Hurricane Harvey has displaced and plagued thousands of Texas residents to such a degree that the simple act of preparing a meal is proving difficult. Most grocery stores in the deeply affected areas are completely out of milk, produce, and other perishable goods; and as of earlier this week, 280,000 customers in the affected area still didn’t have power. While flood victims and emergency responders have the opportunity to eat food prepared by generous grassroots groups, shelters, and some larger businesses, many people in the area are stuck in their homes living off of the minimal shelf-stable canned and frozen foods available at the store (if their stores are even open) and in their pantries.
Cooking breakfast may sound like the last thing anyone wants to worry about during the aftermath of a storm, especially if you’re without power. But even without access to groceries, you don’t have to resort to eating cold beans from a can. A good meal may be a simple thing, but if it makes someone feel a bit more nourished in the midst of disaster, it’s done its job. Here are some tips for how to eat and cook with limited groceries and power.
Firstly, if your home has been exposed to any flood water, make sure your kitchen is sanitized. If you suspect your water source may have been contaminated, get it tested, and boil or use bottled water in the meantime. If water has touched any pantry items, know you can boil or bleach all-metal cans and retort packages, but anything else (even food with screw-on lids or food with pop tops) should be thrown away.
If you’ve lost power, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. The FDA says a typical refrigerator will keep food cold (and therefore safe to eat) for 4 hours, and a freezer will keep food for 24-48 hours depending on how full it is. While it’s pretty hard to salvage frozen food without power, many fridge items can be saved. Just know that if you have produce, milk, cheese, or yogurt, they will spoil quickly, and should be eaten within those first few hours. You can make:
Salad: Mix any greens with chopped vegetables, grated cheese, and a can of beans (or lentils or chickpeas.) tossed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing, thickened with mustard if you have it.
Sandwiches: Use any leftover cold cuts, cheese, and vegetables before they spoil, spreading the bread with mayo, mustard, hot sauce, or hummus. When you run out of meat, cheese, and vegetables, turn to a classic PB&J.
Muesli: Mix 1 part any milk (from the fridge just after power goes out, or shelf-stable, non-dairy, or powdered) and ½ part yogurt with 2 parts oats, cinnamon, and dried fruit if you have it. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes, then top with any fruit you’re trying to finish. Note that if you only have either milk or yogurt, you can still make muesli (use a bit less milk or a bit more yogurt than the aforementioned ratios.)
Overnight Oats: Mix 1 part oats and 1 part water, season with cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla extract. Top with nut butter or chopped nuts for some extra protein if you have them.
Cold Brew Coffee: Mix coarsely ground coffee with bottled water and let stand for 8 hours, then strain a few times for the smoothest cold brew.
Of course, perishables will run out or spoil quickly. Granola bars, cereal, individual applesauces, and packages of trail mix will keep you more full and energized for longer than packaged pastries and chips. Also, if they haven’t previously been opened or refrigerated, most nondairy milks (and some regular milks) are shelf-stable and sold in individual packages. Of course, powdered milk is shelf-stable for years, so if you have that, you’re in luck. If you have a grill, you have a stellar electricity-free cooking option—plunk any heavy-bottomed skillet on the grill and cook as you would over a stove, keeping in mind that grills run very hot.
If you do have power, but are still relying on limited groceries, enhance frozen and shelf-stable items available at the store with odds and ends in your pantry. You can make:
DIY Nondairy Milk: Soak 4 cups nuts in water overnight, drain, then blend with 3 cups of water until smooth. Strain, then use in coffee or recipes as you would regular milk.
Grain Bowl: If you have meat or vegetable stock on hand, use it to boil grains like rice, quinoa, or farro (pasta works too.) Not only is it more flavorful, it’s cheaper than boiling with bottled water if you’re iffy on the tap situation. When the stock is almost evaporated, stir in some frozen vegetables and top the dish with any beans and hot sauce.
Smoothie: Blend frozen fruit with ice and water, juice, or shelf-stable milk, adding a few spoonfuls of nut butter or protein powder, and a handful of frozen greens for extra nutrients.
Dairy-Free Pancakes: Use your favorite recipe or a mix you have on hand, replacing the eggs with 1 tablespoon chia or ground flaxseed mixed with 3 tablespoons water, or with 3 tablespoons of the liquid from a can of chickpeas. Replace milk with nondairy milk or water if you don’t have shelf-stable dairy milk. Add defrosted frozen berries or chocolate chips to the batter if you’d like. You can also make muffins or baked oatmeal in a similar manner.
Eggless Shakshuka: Boil canned crushed tomatoes with frozen peppers, broccoli, and greens. Season with cumin, chile powder, salt and pepper, then stir in any beans.
Hash: Cook a few frozen veggie burgers or breakfast sausages, then dice them into small chunks. Saute with potatoes if you can find them (they’re less perishable than other produce) as well as frozen corn, carrots, cauliflower, and greens.
Protein Oatmeal: Cook oats on the stove or in the microwave with water or shelf-stable milk. While the oatmeal is cooking, stir in frozen berries, cinnamon, and a few spoonfuls of protein powder and nut butter.
Bean Spread: Place any bean (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, cannellini beans, etc.) in the blender or food processor with olive oil, chile powder or cayenne, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and a splash of vinegar. This dip will also work for those without power—first, mash the beans with a fork or potato masher, then use a whisk to blend in the remaining ingredients. Spread on toast.
If you’re currently safe from the storm, consider donating to the Red Cross or the Houston Food Bank for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. You can also check out and consider making a donation to the number of organizations and individuals working to help feed those affected.