30 Day Grid-Down Cooking Challenge – Lessons Learned and Fuel Usage

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Our family accepted the challenge to go for 30 days without using any electricity to cook our food. The purpose was to discover how well we might handle cooking during a power outage. We discovered some valuable lessons.

What are the most valuable lessons that we learned from cooking without power for an entire month? The most valuable lesson is that we can absolutely survive and eat quite well without electricity. We learned to use alternative cooking devices to safely cook indoors as well as outdoors.

We are going to share with you the knowledge we gained from our month of hard work. We hope these lessons will help you plan and prepare. Take them to heart and improve your emergency cooking plan.

Advanced Preparation and Skills Makes a Difference

Cooking without electricity is a skill that requires time and practice to perfect. We have actually been practicing for years and still were gifted with some failed meals and burnt offerings during this challenge.

Only time spent using your alternative cooking devices can level out the learning curve and help you find your groove. The good news is that many of the alternative cooking methods can be great hobbies such as Dutch oven cooking and backyard barbequing. A fire pit can build great family memories as you cook over the open fire. None of this has to feel, or taste like, hard work.

Power Outage Cooking Fuel Consumption

How much fuel does it take to cook food during a power outage that lasts for 30 days? During our 30 day grid-down cooking challenge we consumed:

  • 3.5 cans of Safe Heat
  • 15.5 butane cartridges
  • 6 buckets kindling
  • 0.5 gallon propane
  • 70 tea lights
  • 191 charcoal briquettes
  • 0.07 cords (9 cubic feet) of split wood

We also took advantage of retained heat cooking and sunshine to stretch our fuel supply.

Diversify Your Fuel Supply

It is important to have a variety of fuels so that you can safely cook indoors as well as outdoors. Our 30 day grid-down cooking challenge helped us to quantify the approximate amount of fuel we may need to cook during a month-long power outage.

Cooking Fuel Consumption Variables

There is not an exact science to determine exactly how much fuel you should store for emergency cooking. There are many variables to take into consideration including:

  • Type of foods on the menu – cooking time varies with freeze-dried, canned foods, or dry grains and beans.
  • Specific fuel and cooking device – efficiency varies with individual cooking devices and fuel.
  • The number of people – cooking for one person, a family, or a neighborhood.
  • Weather conditions – cold and wind will affect fuel consumption.
  • Conservation techniques – retained heat cooking, pressure cooking, and solar cooking all help stretch your fuel supplies.

We consider all of those variables, then throw in the fact that we don’t know exactly how long a power outage will last. Our personal goal is to have enough fuel to take care of the needs of our family for at least one year without power. That means we need to rely heavily upon conservation and renewable resources such as kindling and solar energy.

You can learn more about how to safely store fuel for emergencies at Where Can I Safely Store Popular Fuels for Emergencies? 

The Right Cooking Devices, Tools, and Accessories

We became highly frustrated during our challenge and went out and bought several new butane lighters because suddenly we were using the lighters several times throughout the day instead of just a couple of times a week. The ability to light a fire suddenly shot up to the very top of our priority list.

It takes more than just a Dutch oven to successfully create a meal. It takes quality charcoal, a charcoal chimney, fire starters, tongs, a lid lifter, protective gloves or mitts, and a variety of other tools. One of the most important tools is a quality butane lighter. Actually, several quality butane lighters or a lot of matches. I’m not sure that you can ever store enough fire-starting tools.

The proper tools are important not only to create a successful meal but to keep you safe. Another reason why practice is so very critical to success. You don’t know what you need if you never take your emergency cooking device out of the box. Get busy and move your planning from the “theory” stage to the “implementation” phase.

Prepare to Cook Indoors and Outdoors

You need to be able to cook indoors when the weather outside is less than desirable. Think about this. It is much more convenient to put water on to boil in the kitchen in your pajamas than it is to fire up a rocket stove in the backyard at 5 o’clock in the morning in the dark.

