Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Emergency Preparedness: Food Without Power

image from Wikimedia
We've been talking periodically about Emergency Preparedness and today we continue that thread.

Previously, we discussed preparing for the most common serious family emergency, which is a house fire. Then we talked about having enough water in an emergency, which is the first and most important prep to have. We've also talked about staying warm without power, having lights without power, and the importance of having emergency food and water reserves and emergency kits. We've also covered CERT (Community Emergency Response) Training and getting ham radio licensure.

For those wondering why I sometimes write about preparedness on a blog usually devoted to pregnancy/birth and size acceptance issues, emergency preparedness falls under the "parenting" and "healthy living" mission of the blog (see "About this blog," above).

Having lived in wildfire, tornado, blizzard and earthquake zones (as well as living not too far away when a major earthquake struck), I know how important disaster preparedness is, yet it's a topic neglected by so many people. I want to raise awareness of the importance of being prepared, with special attention to the preparedness needs of families.

Part of parenting is keeping your children safe, and the truth is that bad weather and disasters happen everywhere sooner or later. You can't guarantee a child's safety during a disaster, but you can greatly improve their chances afterwards if you are prepared. Many people die or are hurt after disasters due to poor conditions or lack of safe food/water, but much of this is preventable with good preparedness.

And of course, everyone experiences power outages at some point; it's amazing just how ill-prepared many of us are to be without electricity. Yet people die even during routine power outages because they cook food unsafely, get carbon monoxide poisoning, or inadvertently set their dwellings on fire. It's important to keep your children safe and as comfortable as possible, whether you are facing a major disaster or just a common power outage.

That's why today we are discussing how to feed your family during a power outage or an extended emergency where power and safe food/water may be scarce.

Preparing Food Without Power

The first step in feeding your family in an emergency is having plenty of ready-made food on hand that you can eat without cooking. Items like energy bars, beef jerky, fruit leather, nuts, trail mix, peanut butter, canned fruit, crackers, dried fruit, canned meat, and granola bars are all filling food that don't require any cooking. These are often enough for a short-term power outage.

However, if a power outage lasts for long, these foods get repetitive quickly, and a hot meal can be important for keeping up your energy, not to mention a great morale-booster. A hot meal also helps keep you warm from the inside. A little water, a few fresh or dehydrated vegetables, and a bit of canned meat, beans, or grains can be used to make a great soup or stew to warm you up and make you feel a lot better.

However, how do you heat it up? Sure, you can put a pot into the fireplace at your house, but what if you run out of firewood? What if you don't have a fireplace at all? It's important to have several ways to cook without power because you never know what circumstances you might be in.

The best answer for cooking without power depends on your circumstances, but options include:
Read more about these options from the links in the Resources section below.

Just be aware that most of these methods should only be used outside because dangerous fumes can build up (another reason for that carbon monoxide detector). Only the Sterno/Butane stove and MRE heater can be used to cook inside safely. (The haybox can be used inside, once the initial cooking has been done outside.)

Another limit to many of these options is that they depend on outside sources of fuel, which get used up pretty quickly in a power outage or emergency. That's why it's so important to have several options in your arsenal. You want to have multiple choices available to you when the chips are down.

Campfires and Fireplaces

image from Wikimedia
In a power outage or emergency, many people are going to use their fireplace or a campfire for cooking. However, campfires and fireplaces, while handy, are not a very efficient cooking method. They use up a lot of fuel, take a long time to get to the cooking stage, and can easily burn the food. In addition, outdoor campfires are not very practical in bad weather.

Unless you are an experienced camper or Scout, you may not even know how to cook on a campfire. Packet meals (one dish wrapped up in heavy-duty tinfoil and roasted) are a good way to cook with fireplaces and campfires. You can read more about that here.

Image from Wikimedia
A cast-iron dutch oven is another great way to cook on a campfire. There are primers on cast-iron dutch oven cooking here, herehere, and here. They can be used with either wood fires or with charcoal.

The key is to heat your fire to the coal/ember stage, then put coals on top of the lid as well as below the pan. Then you are able to heat the food from all sides, which is more efficient. Don't forget that you can also turn the lid upside down on a fire and use it like a fry-pan.

While campfire and fireplace cooking can be a good adjunct to your preparedness plans, don't rely on it as your sole source of cooking in a disaster. It just requires too much fuel for frequent cooking and must be tended constantly. And campfires have to be done outside in a well-ventilated area, which may not work in some weather conditions.

So while campfires and fireplaces can be one tool in your preparedness toolbox, they shouldn't be the only tool there.

