How Do You Handle Emergency Food Storage?

In Prepping and Preparedness by M.D. Creekmore

by Moira M

As I write this, we are in the middle of Winter Storm Jonas. There is 13″ of snow in the yard and the closest paved road is five miles away. I haven’t been off the property in five days and did not make a trip to the store to stock up for this storm. Doom and gloom time? Not really. The power was out for about 12 hours this morning. We had coffee, bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast courtesy of the propane camp stove. If necessary, we could wait here happily for the next week or two eating a variety of foods with or without electricity. I always wonder how it would be if we ever had to put our preps to actual use. So far I’m pretty pleased with how we have handled the little mini-crises we have had.

What is the best way to handle emergency food storage? The answer is different based on your situation. Your budget, your family size, your storage area, your special dietary needs, and your location all affect how you handle emergency food storage. But there are some common ideas that everyone can use.

The first rule is that anything is better than nothing. If you don’t have any food in the house, you are completely unprepared for emergencies. While some people may not believe there are people with no food in the house, consider college students (especially in dorms with meal plans for the cafeteria) and singles living in large cities. Everyone needs to have at least a three-day supply of food for something as simple as a hurricane or blizzard. Even a case of the flu could keep you stranded at your house for a few days.

Four Factors of Food Storage

It is important to consider four factors with food storage: shelf-life, calories, nutrition and morale. All four play a vital role in emergency food storage.

Commercially prepared food is usually marked with an expiration or best by date. Many people consider it safe to eat foods after the actual expiration date as long as the packaging is secure, and the food looks and smells good. If you were starving after a disaster, I’m sure you would agree. However, that would be one of the worst times to get food poisoning. Obviously, the food doesn’t instantly go bad at midnight on the date stamped on the package, but how long after is questionable and likely varies from can to can. Home processed foods may be even more in question due to the many factors that can influence the process of canning, dehydrating, sealing, etc. Choosing foods with the longest shelf life and using the oldest food, while replacing it with newer food is a good plan.

The current suggested diet in America is 2,000 calories per day for an adult. Many diets, designed to help lose weight, recommend that you not dip below 1,200 calories per day. You could possibly aim for 1,500 calories per day as long as the adults were not performing a lot of physical activity, such as waiting for a storm to subside. Those performing physical activity such as clearing debris from roads, cutting and splitting firewood, and hiking may require in excess of 2,000 calories per day. If the disaster was very short-termed then the calorie deficit would likely not matter much, but over the long-term physical problems would appear.

Everyone should be familiar with the effects malnutrition has on the body. Like calorie intake, nutrition probably doesn’t matter very much over a short-term disaster. In long-term disasters, it may matter very much. Proper nutrition is important to good health. Likely if you were unable to resupply with good food due to a long-term emergency, you would also not have access to good medical care either.

Morale is often overlooked in food storage discussions. Remember that mental health is important as well, so be sure to include items that your family likes as well as some treats as part of the supply.

How Do You Decide What to Store?

The simplest method to start storing food is to simply pick up a few extra items each time you shop. Choose items you use regularly that have a shelf life of at least one year. When you buy another of that item, you put the newest one in storage and move the older one into the cabinet for use. This has the advantage of being easy to do and allows you to take advantage of items you find on sale. However, it may result in a bunch of assorted ingredients that may not make a normal meal. Gummy bears, green beans and a tin of sardines is better than nothing, though.

Another fairly simple method is to choose one meal your family likes and on each shopping trip, purchase the ingredients to make it three times (or six, or twelve, etc.). This allows you to build a stock of complete meals that your family enjoys. It is flexible in that you can purchase as many sets of the meal as you can afford at the time. Over the course of a year, you would have several days’ worth of a variety of meals that your family likes. You may not be able to take advantage of sales as easily, but it is a pretty solid plan.

