Survival Food 101: An Introduction to Emergency Food Preparedness

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when people who stockpiled food and other supplies were considered crazy. Cartoons pictured them carrying “The End Is Near” signs and wearing tinfoil hats.

My, how times have changed. Preparing for an uncertain future has gone mainstream. In fact, preparedness has become so common that the U.S. government has set up a website strongly encouraging people to prepare for a crisis. And even recommending how to do it.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now realizes they can only do so much. There are just too many natural and manmade disasters to deal with.

There’s only one way FEMA can effectively help the unprepared through an emergency situation. And that’s if a significant percentage of Americans become self-sufficient and don’t need FEMA’s assistance.

Non-perishable is the key

If you’re already self-reliant, kudos to you. You’ve taken the critical steps to prepare and can weather just about any storm.

If not, I have good news for you. It’s not too late. In fact, millions of Americans are getting started on this crucial journey right now.

There are many things you can do and many supplies you can stockpile to be ready for the next time extreme weather or a disaster occurs in your area.

But today I want to focus on food. Specifically, non-perishable food. Because, for one, you have to eat to survive. And two, an emergency is likely to empty store shelves. Having a supply of survival food already on hand is your Get-Out-of-Hunger-Free Card.

What, how, and where

Of course, it’s not enough just to have a stockpile of non-perishable food. There’s much more to it. You need to know what kinds of food to store, how to protect it, and where to store it. And that’s what I want to help you with today

Let’s start with which foods to stockpile. Most of us prefer fresh food to non-perishable food. But remember, we’re talking about being in survival mode here.

If your electrical power goes out – and it probably will during a crisis – you may have no way to keep your fridge running. And whatever foods you froze will thaw quickly.

That’s why it’s essential to have plenty of non-perishable food ready and waiting for you and your family when you need it.

Foods to stockpile

Following is a list of foods that are either non-perishable or have longer shelf lives than most other foods.

  • Freeze-dried fruits and vegetables. Long shelf life and low moisture content. They can be reconstituted quickly and generally keep their texture, color, shape, and taste.
  • Dehydrated fruits and vegetables. This is the oldest food preservation method. And it’s easy to transport from one place to another.
  • Peanut butter, which provides energy, protein, and healthy fats. Eat it right out of the jar or spread it on healthy crackers.
  • Nuts, including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and pecans.
  • Seeds, such as sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, chia, and flaxseeds.
  • Granola bars, which supply much-needed carbohydrates. Just make sure they don’t contain much sugar.
  • Pasta. It’s high in carbohydrates and can be used in a variety of ways with different foods.
  • Whole grains store well and are great for making bread, pancakes, and baked goods.
  • Whole grain rice is another good source of carbs. Goes with just about any meal.
  • Dried beans say good for a long time. Lots of protein, especially for a non-meat source.
  • Powdered milk is a good source of Vitamin D and calcium. It will supply some of your dairy needs. Can be used for baking.
  • Canned foods are heavy and require a lot of storage space. Some contain high levels of sodium. But they offer a wide variety of foods, most of which are generally nutritious. They come in handy when you’re hunkering down.
  • Bottled water. This water is seldom as “pure” as manufacturers want you to think with their colorful labels. But you can never have too much water on hand. Even more important, get a water purifier.

Freeze-drying and dehydrating

Above I mentioned two great ways to make food last longer. They are freeze-drying and dehydrating.

The pros of freeze-dried foods include their long shelf life and low moisture content. They can be reconstituted quickly. And they almost always retain their original texture, color, shape, and taste.

Freeze-dried food requires more storage space than dehydrated food, as it is bulkier. This can make it a little more challenging to transport. But it’s still a great way to preserve food.

The number one pro of dehydration is the fact that almost all the water content is removed. This makes it much lighter and easier to store and transport. 

This lack of moisture also reduces spoilage significantly. Dehydrated food is generally less expensive than freeze-dried food. Low-heat dehydration is the best method for preserving taste and nutritional value.

Combatting food’s enemies 

Next, I want to discuss how to store your survival food. Regardless of whether you put your own supply together or purchase a ready-made stockpile.

Storage strategies are all about shelf life. The longer your food stays good, the more use it will be to you and your family.

So, it’s important to learn about food’s enemies. They are, in no particular order, light, heat, air, moisture, and pests.

Knowing the things that are most likely to destroy your stockpile before you ever get a chance to use it will help you safeguard against these enemies.

  • Light. You definitely want to head to the dark side when it comes to storing food. Light can deplete its vitamin content.
  • Heat. It’s important to keep survival food in a cool place. Heat is a dangerous opponent. The storage temperature for most food should be between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Air. The more oxygen food is exposed to, the shorter its shelf life.
  • Moisture. Food contains natural moisture, which is fine when it’s fresh. But that’s where bacteria grow, so moisture needs to be removed to make food shelf stable.
  • Pests. Strong, airtight containers will keep furry creatures out of your food.

