How Long Is Food Good in the Fridge Without Power?

Here's what you should toss—and what you can keep—next time there's an electrical outage.

Severe weather—monsoons, floods, and heat waves—can cause power outages. And specifically, that puts the electricity powering your refrigerator and keeping your food cool at risk.

A brief lapse in power, one lasting a few minutes, won't affect the quality of the food in your refrigerator or freezer. But what about electrical outages that last hours or days?

Generally—if you keep the doors shut—food stays good in the fridge without power for four hours. Food stays good for 24 hours in a half-full freezer and 48 hours in a completely-full freezer.

Here's everything you need to know about how long your refrigerator stays cold after losing power—including when bacteria growth becomes a threat and forces you to toss out your perishable food.

In a kitchen, a woman is looking inside her refrigerator.
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How Long Will My Fridge Stay Cold?

Without power, a refrigerator will likely remain at a safe temperature for up to four hours if the door is kept closed, Tamika Sims, PhD, senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council, told Health.

Food in your freezer stays cold for even longer, lasting for about a day if the freezer is half-full or nearly 48 hours if it's full. Where there is more food inside the freezer, it retains the cold temperature longer than if there is less food.

But don't be tempted to check on your food every few minutes. Opening up the refrigerator or freezer accelerates the temperature increase, causing your food to go bad quicker than if you keep the doors shut.

"It's crucial to keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed during power outages to maintain the cold temperature," explained Dr. Sims.

How Will I Know When Food in My Fridge Starts To Go Bad?

During a power outage, you can use the appliance thermometers inside your refrigerator and freezer to help determine whether your food is safe.

"Normally, [the] refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and the freezer should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower," said Dr. Sims. If there's not a thermometer inside the appliance to gauge the temperature, you can use a food thermometer on the individual items to determine if it's safe to eat.

While some foods, like dairy products and meats, might start to look or smell bad, you cannot always rely on your sense to determine food safety.

"For items in the freezer to be safe to refreeze or prepare for consumption, they should have an internal temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit," noted Dr. Sims. "If meats, eggs, or leftovers have been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, it's time to throw them out."

If you aren't sure whether to keep or toss your food, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides a quick guide describing when to discard various food groups.

For example, if it's been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, immediately discard lunch meat, soft cheese, milk, and yogurt. On the other hand, in that instance, you can keep hard cheese, butter and margarine, uncut fresh fruit, and breakfast foods, like waffles and pancakes.

Dr. Sims advised always erring on the side of caution. So, if you're unsure about the safety of food items that were in your refrigerator or freezer during a power outage—or anytime, for that matter—it's better to discard them and rely on shelf-stable pantry items for your meals.

But to avoid food waste, it's wise to eat perishable items—including leftovers, meat, poultry, and foods containing milk, soft cheese, cream, or sour cream—in your refrigerator first, assuming their temperatures guarantee their safety.

What To Know About Foodborne Illness

Checking the actual temperature of the food inside your refrigerator will ultimately tell you if your food is safe to eat. It's important to remember that you should never taste perishable foods to see whether they are spoiled. Any refrigerated food that sits above 40 degrees for more than four hours is prone to accumulating bacteria, which causes foodborne illness.

Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), symptoms of foodborne illness, which typically occur one to three days after eating contaminated food, include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Body aches and pains, especially near the abdominal region
  • Fever
  • Headache

People who eat contaminated food and develop foodborne illnesses usually recover shortly after. If you experience severe symptoms, like dehydration, you should consult a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

How To Keep Food From Spoiling During a Power Outage

If it's likely that your power will be out for several days, purchase dry or block ice for your refrigerator or freezer to maintain the temperature of perishable items.

If it's been longer than four hours during a power outage, move any refrigerated foods to the ice to maintain a temperature of 40 degrees. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can cook refrigerated food that you freeze below 40 degrees during a power outage.

But don't put your food outside to keep it cold, even during winter. According to the New York State Department of Health, outside temperatures cold enough for refrigerated food are still too warm for frozen food. So, even if it's very cold outside, the sun could still heat the food to a temperature that cultivates bacteria.

Keeping Food Safe Before the Power Goes Out

According to the CDC, you should always make sure that your refrigerator and freezer are at (or less than) 40 degrees and 0 degrees, respectively.

But long before a storm brews or a heatwave begins, you can take steps to maximize the lifespans of your refrigerated and frozen foods—including freezing gel packs to 40 degrees or less to cool perishable refrigerated foods and obtaining a cooler and dry or block ice to store those foods if the power outage lasts longer than four hours.

Also, per the New York State Department of Health, group frozen foods in a protective "igloo," keeping meats together on one side of the freezer or on a tray. So, if they start to thaw, their juices that may harbor bacteria won't mix with other foods. Remember, foods with high water content, such as meats or fruits, will stay frozen longer than food with low water content, like bread.

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