Ever do a grocery store run before a big snow storm, hurricane, or, ahem, pandemic lockdown? Well you may have noticed store shelves missing many of the most basic food staples we’ve come to take for granted. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’m the first to agree that fresh and minimally processed whole foods are the foundation of any healthy diet. But in truth, there is immeasurable value and security in having a good pantry of shelf stable foods around at any given time, just in case. This post is a guide to emergency food pantry preparation.
I’m a Florida native originally, and hurricanes are my first experience of the value of having a pantry. When the power goes out, you try and keep the freezer closed, or start eating what’s in there before it goes bad. One day during a hurricane outage it hit me why a local restaurant was called ‘Hurricane Grill’. You know, because when the power is out, you have to grill (unless maybe you have a gas range?).
So while frozen foods can last and are nice to have a stock of, I would avoid being toooooooo overstocked lest you have to throw it all out. With this in mind, the primary focus of this article is on pantry items that do not require refrigeration.
How Long Should a Supply of Shelf Stable Foods Last?
The duration of a supply of shelf-stable foods for disaster preparedness can vary based on several factors, including the number of people in the household, the nature of the emergency, and personal preferences. However, a general guideline is to aim for a supply that can sustain your household for at least 72 hours to a week. Of course, you could go a little cray-cray and aim to have a supply that would last longer.
Considerations for determining the length of the supply:
- Household Size: Larger households will naturally require more food. Ensure you account for the number of people for whom you are preparing.
- Emergency Type: The duration of the emergency and potential support availability can influence the required supply. Typically, a 72-hour supply is recommended for immediate needs until help arrives.
- Individual Needs: Consider any specific dietary requirements, allergies, or health conditions of household members when planning the supply.
- Comfort Level: Some individuals may prefer a larger supply, extending it to a week or more for a greater sense of security and self-sufficiency.
- Local Risks: Consider the common emergencies or disasters in your area. For example, areas prone to severe weather may warrant a more extended supply.
It’s advisable to periodically review and rotate your emergency food supply to ensure its freshness and check for expiration dates. You don’t want to end up having to throw your shelf stable foods out. Use them occasionally, combined with fresh foods, and replace your supply as needed.
Water and Other Beverages
Having access to clean water and other necessities is as crucial as having a supply of food during emergencies. Clean drinking water is of primary importance, and some disasters may leave the tap water supply unfit for safe consumption. Storing enough water for at least three days per person is recommended. Additionally, you may need to consider the following:
- Use Stored Water: If you’ve stored water in clean, food-grade containers, use that water for drinking and cooking.
- Boiling Water: Boil tap water that might be contaminated if the situation allows. Bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute to kill potential pathogens. Allow the boiled water to cool before using it.
- Purification Tablets or Drops: If boiling isn’t possible, consider using water purification tablets or drops. Follow the instructions carefully to make the water safe for consumption.
- Water Filtration Systems: If available, use a water filtration system designed for emergency use or camping to purify the water. Ensure the filter is functional and suitable for the type of contamination present. At our house we still have an old ProPur (now ProOne) filter that we used before having a reverse osmosis filtration system installed at our kitchen sink.
- Seek Alternative Water Sources: Look for alternative water sources such as melted ice from refrigerators, water from rain barrels, or even as a last resort, well water if it’s known to be safe. Best to boil these waters.
- Avoid Unsafe Water Sources: Do not drink water from rivers, streams, or sources that might be contaminated, as this water can pose significant health risks. These would be waters to boil as well if it came down to it.
- Contact Authorities: If possible, contact local authorities to inquire about water distribution sites or emergency services providing safe water in your area.
During emergencies, ensuring access to safe water is essential for staying hydrated and maintaining health. It’s crucial to be proactive and resourceful in securing clean drinking water when tap water is compromised.
