Food for Emergencies; a Summary of Your Best Food Options Reply

L-to-R: Grocery store canned goods and foil packaged food; military MRE meal; freeze-dried food; and lifeboat rations.  All of these have a place in a properly stocked emergency food larder.

The internet is full of advice on food for emergencies and long-term food storage, but what is really the best?

This primer on food selection is designed to help you select the best types of food for your emergency food supply.  This article will help you understand the pros and cons of each category of food, so that you can make informed choices.  The topics of how to store these foods, water storage and sanitation, are not part of this summary but are equally important.  This post is just a primer on food; a great place to start planning your food supply for emergency situations.

Getting Started

The simplest way to get started is to increase the quantity of canned food and dried foods (beans, rice, pasta, wheat, etc.) that you maintain in your pantry, making a deliberate effort to store a variety of food.  For those who live on a tight budget, purchase a few extra cans of food each week until you have enough to sustain your family for at least two weeks.  If you can afford it, go to a big-box store like Costco or Sam’s Club, and purchase canned meats and other staples by the case.  It’s less expensive; often better quality than low cost grocery-store brands, and the box or shrink-wrap packaging helps you store it more compactly.

Ideally, purchase the type of foods that you normally eat, so that you can keep your meals during an emergency as normal as possible.  This is especially important for children who might be finicky eaters.  Be sure to give particular attention to storing the foods needed for both variety and a balanced diet.  This will typically include canned foods such as meat, beans (protein), vegetables and fruit, as well as dry goods such as pasta and rice.  Don’t forget the supplementary foods such as sugar, salt, and flour, as well as the condiments and spices you will need to make your food tasty.  There is a tendency to not eat enough during a high-stress emergency situation, so palatable food will help, particularly with children.

Keep in mind that fresh food such as milk, butter, eggs and bread, will likely be unavailable to you in an emergency.  Therefore, it makes no sense to stockpile a food such as breakfast cereal unless you are prepared to eat it with water rather than milk.  Similarly, prepackaged foods which require fresh or frozen ingredients to complete the recipe, are useless.

For those food cans and packages without an obvious “use before” date, use a Sharpie pen to put a date on the lid/package, and rotate these items so that nothing gets old.  Swollen cans, leaking jars, or contents which smell odd, are indications that the food has spoiled and should not be eaten.  Food poisoning is far more serious than being hungry.  An adult can live for nearly a month with almost no food as long as they are able to consume plenty of pure water.  So don’t get panicky just because you are hungry.

Even if you are breast feeding an infant, be sure to stockpile baby formula in case your milk dries up due to stress, or for some other reason.  If you don’t want to use the formula, donate it to a food bank before the expiration date.  If you have pets, be sure to sore food for them, too.

In addition to stockpiling food, don’t forget that you will need a liquid-fuel or propane camp stove, along with sufficient fuel. In an emergency, you will probably not have electrical power or natural gas, so you will need a method to cook your food.  Heed warnings about only using the stove in a place with adequate ventilation.  This is essential to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.  Since you will be without refrigeration, food products which will spoil without refrigeration should be purchased in 1-meal size cans or packages.

As you expand your inventory of stored food, purchase airtight, insect and rodent-proof food containers for dry foods, and add other types of food (freeze dried, dehydrated, retort packaged, vacuum packed, etc.) to your larder to store a long-term food supply.  Manny canned goods only have a shelf-life of a year or two, but dry beans, rice, grains, and a few other staples will last more than 30-years if properly stored.

For storm and emergency events which are not severe, it may be best to stay in your home.  However, you need to always have a GO-Bag for each family member, and box(es) of food ready for immediate evacuation.  Be sure to practice fitting your evacuation supplies into your car now, in advance of an emergency situation.  When an emergency situation strikes, you may only have a few minutes (at most) to load your car and flee.  Be ready.

Increasing the quantity of canned goods and foil-packaged grocery store food is your first step in emergency food preparation. You need a minimum of two weeks of canned goods and water stored in your pantry, and a way to cook without using electricity or natural gas.

Canned Foods and Foil-Packed Foods

Pros:  These foods are inexpensive in comparison to MREs and freeze-dried food, and quality canned good tend to taster better.  And, since many of us routinely eat canned food, this makes it possible to keep your diet fairly normal during an emergency situation, which makes it a simple task to keep your stored food fresh.   (As long as you routinely eat the oldest items first).

