Do-it-yourself long-term food storage is not only possible; it’s easy when you use Mylar bags and oxygen absorber packets. It’s inexpensive, too. In fact it’s downright cheap if you purchase bulk foods at a restaurant supply store. No special tools are required; you can use a standard clothing iron to seal the Mylar bags.
You don’t need to buy expensive emergency-food buckets of dry goods such as rice, beans, and pasta. Shop for these foods at a big-box store or restaurant supply, and then repackage the food yourself in Mylar bags for long-term storage. Just follow the simple 7-step process which is illustrated below.
Unfortunately, plastic bags, including the thick plastic materials used in expensive vacuum sealing machines, are not adequate for long-term food storage. Surprisingly, for multiple-year storage, even the thick plastic of a 5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket is not enough. Plastic alone simply doesn’t work for long-term food storage. Over time, even the best plastics cannot stop the infiltration of oxygen and moisture.
Mylar bags are the answer. These are essentially a flexible metal can that you can heat-seal at home. Though Mylar is not as durable as a metal can, and thin Mylar bags are susceptible to damage, they are still far superior to even heavy plastic when it comes to long-term food storage. Heavy-duty Mylar bags (7 mil) are an even better choice, especially for large packages, though it takes a bit of practice to seal the heavy-duty bags with your household iron.
(Retailers for these products are listed at the end of this article)
1. Mylar bags. (Bag size and thickness depends on how they will be stored).
2. Oxygen Absorber Packets. (Or, a desiccant for the storage of non-food items)
3. Clothing Iron and a Carpenter’s Level; or Mylar Bag Sealer.
4. Storage Container. (Plastic 5-gallon food-grade bucket, or a new galvanized trash can or used food-grade steel drum)
The “How-To” of Packing and Storing Mylar Bags
Use a permanent marker, such as a Sharpie, to label the bag. Use clear packing tape to protect the ink from damage. After the bag has been filled and sealed, add a paper label protected with clear packing tape. Using these two forms of labeling is a hedge against a potential failure of one of the labels. You can use ordinary paper to make your second label, but size it to fit the width of the sealed edge of the bag. Then use packing tape to attach the paper label. Wrap the tape around the entire bag, so that it seals on itself. See photo.
Use a dry-measure scoop to ladle food into the bag. Use care to keep the surface clean which will be sealed. Keep track of the quantity of food so that the bag can be properly labeled, not just with what food is contained in the bag, but also the quantity.
Use the proper size oxygen absorber packet for the air volume of the Mylar bag. Since your emergency food supply is so important and these packets are so inexpensive, it’s a good idea to add an extra packet to each bag.
Keep you absorbers fresh by storing them in a small jar with a tight lid. Don’t remove absorbers from the jar until you are ready to use them, and be sure to re-cap the jar immediately. It is important to remove only the oxygen absorbers you need for the bag you are about to seal. Oxygen absorbers start working as soon as they are exposed to air, so take care to keep them fresh. Your food storage efforts will be wasted if you allow your oxygen absorbers to get to work before they are sealed into your food bag.
If you don’t have a Mylar bag sealer such as the “Hot Jaws,” a standard household clothing iron can be used to seal your Mylar bags. (Instructions below). Whichever sealing method you use, be sure to practice before starting to seal bags filled with food. A high heat setting will likely work best, but take the time to experiment with different settings on your iron. Be sure to turn-off the iron’s steam feature, as steam will add damaging moisture to your food.
On the side of the bag opposite the iron, use the metal edge of a clean carpenter’s level. This metal surface will reflect back the iron’s heat, making it possible for you to deliver sealing heat to both sides of the bag at the same time. (In the following section you’ll find more detailed instructions on how to seal Mylar bags).
It is not necessary to remove all the air from the bag, but your oxygen absorber packet will be more effective if you remove excess air before you finish sealing the bag. Removing the excess air will also make the bag more stable, and less likely to “pop” if it is exposed to pressure.
The easiest way to remove air from the bag is to seal all but the last couple of inches, and then press the air out of the bag before sealing those last couple of inches.
Several days after the bag has been sealed, the Mylar bag may, or may not, look like it has been vacuum packed. This is not significant. This outcome does not indicate that one bag has a better seal than the other, but only that more air (not oxygen) was removed prior to sealing. These absorbers remove oxygen from the air, they do not remove air.
After you have finished sealing the bag, take the time to closely inspect the seal and the bag itself. If the seal does not look reasonably smooth, run the iron over it again. If the seal is bunched or deformed, cut the bag open and start over. Look for pinholes and damage to the bag, too. If the bag has been damaged, it’s better to waste the bag than to store food which may spoil.
Whether you use the lighter-weight (3.5 mil) Mylar food storage bags or the heavy-duty (7 mil) variety, it’s a good idea to store your food bags in another container. Ideally a container that will make it easy to move or transport the food, and as well as protect the Mylar bags from puncture and wear.
The most popular storage container is an ordinary 5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket, but there are other options. New galvanized steel trash cans work great, as do used 30-gallon food-grade steel drums. These steel containers are far superior if you want to also protect your food against rodents. If you select a “used” container, check to make sure that it was previously used for food, and that it never contained anything hazardous.
Not only can rodents chew through Mylar bags, they can even chew through plastic buckets and plastic food-grade barrels. So a metal container is your best bet if this is a concern.
