When you have to depend on your long-term food storage you must make good decisions. These include what to store and how to store it. Join us for all the answers
Long-term Food Storage for Preppers
Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to can and he’ll have food for SHTF. Next to ammo, food is one of our most valuable assets. We shop weekly, eat daily, and think about food constantly. Deprived of it, food becomes an all-consuming passion.
As long as the farmers are working and the supply chain is intact, the grocery store shelves remain full. If one link in that precious chain breaks the whole system fails. Shelves run dry and families go hungry.
At the time of this writing, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The supply chain has begun to suffer. Farmers are plowing under their crops and killing stock animals without sending them to market.
There are several breakdowns in the current supply chain. For farmers requiring handpicking, they cannot get enough hands into the fields. For others, COVID-19 illness and deaths are shutting down or limiting processing plants.
Finally, critical shipping routes are impacted. Driver shortages and broken equipment keep trucks off the roads.
To date, 25% of the pork processing plants are shut down. Multiple chicken plants are culling their flocks. The pressure due to the virus is causing supply links to weaken and fail.
The best way is to have a complete food storage plan. This includes long-term storage.
But how do you set up a storage plan? How do you build up your stores? What are the best foods to store? Can I do this all by myself?
All valid questions. Rest assured, food storage can be simple and within everyone’s grasp.
While you’re at it, be sure to check out our article on long-term water storage.
What are food storage tiers?
Let’s first take a look at a complete food storage plan and how long-term storage fits into it. Your storage plan needs to consist of short-term foods, working pantry items, and long-term storage foods.
Your short-term resources are in your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator. There should be enough to last in your kitchen to last a few days. This food is also perishable. More than a few days or a week and it starts to go bad.
Next are your working pantry and freezer items. The foods that you keep in your pantry include dry goods and canned goods. Your freezer has frozen meals, veggies, and meats.
This is the bulk of normal household food storage. It is also the source of most of the house-to-house variability. Some keep a deep pantry, others have no pantry.
My grandmother’s pantry had 6-12 of everything. She survived the depression and loves coupons. When there was an opportunity to by 2 rather than 1 she did. Always!
Another friend never has more than a few cans of vegetables. He runs a Just In Time pantry.
Effectively used, the working pantry can hold several weeks or even months of complete nutrition and treats. We have a pantry so that we don’t have to go to the grocery store every day.
For most families, the pantry is deep out of convenience. Generally speaking, these foods are good for a year or two as per the manufactures “Best By” label.
Long-term storage is the final tier. This is what separates the preppers from the masses. These are items purchased for the long game. Bulk foods are purchased, packed, and stored away in preparation for harder times. What long-term foods lack in variety (for most of us) it makes up in longevity. Measure these storage timelines in decades.
Let’s take a deeper look at the options for long-term food storage.
What is long-term food storage?
For a better definition, I will consider any food that can with a shelf life of more than 1 year as a long-term food item. The reason I apply this definition is so that it broadens and diversifies my food storage plan. Likewise, it creates a significant overlap with my normal pantry.
The advantage of the overlap is threefold. First is the cost. Some long-term storage is incredibly expensive for any budget. You lower the cost by including some inexpensive foods with a shorter shelf life as long as you properly rotate them.
Second is a complete diet. Traditional long-term foods are high in carbohydrates. This results in an imbalanced diet. Proteins are difficult to store for the long-term at an affordable price. By including shorter-term items, you achieve a better nutritional balance.
Finally, there is attention. Too many of us pack away 25-year foods and forget about them. Often to neglect and then regret. The inclusion of shorter-term foods forces you into a cycle of annual maintenance and rotation. This further secures this critical resource.
What are the goals of long-term food storage?
So, you want to put away food for hard times. That is easy enough, but you need to do a little planning. This spends your dollars and time without waste. Let’s discuss your primary goals.
The first goal is derived from your threat matrix. How long do you need to survive on your stored food? Is it for one month? Three months? A full year?