An easy, but more expensive way to amass food storage is to purchase commercially prepared freeze-dried/dehydrated meals. You’ve seen these meals in your sidebar advertising if you do an internet search for anything related to prepping. They can be found in catalogs and in the camping section of Wal-mart and sporting goods stores. You can purchase one meal or a sealed container with a multi-day, multi-person supply depending on your needs and budget. Most of these allow you to open the bag, add hot water and wait a few minutes. Those who like these meals note that they are easy, relatively light-weight, very long-term storage, and delicious. Doubters point out that they are expensive and may contain questionable ingredients for preservation.

The final food storage method I’ll address here is what I’ll call the basic ingredient method. You purchase items like flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, powdered milk, and so on. Even more basic would be hard wheat berries, dried corn or popcorn, and other grains which must be ground with a mill before use. The original items generally have a much longer storage life than a commercially prepared mix. They are versatile because you can make many things with these ingredients. The downside is that if you must store recipes unless you and everyone with you can cook from scratch without them. These items generally require more preparation, longer cooking time and perhaps more equipment compared to the simplicity of opening a can of prepared soup or adding hot water to the camper meal noted above. If you choose this method (and I recommend it as part of your plan), remember to have a trial run of the recipes from time to time. You need to make sure you have what you need. In a disaster, you can’t run to the store for milk and butter, or anything else.

My recommendation is to do all of these together and monitor your supplies to make sure you can make a variety of meals in various circumstances. A friend of ours approached food storage simply. He bought several month’s worth of rice and bouillon cubes. I will admit that this will keep bellies full. However, after a few days, I’m guessing they’ll want something other than rice and bouillon. It is great that he did something – which is again better than nothing! Now that he has taken that step, he can add more items bit by bit. Canned or dehydrated meats and vegetables, plus some sort of bread would be great additions and allow for a bit of variety in his meals.

At first, I looked down on the fancy freeze-dried meals for prepping. Who really needs easy beef stroganoff in a disaster? I can make bread from scratch, thank you very much. Then I realized that these meals are the take-out/frozen pizza night solution for an emergency. If you’ve had a busy day clearing a giant tree that fell in your yard, do you really want to make a meal from scratch? Instead, you can do something simpler and quicker, whether it is boiling pasta to serve with canned sauce or adding the boiling water to the easy beef stroganoff. I’ve tried several of these meals now, and they really are quite delicious. Say what you want about powdered eggs. These people add meat and other flavoring, and they are wonderful. It doesn’t line up with my plan to eat fewer processed foods, but there is a place for that convenience in my food storage. Using all of the methods together gives you the greatest flexibility. You get complete meals, variety and flexibility, and convenience all in your food storage.

How Is Your Food Packaged?

This is also a good time to consider how your survival food is packaged. We’ve all seen the massive containers of food in bunkers on movies. A number ten can is contains about 110 ounces of food. If you don’t have access to refrigeration, you have to eat it all before it spoils. That may be possible if there are a lot of you, but not as easy if you are a couple or small family. The small amount of money you save by buying one larger can instead of eight smaller cans really isn’t worth it at that point. Also, you can more easily transport, share or trade your supplies if they are in smaller containers. (Some of you may be thinking that you’d never share in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Remember that it may be a blizzard and your elderly neighbors ask to borrow a can or two of soup to tide them over a few days. It is probably a better idea to build neighborhood goodwill by helping and a small can says you had a little extra where a bigger can may identify you as a prepper, and thus a target, in a real disaster).

The food must be securely packaged against air, humidity and pests. If the original packaging isn’t secure, repackage the food. This allows you to break up bulk purchases into smaller portions. I love to use my FoodSaver to seal food in mason jars or in plastic bags. The sealed bags can be placed in food safe buckets to deter pests. I’ve seen a tip recently to pour salt into the bottom of the bucket before adding the sealed bags. The salt absorbs moisture and is food safe in case of ingestion. Depending on the storage condition, the salt could be used for food preservation in the future. Many people use mylar bags with vacuum sealers and/or oxygen absorbers to store food in various quantities. These mylar bags are often stored in food safe buckets as well. We’ve stored rice and other such food in clean, dry two liter bottles. There are many options. Consider what you are storing, where you are storing it, and how you’ll be using it. Do your research and actually test your methods now while you can go back to the grocery store if your plan fails.

