How To Store Emergency Food: 12 Essential Tips for Survival Food Storage

Andreea Draguleasa
Last Updated on June 13, 2024
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When a tornado, hurricane or other disaster strikes, there may be little — or no — time to visit a grocery store.

And while preparing for natural disasters with a survival food storage kit is key, keeping a supply for other unexpected events, such as a job loss, can also help prevent a crisis in your home.

“Food is like money in the bank,” said Paul Purcell, terrorism and natural disaster preparedness specialist and author of Disaster Prep 101. Having an ample supply on hand can help maintain your family’s well-being during the days and weeks after a disaster.

Here are 12 tips on emergency food storage to keep yourself, and those you love, well-prepared.

1. Assess Your Needs

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Determine the appropriate food supply based on the size of your family and the potential disaster scenarios that might impact you, considering both short-term disruptions and prolonged emergencies.

How much emergency food do you need? The U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggests always keeping at least a several-day supply of non-perishable food on hand for each of your family members. This is generally considered enough to hold you over in minor emergencies such as a widespread power outage or flooding.

As you stock food for your family, “only store what they’ll eat,” said Chaya Feodus of Pantry Paratus, a company specializing in kitchen self-sufficiency. For kids, keep ingredients on hand to make a few of their favorite meals. If you have pets, include items they’ll eat as well.

2. Choose the Right Foods

“It is possible to eat nutritious foods during an emergency,” said registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Look for vegetables such as green beans, carrots and mushrooms. Stock up on canned corn and beans as well. Other healthy food sources include canned tuna, chicken, salmon, shrimp and crab. Processed foods in containers such as plastic jars, bags and boxes might not have as long of a shelf life as canned goods. Still, most are good for at least a year, Krieger said. Look for items such as peanut butter, cereal, cooked rice and high-energy ready-to-eat meals.

To enhance your survival food storage plan, here are a few more suggestions from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and what they consider to be some of the best emergency foods out there:

  • Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables
  • Dry cereal or granola
  • Nuts
  • Crackers
  • Protein or fruit bars
  • Freeze-dried and dehydrated fruit
  • Non-perishable pasteurized milk or powdered milk

Pro tip: Store a can opener nearby and don’t forget about comfort foods for the entire family and powdered formula for infants.

3. Implement Cost-Effective Buying Strategies

“Buy a little bit extra each week until you build up the reserves you desire,” Purcell advised. In addition to spreading out the cost, this method will help you avoid having a large amount of food that expires at the same time. Depending on your location and situation, you might want a supply that lasts for a few weeks or months, or even longer.

4. Consider Bulk Purchasing

Buying in bulk is a common strategy in survival food storage that can also save money and reduce the number of shopping trips. However, it’s important to buy only what your family regularly consumes to prevent waste (see Tips 1 and 2 again).

If storage space is not a problem, you can also go for large quantities of inexpensive foods with a nearly unlimited shelf life, such as beans, corn and wheat. The latter should have less than 10% moisture content and is preferably stored in nitrogen-packed cans or airtight food-grade plastic containers.

5. Optimize Food Storage Locations

A vital part of emergency food storage is to divide your food supply between multiple locations within your home to mitigate risks like floods or other damage. Ideally, these locations should be cool, dry and easily accessible in an emergency.

If you have space for a large freezer to keep frozen foods, this is another good way to augment your emergency food supply. However, if there is a power outage, you’ll need a generator to keep supplying power to your freezer. Otherwise, your items will thaw and spoil fast.

Keeping a stockpile of non-perishable food items at a secondary location could provide an extra layer of protection. This can be with a close family member or the place you plan on going in the event of an emergency. This way, if the area surrounding your home gets damaged, but the other spot is unharmed, you’ll still have an emergency food supply available.

Note: Whether perishable or not, you should not store any food items in a storage unit. Storage facilities do not allow any kind of food as it can attract pests.

6. Use Proper Containers and Preservation Techniques

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Survival food storage calls for airtight containers, vacuum sealing and possibly oxygen absorbers to extend the shelf life of food. The latter come in small packs of either activated carbon or non-toxic iron powder. When placed in airtight packages of dry foods, they prevent bacterial growth and can substantially increase shelf life while preserving important vitamins, such as A, C and E.