Cooking outside allows you to safely use a wider variety of cooking fuels. It also helps to keep the house cool in the summer. Power outages can occur at any season of the year.

Indoor cooking requires special devices and fuel to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Check out our post, Safe Indoor Emergency Cooking Solutions to learn more about cooking indoors.

Power Outage Cooking is Inconvenient

Modern conveniences are absolutely incredible. Our ancestors were forced to spend much of their time and energy preparing food for their families. We tend to take conveniences such as a microwave or a stove for granted.

Time Consuming

Cooking with alternative cooking devices almost always takes more time. More time in planning. More time in making sure the device is cooking the way you need it to. More time compensating for cold weather or fuel variables. More time because you can’t set it for 350° and come back to find it cooked to perfection 30 minutes later.

In our experience, propane, butane, and alcohol were more predictable, while wood, charcoal, and solar were much less predictable fuels for emergency cooking.

My meals are usually served with precision timing.  This month brought new variables and meals were sometimes late. Thanksgiving dinner was over an hour late. But it was incredibly delicious!

Requires Constant Tending

Working with an open flame demands close, constant attention. It is dangerous to leave any open flame unattended.

I am a huge fan of rocket stove technology. It enables you to cook using very little fuel. However, rocket stoves require someone to constantly feed the fire. It can be a great job when you have responsible children that enjoy the challenge. Not so much when you are doing everything on your own.

Advance Preparation and Work

My ability to heat something up in the microwave or in my oven takes little more effort on my part other than making sure that the power bill has been paid.

Cooking on our wood-burning cook stove requires cutting, splitting, stacking, and allowing the wood time to season. Then it has to be hauled into the house. The fire has to be started, tended, and then the ash cooled and removed. Both the wood-burning stove and chimney must be carefully maintained for safety. That is a lot of work!

Plan for the Unexpected

A power outage may be due to a downed power line, or it may be the result of an earthquake,  pandemic, or something even more devastating. When we practice for life without power, we are usually doing so with all of the other variables being constant. Chances are there will be something to throw a wrench in your plans.

Unexpected events that may impact your ability to cook in a power outage might include cooking device failure, fuel shortage, failed meals or burned food, wild weather, or more hungry people showing up at your door. What if you get sick or injured? Will you still be able to physically use the devices the way you had intended? Unfortunately, this happened to me during our challenge.

I have multiple sclerosis. I usually have the ability to function quite well within fairly normal limits. However, the final week of our challenge came with a flare-up which meant trips to the doctor, medication, and incredible weakness. Simply walking and talking became a challenge.

I could no longer physically lift a Dutch oven or stoke the wood-burning stove no matter how hard I tried. I could use the Safe Heat or butane stove but that was about it. It all worked out fine because Jonathan was able to do all of the things that I was unable to do. We make a great team.

The lesson to be learned is that life happens. Plan for times when you may not be the invincible person you are at the moment. It is possible for everyone to become sick or injured.

Best Foods for Power Outage Cooking

Cooking without electricity takes more time and effort. During our challenge, we discovered that by changing our menu, we could use less fuel and save time.

Living Without a Microwave

No working microwave meant that it took a long time to heat up leftovers. We resorted to eating cold food more often. Cold cereal, trail mix, fruit cocktail right out of the can, and peanut butter sandwiches became pretty popular during our power outage.

Simple Power Outage Menu Options

The best foods for eating during a power outage require little or no cooking. Canned foods, crackers, cold cereal, and fresh fruits and vegetables are handy items that require no cooking.

Freeze-dried foods, canned soups, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and French toast are easy to cook and don’t require much fuel.

Cooking Fuel Conservation Techniques

Fuel conservation takes on an entirely new meaning when you have a limited supply and you don’t know exactly how much you may need to outlast the power outage. These are a few of the techniques that we implemented to conserve our fuel during our grid-down cooking challenge.