Cons:  Canned foods which contain acidic items, such as a soup which contains tomatoes, usually have a shorter shelf because the acid interacts with the metal of the can.  Though glass jars are not as durable as a metal can, they are better for storing acidic foods — as long as they are stored upright and the contents are not in contact with the metal lid.  Also, canned prepared foods, such as chili, contain a lot of water.  Keep in mind that prepared foods which include a gravy or sauce will be much heavier than solid-packed foods.  Test the various brands of canned vegetables and fruit, and select those products which have less liquid which you will discard.  If you are including canned food in your GO-Bag or evacuation supplies, this added weight and waste becomes a very important consideration.

Dry Food (Rice, pasta, dry beans, wheat, flour, etc.)

Pros:  When considered by weight and space, dry products generally represent a lot of food per dollar, and they require little space for storage.  When stored in airtight, food-quality, insect-proof and rodent-proof containers, most dry foods have a long shelf-life.  Stored using air-removal techniques and the proper containers, many dry foods can be safely stored for 20-30 years or longer.  Bought in bulk, dry foods can be repackaged at home using food-grade 5-gallon buckets, which you seal with Gamma lids after inserting oxygen-absorbing packets.  This is by far the most economical way to prepare a long-term food supply, but the food alone is uninteresting, so you need to get a cookbook with recipes which are designed to make these bulk-stored foods more palatable.  These recipes use a small quantity of freeze dried meat or vegetables, with a sauce made from dehydrated condiments, to transform a mundane meal into a savory feast.

Cons:  Since these dry foods require water to hydrate and cook, you must increase your water supply accordingly.  Having sufficient water for drinking is more important that using water for food preparation.  Consuming dry foods, including cereal, without first hydrating them will cause health problems.  Once water has been added to dry food it must be eaten soon.  It will spoil quickly without refrigeration, so only prepare what you intend to consume for your meal.  Additionally, most people eat dry foods with a sauce, gravy, or spices to make them palatable, so don’t forget to include these food supplements in your planning.  Some dry foods, such as Raman noodles, provide bulk and quell hunger but have no nutritional value.

Note:  When planning for a food supply designed to last more than a month, additional planning and other dry goods are required.  Whole grains such as wheat, corn and oats will require a hand-crank grain mill.  Baking soda and yeast are important for baking.  Salt has many uses including preserving foods and a number of medical uses, plus it can attract game animals and it’s useful as a commodity for barter, so you should store a large quantity.  Honey and certain spices have medicinal benefits, while a number of other spices meet other needs such as encouraging animals to stay out of your vegetable garden.  Fats and oils are essential to health (annually, 96-pounds, which equates to about 17-gallons per person), yet most freeze-dried and dehydrated foods contain almost no fats or oil, so you need to make provisions for this need.  Medicines for diarrhea, and especially natural laxatives such as Metamucil, are vital dry goods because a change in diet often upsets your body systems.  Vitamin C is useful for healing after an injury.  Comfort foods like coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate syrup are not technically essential, but nevertheless important.  Aluminum foil has scores of uses.  If you do not know how long the emergency will last, be prepared to plant a garden to augment your food supply.  This will require sprout seeds (short term), and heirloom seeds (long term) and gardening equipment.  And the list goes on and on.  The point is this; long-term food storage requires extra planning.  This article is only an introduction.

Home-Canned Food

Pros:  Same benefits as for manufactured canned foods, but often far less expensive and food can be fresher and spiced prior to canning, making it more palatable as well as more nutritious for you and your family.  More types of food can be stored safely in glass than in a metal can, and glass is a safer canning medium and makes it possible to inspect the food prior to opening.

Cons:  Food cleaning and preparation is time consuming, and sanitation and proper canning methods must be strictly monitored to insure safety and stability.  Home canning is generally accomplished using glass jars, so the food supply is more susceptible to breakage, so proper storage is essential.  Transportation of food canned in glass jars is problematic.  When opened, jars should emit a distinct sound indicating a release of the vacuum seal.  If the jar opens silently, the food may be spoiled.

Retort-Packaged Food

Pros:  For milk which more closely resembles fresh milk in taste, ultrahigh-temperature pasteurized milk stored in retort packaging, is the answer.  Non-fat cow milk stores better than low-fat milk, but rice and soy milks have a longer shelf-life.  Since many grocery stores do not stock these items, they must be purchase from a vendor such as Walton Feed (WaltonFeed.com) or Ready Made Resources (www.ReadyMadeResources.com).

Cons:  Though the taste of these milk products is better than powdered milk, the taste is nowhere close to its fresh counterpart; so many people will not want to use these products routinely. For most people, these milks will work in recipes, and perhaps cereal, but will not be suitable for drinking.  Unfortunately, the shelf-life is only six-months, but this can be extended slightly if refrigerated.