How Do You Track Food Storage?

I prefer to use a spreadsheet. I have columns for quantity, category, description, expiration date, size, calories and total calories (quantity times calories). I have tabs for home canning, professional canning and other goods. This allows me to see how much I have of each item and calculate how many day’s worth of calories I have. I’m able to sort by expiration date and know what I need to work into the menu over the next week or so. I can review the list and see what I need to restock on the next store trip. You can use the spreadsheet to re-inventory the food storage.

You can place a printout of the inventory in your food storage area so that you can update it as you add or use items. You can also put a white board or chalk board up to note added or used items and update your spreadsheets when you have the time. If other people in the household will be getting items from your food storage, then you should make it as simple as possible for them to record updates.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you do track your food storage in some way. Be sure to use items or donate them to charity before they expire. Be able to calculate how long your food storage will stretch. You may be unhappily surprised at how fast it will go!

What Do You Need Other Than Food In Food Storage?

There are many things other than food that you may need for food storage that isn’t food:

  • Vitamins – Vitamins may be a good option in an emergency when you may not be getting the proper nutrition on a regular basis. This might be even more important for children and expecting mothers.
  • Meds – Everyone should have a good first aid kit plus medicines to treat the usual illnesses, and the best place to keep it may be with food storage. It may be helpful to at least store medicines to treat acid reflux, indigestion, and other food related problems with your food storage. Plus, burns and cuts are known to happen in normal kitchen tasks, and may be more frequent when cooking with alternative fuels and light sources.
  • Grain Mill – If you store wheat berries or corn kernels, you would use this to grind them into flour or corn meal. The wheat berries and corn kernels have a longer shelf life than flour and corn meal but naturally require more work on your part. Electric models are easier when you have power, manual are useful in power failures.
  • Meat Grinder – If you want to process meat into ground meat or sausage, this is the tool. Again, electric models are easier when you have power, manual are useful in power failures.
  • Canning Jars and Equipment – If the power fails, you may be able to salvage perishables in your refrigerator and freezer by canning them. You can use a pressure canner or water bath canner with alternative fuel sources like propane and wood fires. For really long-term disasters you would need canning jars to preserve food to last all year.
  • Dehydrator – If you have a dehydrator that you can run on alternative power, you may be able to use it to salvage refrigerator and freezer items as well. In the right weather conditions, you can dehydrate food on screens in the sunshine. Note – laying the thinly sliced food on one screen will work, but if you get a little fancier, you can hinge two framed screens together. This way bugs don’t start a conga line on your dried tomatoes.
  • Seeds – If something interrupts the supply chain you may need to grow your own food. Make sure that they are heirloom seeds so that you can use the seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year.
  • Livestock – This isn’t a possibility for some, due to where they live. I suggest starting with a few hens, which make great gateway livestock. Hens can provide fresh eggs, which is a great ongoing, fresh and nutritious food. Goats, sheep and cows can provide milk and meat. Remember that a dairy animal is a big commitment, because they must be milked once or twice a day without fail.
    Note – you do not need a rooster to get eggs. Hens lay eggs with or without a rooster. If a rooster is present, you may get fertilized eggs. This is great if you want to make more chickens, but traumatizing if your child is making brownies (maybe scarred-for-life traumatizing – I know someone who won’t eat eggs after this sort of thing and it has been thirty years). I’ve heard it said that if you refrigerate fertilized eggs on day one, nothing develops and you’ll never know the difference. It is a matter of personal preference whether to get a rooster (can make more chickens to resupply meat and eggs), or not (no additional chickens, but also no “half baby chick/half egg” and no crowing). A compromise would be two coops or a divided coop.
  • Pet food – my dogs would be ecstatic if I ran out of dog food and had to feed them people food. Other people’s dogs have allergies that would cause trouble. Lay in a supply for any household pets and livestock you have.
  • Lanterns, Oil Lamps, or Candles – If you want to cook early or late in the day, you’ll need to be able to see to cook, eat, and clean up after!
  • Paper goods – I generally avoid the waste of disposable plates, napkins, cutlery and cups. However, in an extended power outage there are times you need a break from the dishes. This is especially true if you are on a well, and have to use a generator or hand pump to get water (perhaps more so if you have to carry it from a river and filter/boil it first).