Use the Right Cooking Device and Fuel for the Job

Which cooking device will do the job using the least amount of fuel? I can boil water using a can of Safe Heat or fire up the wood-burning stove. The wood-burning stove will use significantly more fuel and effort if I am just using it to boil water. However, if I am already heating the house with the stove, it only makes sense to put the kettle on top instead of using the Safe Heat.

Take Advantage of Available Solar Energy

Solar cooking takes advantage of the free energy of the sun. We used our Sun Oven to cook food during the daytime whenever weather permitted.

Cut Food Into Smaller Pieces

The smaller the piece of food the faster it will cook. Small chunks of potato will cook much faster than a whole potato. By cutting the raw foods into smaller pieces we can reduce the time it takes to complete the cooking process while conserving fuel.

Cover Food to Retain Heat While Cooking

Covering food with a lid to help decrease cooking time is pretty much a no-brainer. The lid prevents heat from escaping along with the steam and will help food cook faster, saving precious fuel in the process.

Use Thermal Cooking or Retained Heat Cooking

Thermal cooking is also known as retained heat cooking. This is a simple process where the food is brought up to temperature and transferred to an insulated box to maintain that temperature while the food continues to cook.

In our grid-down cooking challenge, we used both a commercial Cook and Carry as well as a homemade Wonder Oven retained heat cooker. My personal preference is the Cook and Carry (now sold as Shuttle Chef) because it is so easy to bring the pot up to a boil and then just transfer it to the container. I always wrap it in an additional little blanket to increase efficiency.

The Wonder Oven was great for use with the pressure cooker or when I needed to accommodate a different sized pot. To learn more about retained heat cooking visit: Retained Heat Cooking: The Secret to Stretching Your Fuel Supplies

Use a Stovetop Pressure Cooker

A stovetop pressure cooker that will pay for itself in fuel savings very quickly. I can cook dry beans in a pressure cooker in almost the same amount of time that it takes to warm up canned beans. The fuel savings can be compounded by using pressure cooking in conjunction with retained heat cooking.

Optimal fuel savings can be achieved by bringing the pressure cooker up to pressure on the stovetop and transferring the cooker to a hay box, insulated cooker, or Wonder Oven. Make sure that the rocker on the lid stays level to prevent the release of the pressure.

Safety Must Be Priority During Power Outage Cooking

The reason we prep is to keep our family safe. It is important that we don’t allow that vision to become clouded as we implement our emergency plans.

Carbon Monoxide Monitoring

We kept a carbon monoxide detector with a digital readout nearby when we cooked during this challenge.  We are pleased to report that the carbon monoxide detector never registered any levels of carbon monoxide in our home during the entire month.

We placed it near the charcoal reflector oven outside, and within just a few minutes it registered and signaled warnings for high levels. Good thing we only use charcoal outside!

Open Flame – Fire Hazard

Anytime you have an open flame you are at risk for a fire. Make sure that you keep fire extinguishers handy and that every responsible member of your household knows how to use them.

Our Grid-Down Cooking Devices

Quite frankly, we didn’t get a chance to use all of our emergency cooking devices during this challenge. One of the benefits of cooking without power for an entire month is that it allowed us to really improve our skill cooking on the alternative cooking tools we did use.

Let me give you a quick review of the devices that we did have the opportunity to use and the advantages and disadvantages of each of these devices.

Power Outage Cooking Devices for Indoor Cooking

Safely cooking indoors with alternative cooking devices can be a little bit tricky. Carbon monoxide and open flame are both significant risks that are worthy of our attention. The emergency cooking tools we used in our power outage are all rated for indoor use.

Butane Stove

The butane stove quickly became my go-to indoor cooking device. Not every butane stove is rated for indoor use. Make sure that you purchase one that is rated for indoor use. Most camping butane stoves require ventilation and may not be a safe option for indoor use.

Visit our post, Butane Stove: Portable and Convenient Power Outage Cooking to learn more about which butane stove is ideal for a short term power outage and how we used that stove in this challenge.