Storage errors to avoid

Now that you know what enemies your survival food needs to conquer, let’s look at 9 food storage errors to avoid. 

  • Ignoring the importance of nutrition in stored food. This happens more frequently than one might think. Sometimes we’re so concerned about the volume of food we store that we forget about vitamin and mineral content. Make sure your food contains plenty of nutrients.
  • Using sacks or other containers that are not airtight.Air and moisture will greatly decrease the shelf life of stored food. In addition, containers that are not airtight increase the chances that insects or critters might get into your food. Mylar pouches are one of the best storage methods for protecting your survival food. 
  • Failing to keep food containers in a dry, cool, dark place. Moisture, heat and light among stored food’s worst enemies.
  • Storing too many items that need refrigeration.As mentioned, it’s very likely a crisis will include the loss of power. Which means your refrigerated items will spoil quickly without a generator.
  • Failing to include enough variety.After a couple of days of eating the exact same thing, you and your family are going to want something different. Variety will help prevent appetite fatigue. And even more important, it will supply different nutrients you need.
  • Failing to include at least a small percentage of “comfort” foods.In addition to satisfying your sweet tooth, comfort foods will give you and your family a big psychological lift in a crisis.
  • Failing to check expiration dates and rotate stored foods. In each container, organize food by expiration date. When an item’s expiration date is approaching, eat that food – or donate it to a shelter – and replace it with newer food.
  • Failing to keep your stockpile discreet.Advertising to others that you have a stash of survival food could make you vulnerable when a crisis hits. Keep your preparations on the down low.
  • Storing all your food in one location.This is the classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket. If your home is destroyed in a disaster, you’ll be glad you kept food and water at a secondary location.

Food packaging options

Above I mentioned food containers. They are essential for protecting food from its enemies. Let’s take a look at which ones do that best. 

  • Food-Grade Buckets. This is one of the better ways to store food. These buckets come in gallon sizes (and even five-gallon), so they hold a lot of food. Look for buckets with gamma lids, which form a more airtight seal. They are sturdy even when banged around.
  • Boxes and cans are fine for short-term food needs. But you can’t count on them for long-term storage. They are too easily damaged.
  • Glass jars. Some people like to keep certain foods such as grains in glass jars. They certainly look nice. But unless you live in an area of the country that never experiences earthquakes or extreme storms, that might not be the best idea. Glass breaks easily. Also, you need to keep those glass jars away from light.
  • Plastic containers are inexpensive and easy to use. And pretty much unbreakable. After you’ve filled the container, place plastic wrap over the opening before putting the cap back on. The downsides are that plastic can leach into food. And humidity is not well regulated. Pests have been known to chew through plastic.
  • Mylar pouches. Not only is it vital to keep air and moisture out. You also want a durable package that can take a few bumps over the years without bursting. Look for sealed Mylar pouches with less than 2 percent oxygen content. This is your best choice.

Better safe than sorry

Obviously, if you’re going to eat from your supply weeks or months from now, you want to make sure it’s safe.

Don’t eat food that has been in a powerless refrigerator for more than four hours. If necessary, use a refrigerator thermometer to check food temperatures.

Toss out any food that has come into contact with contaminated flood water. Or that has an unusual odor, color, or texture.

Don’t eat food from cans that are swollen, dented, or corroded. Even if the product appears safe to eat.

How much is enough?

I’m going to conclude with the topic of how much food you should stockpile. There is no right or wrong answer here.

FEMA suggests having at least 72 hours’ worth of non-perishable food available for an emergency. Considering that extreme weather and other crises frequently last a lot longer than that, I’d say a week’s worth should be the absolute minimum.

Start slowly and build up your supply. Keep at it and pretty soon you’ll have enough survival food to last three months. Many people don’t stop until they have at least a year’s worth. 

Regardless of how much you stockpile, make sure it is easy to prepare and has a long shelf life. Up to 25 years is ideal.

I hope this was helpful as you begin or continue your preparedness journey. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  • Camellia Sanchez - March 17, 2024

    Thanks for all your help. I’m looking forward to learning more.It’s nice to know that you’re a veteran and doing well. I’m a disabled veteran myself and I have two kids to grow up and take care of.

    Thank You, Cam Snead-Sanchez
  • Linda Reynolds - March 14, 2024

    Just beginning to prepare and the information provided is extremely helpful. We will be taking this one step at a time as it can be costly but understand the need.
    Thank you.

  • Suzanne Reves - February 27, 2024

    Thank you for the info. Very helpful

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