In addition to water, some hydrating beverages that could be stored as part of an emergency supply include:
- Shelf-stable Ultra Pasteurized Milk, Tetra Packed Milk Alternatives, or Powdered Milk: Ultra Pasteurized milks have a longer shelf life, making this a good option for disaster preparedness. Tetra Paks are a sterile type of packaging that enables about a six-month shelf life without the need for refrigeration or preservatives.
- Coconut Water: High in electrolytes and hydrating properties, coconut water is a good alternative to replenish fluids.
- Fruit Juices Without Added Sugar: Store small packs or cartons of 100% fruit juices without added sugars, which can provide hydration and some essential vitamins.
- Sports Drinks or Electrolyte Solutions: Beverages like Gatorade or Pedialyte contain electrolytes and can help restore hydration, especially in situations involving dehydration.
- Powdered Drink Mixes: Pre-packaged powdered drink mixes such as powdered sports drinks or electrolyte mixes can be a practical way to add flavor and nutrients to stored water.
Beverages that might not be healthy or suitable for emergency hydration include:
- Sodas and Sugary Drinks: Beverages high in added sugars can exacerbate dehydration and are generally not recommended for emergency hydration.
- Alcoholic Beverages: Alcohol causes dehydration and should be avoided as a hydration solution during emergencies.
- Caffeinated Drinks: Drinks containing high levels of caffeine, like energy drinks or strong coffee, can contribute to dehydration due to their diuretic effect and are not ideal for maintaining hydration levels.
During emergencies, focus on maintaining hydration with beverages that provide water and electrolytes without excessive sugar or caffeine content. Always prioritize clean, safe water as the primary source of hydration.
Long Lasting Foods
Canned or dry beans, rice, pasta, whole grains, and nuts are all good sources of carbohydrates.
Beans: Beans are an ideal staple of any diet, and provide carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. They are also particularly shelf stable, making them perfect for disaster preparedness. Black, kidney, garbanzo/chickpea, pinto, navy, cannellini beans and lentils, black eyed peas, etc all provide similar amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fiber per serving.
Rice: Pairing rice with beans gives you all of the essential amino acids, which is great when you may have lost access to fresh meats.
Pasta: Pasta can also complement beans to provide all essential amino acids. And it is very shelf stable.
Whole Grains: Dry grains are shelf stable for ~6 months to a year at room temperature. Quinoa, barley, bulgar, farro, millet, oats, or wheat berries are some options other than rices or pastas to add variety and fiber.
Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are several options that naturally provide fat, protein, and carbohydrates along with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Whole nuts and seeds can last up to 6 months at room temperature, up to a year in the refrigerator, and longer in the freezer. Nut and seed butters can last up to 3 months at room temperature, up to 6 months in the refrigerator, and longer in the freezer.
Emergency Food Bars: Protein or snack bars can make a fairly shelf stable and ready to eat food source.
Canned Fish or Poultry: Tuna, salmon, or canned chicken are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Meal Replacement Shakes: Provide essential nutrients in convenient, ready-to-eat forms.
Canned Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables remain important but may be harder to come by in an emergency situation. Having some frozen and canned ones around can be useful in the event of an outage or other crisis.
Basic Spices and Seasonings: In a crisis, flavor remains appreciated, so keeping basic spices and seasonings around can spice up your other shelf stable goods.
First Aid Supplies: While on this topic, consider having a basic first aid kit in the pantry for medical emergencies.
Flashlights and Batteries: Non-food essentials such as flashlights and batteries for power outages are another consideration. Candles too. But know how to get to them even in the dark!.
Documentation and Emergency Contacts: Encourage keeping essential documents, a list of emergency contacts, and any necessary medications.
Be Prepared, But Don’t Panic
Being prepared in unforeseen situations can give you peace of mind. Without becoming obsessed or overly concerned, it can be wise to have a running pantry to lean on when the supply in stores runs low or things like hurricanes and snowstorms lead to changes in our normal routines.
Keep some of the basics in mind. Water, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fruits, and vegetables along with some spices can go a long way to keeping your nutrition going strong when disaster strikes.
Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.