Camping Stoves or Barbecues

Image from Wikimedia
A backyard barbecue is a non-electric cooking source that most people already have on hand. As a result, they are often the most-used resource during a power outage. Most use charcoal or propane as a fuel source.

Portable camp or hiking stoves are the next most-used emergency cooking resource. There are many different types that use various types of fuels. You can read more about these options here.

Propane camping stoves are one of the best options. They are very portable, propane is fairly cheap, and you can store propane canisters ahead of time for an emergency. There are many different types of propane camping stoves available, so you can choose the type that suits your budget and needs.

Propane stoves have to be used outside due to carbon monoxide build-up, but the flames are adjustable so they are adaptable for many different types of cooking (stews, grilling, frying, simmering, etc.). They are also pretty lightweight and reasonably transportable.

Image from Wikimedia
Because many disasters or power outages occur during bad weather, many people attempt to use their BBQ or camp stove inside a garage or other enclosed area. This is deadly and kills people during power outages. Camp stoves and BBQs should only be used in open, extremely well-ventilated areas. If you have any doubt whether your ventilation is adequate, have a carbon monoxide detector nearby, just in case.

Remember that camping stoves and barbecues are useful only as long as you have fuel to power them. Have a good reserve of emergency fuel on hand, and have some other cooking options available in case your emergency goes on longer than your propane or charcoal supply.

Sterno/Butane Stoves, MRE Heaters

Image from Wikimedia
Sterno/Butane stoves and MRE heaters are great choices for cooking during a power outage since they are the only ones that can be safely used inside. This is HUGE during a winter storm! You certainly don't want to go outside and freeze in order to make warm food, which is what you have to do with most other emergency cooking options.

If you live in an area where cold or bad weather might be an issue, these options should be part of your emergency preparation. They can be found online, at restaurant supply stores, Asian food stores, or at camping stores.

Sterno is a solid alcohol fuel that comes in little cans. You open the lid, light it, and use it to warm food set on a grill or screen above. You extinguish it by simply sliding the lid onto the can. Caterers often use Sterno to keep buffet food hot at special events. At our house, we use it for cheese fondue (a family tradition in my husband's family). Many people also use it with chafing dishes, to keep food warm during parties or picnics.

Sterno fuel is basically denatured, jellied alcohol. It comes in small cans; a small 7-ounce can lasts for about 2 hours of continuous burning. It is very affordable; a 7-ounce can costs about $3, or you can buy a set of cans at once and get a volume discount. Keep the fuel away from little ones, though, since it is toxic.

Sterno stoves work well for heating up small meals like canned soup or stew. You can't easily control the flame intensity or heat, though, so they do not work as well for cooking meals from scratch, grilling, or getting the internal temperature of meats into the safe zone, etc. But for the re-heating common to most emergency cooking, they are just the ticket.

Image from 
Butane stoves are a nice alternative to Sterno stoves. They are often used for powerless cooking during catering events, and frequently used for table-side cooking at various Asian restaurants.

A good Butane stove allows more flexibility in flame control and temperature than Sterno cooking, so it is a better alternative for cooking things from scratch and cooking meats, whereas Sterno is best at reheating pre-made foods.

Like Sterno, Butane stoves are safe for cooking indoors. Butane canisters are very affordable (slightly cheaper than Sterno) and last about the same as Sterno cans. On the other hand, Butane is more volatile and must be stored carefully. It also does not perform well under cold conditions.

Image from Wikimedia
MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) heaters are what the military gives to soldiers to heat food up out in the field. They use a combination of chemicals (iron, magnesium, and salt) that when mixed with water, create heat in an exothermic reaction. Their big advantages are that they provide flameless heat and are small and portable.

While they take a while to heat up and don't heat much more than some water or a one-person meal, MRE heaters can be useful as an addition to Sterno/Butane stoves because they too can be safely used inside.

Like camping stoves, Sterno/Butane and MRE heater options are only useful as long as the fuel lasts. Therefore, have a bountiful supply on hand in case your power outage/emergency lasts more than a couple of days. Use other back-up options like campfires or camp stoves during the day so you can keep your Sterno/Butane for priority times (like at night, or during in bad weather).

While these stoves are promoted as safe for cooking inside, some authorities still recommend having a working carbon monoxide detector in the room with you, just as a precaution.

Rocket Stoves

Image from Wikimedia
Rocket stoves are an excellent emergency cooking option, although they are a bit pricey.