Decide now so that you can establish your caloric goals. Simply put, you need to multiply the number of days by the calories per day you will be burning. The number of days is simple, pull that directly from your threat matrix. If you plan on a 1-month interruption in services then you need 30 days of calories for your family.
You can start with the basics of 2,000 calories per day. However, I recommend using a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) Calculator to determine your true needs. Miscalculating your needs can put you on the path to starvation. Use this calculator to find out your true needs.
Now that you have your calorie goal, set a goal for the nutritional makeup of your diet. There are too many diet plans on the web to count. From the original food pyramid (heavy on carbs, low on fat), to keto (heavy on protein and fat, low on carbs), to the modern food plate, there are plenty to choose from. Pick the most applicable to your lifestyle and then allocate the types of foods to your storage plan.
Next, determine the refresh rate of your food. Do you want everything to last 25 or more years with minimal attention? Can you adhere to an annual rotation schedule? What fits best into your lifestyle and goals?
Some will simply stash their food in the basement and will pass by it every day while doing laundry. Others require long term plans as the food will sit in underground storage with years between visits. What works best for you?
Finally, your final goal should be the breakdown of your calories and nutrition into the available storage options. Let’s cover those options now.
What are long-term food storage options?
The good news is that hope and guesswork of the past have resulted in a plethora of long-term storage options. These come in both Do It Yourself (DIY) options as well as Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) options.
The first prepper DIY food storage staple is food buckets. Rice, beans, oats, pasta, and wheat packed into mylar bags with oxygen absorbers and secured in 5-gallon buckets! There is no better way to pack in the carbs for the long haul!
DIY food storage
DIY food storage continues in the kitchen. In grandma’s kitchen, canning was king! Water bath and pressure canned goods filled every pantry once the victory garden produced.
Canned fruits, jellies, jams, and vegetables were the product of water-bath canners across the country. Pressure canners prepared meats, stews, and low-acid vegetables.
The next viable home method of preserving food is dehydration. I’ll stick with fruits and vegetables for this discussion. Jerky, biltong, and pemmican are all better for the short term. Dehydrating is a great way to put away vast quantities of vegetables in little space with little weight.
Commercial options are good for those who are willing to trade money for immediacy. In our “Amazon will deliver it tomorrow” culture, this is a great way to quickly build up a cache of long-term food.
All the above foods can be acquired commercially. However, freeze-dried foods are most approachable when purchased. This is the number one commercially sought-after long-term food.
Let’s now look at each method in detail.
What are food buckets?
Food buckets! The prepper staples! This is where we stack up the carbs and calories. Your buckets may not result in a well-rounded diet but boy are the calories here.
Food buckets are for storing dry goods. The survival mainstay items are rice, beans, wheat, oats, and pasta. Each one is cheap, easy to get, and stores forever! Even better, the process is simple as there’s no special equipment.
A large percentage of the world lives on rice and beans. For a few years, I ate mostly rice and beans for lent. One year I even continued the practice through the summer.
Properly packaged, rice has a shelf life longer than you. Beans last many years as well. If your beans become hard and are resistant to cooking, pressure cook them.
Pack away white rice and avoid brown rice. Brown rice has a higher quantity of oils and will go rancid. Be sure to pack away several types of beans. Variety is the spice of life.
You can also pack flour. A friend did a test with 7-year-old flour and found it identical to fresh when making bread. I have set up a rotation where I use my flour once it hits 10 years. We use enough baking and making bread that I go through about 100 lbs. per year.
I’ve also packed pasta, popcorn, as well as course cornmeal. These add some variety to the base of rice and bean. Pasta also gets rotated every decade. Mostly because we use it with regularity.
If you pack wheat, also called wheat berries, be sure to stick with either hard white or hard red varieties. These last longer and are better for making flour.
When you pack away wheat berries, look into storing a grinder. Boiled wheat berries and sprouts get boring after a while. With a grain mill, you’ll be able to make whole wheat flour.
Each filled bucket will hold about 30 pounds. This is enough calories for one person for 30 days.