Random Tips

Practice cooking, especially with foods you store for emergencies, but really any practice is better than none. An emergency is really not the best time to learn. You may waste food you need to last through the emergency. Also, you will identify things you need to add to your food storage, such as spices, water supply, alternative cooking methods and so on.

Plan meals to reduce waste. If you don’t have access to refrigeration, only cook enough for one meal. If you can refrigerate foods (like outdoors in winter, in a sealed container in a spring or river) then plan to have vegetables, with or without meat that can be combined into a soup or stew the next day. This is good advice generally. Check your perishable food once or twice a week and plan a meal to use up produce, dairy, and leftovers before they spoil.

Include foods that don’t require cooking. If you go camping and rely on a campfire for cooking, you understand the need to have food that won’t require you to keep a fire going all day long. You may want to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter crackers, along with fruit (fresh or dried) and other such foods. This is also great for if you’ve had a long day working and just need to eat as quickly and simply as you can.

When camping, I like to keep cleanup simple. After dishing up the food, I fill an empty pot with water. This can be the cast iron Dutch oven you just made dinner in or a spare pot. When you’re finished eating, you have hot water ready to wash dishes!

What Do I Make With Food Storage?

I suggest everyone make a folder of recipes to keep with the food storage. That way you will have a custom set of recipes that you have everything to prepare (because you have been storing it, right?) and that your family likes.

Old cookbooks are great as well. They assume that you will cook with original ingredients instead of mixes. They are also less likely to include modern electrical appliances like microwaves and food processors.

How to bake over a camp fire: I use a cast iron Dutch oven. The edges of the lid are curved upwards so that coals can be added to the top for baking. Using a lid-lifter (a cast iron stick with a hook on the end) the lid can be carefully removed and replaced so that food can be checked without coals falling onto the food. Mine came with a small rack that fits inside the Dutch oven. A metal pie plate can be placed on top of the rack to create a baking atmosphere in the Dutch oven and prevent the bottom from scorching before the food has baked through. If you don’t have a rack, you can improvise  With a little practice it works very well.

Here are some recipes from my collection. Dehydrated or canned versions of various ingredients may be substituted.

Survival Bread

2 cups oats
2 1/2 cups powdered milk
1 cup sugar
3 Tbl honey
3 Tbl water
1 pkg. lemon or orange Jell-O (3oz)

Combine oats, powdered milk and sugar. In a medium pan, mix water, Jell-O and honey. Bring to a boil. Add dry ingredients. Mix well. (If the dough is too dry, add a small amount of water a teaspoon at a time.) Shape dough into a loaf. (About the size of a brick.) Place on cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Cool. Wrap in aluminum foil to store. This bread will keep indefinitely and each loaf is the daily nutrients for one adult. To prepare this over a fire, place the loaf in a pie pan on a rack inside a Dutch oven. Place over coals and move coals to the lid of the oven to bake.

Recipe Note – I had to add quite a bit of water to make this into a dough – I’d say about a half cup. Also, this could be made in a Dutch Oven over the fire if desired.


1/2 cup butter (1 stick – divided)
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup milk plus 1 Tbs. White Vinegar, let stand a few minutes; or just use the milk as-is)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
Optional – 1/3 cup sugar (I don’t put sugar in my cornbread, but some people do)

Begin by preheating the cast iron skillet over the fire while you get the cornbread mixed. Melt 6 Tbs. butter in the skillet. Keep an eye on the butter so it doesn’t scorch.

In a bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, baking soda, cornmeal, flour and salt. Pour in the melted 6 Tbs. butter from the skillet. Stir to combine thoroughly, but don’t beat.

