Guide to Eating Healthy in an Emergency
In the case of a hurricane or tropical storm, your family’s physical safety is your first concern, so it’s important for you to prepare an emergency plan in advance. But even if your home is not directly hit by a storm, your neighborhood or community could be affected for several days or longer by power outages, blocked roads, and damage to grocery stores, gas stations, and other businesses.
Hurricane disaster experts with the National Hurricane Center, the Red Cross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency advise each household to put together a preparedness kit that includes such basics as a flashlight, a radio, batteries, maps, a first-aid kit, a manual can opener, medications — and, of course, food and water. But exactly what foods should be included?
Healthy Meal Plans
Every household should stock up on healthy, easy-to-store food items, but it’s especially important to include diet-specific foods for any family members who have high blood pressure, diabetes, gluten allergy (celiac disease), or another health condition that requires a special menu.
Read the shopping lists and sample menus below for choices that can help your family eat healthfully during an emergency; these lists include options for those with diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart condition, food allergies, and more.
Hurricane Healthy Meals Kit
To start, plan to create a “hurricane healthy meals kit” that includes essential nutrients from three of the five food groups, says Stacey Whittle, a registered dietitian and co-owner of Healthy by Design Nutrition Specialists, in Santa Monica, Calif. “The most important group is protein, then vegetables and fruits, and then so-called fillers, or starchy items.” A balanced meal would include something from each group.
In an emergency, the top priority is to get enough calories and stay hydrated. “You need to stay fueled and focused and not get sick,” Whittle says. She suggests that the hurricane healthy meals plan provide three meals a day, spread out as evenly as possible. Each meal should have a protein source as its main component, as well as something from each of the other major food groups.
Shelf life is another consideration. “Keep foods that require little or no cooking, water, or refrigeration, in case utilities are disrupted,” says Mitali Shah, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical and research dietitian at Boston Medical Center’s Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes, Nutrition, and Weight Management.
“Plan to have at least a three-day supply of food on hand,” she says. “Canned foods and dry mixes will remain fresh for about two years, but date all food items, and use and replace food before it loses freshness.”
While you’re stocking your pantry, remember to include plastic utensils, paper plates and cups, and cooking fuel, such as canned sterno or propane for a camp stove.
Healthy Proteins: Canned tuna, chicken, and salmon are healthy protein choices, with a portion size equaling half of one can. Other good proteins include beans, boxed tofu, nuts, seeds, and nut butters.
Pick “superfood” proteins and you’ll get the added nutritional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids, says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. “Sardines or?tuna fish packed in water, salmon packed in its own juices, and walnuts all have protein plus omega-3s, DHA, and EPA,” she says.
Low-sodium canned goods are necessary for those who have high blood pressure, plus they’re a better choice for all family members because salty foods can cause excessive thirst, and water for drinking may be limited in an emergency. “If you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, you can rinse the canned food in a colander before eating it,” says Shah.
Protein powder is another excellent source, since it can be mixed with water and provides good nutrition and filling calories, says Whittle. Lactose-free, gluten-free, and rice-based protein powders are available for those who have dietary restrictions; whey protein and soy protein are also available. “Protein powders can be hard to mix without an electric blender,” Whittle says, “so your kit should include a BlenderBottle, a plastic container with a wire whisk for mixing.” Two protein shakes and a serving of tuna or beans would provide sufficient protein for a day.
Healthy Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables have a high fiber and water content — important for maintaining digestive health — so be sure to have these foods on hand. Eat any fresh fruit and vegetables first. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a good second choice, and if power is lost, they’ll keep in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours.
Canned foods are generally a less nutritious option than fresh and frozen foods, but Apovian recommends that you include unsweetened canned fruit, shelf-stable applesauce, and dried fruit in your healthy meals kit.
As always with canned food, throw out any cans with damaged seals or dents, which can pose a danger of botulism. And remember to put a manual can opener in your kit.
Healthy Fillers: It’s important to include starches in a balanced meal. The potatoes in your refrigerator drawer are actually edible raw; in addition, they’re a good source of potassium. Dehydrated potatoes are another option. “They have added milk and butter, so you only need water to make mashed potatoes,” says Shah.
High-fiber, low-sugar cereals can be stored for a long time, and fortified cereals — those with added vitamins and nutrients — will help you and your family meet your daily nutritional requirements. Crackers are a good staple to have on hand, but choose a high-fiber, low-sodium option, such as rye crisps. Rice cakes are another nutritious choice — they’re good eaten with nut butters.
Whittle recommends energy bars as “fillers” because they offer a lot of healthy calories in a small package. Her pick for the hurricane healthy meals kit is Larabars: “an across-the-board bar which would suit pretty much everyone.” Larabars are vegan, have no gluten, and are packaged to last up to a year. For diabetics, Whittle recommends ExtendBars, which are available in a low-sugar (10 grams) version, and a little-to-no-sugar (0–1 gram) version; both bars are low on the glycemic index (GI).
If you are without power for longer than two hours, perishable food in your freezer will be safe to eat for up to 24 hours if the freezer is half full, according to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If the freezer is full, food will last as long as 48 hours. Packing items close together in your refrigerator and freezer and keeping the doors closed as much as possible will help food stay cold longer.
Thawed frozen fruits should not be eaten if mold, a yeasty smell, or sliminess develops; thawed frozen vegetables can be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for a maximum of six hours, according to FoodSafety.gov, a Web site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site also advises that fruits and vegetables be washed in clean water and dried before storing.
More guidelines on food safety are available on the In an Emergency page on FoodSafety.gov and on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site. Both sites offer printable charts that list the shelf life of commonly refrigerated foods. “It’s one of those things that needs to go on the refrigerator as the ’emergency reference food checklist’,” says Shah.
The CDC recommends packing such items as dairy products, meats, eggs, and spoilable leftovers in a cooler or chest filled with ice. A food thermometer should be included in your hurricane healthy meals kit — it can be used to test foods requiring refrigeration. If such foods reach a temperature of more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, they should not be eaten. “Remember to never taste food to determine its safety,” cautions Shah.
Eating Well When the Power Goes Out
If you end up losing power, these healthy meals can be prepared without a heating source:
- Bowl of dry cereal w/ canned evaporated skim milk or milk from a cooler with ice
- Nutrition bar with canned fruit or apple sauce
- Nut butter sandwich (or with crackers)
- Tuna/chicken/salmon salad (with mayo from a cooler with ice or a balsamic vinegar dressing) on bread or crackers
- Bean salad (mix of canned beans) dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings
- Pre-prepared soup (from a thermos)
- Rice and beans with vegetables (if you know a blizzard is coming, make rice ahead of time)