Rocket stoves (including brands like StoveTec and the Ecozoom) are super-efficient portable stoves that use an insulated L-shaped combustion chamber to cook foods quickly and easily. They don't take much fuel because the design is so efficient.

The best Rocket or Volcano stove models can cook using just about any biomass, including twigs, pine cones, dried corn cobs, pine needles, and other small items that normally wouldn't get used for a fire. This means you can cook without needing big logs or lots of firewood, and a lot less energy is wasted. This efficiency is a huge advantage in an emergency.

The disadvantage of rocket stoves is that they must be used outside, and even though they are far more efficient than a campfire, they do take biomass and must be tended constantly. They are also pretty expensive for an initial purchase, and are fairly heavy to lug around.

Image from 
You can buy expensive, super-efficient rocket stoves online, or you can build your own pretty easily with #10 cans (coffee cans). You can read more about that here, but remember that your own will not be nearly as efficient as a professionally-built version.

If you have the money to buy one or want to build one, rocket/volcano stoves are a great option for powerless cooking. They really are astoundingly efficient and their ability to use small amounts of biomass make them extremely flexible in an emergency when traditional fuel may be scarce.

Haybox Cooking

Image from Mother Earth News
Hayboxes are basically a heat retention thermal cooking method. They use the initial cooking heat to continue the cooking process inside an insulated container without additional fuel. Hayboxes can be a useful addition to emergency cooking because they minimize the use of fuel. It's like a non-electric crockpot on steroids.

Basically, you begin cooking your food in the usual way, by bringing it to a sustained brisk boil over a campfire or portable stove of some kind. However, once the initial cooking has been done, you remove the pot from the heat source and put it inside an insulated cooker, box or bag. It works like a thermos, except that the initial heat of the food combined with really efficient insulation keeps the cooking going inside the pot. In time, the food will finish cooking on its own.

Hayboxes got their name from the fact that early versions often used a box filled with hay for heat retention cooking; sometimes they were buried in the ground for another layer of insulation. Although they have been around for many years (medieval cooks used them), hayboxes became popular again in the modern age during World War II to conserve rationed fuel.

Wonderbag instructions
Hikers and backpackers have used a variant of a haybox for years, starting up a soup in the morning, placing it in a sleeping bag or other insulator during the day, then coming back to a hot meal at the end of the day. In Asia, thermal cookers (like a haybox, but with more modern insulating materials) have become very popular in recent years. And insulated cooking bags like the Wonderbag are now being distributed in Africa to improve conditions for third-world families there.

The biggest advantage of haybox cooking is that it can save significant amounts of fuel. Fuel is only used for the initial heating, not the whole cooking time.This is a huge advantage in an extended emergency or power outage when alternative fuel sources (like propane) are limited and will not last that long.

Another advantage is that the prolonged cooking makes for more tender meat and better flavor, which is why Cantonese cuisines in particular favor thermal cookers. In addition, haybox cooking can lessen exposure to smoke and toxic fumes from cooking fires, which can be a significant advantage in third-world countries. It also saves water because less water evaporates out of the dish, another advantage during an emergency when drinkable water may be scarce.

The disadvantage of haybox cooking is that it takes a long time. Cooking a soup or stew usually takes about 3x the amount of time it would take on a stove. This means you have to plan ahead and there is less instant gratification when you are hungry. However, it also means that you can start dinner in the morning, leave it to cook while you do other tasks, and then come back to a hot dinner. There's no need for someone to stand around and tend the fire or stir the pot.

A potential disadvantage of haybox cooking is food safety. It's not always easy to know when meat is cooked enough to remove from a primary heat source and put into the haybox to finish cooking. And if the food is left in the haybox too long, it may eventually cool out of the safety zone and bacteria could start to grow.

As a result, you might want to ensure that any meat you use is cut into smaller pieces and cooked pretty thoroughly before transferring it to the haybox, and that you leave the food for several hours in the haybox to be sure it is thoroughly cooked. If you are uncertain about its safety, you may want to use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature before eating. If the food has cooled a bit, you may want to re-heat the food to the boiling point before serving it. There are guidelines for pre-cooking times available in some thermal cooking kits that may help you to feel more secure with this process. As long as you use common sense, it should work fine. 
You can make your own haybox, or you can buy a pre-made bag or thermal cooker. Professional vacuum thermal cookers are quite expensive ($150-200) but are extremely efficient.

Wonderbags can be bought for around $50 and the nice part is that one will be donated to a third-world country as part of the price of your purchase. Or if you are handy, you can sew your own version.

