How to Develop a Strategy for Long-Term Food Storage

There’s more to it than stacking cans in the basement.  Are you truly prepared?

food boxes

A primary consideration for any prepper has to be the stockpiling of long-term food stores to feed family and friends when dire times limit distribution, manufacturing and the availability of the most basic goods.  Fortunately, there are many companies that specialize in the manufacture and packaging of foods specifically processed for long shelf-life and balanced nutrition.  But even then, you really should do some homework and follow some sound practices as you assemble and evaluate your food stores.

What is Long-Term Food?

Foods designated as long-term foods typically demonstrate certain qualities and characteristics unique to these types of food.  They include:

  • A processing style that extends and preserves the shelf-life of the food up to 30 years and beyond if stored properly. Shelf-life varies so make sure you keep track of the shelf-life of your stored foods and ensure their expiration dates are marked clearly.
  • An eye on nutrition and calories to sustain an average adult on a daily basis. This is important to understand as you evaluate how much food to store and for how many people.
  • Packaging that is designed to also increase shelf-life and preserve flavor and fundamental integrity of the contents. This includes
    • The removal of oxygen from the package.
    • Sometimes the addition of nitrogen to inhibit bacterial growth.
    • Packages of crystals that act as a desiccant to remove moisture.
    • Hermetically sealed packages usually in large, #10 cans with plastic lids for re-sealing after opening or hermetically sealed, heavy-duty foil packs.
    • Clear labeling identifying the contents, ingredients and projected shelf-life

Calories as a Consideration

The average active adult requires anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 calories per day depending on their size, gender, age and activity level.  Most long-term food packages which can include enough food for a family of 4 for a year offer around 2,000 calories per day.  In a severe situation that’s sufficient from a calorie standpoint but the source of the calories should be considered as well.

Calories from Carbohydrates versus Calories from Fat 

Calories are derived from two primary sources.  Carbohydrates and fats.  We have been ingrained with the idea that calories from fat are bad for us, but there is new evidence that too many calories from carbohydrates can present an equal amount of health challenges.  Balance is the key and this is where you need to carefully evaluate your food stores.

Fat 101

fats

There are 4 types of fat:

  1. Monounsaturated fats derived from healthy oils made from seeds like Canola oil, olive oil, sunflower seed oil and grapeseed oil. Monounsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats because they are high in something called HDL cholesterol.  HDL stands for “High Density Lipid” and these types of fats have healthy attributes.  Many people assume all cholesterol is bad, but HDL cholesterol actually strips away plaque and bad cholesterol from our blood stream.
  2. Polyunsaturated fats are largely defined by vegetable oils like corn oil. They’re not as healthy as monounsaturated fats but still have a proportion of monounsaturated fats as a percentage.
  3. Saturated fats are fats from animals. This includes lard from pigs, tallow from cattle, milk fats from cows found in milk, cheese, butter and other dairy products and eggs.  They are good fats in moderation and are preferable to the fourth and most dangerous form of fat.
  4. Trans fats are a manufactured form of fat often referred to as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenation is a process where hydrogen is bubbled through vegetable oil resulting in a solid fat that remains solid at room temperature.  Shortening and margarine are two most common forms of trans fats.  Their danger is that they are the highest in something called LDL cholesterol.  LDL stands for “Low Density Lipid” and is the type of fat that leads to clogging of the arteries and the formation of plague on arterial walls.  More and more hospitals, doctors and even the CDC are encouraging people to avoid trans fats or severely limit them.

How you supplement your calorie sources is up to you, but the addition of oils like olive oil and canola oil to your food stores is a good place to start.  It’s also significant that olive oil has a shelf-life measured in years.  We’ll cover some of the basic facts related to store-bought foods as a supplement to long-term food stores and their relative shelf-lives later in this article.

Here’s the Telegram:  Many Long-Term Food Stores Depend Heavily on Calories from Carbohydrates

carbohydrates

The reason is simple.  Foods that are carbohydrate based are easier to preserve and offer a better and longer shelf-life.  This includes dehydrated foods made from grains like pastas and rice, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and various food types made from flours and sugars.

