grabbed something out of our chest freezer and didn't make sure it was closed all the way. I'm not sure how much, if anything, was saved but it's nice to know that all is not lost in such a situation.

Guest's picture

A chest freezer is more efficient than an upright, and much less likely to have the door come ajar. :)

There is no "air vent" in either a chest or upright freezer - I think that means "don't block the evaporator coils with a blanket"

As for bread - I freeze bread store bread - I think that section in your article is referring to frozen dough, not baked bread.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I do agree that a chest freezer could eliminate this problem, however, for us it wouldn't work too well (I need access to many things that would just get "buried" in a chest freezer.)  But I'm considering getting one for my 2nd freezer.

Air vent = evaporator coils... You're right.  The verbage was taken from the extension office.  Maybe they assumed not everyone would know what the coils are?  (I only know that you're supposed to dust them from time to time.)  :)

As for the bread, I think that it is a good idea for both.  If the frozen loaf you were storing in the freezer thaws out, I dont' think you're supposed to refreeze it.  (It can make the bread dry and taste funny.)  And the frozen dough is just nasty if you let it thaw improperly and then bake it!

Thanks for the added advice! 


Guest's picture
Mom of 7

I was panicing about my freezer being left open by the nanny this morning (6am). It is now 1:30 and the floor was covered with sticky water. EEEEEEWWWWWW!

Now that I have guidelines to follow in the clean-up and throw away process, i don't want to dock her pay....

I'm sure she thanks you too!