Hayboxes can be made very cheaply out of a box and materials you may have around your home but may not be quite as efficient as professionally-produced ones. In a pinch, you use a picnic cooler and some wool blankets or quilts around a good metal pot, but better ones take a little more construction.

If you want to make your own haybox, choose a box that is somewhat larger than the pot you will be using. Line it with paper, tinfoil, emergency survival blankets, or other similar material if it has any gaps. Or use a picnic cooler or ice chest box, since that is already quite well-insulated.

Image from Fireless Cooking, link below
Some people even make boxes with openings for two separate pots, so they can cook multiple dishes at once. A hall bench or toy box might be adaptable for this purpose.

Once you have your box, fill it part-way with insulating materials. Choose materials that will trap air for more efficient heating, like hay, shredded newspaper, Styrofoam packing materials, cotton batting from furniture or pillows, quilts, wool, moss, or sawdust. Don't pack the materials in super-tightly; it is the air pockets that are the key to the insulation, as in a down quilt.

Hollow a spot in the insulation for the pot, then line the whole thing with a piece of fabric, stapled to the walls or outside. This will help keep the insulating materials from accidentally getting into your food. Then fill a pillowcase with insulating materials to go around the top of the pot. The fit should be snug around the pot but enable the top to close without any gaps.

Choose a pot that will maximize heat retention, like cast iron, copper, or steel. A cast-iron kettle (like you'd use for camping) is perfect for the task. Use a pot with a short handle and a tight-fitting lid; simmer with the lid on so the lid is pre-heated too before transferring it to the haybox.

Image from Wikimedia
Soups and stews are perfect for haybox cooking, as are beans, grains, and similar foods. Or you can cook breakfast cereals overnight in a haybox and have a hot breakfast ready in the morning immediately upon rising. You can also pre-heat water overnight for tea or hot chocolate, which is nice quick warm-up in the morning if the power is out and the house is cold.

Recipes for haybox cooking can be found here, here, or here. Remember that because you are cooking with retained heat and steam, there is less evaporation during cooking, so use slightly less water in your recipes than normal.

There is a book from 1913 on Fireless Cooking that can be downloaded for free from an archive because it is no longer under copyright. It has detailed instructions and recipes that can be used for different types of hayboxes, including the double-haybox seen above.

Solar Ovens

Image from Wikimedia
Solar cookers are a great resource for truly "powerless" cooking. Like a haybox, you start them cooking in the morning, and your meal is waiting for you that evening.

There are several different kinds of solar cookers, from solar box cookers to parabolic cookers to solar panel cookers. To learn more about solar cookers, click here or here.

The advantage of solar ovens is that they use NO fuels at all, just the free power of the sun. In a long-term power outage, they are probably the most useful method of cooking available because you'll never run out of fuel. You can still cook, even if you are all out of propane, Butane, Sterno, and firewood. In addition, solar ovens can pasteurize water as well, making it safe to drink without using any fuel or chemicals.

The disadvantage of solar ovens is that they depend on having enough sun. In some areas of the world, that's a challenge. And of course, they can only cook during the daytime, not at night.

And even when you do have sun, the angle of the sun changes throughout the day. Therefore, solar ovens work best when someone is around to change the angle of the solar oven periodically throughout the day in response to the path of the sun. That may not be practical, especially in an emergency situation. However, on a good sunny day, most meals will cook just fine even without optimal sun angles. It is only on partly-sunny days that babysitting the solar oven may be important.

Professional-quality solar ovens can be pricey. They are worth the money if you have abundant sun in your area and might be able to use it frequently. However, a less-efficient version can also be made from scratch. Here is a video of one you can make yourself for about $5.

A homemade solar oven is worth making if you might use it only occasionally. However, the well-engineered and super-efficient professionally-produced ovens are worth the price if you plan to use them regularly or if you don't have enough money for a large stash of alternative fuels. You can find a comparison of many different solar oven brands here.

Because solar ovens are dependent on having decent sunshine, it is important to have other back-up cooking options for times when sunshine is not available. However, solar ovens are so versatile that they are an excellent addition to emergency cooking choices if you live in a high-sunshine area of the world.


There are many ways you can cook during a power outage or other emergency.

It is best to have several cooking options available to you so that you are not dependent on any one method.

A Sterno or Butane stove is probably the most desirable because you can re-heat and cook safely inside during bad weather  or at night. You don't want to have to stand on your back patio in freezing weather or pouring rain in order to feed your family. Although much of your cooking will probably be done outside with other sources, you do want to have an indoor option for when conditions are not hospitable.