They are also less expensive as a raw resource.  But carbohydrates alone do not equal good nutrition.  Our brains are made from fat and fats from food are necessary for good brain health.  Our joints and other parts of our bodies also need a proportion of fat, and many vitamins and minerals will not be assimilated into our bloodstreams without fat.

As a result, you should explore some options when it comes to finding a way to add and supplement your diet with calories from fat while keeping your eye on food safety and shelf-life.  Oils are one approach, but another solution is the MRE.

MRE’s

“MRE” is an acronym for “Meal Ready to Eat.”  They were developed by the military as a substitute for C-rations.  The meals come completely packaged in a plasticized, foil bag and each course of the meal is also packaged this way.

MRE

Field Rations

The standard way of sanitizing and preserving MRE’s is exposure to radiation such as X-rays.  This is alarming to some, but the military insists there is no residual radiation or side-effects to the food.  The result is a surprisingly long shelf-life for fatty foods like meatloaf in a gravy, chicken stew, chili with beef and even hot dogs.

In addition to a main course, MRE’s also offer a side-dish in its own package like applesauce, mashed potatoes, rice and other standard sides.  Crackers are a standard addition and a dessert from cookies to brownies along with a package of jam or jelly.  The MRE’s also have a beverage and condiment package offering hot chocolate, coffee and tea or a vitamin enriched fruit drink mix plus a knife, fork, spoon, napkin and basic seasonings like salt, pepper, powdered cream, sugar and even a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce.

MRE’s offer a great change of pace from that standard fare of dehydrated foods in #10 cans; can deliver calories from fat and also deliver at least a calorie count of 2,000 calories per day assuming three MRE’s are consumed during the course of a day.

They also have meal combinations that are typically associated with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The only downside to MRE’s is the cost.  On a per meal basis they cost more than some of the other long-term food options but it’s worth considering stocking at least one MRE per day or two for each person in your group to not only bring some variety to their diet but those very important fat calories.

Other Sources for Calories from Fat 

  • Canned fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids and canned in oil such as tuna, salmon, sardines, herring and anchovies.
  • All forms of nuts.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Olives

And one more benefit

Fatty foods taste good.  Yes, shelf-life and storage can be an issue but there is a simple solution that goes hand in hand with any long-term food storage strategy.

Eat What You Store and Store What You Eat. 

That’s the standard mantra for anyone engaged in long-term food storage and stockpiling and it has some distinct benefits.

Value

Long-term food stores are typically sold in bulk.  As a result, the per unit cost may seem high but when you look at the cost per serving it is typically a better value than any packaged good purchased at a grocery store.  Macaroni and cheese is classic example.  A cardboard box of a branded macaroni and cheese product can cost more than a dollar per box at the grocery store.  The same serving from a #10 can of elbow macaroni plus a small scoop of dried, cheddar cheese powder can be up to 75% less per serving and taste the same.

Cooking experience

It’s easy to assume that preparation of most long-term foods is simple, but you will encounter some challenges. TVP prep is a good example.

TVP stands for ”Textured Vegetable Protein.”  It’s a protein-based food processed from soybeans and enhanced with food coloring and artificial flavors to create TVP varieties like Bacon-flavored TVP, Taco-flavored TVP, Chicken flavored TVP and others.  The appearance of TVP is usually small bits or shreds packaged in #10 cans and they require some rehydration steps and a bit of practice. The most important thing to understand about TVP is that it’s an ingredient best served with other added ingredients rather than on its own.

And speaking of proteins, make sure you stock a good supply of dried beans and legumes.  They’re a great source of protein including thiamine and niacin, high in fiber and have an excellent shelf-life.  Dried beans to consider include:

  • Black beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Great Northern beans
  • Soybeans
  • Lentils
  • Split peas
  • Blackeye peas
  • Pinto beans
  • Navy beans
  • Lima beans

beans

When mixed with brown or white rice or in a simple sauce they make a great and nutritious side dish.

As you continue to cook and eat what you store you’ll find that other food combinations can bring both variety and added nutrition to your meals.  There are also cookbooks dedicated to cooking with long-term food storage and you should make sure you have one or two on hand in the kitchen as you master the craft of this form of survival cooking.

