After water, food is probably the most important survival item to make sure you have stored and ready for a potential disaster. You won’t die immediately without food, but a couple of days without enough calories and you will start to notice a significant drop in energy, cognitive and fine motor skills, and morale. Even though it is widely accepted in the prepping community that you will be able to survive for up to 3 weeks without food, the loss of those things listed above can be a real threat to your safety. There are a lot of resources out there on the interwebs on emergency food supplies written by survivalists, outdoor experts, ex-special forces, and so on. My aim isn’t to be an end-all be-all defining line in the sand on which type of food is better or which brand of freeze-dried food tastes better or anything like that. I will just lay out some of the different options available for you to try. It’s all about having different options. And trying this stuff out is key, especially if you have picky eaters in your home (spouse, kids). Food fatigue is a real issue, and storing a bunch of rice and beans and calling it good can lead to slow starvation that food fatigue brings.
The different emergency food supply options can be broken down into a couple of different categories: canned goods, MREs, freeze-dried goods, and dry goods. Let’s take an in depth look at these categories below, in order of shortest to longest shelf life.
Canned goods are a great starting point for anyone interested in building up their emergency food supplies. The beauty of this category is that it consists of food you and your family are likely already eating on a regular basis, and it is easy to have instant variety. It is inexpensive to build up your pantry compared to the other categories on this list.
One great suggestion that I read is to have about a month supply of food in your pantry (or if your pantry is small, as long as possible) that is properly organized and easy to rotate. Once you have that, double everything but store the copy in a plastic storage bin in your basement or under a bed somewhere. You could even make a 2nd copy to give you 3 months of easy to prepare emergency food storage. How do you arrive at that first month supply? Glad you asked.
Start by keeping track of what you and your family eat from your pantry for an entire month. Get yourself a cheap notebook and keep it in your pantry. Every time you use something, write it down. At the end of the month, see how much of each item you used. Over the next couple store visits, replenish what you used during the month and start to build your 2nd and if you choose, the 3rd extra month supply.
Don’t forget to rotate those bins every month. Set a reminder on your phone or on outlook or other calendar. Canned goods are easy to prepare, but they have a limited shelf life. You won’t be able to fill up a couple bins and leave them for the next 25+ years.
Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup, Chicken Flavor, 3 oz, 36 Packs
Pros – Inexpensive, easy to prepare, instant variety, what you are already used to eating
Cons – short shelf life, constant rotation and expiration date checking (most work)
MREs, or meals ready to eat, are very popular among the prepping and survival crowd. Part of this comes from the fact that many in the prepping community are former/current military personnel, and are used to eating MREs. But even for those not used to MREs from military training, MREs just make a lot of sense when it comes to emergency food supplies. Let me elaborate.
MREs, as the name says, are ready made meals that can be eaten right out of the packaging, hot or cold. No cooking is required, which is usually required to some extent in the other categories (maybe not a can of baked beans or spaghetti-os), which makes this a great portable emergency food supply option. There is also quite a bit of variety with these meals, depending on the brand you purchase and whether you purchase full meals, just entrees or sides.
MREs range in price depending on the brand and where you buy them from. If you are current military, you will probably get the best deals from the commissary. Everyone else, shop around online. Below is an option from Amazon that comes highly rated.
The question that everyone is dying to know – are they any good? I actually like a lot of the MREs out there. Some of the sides not so much, but the entrees are quite palatable, although they are much better when warmed up than cold (with the handy MRE heaters). You don’t get the flavor that you would get with a freeze-dried meal (MREs utilize preservatives to extend the shelf life vs removing all the H2O). If you plan on storing MREs, I would strongly suggest buying a variety box of entrees and trying every one of them to see what you think. When it comes to ready-to-eat, portable emergency food supplies that have a mid-range shelf life (~5 years), you can’t go wrong with MREs.