Next most handy might be a camp stove or a rocket stove. This will probably be your first choice for outside cooking during the day and when conditions are good. Combine that with a haybox (start it on the camp or rocket stove, then finish it in the haybox), and you can stretch your fuel reserves most efficiently.

Additional options include campfires, fireplaces, backyard BBQs, and solar ovens. Which is most useful to you depends on your unique circumstances. Develop a plan that addresses your situation and gives you several options to choose from.

In addition to cooking equipment, there are other things you need for cooking without power.

For example, if you are planning on re-heating canned foods, don't forget to have a couple of manual can-openers on hand. Have plenty of batteries to power flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns so you can see to cook when it gets dark.

Consider having disposable dishes on hand too. Although it's wasteful to use paper cups and plates in everyday life, using them in an emergency is only common sense. Paper plates are burnable and won't require you to use up precious fuel or waste potable water for dish-washing. A dollar store is often a good, cheap source for paper supplies like this.

In order to fix meals without power, remember that you will also need to have a good reserve of drinkable water. Soups and stews are the best recipes for emergencies but need lots of water, and any freeze-dried or dehydrated foods need water for reconstitution. Most experts recommend at least 1 gallon per day for each member of the family just for drinking; you may need a bit more for cooking as well. Store enough for pets too.

5-gallon or 7-gallon portable camping containers work well for storing water reserves. Store enough for at least 3 days at a BARE minimum; 1-2 weeks is a much more sensible amount. Then have a way to filter and purify water so that if your emergency goes on longer than a week or two, you can make other water safe to drink.

Use your fuel sensibly. If you are already heating up food, boil some water at the same time and put it into some good thermoses for later use. Wrap the thermos in insulating material (like a tea cozy) to help it keep warm longer. Use the heat to fill hot water bottles or make heated bricks, which can help keep you sleep warmer too. If you are going to burn fuel, make it work in as many ways as possible for you.

Finally, think through the potential emergencies in your area and how long it might take to get help. Although most power outages last only a few hours to a couple of days, many areas of first-world countries have had to go weeks or even months without power at times. Have enough food and water reserves and a multitude of creative ways to cook so that you could last that long if needed. Don't rely on only one method; have several possibilities ready so that you have back-up if one type of fuel runs out or doesn't work. Or as some people put it, "Have back-ups for your back-ups."

Being ready to feed your family without power is all about creativity, having a good food and water reserve, and having multiple cooking options available to choose from.

Other Information and Resources


Anonymous said...

Excellent article, will bookmark! I would like to add, however:

*Practice with your emergency cooker when there is no emergency. Get comfortable with using it. Piling a learning curve on top of an emergency situation doesn't help matters, and ruining a meal when you are living on your emergency stockpile is not good.

*Be sure you know what acceptable emergency fuel even is. Quite a few things that will burn should not be burned in a cookfire, because the smoke they give off is toxic! Rule of thumb: If it's plastic, or you think there might be some kind of plastic coating on it, don't burn it in your cookfire. Don't burn it in an indoor fireplace either. Burning garbage is good hygiene, but do it outdoors in a firepit or barrel that is dedicated to burning trash.

Well-Rounded Mama said...

Great point, anonymous! They won't do you any good if you can't figure out how to use them in a power outage!

Here are a couple more resources:

Mich said...

This is an extension to your MREs.

I've used something called 5 Minute Meals. They come with a pre-cooked meal in a plastic tray, a styrofoam tray, a chemical pack, salt water bag, and big bag. You pour the salt water on the chemical pack, creating a reaction that has loads of heat. You should have the tray and food already arranged inside the bigger bag so that when you pour the salt water on, you can tie the bag up, with a medium sized hole so that the bag doesn't explode.

Here's one with links to others:

They're truly amazing, and come in more varieties now, and there is also a Kosher company that makes similar ones. So you can have spaghetti, lasagna, beef dishes, turkey dinner with the fixin's, in a quick mode. I think it would be great for family meals in these emergencies since one package is quite filling. They even come with the salt & pepper, and fork and knife, and napkin.

The 2 that I had to eat, we won as a door prize at a camping event, so you can probably find them at camping stores or trailer dealers, like Bucars, Woody's, Camping World, etc.

We won ours and it was several years before I ate them, but the Q&A on amazon says they last 4 yrs or longer, since they are cooked and then vacuum packed. I'm surprised these are not more well known!

One caveat though: only delivers to the 48 mainland states with these, but the camping stores should be able to get some, since the ones I ate had come from local shops here in Canada. But if you do find some, and your area is prone to power loss, stock up!