Rotation

Grocery stores practice daily food rotation.  This involves putting the foods with the oldest shelf-life or “sell-by” dates front and center on the shelves and pushing the new arrivals to the back of the shelf.  You can and should do this at home as well to some degree when it comes to your long-term food stores.

Here’s one reason why.  Many people prepped for Y2K by storing food.  That was almost 20 years ago and many of those foods are still sitting on shelves in a basement.  It’s easy to assume that all of this stuff will last forever, but it won’t.  If you eat what you store and store what you eat you won’t be surprised some years from now when you find some of your stored food has actually been compromised or spoiled.

To make matters worse, some older foods can be deceptive.  There may be no problem with food safety or spoilage, but in some instances the nutritional value of some foods deteriorates with time.  The idea is to not only fill your stomach but maintain your health.  If you’re eating foods that have lost their nutritional value, you might as well eat sawdust.

At a certain point, your inventory will exceed your daily food needs and you won’t be able to eat everything you have stored.  In that case, prioritize and identify those items that will keep the longest with minimal attention and keep your focus on the everyday foods you want to prepare and check.

Other Long-term Food Forms 

One-pan meals in Foil Packs

If you have any experience as a backpacker or canoeist you are probably familiar with this form of ready to eat meals.  They come in large, heavy-duty foil packs and usually contain a variety of ingredients and seasonings.  Boiling water is usually added to the opened foil pack ad it’s resealed for a short amount of time to rehydrate the ingredients.  A quick stir in the package and you’re ready to eat.

These one-pan meals usually are very flavorful because they have been developed by chefs and kitchen tested to ensure ease of preparation and the best taste.  They offer very good shelf-lives and also represent a good change of pace or as a retreat from the everyday.

They also tend to be more expensive than food-stores sold in bulk but once again they offer variety to day-to-day meals and a good balance of nutrition.  Some common varieties include spaghetti with meatballs in sauce, chicken stew, chili, and gravy-based meals that can be served over rice or pasta.

Whole Grains in Foil Packs

Processed flours don’t always hold up well over time, but whole grains tend to have more integrity from a shelf-life standpoint.  Whole grains like red wheat, oats and barley and gluten free options like buckwheat are sold in large, heavy-duty foil bags.  These whole grains will require some milling, but hand cranked flour mills are easy to buy and use and can give you the raw materials for fresh breads, cookies, pancakes and other baked goods with the fairly secure shelf-life of a whole grain source.

Yeast in bulk is another consideration but keep the yeast as cool as possible because it will deteriorate and become inactive over time.  An option is to start and maintain a sourdough starter.  Some sourdough starters are reportedly a hundred years old, but you have to take care of it that same way you would take care of a pet and keep in a dedicated crock with regular care and feeding in your kitchen. 

Grocery Store Packaged Goods as a Supplement to Long-term Food Stores

Yes, you can buy grocery store foods and store them for the long-term, but you must shop wisely.  Here are some basic considerations for decision making about packaged goods:

  • Avoid all products that are packaged in paper, cardboard, or thin plastic bags. They are subject to many storage threats from moisture to rodents to oxidation and are not dependable for long-term storage.  Many of these types of foods can be purchased in #10 cans that have been specially processed and packaged to ensure protection from the elements and the ever-present field mouse.
  • Canned goods are relatively safe but avoid any package that has been damaged or shows signs of dents or corrosion. Remember too that highly acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes have a natural resistance to bacterial growth, while alkaline foods like beans and meats have less natural resistance.
  • Most herbs and spices will demonstrate very good shelf-lives and package integrity and retain their flavor over time.
  • Check this online resource from the FDA to assess the accurate shelf-life for store bought packaged goods.
  • Vinegars and other vinegar-based foods like pickles or fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchee present an excellent shelf-life and will serve both as a flavor enhancer and vinegars as a food preservative.
  • Oils derived from seeds like canola, olive oil, sunflower seed oil and grapeseed oil have shelf-lives measured in years.
  • You can never have too much salt in storage but repackage it in a large, sealed glass jar. Do the same with sugar.  These are also available from long-term food manufacturers in 5-gallon, sealed plastic buckets but that’s up to you.

What about Homemade Food Preservation?