Put the remaining 2 Tbs. butter in the skillet. Slide it around with a spoon or rotate the skillet to coat the entire bottom and about an inch up the sides. Don’t burn yourself. Once the butter is melted and the skillet coated, pour in the cornbread mixture. Put the skillet over the low coals and put the lid on. Add coals to the top. Check it after about 15 minutes. It may take up to twenty, but you don’t want to let it burn.

You may have to turn the skillet during cooking or move it to warmer/cooler spots of the coals as it cooks to maintain an even temperature. Using a lid lifter, carefully check for doneness and remove from heat when ready. See my earlier posts for a more thorough explanation of baking with cast iron.

To bake this cornbread in the oven, you follow the same recipe. Place the cast iron skillet with 2 Tbs. butter in the cold oven and preheat to 375. Mix the remaining ingredients and carefully pour into preheated skillet. Bake for 15-20 minutes until crust is lightly browned (and usually cracks will appear in the crust). You don’t use a lid on the skillet when baking in the oven.

Basic Bread

5-6 cups all purpose flour
2 packages of active dry yeast (or 4 1/2 tsp. yeast from a jar)
1 1/2 tsp. Salt
2 cups warm water (120-130 degrees)
1 slightly beaten egg white
1 Tbs. water

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of flour, the yeast, the salt and the warm water (the water is a little warmer because you are compensating for room temperature flour).Stir thoroughly to combine ingredients, scraping the edge of the bowl as you go. Continue to stir until thoroughly mixed and the gooey dough begins to pull apart in strands when you pull the spoon away. Mix in another 1-2 cups flour. You want to use as little flour as necessary to get the dough ready for kneading. You’ll add more flour as you knead and too much flour causes all kinds of problems in baking bread – tough crust, too dense bread, etc.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes. Add remaining flour a little at a time when the dough gets sticky as you knead.  Shape dough into a ball. Place dough ball in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a cloth and put in a warm place to rise.

After the dough has roughly doubled in size, punch it down (push it down with your hands) and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it in half and cover with a cloth. Allow it to rest for about 10 minutes.

If you are able to bake this bread in a Dutch oven with the pie pan on a rack arrangement, that may work best. If not, put it directly in the Dutch oven and bake it – you’ll just need to flip it half way through cooking. Bake over the fire for about 30 minutes and add more time as needed.

Chicken Corn Chowder

3-4 medium potatoes or can of potatoes
1 onion or dehydrated onion flakes
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can corn
1 can chicken (can be omitted if desired)

For fresh potatoes, boil potatoes and onion in just enough water to cover potatoes. When potatoes are tender, reduce heat to simmer and add remaining ingredients. Drain corn and chicken first, if desired to have a thicker soup. A bit of cornstarch may be added to thicken soup if desired.

If you use canned potatoes, simply add all ingredients along with all liquid from cans and simmer until warm and flavors mingle. Add a bit of cornstarch to thicken if desired.

For either recipe, add salt, pepper and garlic salt to taste.

Note that other ingredients may be substituted, depending on what is available. Also, this recipe may be placed in a pie crust for a delicious pot pie. Use what you have and try to mix flavors that sound compatible to you.


1.5 pounds ground beef (venison, pork sausage, or a combination would work too)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped (or sweet peppers, or add hot peppers too if you like them)
2 qt. diced tomatoes
1 pt. tomato sauce
1 can kidney beans, drained (completely optional for those who don’t put beans in chili!)
3 T chili powder (you can use a chili seasoning packet if you prefer)
1 T garlic salt
a few fresh chopped tomatoes from the garden

Get a good bed of coals. Place a sturdy grill over the coals or set up a tripod or other cooking ensemble. Suspend a cast iron Dutch Oven over the coals and start cooking.

Sauté the onions, garlic and peppers. Brown the ground beef or other meats. Then add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, beans and spices. Stir together. Let the chili simmer, stirring occasionally

Let the chili simmer slowly, stirring occasionally. Make sure it is over a good, warm spot on the fire, but not boiling violently or sticking. Let it cook down until it thickens and the flavors merge. You can eat it after a half hour, or let it simmer for hours. This makes great leftovers if properly refrigerated.