Advantages

If you purchase a butane stove that is rated for indoor use, it can safely be used inside as long as you understand and observe the precautions. Butane stoves ignite automatically and produce an instant hot flame. They are light and portable and can be used right on the kitchen counter.

Disadvantages

Butane cartridges can be fairly expensive, and storing large numbers of the butane cartridges can be dangerous. I think butane stoves are a fantastic option for a short term power outage but would look at a different option for a long term grid-down event.

HERC Candle Oven

The HERC candle oven surprised me at how well it was able to bake food using unscented tea lights. We baked muffins, cakes, casseroles, potatoes, and even a pizza in the HERC oven.

Advantages

The HERC oven is well-built and designed to last. Tea lights are an incredibly safe, indefinite storage fuel. We used this oven many times during our power outage challenge and no levels of carbon monoxide ever registered on our carbon monoxide detector.

It can sit directly on the countertop, although I did place it on top of a cutting board to prevent any wax from dripping on my counter. It does not produce smoke or any offensive odor while baking. The HERC XXL Oven is the perfect size for a 9” x 13” pan or a standard muffin pan.

Disadvantages

The HERC oven cooks at low temperatures and takes longer to complete the cooking process than a standard oven. It must always be attended because the paraffin can ignite and cause a small, contained fire.

Safe Heat

Safe Heat is one of my favorite indoor emergency cooking fuels. It is used in a little folding camp stove, or I use it in the base of the Kelly Kettle. It can bring a pot of soup to a low boil and simmer it. To learn more about using Safe Heat for emergency cooking visit, Canned Heat – Safe Fuel for Indoor Emergency Cooking.

Advantages

Safe Heat can be safely used indoors. I like to purchase Safe Heat in the 6-hour can in flats of 12. That provides 72 hours of cooking fuel that can be safely stored indoors next to my regular food storage. The fuel can be used and then capped until needed again.

Disadvantages

Safe Heat has a low flame and will not bring water up to a rolling boil.

Thermal Cooker or Wonder Oven

Thermal cooking or retained heat is a fantastic way to conserve fuel. To learn more about cooking with retained heat visit our post, Retained Heat Cooking: The Secret to Stretching Your Fuel Supplies.

I have a Cook and Carry that was made by Thermos. It is almost 20 years old and is still going strong. Purchasing a quality commercial thermal cooker is a great investment. Avoid cheap knockoffs or you will be disappointed.

The Wonder Oven is an example of a homemade version of a hay box or thermal cooker that uses Styrofoam beads for insulation. It is an effective tool for retained heat cooking.

Advantages

Retained heat cooking conserves energy and continues the cook the food without additional heat. It works well for liquid items such as oatmeal, soups, stews, chili, as well as for grains such as rice.

Disadvantages

Retained heat cooking does not add additional heat and will slowly lose heat over time. It will not cook a roast or any type of food that is not heated completely through.

Wood-Burning Cookstove

I love my wood-burning cookstove. It is a highly valuable preparedness tool for both heating and cooking.

Advantages

My Sweetheart cookstove has an oven so I am able to bake as well as cook on it. The surface is large, which allows me to cook several items at once.

Disadvantages

The stove heats up the house making cooking during the warmer months impractical. There is a steeper learning curve to manage the temperature in the oven than with many other emergency cooking devices.

Power Outage Cooking Devices for Outdoor Cooking

Outdoor cooking options are more abundant than those that can be used indoors. They can also be a lot of fun to use at parties and family gatherings.

Bear River Rocket Stove

The Bear River Rocket Stove is a unique grill and oven combination that is a fantastic alternative cooking device, especially for a long term grid-down event because it is fueled by a small number of sticks or debris. It is built to last.

If you are preparing for a long term grid-down event, the Bear River Rocket Stove is an investment that you may want to consider.