U.S. military “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” food, more commonly referred to as MREs, are available in the civilian market.  These quick and easy meals meet the need for a short-term emergency food supply, and the 24+ menus offer variety, however they are bulky and have a limited shelf-life. But with MREs, a hot meal is available in minutes using the water-activated disposable heater.

Military MREs; Meal, Ready-toEat

Pros:  Extensive research has been done by the U.S. military to develop the optimal food for combat troops operating in the field.  Civilian versions of these pre-packaged meals are available from the same manufactures that make these meals for the government.  Each MRE contains approximately 1,200 calories of food which has been fortified with vitamins and other nutrients.  Each MRE is a complete meal, including condiments, desert, powdered drink, and even a hand wipe and bit of toilet paper.  Since these meals are already hydrated and precooked, they can be eaten direct from the package without any food prep.  Disposable flameless-heaters which are water activated (often purchased separately), can be used to quickly heat the meal.  With more than two dozen menu selections, including vegetarian, MREs have become popular for emergency food storage.  MREs is what the U.S. government generally distributes to disaster victims in the country and abroad.

Cons:  The full MRE meal packet is bulky and far heavier than dehydrated or freeze-dried backpacking food, but since they don’t require any food preparation, they remain popular.  Soldiers and civilians seeking to reduce weight and bulk, often separate the entrée and flameless heater from the other contents of the heavy plastic envelope, and carry only the items from the meal which they like.  However, though you can purchase just the entrée and heater on the civilian market, utilizing only part of the meal represents a substantial reduction in calories and nutritional value.  Further, when consuming the entrée only for multiple days, constipation is likely so these entrees need to be augmented by high-fiber food supplements such as high-fiber meal-replacement bars.  Though MRE meals are extremely convenient, they are expensive.  When purchased in a case of 12-meals, average cost is around $7.50 per meal (for true military-specification MREs).  Though an MRE may be safe to eat for 20-years, shelf-life is only listed as 3-years.  Many MREs purchase on “sale” in the civilian marketplace have expired dates.  For more on MREs, search in our database for MRE.

Freeze-dried foods are available in single-serving size (recommended for evacuation and GO-Bags), in #10 cans (recommended), and in 5-gallon buckets (ideal for large families or groups).

Freeze Dried Food

Pros:  Using a process originally designed by NASA for the Apollo space missions, freeze dried foods are flash frozen and then vacuum packed.  These foods do not require refrigeration or special handling, but water does need to be added to rehydrate the food.  Once reconstituted with water and cooked, these foods retain much of the fresh taste, color, and aroma of frozen food.  With nearly 98% of the water removed, the weight of the food is reduced by 90% compared to fresh food.  Since quality manufacturers vacuum pack their food in Mylar or foil packets, or specially designed cans, the oxygen can be removed from the food.  This stabilizes flavor, texture, and nutritional value.  Quality manufacturers such a Mountain House boast a shelf-life of 7-years for their backpacking meals, and 25-years for food which they factory pack in special #10 cans.  Freeze dried food has long been a favorite of wilderness backpackers, so manufacturers such as Mountain House routinely package their foods in small quantities, or as complete meals, which is particularly handy when used in a GO-Bag.  Eggs, and even ice cream, can be freeze dried so this process offers a great deal of food variety.  Five-gallon buckets lined with Mylar bags containing freeze dried food, is also available from vendors such as:   However, once the package is opend the storage life drops quickly.  The freeze drying process coupled with enamel-lined cans, and oxygen removal and nitrogen flushing processes, also retains the nutritional value of the food better than any of the other processes, so the #10 can option is the best for most situations unless the food is being prepared for a large group.

Cons:  Food packages labeled as “Serves 2” are generally only sufficient for one person.  Pound-for pound, freeze-dried prepackaged meals are generally more expense than any of the other emergency foods.  Since hydration and cooking is required, a stove (and time) is required for proper preparation.  Individual meals can often be prepared using the foil packaging of the food, but bulk foods require cookware.  Like MREs, freeze dried foods have a reduced shelf life if exposed to temperature fluctuations and high ambient temperatures.  Single-meal packaging is generally not durable, so when transporting in a Go-Bag the foil packet should be protected by a zip-loc plastic bag.