Other methods of extending the shelf life of your emergency food supplies include dehydrating, pickling, smoking and curing.

Note: While sealed glass jars are great airtight containers, they can be quite heavy and are prone to breaking. It’s best to stick to cans and heat-sealed multi-laminate bags, aka Mylar bags.

7. Control Storage Temperature and Environment

Fluctuating temperatures could shorten the lifespan of food and extreme humidity could damage goods. To ensure your storage areas remain cool and dry, consider a mix of insulation, dehumidifiers (including silica gel packs) and programmable thermostats.

8. Practice First In, First Out (FIFO)

Rather than letting your food supply sit idly, “incorporate it into your menu now, even if it’s once a week,” Feodus suggested.

To keep items organized, set your food storage pantry up so that older items are in front. If you have a stack of canned goods, place the cans that expire first on top. As you buy more supplies, place the new goods at the back of a shelf or on the bottom of a pile. This way, you’ll know which food needs to be used next.

Some items like dried fruits, nuts and trail mixes should be rotated every 6 months to a year. Otherwise, they may spoil. Beef jerky can keep for up to two years when sealed in its original airtight packaging.

9. Schedule Regular Inventory Checks

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Make sure to monitor your food supplies and inspect them regularly. “Always check the expiration date and throw out any foods that have been damaged,” Krieger said.

You can use an app or an inventory management system to track expiration dates and food quantities. Some apps, like Home Food Storage, also track the consumption rate and help plan shopping lists based on family size. And while we love tech, it doesn’t hurt to also keep a printed inventory as a backup in case of power outages.

Food isn’t the only thing to store and check up on. Also keep a close eye on other emergency supplies such as first aid kits, flashlights, radios, extra batteries and sanitary wipes.

10. Store Sufficient Water

“Food shortages will probably mean water shortages as well,” Purcell said. To prepare, look for items that already contain water, such as canned soups.

When it comes to water itself, have gallons of it on hand, preferably commercially bottled water kept in its original containers, not to be opened until needed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross recommend “at least one gallon per person, per day and at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family”.

Roughly half of that will be for drinking, and the rest will be used for cooking and other activities, such as bathing. For animals, take into account their water needs as well.

Important: Never ration water if supplies run low. What you can do instead is reduce activity, stay cool and drink what you need, trying to find more for the next day.

11. Safeguard Your Stockpile

“Food should be kept up off the floor on a shelf, in case of flood waters, bugs or rodents,” Krieger said. The commonly recommended height is at least six inches off the floor and, to further keep food safe from pests, make sure you also store it away from walls. Avoid places with potential environmental threats like damp basements or hot attics and keep storage areas clean.

12. Ensure Easy Access During Emergencies

Last but not least, plan the layout of your food storage to ensure that it is accessible during emergencies, allowing quick and easy retrieval when every moment counts. Consider drawing a mini-map of the storage area and tape it near the entrance so that all family members can quickly find what they need.

Now You Know How To Store Emergency Food

Preparing for natural disasters by stashing away food is a lifeline and the long-term food storage techniques outlined here should put you on the right track.

Keep tabs on your tasty treasures, rotate the old with the new and tweak your plan as your family grows or changes. With these emergency food storage tips up your sleeve, you’ll be munching merrily, no matter the weather or the worry.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Andreea Draguleasa

Andreea Draguleasa showed an affinity for foreign languages and literature at an early age and started writing when she was 6. She studied journalism, advertising, and public relations at the University of Bucharest and worked as a content writer for a tourism agency and as a journalist for a magazine in the hospitality industry until 2010. After seven years as marketing manager for a Home & Deco online shop, she realized that learning something new every day brings her the most joy, so she went back to researching and writing informative articles. Through her experience traveling the world, she's picked up tips and resources she now shares on self storage solutions. When not writing about home organizing and storage, Andreea spends most of her time reading, playing video games, and spoiling her cat.
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About the SpareFoot Blog

The SpareFoot Blog offers tips about self-storage, information about storage auctions, advice about home organization, news about SpareFoot and much more.
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