If the phrase “emergency food storage” makes you think of hundreds of five-gallon buckets of wheat stacked in an underground bunker, you’re not alone. Many people feel overwhelmed by the idea of emergency food planning—what kinds of items should you stock? How much do you really need? And what exactly do you do with all that wheat?
The good news is that you can start small with just a few basics and work your way up to a fully stocked emergency food pantry. Read on to find out how to stash your food supply the smart way.
How to Get Started
When thinking about how to keep your long-term food storage, consider the kind of emergency you’re likely to encounter. If you live in an earthquake zone, you probably won’t want a bunch of glass jars on a high shelf in your pantry. If you live in a flood zone, storing your food supply in cardboard boxes on a ground floor probably isn’t your best bet. And if you think you might have to evacuate, you’ll want to avoid heavy cans.
Once you’ve chosen a smart spot for your food storage, it’s time to plan what you’ll put in it.
The Essentials for Emergency Food Planning
Protein bars and fancy freeze-dried foods might help you feel more prepared, but when it comes to real preparedness, remember one essential item: water. You can survive for more than three weeks without food, but you’ll need clean drinking water if you want to live for more than a few days.
Aim to store at least one gallon of water per person per day. No, you’re not going to chug a full gallon each day—you’ll also need water for cleaning and cooking. To store your water, avoid clear containers and keep your water containers away from sunlight to avoid bacteria growth. Store them in a dark, cool place, like in the back of a pantry.
Some temperature fluctuations are okay, but keep water storage containers off cement floors. Plastic can absorb odors and chemicals, and you really don’t want to be drinking the stuff that’s on your garage floor.
Once you feel good about the amount of water you have stored, it’s time to make a plan for your food supply. While buying grains like wheat, rice, and oats in bulk might seem like an appealing (and affordable) option for building your emergency food storage, it’s best to take that route only if you know how to use those foods and are comfortable cooking them. You don’t want to be stuck in an emergency situation with a five-gallon bucket of wheat and not have the slightest idea how to prepare it.
Instead, think about snacks and recipes for foods that you and your family already eat and enjoy, and ask yourself these questions: Can you store it without refrigeration? Can you eat it without cooking it? Is it easy to prepare? (Keep in mind that you can make shelf-stable substitutions for many fresh items that you might typically use in a recipe, like powdered milk or canned meat.)
If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then add it to the list for your emergency food storage because it’s a great choice. Emergencies are stressful and familiar foods are the perfect place to start. The fewer surprises you have in a disaster situation, the better.
As you decide what to buy, think about dietary needs. Try to strike a good balance between carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, protein, and dairy, and be sure to consider any dietary restrictions that you or your family members may have. The last thing you need in an emergency is someone getting sick. And don’t forget to make a food plan for babies and pets—they need to eat too!
If you’re still a little iffy on what foods are good for emergency food storage, here are a few more ideas.
Easy, grab-and-go foods:
Beef jerky and dried meat
Foods for hot meals:
Canned meat (chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon)
Dried soup mix
If you know a natural disaster is coming, you can also buy fresh foods that don’t need refrigeration, like apples, bananas, citrus fruits, and avocados.
Don’t forget to also store sauces like salad dressing, barbecue sauce, and ketchup to add flavor to meals—but purchase them in smaller containers, because you may not be able to refrigerate a container after you’ve opened it. Extra salt, pepper, spices, honey, and sugar are also good to keep on hand.
If you’re planning to do some cooking with your food storage, store some vegetable oil, olive oil, or cooking spray to keep you out of a sticky situation. Don’t forget to keep a can opener and scissors on hand to open pesky packages.
Cast Iron Dish Warmer
You can safely eat food from a can without heating it, but you probably won’t want to live on cold food in a long-term disaster, so you’ll need to make a plan for cooking. Outdoor cooking devices, like propane stoves, grills, and campfires are a convenient way to cook, but they’re dependent on good weather. Under no circumstances should you ever use an outdoor cooking device inside.
If you have to cook indoors, use a fireplace. Ideally, your emergency food kit will contain food that needs only to be warmed, not cooked. For warming, you can use a fondue pot, chafing dish or
If your power gets knocked out by a snowstorm or ice storm, you might be tempted to put food outside in the snow to keep it cold, but outdoor temperatures can fluctuate, and your food can get easily contaminated outside. Instead, use the cold outdoor temperatures to make ice to put in your freezer to keep things cold.
Should I buy food preserved in cans or in Mylar bags?
Both cans and Mylar bags provide a long shelf life for prepackaged foods, so the one you choose is really a personal preference. Mylar bags are easier to pack and transport, and they usually have smaller serving sizes. Cans are heavier and not as easy to move, but the food inside will stay good longer than food stored in Mylar bags.
In addition to food and water, what other items should I have on hand for emergency preparedness?
First aid supplies, a weather radio, lights, tools, extra clothing, cash, and important documents are all good items to add to your emergency supply kit. If you think you’ll need to evacuate, a backpack (a.k.a. bug-out bag) is a good item to keep in your car.
How do I rotate my food storage?
The best way to rotate your food storage is to regularly use it. If you’ve stocked items that your family already eats every day, it shouldn’t be hard to do.