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.
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.
Large water containers like the Aqua-Tainer hold several gallons and are convenient for storage. The handle makes it easy to move in case you have to evacuate, and the included spigot works as a great stand-in for your regular kitchen faucet.
Did you know that water can go flat? It’s true! If you’re going to drink water that’s been stored for awhile, first pour it back and forth between two glasses to aerate the water and make it taste better.
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.
Pro Tip:Dehydrated food is a great option if you think you may have to evacuate. It’s lightweight and there are a variety of tasty freeze-dried meals available, but be sure to include extra water in your emergency supplies to rehydrate it.
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 candle-heated warming tray. An inexpensive disposable chafing dish set makes for a quick and easy cleanup.
You can cook canned food in the can, but take care to wash the can thoroughly first to get rid of any lingering germs or bacteria, and make sure the can is open during cooking to allow steam to escape.
Where there’s cooking, there must be cleaning, so be sure to keep your cooking utensils and eating utensils clean. Store an extra box of garbage bags with your food storage so you can keep your living space sanitary and dispose of empty containers and leftover food, preferably outside.
Emergencies typically happen in the middle of normal life, without warning, so you’ll probably have perishable food in your fridge and freezer that may still be edible if the power goes out. Obviously, you’ll want to eat that stuff first, but how do you know if it’s still good?
Think ahead: before disaster strikes, freeze a jar of water and put a coin on top of the ice. If your power goes out and you’re not sure how long it’s been out, check the coin in the jar. If the coin is where you left it, the ice stayed frozen, which means that your food did too. But if the coin is at the bottom of the jar, even if the water has re-frozen, it means the power was out long enough for the water to melt. That means your food didn’t stay frozen either, so it’s not safe to eat.
If you know when the power went out, set a timer for four hours from the blackout. That’s how long your fridge will stay cold enough to preserve your food, as long as you don’t open it. If you’re not sure, check your refrigerator’s thermometer. It will still keep working even without power, and as long as it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the food is safe to eat. Try to avoid opening the fridge as much as possible to keep the cold air in, and store food closer together to help it stay cold longer.
It’s a good idea to know where to buy dry ice in case of a power outage, because 25 pounds of dry ice can keep your fridge cold enough for food preservation for two to four days. Just make sure to use thick gloves when handling dry ice, and keep your vehicle well ventilated when transporting it.
Emergency food safety isn’t limited to items in your fridge and freezer—despite the name, nonperishable food can also perish, and you can too from eating it if you’re not careful. Don’t eat food from cans that are damaged (rusted, swollen, dented, etc.) even if the food inside looks okay. Store all your food in airtight containers to keep it safe from rodents and other pests. Dry canned food will be good for only 10–15 days after it’s been opened.
If your home has been impacted by a flood, anything that has come into contact with floodwaters should be tossed out, with the exception of undamaged commercially-canned food. But before you eat anything from these cans, you should thoroughly disinfect them by washing with warm water and soap and then either putting them in boiling water for two minutes or sanitizing them with a bleach and water solution for fifteen minutes. Eat the food in these cans as soon as possible.
Fires pose their own food hazards, as dangerous fumes can poison food, even if it’s been stored in a fridge or freezer. If you’ve had a fire, it’s best to discard any food that could have been affected.
The best rule of thumb for food safety? “When in doubt, throw it out.” Food poisoning is a far riskier proposition than hunger, so always play it safe and ditch any food that is questionable.
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. Can rotators keep the oldest food at the front of your pantry shelf, so you’re always using the oldest items first and ensuring a healthy food rotation. Aim to make one meal a week using your emergency food storage and replenish it with each shopping trip.
Emergency food planning isn’t just about big bags of wheat and giant water drums—it’s about real life, and the more you can incorporate it into your daily life, the better. Start with the basics and before you know it, you’ll be ready for anything.
Kasey is a trained Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member and a freelance writer with expertise in emergency preparedness and security. As the mother of four kids, including two teens, Kasey knows the safety concerns parents face as they raise tech-savvy kids in a connected world, and she loves to research the latest security options for her own family and for SafeWise readers. Learn more