Advantages

Great heat distribution and the oven temperature can be managed simply by controlling the amount of fuel placed in the rockets. It has the ability to cook a lot of food at one time. The oven is huge and we were able to bake our turkey and a pie in it while simmering mashed potatoes and carrots on the grill top.

Disadvantages

The Bear River Rocket Stove is designed for outdoor use only. The rockets demand fairly constant attention to keep the three rockets burning strong.

Sun Oven

A good solar oven is a must for emergency cooking because it takes advantage of free solar energy to cook food. A solar oven works best with a UV Index of 7 or higher, but can still do some impressive cooking at a lower UV index.

Learn more about using solar energy for emergency cooking at Solar Ovens: Cooking with the Sun in an Emergency (and Every Day)

Advantages

A Sun Oven takes advantage of the abundant, free energy of the sun when the conditions are right. In general, food is cooked more slowly and retains moisture, reducing failed meals due to burning.

Disadvantages

A solar oven only works when conditions are favorable. Depending on your climate, solar cooking may or may not be a good option for you.

Propane Camp Chef

I love our propane Camp Chef and use it regularly to cook outside during the summer or for canning.  

Advantages

Propane is a fantastic cooking fuel and the flame is hot and dependable. Propane can be safely stored in tanks.

Disadvantages

The propane camp stove is for outdoor use only. Propane is heavier than air and leakage will settle to a low lying area creating an explosive hazard.

Dutch Oven

Dutch oven cooking has long been a favorite hobby for many. Learn more about using charcoal for emergency cooking on our post, Charcoal: Inexpensive Fuel for Outdoor Emergency Cooking.

Advantages

Dutch ovens are incredibly versatile and can be used for frying, baking, simmering, or just about anything else you may need to do to create a delicious meal. They are durable and can be used with charcoal, over a fire, or in an oven.

Disadvantages

Dutch ovens are large and heavy.

Apple Box Charcoal Reflector Oven

An apple box charcoal reflector oven is an amazing inexpensive homemade solution for baking in an emergency situation. Step-by-step instructions to create your own can be found at Apple Box Reflector Oven.

Advantages

Inexpensive to make and uses few charcoals to bake. It is a little bulky, but light and portable. It can be easily created out of a cardboard box and foil.

Disadvantages

The foil and cardboard box is not highly durable and has to be handled with care. It is a great short term solution but not the best option for a longer-term event. For outdoor use only.

Paper Box Charcoal Reflector Oven

A paper box charcoal reflector oven is an energy-efficient homemade solution that will let you bake foods in a 9” x 13” pan. You can find step-by-step instructions to construct your own at Paper Box Reflector Oven.

Advantages

Inexpensive to make and uses very few charcoal briquettes to bake food.

Disadvantages

The foil and cardboard box is not highly durable and has to be handled with care. It is a great short term solution but not the best option for a longer-term event. Outside use only.

Kelly Kettle

I didn’t get a chance to use the Kelly Kettle in our grid down cooking challenge outside. It is a fantastic little rocket stove that is designed to boil water or cook small amounts of food using twigs or debris. I like to use the Hobo stove as a base for Safe Heat when I cook indoors. The kettle will not work with the Safe Heat but the Hobo stove works great.

Advantages

Burns small sticks and debris to boil water or cook small amounts of food. Highly energy-efficient design. The water jacket quickly brings water to a boil.

Disadvantages

Rocket stoves can only be used outside.

30 Day Grid-Down Cooking Challenge Success

We are thrilled to announce that we made it through the entire month of November without using any electricity to cook our food. I willingly admit that I am grateful to return to my normal routine and enjoy the convenience of electricity.

This challenge taught us some great lessons that have helped us to become better prepared to cook without electricity. We have the knowledge, tools, and resources that we need to take care of the cooking needs of our family for a short term power outage as well as a long term grid-down event.  

Thanks for being part of the solution!

Jonathan and Kylene Jones
https://youtu.be/GivTu_qyBl8

Kylene

Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.