Dehydrated Food

Pros:  Less costly than freeze-dried foods, and sometimes even cheaper than fresh food, dehydrated foods are a cost-efficient alternative to freeze dried.  Like home-canning in jars, dehydrated foods can also be produced at home with minimal equipment.  When a home-use dehydrating machine is used along with a vacuum-packaging machine, reasonable shelf life can be attained.  However, dehydrated food made by a quality manufacturer, reconstitutes better and more uniformly.  Commercial dehydration works better on some foods than others, so experimentation is advised before you purchase any food item in quantity.  Dehydrated mashed potatoes, puddings, peanut butter, pancake and bread mix, and vegetable and fruits designed to be added to a meal as a supplement, are the most popular dehydrated foods.   Visit Walton Feed (WaltonFeed.com) for more information.

Cons:  Generally a far shorter effective shelf-life than freeze-dried foods.  Only experienced amateurs or professionally manufactures can usually produce dehydrated foods which have a reliable shelf-life.  Homemade dehydrated foods are often snack foods such as apples, bananas, and apricots.  Over time, the nutritional value of dehydrated food declines, textures change, and taste diminishes.  For those dehydrated foods requiring reconstitution with water, some do not fully rehydrate, which makes the food less palatable.  However, dehydrated foods such as potato flakes make savory mashed potatoes after many years if repackaged into suitable airtight containers with oxygen absorbers.

Note Regarding Long-Term Food Storage:  Due to the lower cost, most families will want to store nearly all bulk grains, legumes, peanut butter, honey and other bulk foods in dehydrated form.  These foods should be stored in food-grade buckets with Gamma lids (or at least Mylar bags), and the packer should have used nitrogen to remove the oxygen prior to sealing the container.  This is best accomplished by a reputable supplier who specializes in food for long-term storage.  However, for those who are more budget minded, home methods using food-grade buckets with Gamma lids (or properly sealed Mylar bags), and inserting oxygen-absorbing packets or chips of dry ice before sealing, can be nearly as effective.  To make this stored food more palatable, store a smaller quantity of freeze-dried vegetables, fruits and meats, in addition to spices.  Use these as supplementary foods to make your meals more interesting and nutritious.  Review the recipes in cookbooks designed for these foods for suggestions on what supplemental foods and spices should be included in your larder.   

Lifeboat rations are not suitable for long-term use, but they are a valuable addition to your GO-Bag or for storage in a vehicle.

Lifeboat & Emergency Food Rations (Brand must be U.S. Coast Guard Approved)

Pros:  Lightweight and very inexpensive, these are the most compact of all the emergency foods, and yet these food-bar rations are an amazingly complete nutritionally-rich on-the-go meal.  Unlike most sports bars and meal-replacement bars, these rations do not increase thirst.  For many years, these rations have continued to be a standard component in the survival kit packed into the lifeboats of large ships.  These compressed food bricks are vacuum packed in foil, which gives an unopened ration a 5-year shelf-life.  Unlike other emergency foods, these rations retain most of their nutritional value even after exposure to temperature extremes.  The most popular and palatable brands are: “Mainstay” and “Datrex.”  The manufacturer of Mainstay claims a formulation designed for more active, land-based survival needs.  A 9-meal packet of Mainstay costs about $7, yet it is only the size of a paperback book, and weighs only 24-ounces.  Each pre-measured meal cube offers 400 calories of nutrition (for a total of 3,600 calories per packet).  Whichever brand you purchase, make sure it is fresh, and that it has been approved for use by the United States Coast Guard.  (Coast Guard approval is like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for this type of food ration).  At least one packet of these rations is a prudent addition to every GO-Bag, to be eaten if you’re on the run, or when other provisions have been exhausted.

Cons:  Taste and texture are unappealing, and these bars (or cubes) are not stomach filling, but they do provide short-term emergency sustenance far better than energy-bars or meal-replacement bars.  Per-meal cost is incredibly low.  Though the taste is acceptable, these meal cubes will not make you look forward to your next meal, so you may need to discipline yourself to eat because you must.  If given any other option, these rations are not suitable for long-term use.  True, they have kept many inactive sailors alive after more than a month on the sea, but these rations lack many essential micro-nutrients and fiber which are essential for an active life and robust health.

Each type of emergency food has its place in your emergency food supply.  Some, like canned foods purchased from a grocery store, are easy to use in everyday life, making these a good choice as the first level of emergency food storage.  But MREs and lifeboat rations are clearly better for food-on-the-go as will be needed for traveling by vehicle or on-foot with your GO-Bag.  For long-term food storage, it’s hard to beat the great taste of freeze-dried food, but it is expensive, so augmenting it with bulk-packed 5-gallon buckets of dry food will save you money.  In short, it makes sense to have a combination of all of these types of emergency food in a well-planned emergency food larder.

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