The O2 absorbers, as their name implies, remove the oxygen from the sealed bag. If you can’t find any feel free to use hand warmers. Same stuff – different packaging. Toss a few in each bag before you seal it up.
The mylar bags are the barrier between your food and the elements. Form a seal with a specialized iron. Or you can use a normal clothes iron. Heat the iron and seal the mylar bag against a wooden dowel and you have a closure worthy of the ages.
The bucket is not necessary, however, it provides an extra layer of protection. The bucket protects against critters and accidental punctures. They also allow you to stack easier and the handle makes for easy transportation.
You can buy buckets at your local big box store or you can find used ones at any bakery or grocery store. They get bulk icing in them and usually give them away. Grab a few, all you need to do is give them a quick wash and they are ready to go.
As stated, the process is simple. Get a bucket, place a mylar bag in the bucket, fill with food, add a few oxygen absorbers and seal. There are numerous videos on YouTube for your education.
Food Buckets Summary
- Easy for DIY
- Minimal Equipment (buckets, mylar bags, O2 absorbers, hot iron)
- Food Lasts +25 years
- Best Foods
- Grains (rice, oats, wheat)
What is water bath canning?
Who doesn’t know the pleasure of opening a Ball quart jar of peaches or spaghetti sauce? One prepared and preserved by family or friends? If you have never had this experience seek it out.
Water bath canning is simply placing food in a jar with a special lid and boiling. The act of heating the jar sterilizes (kind of) the contents and creates a vacuum. This lack of oxygen and an acidic environment inhibits bacteria growth and preserves the food inside.
There are a limited number of foods that can be water-bath canned. All are acidic. They include several sauces, some vegetables, and numerous fruits. The equipment required consists of jars, canning lids and rings, a large pot, and a rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot.
Canning preserves the majority of the nutrients and the loss is minimal (5%-20%) in a year. Most books and references will place canned goods in the 1-year shelf life range. This ensures optimal taste and nutrition.
That being said, I trust the seal and my nose for older home-canned goods. The other night I enjoyed 5-year-old dill beans. They weren’t as crisp as last summer’s but they tasted like the fresh-packed.
Home water bath canning is best for fruits, vegetables, and some sauce. Most canned sauces are tomato-based. Canning isn’t for every food, however, it is easy to learn!
Water Bath Canning Summary
- Easy for DIY
- Minimal Equipment (canner, jars, lids)
- Food Lasts 1 – 5 years
- Best Foods
- High Acid Foods
- Jams & Jellies
What is pressure canning?
Full disclosure, I have fallen in love with pressure canning. It has become a cornerstone of our protein storage plan.
Where water-bath canning fails, pressure canning fills in the gaps. Used for low acid foods and meats. These foods must be processed at higher temperatures than can be achieved by boiling. This is where the “pressure” of pressure canning comes in.
A pressure canner utilizes a valve to reach the pressure necessary to reach 240 degrees. This is sufficient to preserve most foods.
Pressure Canning excels at preserving protein. It is one of the few ways to safely store meats for more than just a few months. You can preserve beef, pork, chicken, fish, soups, stews, stocks, and much more! One of my favorite resources is the Canning Diva by Diane Devereaux.
The larger canners will run 7 quarts or 19 pints per batch. The process takes a little longer than a water bath but it is well worth the effort. Once I have the food prepared and ready to jar, I budget three hours per batch. I plan the last batch of the day to kick off at about 7 pm. When it’s ready to cool, I shut off the stove and go to bed.
We can raw proteins and stack up pork and chicken. This gives us the greatest flexibility. A jar of chicken, some Mexican spices, 5 minutes in a pan and it’s taco night. Switch the spices and we have pulled chicken sandwiches. Not as good as those coming off the smoker, but after a month of beans and rice, who will know the difference.
Second is soups and stews. One rule of canning is to never use a thickener. This includes flour and cornstarch. Want a thick stew? Add the flour when you reheat it. Again, I prefer to can foundational foods.