Pros – portable, ready-to-eat, variety, better shelf life than canned goods, many calories
Cons – more expensive, only ~5 year shelf life, rotation necessary (not as much as with canned goods)
Freeze-dried Emergency Food Supplies
Within the last decade or so, freeze-dried emergency food supplies have really made big headway in the market. Before, NASA was basically the only group interested in freeze drying food for their astronauts in outer space. Now, it seems a new company is coming out every month with their own freeze-dried meal recipes for emergency storage. There are lots of options varying a lot in price from brand to brand. Mountain House used to dominate this market. Now there are several high-quality companies competing for market share, like Honeywell, Wise Company, Thrive, and Backpackers Pantry.
Freeze-dried meals have some nice advantages. First is shelf life, with most touting at least 25 years as the standard now-a-days. Because of how they are prepared, they are completely water free. This makes them very portable and lightweight compared to MREs and canned goods. However, you will need to re-hydrate the food before it will be edible.
The freeze-drying process preserves the flavors of the food very well, without the need to add a lot of extra preservatives, so the flavors will be excellent with most well-known brands. The meals do require some preparation, but not a lot (usually just boiling some water and mixing with the food and waiting for 10 minutes for the food to re-hydrate).
Like with the MREs, my suggestion is to buy a variety meal pack and try out the different meal options before stocking up (they can be pricey). This Mountain House entrée pack is a great place to start. I would prefer to eat a freeze-dried meal entree over an MRE any day of the week.
Pros – Long shelf life, lightweight, delicious
Cons – Expensive, requires preparation
Dried Pinto Beans – 20 lbs.
In the realm of food storage, dry goods take the grand prize in shelf life (as long as they are stored properly). Scientists actually found grain buried with an Egyptian Pharaoh that was still good after more than a thousand years. If done properly, this category can long outlast us.
Common dry goods include rice, beans, wheat (red and white), oats, and popping corn. The combination of rice and black or pinto beans can sustain life almost by itself, and is the basic food of many undeveloped countries. Wheat can be use in a variety of different ways, from sprouting to grinding for flour.
Dry goods are very inexpensive for the total amount of nutrition they provide. I can regularly find 50 pound bags of White or Red wheat for around $14, 50 pound bags of white rice for around $20, and 20 pound bags of pinto or black beans for around $15 in early 2015.
The main drawbacks when it comes to dry goods include the weight, extra work to store the food, and the sometimes extensive work in preparing the food for consumption. It is way easier to rip open an MRE, open a can of soup, or even prepare a freeze-dried meal than to cook a meal that consists of dry goods, which could include grinding the grain, extensive boiling, or even sprouting the grains. Preparing the dry goods for long term storage is also extra work that isn’t required with the other categories.
A sensible approach when dealing with dry goods is to start small and to only store items that you will actually use. There is absolutely no use in storing 1000 pounds of red wheat in your basement if you don’t know how to turn the wheat into something edible. I recommend some rice and your bean of choice (black, pinto, kidney) to start out with. A couple hundred pounds of each will do a lot to extend your family’s survival without adding a lot of extra work for food prep (boil the rice, soak beans overnight and boil them with some seasonings, viola!).
Pros – Inexpensive, longest shelf life, nutritious
Cons – Heavy, extra work to prepare and store, needs extra seasonings and ingredients to help taste, not used to eating
Preparing your dry goods for long term storage requires some extra work, food grade containers (5 gallon buckets work great), mylar bags, and oxygen absorbers. Below is a great video to walk you through the steps.
So which category do I recommend for you to build your emergency food supplies? All of them. Let me explain why. If you were to just focus on canned goods, you would be alright in the short term, but after you run out or they go stale, depending on the duration of the emergency, you might not be able to re-supply. The longer shelf life food supplies can sustain you for a long time, but nobody wants to eat bland rice and beans every day for a year.
The key is to balance your storage with a variety from these 4 categories. I recommend starting with the canned goods, especially since you and your family are already eating these items on a regular basis. Top Ramen, Spaghetti-Os, canned chili and Mac and Cheese are comfort items and will not only provide sustenance but also a sense of normalcy during trying times. Expand into the MREs and Freeze-dried meals next, but be careful of the price, as it is easy to spend an entire paycheck at once. Lastly, diversify with some longer-term dry goods to round out your emergency food supplies.
It’s all about options. A well balanced plan will see you and your loved ones through an emergency scenario. If you haven’t built up your supplies, the most important thing to do is to start. Start today. Good luck!