Good idea.  Just make sure you carefully follow strict instructions from a credible resource for any home canning or food preservation.   The “Ball Guide” is an excellent resource for home canning recipes and processing steps, temperatures and methods.  You can also use a food dehydrator to dehydrate your own fruits and vegetables but here again, do your homework so you know how to assess success.  You may find that your home preserved foods have the shortest shelf-life measured in months or years rather than the decades of professionally processed long-term food stores, but if you’re eating what you store you shouldn’t have a problem.

Storage Considerations for Long-term Food Storage 

The unseen enemy for anyone engaged in long-term food storage are the storage conditions that any and all food is subject too.  Here are the bad guys in order of importance:

  1. Temperature extremes. The standard recommendation for any food stored for the long-term is in a cool, dry, dark place.  But just as important is the stability of the temperature.  Ideal temperatures range from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  These temperatures are standard in a dry basement or a dedicated pantry.  Areas where temperatures can fall below freezing or into higher temperatures in the 80’s or more will compromise food in a variety of ways. Areas where this can occur include garages, sheds, back or front porches and attics.  The worst-case scenario is repeated freezing and thawing over time.  This will not only shorten shelf-life but can compromise packages and literally tear the food to shreds in the package.
  2. Moisture. Moisture will compromise even the sturdiest metal cans and containers with corrosion over time.  This can not only allow bacteria to enter but a humid environment is a breeding ground for mold and fungus and they too will find their way into a compromised package.  In fact, mildew can even find its way into a hermetically sealed plastic bucket given sufficient time.
  3. Rodents. Mice, voles and rats can surprise you, especially when they’re starving.  They’ll gnaw through a thick plastic bucket, leave dents and indentations in metal cans and usually scatter their droppings on your shelves and the tops of your packages and cans.  Keep an eye out for the critters and use mouse traps to keep them at bay and always wash the exterior of any stored package before opening.  Once opened, don’t assume a plastic lid will defend against rodents.  Store opened and resealed containers in a place where your confident the rats and mice won’t roam.
  4. Insects. Bugs have a hard time getting through a tough package but how many times have we opened a new package of corn meal only to find it crawling with maggots.  Always inspect your food before using or eating it.  In fact, you should smell it as well and assess its overall appearance just as a standard practice.

All of these storage cautions point back to the benefit of eating what you store and storing what you eat.  That behavior will drive you back to your food storage spaces on a regular basis where you can inspect and assess your storage integrity and make adjustments if necessary.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out

It’s inevitable that you’re going to come across some food you’ve stored that raises some questions.  It could be the appearance of the package, the appearance of the food within, an off-odor, discoloration, a bad taste or no taste at all.  Assuming you have sufficient food-stores and aren’t down to your last #10 can of lima beans -toss it.  If you’re depending on long-term food storage to eat there’s a good chance you’re living in a very desperate time.  The last thing you need is a food-born illness to add to the daily stress.

Real World Considerations

Most strategies for anything are built around a theory or hypothesis surrounded by assumptions.  Consider those assumptions carefully:

  • You may be stockpiling food for a family of 4, but what happens when your mother and father and brothers and sisters show up? You might want to encourage your prepping behaviors with them, but in spite of your best efforts you may find you have more mouths to feed than you had planned.  Think about it.
  • Don’t advertise your prepping too much. You don’t want the whole neighborhood and their families on your front doorstep if you can help it.
  • Learn about wild foraging and think about opportunities to do some local hunting and fishing to supplement your food stores and meal planning. Every item of stored food you eat is gone forever unless you can find a way to achieve some level of sustainability.
  • Stockpile some vegetable and fruit seeds in the event that you can successfully plant and sustain a garden.
  • Think about the various ways you will cook and prepare your foods particularly if we’re all living off-the-grid as it relates to electricity and other utilities.
  • Water is a primary ingredient for most of the food items you are storing. Have you researched and prepped for ways to collect, purify and store water for cooking, drinking and sanitation?
  • It may be impossible to assess the duration and impact of a catastrophic event but remember another prepper mantra: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

With any luck your need for sustenance from long-term food storage will have a beginning and an end.  The greatest hope we can all hold out is that it’s a happy ending due to our willingness to plan and prepare.

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