A regular household iron, such as the one you use to iron your clothes, is adequate to seal a standard 3.5 mil Mylar bag. But before you start filling bags, experiment with different heat settings, and practice your technique. As long as you monitor the heat setting and results, you can easily do this without any damage to your iron. If the iron starts sticking to the Mylar bag, your heat setting is too high.
Whether you opt for a thinner Mylar bag (3.5 mil) or one that is thicker, it is important to experiment with the temperature setting on your iron. You need to identify the optimal heat setting; one which provides a smooth, secure seal to the bag. It is more difficult to get a good seal on a heavy-weight Mylar bag using a clothes iron, but it is possible.
Be sure to “turn off” the steam setting. You want to do what you can to avoid introducing moisture into your bag of stored food, as moisture will cause your food to spoil more quickly.
If you opt for the clothing-iron sealing method, you will also need something like a metal carpenter’s level. When placed on the other side of the bag (see above photo), opposite from the iron, the edge of the metal carpenter’s level will reflect heat back onto the bag. This will improve the seal.
Move the hot iron back and forth along the edge to be sealed. If you hold it in one place too long, you may actually melt the bag and damage your iron, so keep it moving, slowly. If you don’t have a carpenter’s level, try experimenting with steel bar stock or another metal object which has a ½-1 inch edge. Repeat this process, to make at least two sealing bands
Another option is to purchase an electric Mylar-bag heat sealer. For about $100 you can buy a hand-held “Hot Jaw” heat sealer which produces a professional-looking seal. There are various brands of Mylar heat sealers, but an expensive professional-grade model isn’t necessary.
For Optimal Health
For optimal health during an emergency situation, augment these dry goods with canned foods, freeze-dried vegetables, and dehydrated or freeze-dry meat-flavored soy protein. Foods with fats, such as meat and butter, have a much shorter shelf life. (Usually 2-years in cans, 5-years in freeze-dry form). Vegetables containing acids, such as tomato products, have a shorter shelf-life than vegetables such as corn or green beans. For long-term food storage, soy protein, pinto beans, black beans, etc. are a better source of protein than meat due to this spoilage problem.
Even coarse-ground spices have a relatively short shelf-life, but adding savor to food in a protracted emergency situation is important. Some spices, particularly those which are not yet ground and still in their natural form, have a longer shelf life. For example, salt can be stored almost indefinitely, but should be packed with a desiccant rather than an oxygen absorber because the long-term storage problem is moisture, not oxygen.
Storing basic food supplies isn’t enough. You also need to store what you need to make your meals nutritious… and palatable. Think about menus and what you will need to make your food taste good.
Don’t just pack food for emergencies. Bulk foods repackaged and stored in Mylar bags can be your main source of dry goods for your everyday diet. This rotation of food will keep your emergency supply fresh, and it can dramatically reduce your monthly grocery costs, too.
There are four main enemies to defeat when it comes to long-term food storage: 1) oxygen;2) moisture; 3) light; and 4) contamination by bacteria. Mylar bags are effective against all four of these hazards. But even zip-lock style Mylar bags are not adequate for long-term food storage, unless they have also been heat sealed. An airtight seal is the key.
Heat-sealing of the Mylar bag is essential to create a permanent oxygen, moisture, and bacteria barrier. The downside of Mylar is that improper packing, sealing, or handling can result in tears. As with any storage container, even a small pin-hole will defeat the protective barrier.
Thicker bags would therefore seem to be an obvious solution, but for do-it-yourself food packaging, the thicker bags are more difficult to seal with a clothing iron. So if you use the lighter-weight bags, it’s best to store your Mylar packaged food inside another, more durable container. This keeps it easy, and inexpensive. If you use the thicker bags this isn’t as much of a problem, but it is still a consideration.
Food should be removed from the manufacturer’s packaging before being placed in a Mylar bag. Do not use the manufacturer’s packaging unless it is necessary to protect the Mylar bag from the sharp edges of the food. In these situations, make sure that the manufacturer’s wrap is thoroughly punctured. This makes it possible for the oxygen absorber to work on the food contained in the package.
Ideally, store your food inside your home, or in a storage area which will keep your food cool in the summer and above freezing in the winter. High heat and freezing temperatures, and temperature fluctuation, will degrade the quality of your food much more quickly. If you are able to store your food at room temperature it will likely last 3-times or longer than the expiration date indicated on the manufacturer’s packaging. Some foods, like rice and beans, can last as long as 20-years if stored properly in Mylar bags.
Mylar Storage of Non-Food Supplies
This same Mylar bag storage method can be used for other important emergency supplies, as well. This technique is also useful for the storage of infrequently used electronics, optical gear, firearms, and expensive metal tools. Follow the directions above, but for these non-food items substitute a desiccant packet in place of the oxygen absorber.
Where to start…
Retailers for Mylar Bags, Bag Sealers, and Oxygen Absorbers:
- Mylar Bags Direct: http://www.mylarbagsdirect.com/
- USA Emergency Supplies: https://www.usaemergencysupply.com/emergency_supplies/mylar_food_storage_bags.htm
- Discount Mylar Bags: http://www.discountmylarbags.com/
- “Hot Jaw” Mylar Bag Heat Sealer: http://www.mylarbagsdirect.com/hotjawhese.html