Cyclone Gabrielle: What to eat when you're hunkering down

Stock image of leftovers in the fridge
Cold baked beans? Date and cheese sandwiches? In an emergency, break glass and make the best of it, says Christchurch food writer Sarah Burtscher. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Lucy Corry of RNZ

Cold baked beans? Date and cheese sandwiches? In an emergency, break glass and make the best of it, says Christchurch food writer Sarah Burtscher.

"It's all about using what you've got," she says. "In a real emergency, if you've got no time to prepare, you have to do what you can."

Thanks to geography, Burtscher is well-practised at coping with cooking in emergency situations. They've included the Christchurch earthquakes ("it doesn't matter what's in your pantry if it all falls out and smashes") and being trapped on a high-country farm for three days in a snowstorm.

She says high-energy foods are key in stressful circumstances - and they don't have to be fancy.

"It can be scary when you've got little kids and you're not sure what to feed them.

"Chocolate, peanut butter sandwiches, honey on crackers, it's all about using what you've got.

"If the power is out, cold baked beans are fine with grated cheese on top. Use the syrup from canned fruit on your muesli or cereal instead of milk. And dried fruit is really useful. Chopped dates and grated cheese are great in a sandwich."

She recommends cooking up perishable goods while you still have power (try this Forgotten Vegetable Soup or cook up pasta and make it into a salad with canned or fresh vegetables). Being militant about opening and shutting the fridge or freezer is also crucial.

"Food will start deteriorating in your fridge about four hours after the power goes out. Food in the freezer will last for about 24 hours - but that's only if you open and close it very quickly once or twice."

Burtscher relies on the sniff test ("if anything smells doubtful, don't risk it") to avoid adding food poisoning to a list of emergency woes. New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general Vince Arbuckle also advises a commonsense approach.

"Eat foods with use-by and best-before dates first because they spoil more quickly than non-perishable food. This includes things like bread, unfrozen meat, salads, cold cuts and dairy products.

To keep food cool and frozen while the power is out, Arbuckle suggests putting the things you plan to eat and drink over the next few hours in a chilly bin with ice or frozen ice packs, to minimise opening the fridge or freezer.

When the power comes back on, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) recommends checking all chilled food for any changes. If items smell or look different, or have changed texture, they're probably unsafe to eat. Defrosted food can be eaten as long as it has been kept cold. It shouldn't be re-frozen (but visibly frozen and unopened food can be).

King Country project manager Bruce Maunsell reckons the last few years have given New Zealanders plenty of time to practise their emergency preparedness. Civil Defence advice is to stock up on "long-lasting food that doesn't need cooking (unless you have a camping stove or gas barbecue) and food for babies and pets". Maunsell, who is currently preparing for a long-distance solo sailing trip to Japan, says readiness on land and sea is all about planning.

"In the King Country we live 40 minutes from town so we're always mindful of our water and food supplies. We're lucky because there's always wild food around here, and in terms of myself and my family, we have water containers, camping gear and gas cookers that we can break out if we need to."

If you're not keen on Burtscher's cold baked beans and cheese, Maunsell says Asian grocery stores are a goldmine of dehydrated vegetables and other versatile ingredients to make emergency rations more palatable.

"A kimchi and cheese toasted sandwich made on a gas cooker is just beautiful."