Chicken soup and beef soup are wonderfully flexible. Out of the can, they are soup. Add a thickener and they are stew. Add rice and cook until thick and you have a meal that will fill any stomach.
We shop sales and become opportunity canners. Chicken breast is on sale – pack it raw. Whole chickens or turkeys and it’s soup time. The day after St. Patty’s day is corned beef hash time. When we get bacon ends, it’s time for pork and beans.
The experts will again state that pressure canned goods are safe for a year. As in water-bath goods use your best judgment. If the seal is good, give it the sniff test. I’m currently eating 5-year old quarts of chicken and soup. I’ve had a total of three fail out of several hundred.
Pressure Canning Summary
- Moderate Effort for DIY
- Specialized Equipment (pressure canner, jars, lids)
- Food Lasts 1 – 5 years
- Best Foods
- Meats (chicken, beef, pork)
- Low Acid Vegetables (potatoes, beans, etc.)
What is dehydrating?
Two of the biggest enemies of food storage are oxygen and moisture. Remove these and you have a well-preserved food. Dehydration dries out food with to the point where microorganisms no longer thrive.
Accomplish dehydration in a solar dehydrator, oven, or commercial dehydrator. All will get the job done with varying amounts of extra attention. Solar depends on the weather and only certain ovens will be suitable.
To be efficient and not cook the food, you must be able to maintain a temperature between 85 and 160 degrees. The actual temperature depends on the food you are preserving. This is where commercial dehydrators excel.
I highly recommend a commercial device ensuring that your dehydrated foods are consistent, properly dry, and good for the long term. Specifically, a horizontal flow device. The granddaddy of dehydrators is Excalibur.
With a quality commercial dehydrator, your final product will be safe, consistent, and ready for long term storage. To meet all these factors, you must remove 80% (for fruits) to 95% (for vegetables) of the water in the food.
Having more water than this and you give microbes the tools they need to spoil your food. Feel free to dehydrate even more. Luckily there are resources to help you with this.
Armed with this chart you are ready to dehydrate. Start with the freshest food possible. Then slice, blanch, and treat for oxidation. A quick dip in ascorbic acid (vitamin C)) is all you need, Then, stack up the dehydrator. A few hours later you will have driven off the necessary water.
For long term storage, you need vacuum packing. Take your veggies and fruits directly out of the dryer and into either quart jars or mylar bags and apply a vacuum seal. This will give you 3-5 years of shelf life.
Almost any fruit or vegetable is a candidate for dehydrating. The biggest advantages of this approach are variety, weight, and size. The sheer number of things you can dry is astounding.
Secondly, once dried your food will have almost no weight and will have shrunk in size. A case of tomatoes can fit into a few quart jars. A bushel of apples in a few gallon zip lock bags.
The biggest disadvantages of dehydrating are nutrition loss and rehydration. Out of the DIY preservation methods, dehydration has the most nutrition loss.
Secondly, you must plan for the water required to rehydrate the food back to normal. For 20 lbs of onions, this is over 2 gallons of water. If you have substantial stores of dehydrated foods, plan accordingly.
- Moderate Effort for DIY (rinsing and slicing)
- MySpecialized Equipment (commercial dehydrator to do it right)
- Food Lasts 1 – 5 years
- Best Foods
What are freeze-dried foods?
Freeze-drying is a marvel of the modern age. Freezing foods in a vacuum sublimate the water out of the food. This leaves the food light, dry, and storable for decades. While there are now home freeze driers on the market, they are still quite expensive.
Almost anything can be freeze-dried and packed away for the long haul. Meats, fruits, vegetables, and complete meals are all freeze-dried and available commercially. They maintain more nutrition than most other preservation methods. Most last for 25 or more years.
The biggest downside of freeze-dried foods is the cost. Even they are one of the most expensive foods to store, they are still valuable to stockpile. They add much-needed variety to your pantry. They weigh almost nothing which allows you to transport them with little effort.
You will have to plan to have extra water in your storage to hydrate your meals. Again, plan accordingly.
If you are in the position to purchase a home system, great! You are limited only by your imagination. I hope to get one someday. Until then I keep an eye open for the sales. You can usually purchase freeze-dried foods for 50% off or more! You just have to be patient.
- Expensive for DIY, best to buy meals and components
- Food Lasts +25 years
- Best Foods
- Complete Meals
What is a long-term storage plan?
Now that we’ve looked at the individual options, let’s put together a tiered storage plan for your long-term storage pantry.
What foods for 1-5 years?
This is the tier that you will rotate often. This will force you to review the foods and containers for signs of spoilage and damage.
Foods in this tier include all your canned and dehydrated foods. Stack up fruits, veggies, and proteins here. This is where your variety comes from. As these foods have the shortest shelf life, you will make them a part of your working pantry.
Have a goal to extend your current pantry through bulk purchase, copy canning, and good old-fashioned hard work. Eat the oldest food and stack new in the back. This will ensure that your 5-year stocks are always fresh.
What foods for 5-10 years?
This is the middle tier of your storage. Not quite used every day. Not quite able to be forgotten.
For this tier, seal flour and pasta in mylar and 5-gallon buckets. Both are inexpensive enough that you can put away hundreds of pounds for less than a dollar per pound. If you have the space, put away 3 buckets of each per year.
What food for 10-20+ years?
20 years is where you fire and forget. Pack them away and check every year but don’t have to plan to rotate. The majority of your calories will also be in this tier.
Stack up rice, bean, wheat, and oats. Even if you only plan a few buckets a year, they will stack up fast. If you are like me (impatient) then get 100 lbs (3 buckets) of each at the start, then keep adding as funds and time allow.
This tier also contains your dehydrated foods. More expensive, so be selective with your money. Watch out for sales and let your money go farther. With freeze-dried, you’ll be able to add protein as well as treats. Our most precious food boxes contain freeze-dried fruits and brownies!
How and where do I store and organize my food?
Physical space for storage may become an issue for you. Food buckets take up a lot of space. Consider that the average family of four will require over a ton of food. That’s over 60, 5-gallon buckets.
There are many articles on the web about managing the storage issue. Seek them out. Learn from them. Adapt them to your situation.
In summary, you must diversify your storage! Keeping this asset in one place is asking for trouble. Store some home. Store some at your BOL. Store some in a temperature-controlled storage unit.
Store your 5-year foods in or close to your home. You will need to visit them often to rotate. Where possible use first in first out (FIFO) racks so that you are using the oldest cans and jars first.
Remember to have the ability to pack it up safely in the event you need to bug out. 100 quart jars will be difficult to move unless they are in boxes.
Store your 5 and 10-year foods as diversely as possible. Keep them accessible as well as out of sight from prying eyes. Organize them in piles according to contents (rice here, beans there). You can also organize them in priority of use (rice bucket, then a bean bucket, then a freeze-dried bucket).
I also recommend color-coding your buckets. We have prioritized our buckets based on contents and time and space allowed for evacuation. If we can only grab a few we go for blue (lowes). These contain complete freeze-dried meals. One bucket is 30 days for one person.
If we have more time and can afford to fill up a vehicle then we grab the orange buckets (home depot) as well. These contain additional freeze-dried components as well as a mix of rice, beans, pasta, and flour.
Finally, we grab the white buckets (bakery icing). This requires an hour to pack and a trailer to carry it all.
We eat every day. Food is required for survival. Good quality food is necessary for thriving when it all goes sideways. Luckily with a little effort, you can quickly and efficiently stack up the calories and the odds in your favor.
Decide what you are willing to take on yourself and what you are willing to purchase. Plan out your tiers and how many calories you need. Start with a few buckets and copy canning.
Then add variety and depth. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to bolster your pantry. Even my brother, a complete newbie, recently learned to can and is now stacking up the quart jars.
With a little planning, a few smart buys, and a bit of patience, you can extend your current pantry by months in no time!