Home Creating An Emergency Food Pantry For Your Family

Creating An Emergency Food Pantry For Your Family

user profile picture Samantha Biggers Mar 29, 2021
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I’ve been asked countless times how much food I recommend a family “put back” — i.e., have on hand for emergencies.

I hesitate to give my honest answer of “a year” because it sounds so overwhelming and discouraging to people who are just getting started and may have a limited budget. So instead, I encourage them to begin by amassing a few weeks’ worth of staples and to add to them as consistently as possible over time.

The most important thing is to just get started.

NOTE: If you have a week’s worth of food in your home, you’re already better prepared than most Americans. True, the pandemic encouraged more people to change their shopping habits, but the vast majority still have less than a week’s worth of stored food on hand.

Put Back Foods You Actually Want To Eat

Many people start out by purchasing bulk bland foods they rarely eat when they have a choice.

While there’s something to be said for putting back some inexpensive foods with a long shelf life, the majority of your food supply should be things that you can use to make dishes that you and your family like to eat.

Sure, if you’re hungry enough in a crisis you’ll eat whatever you can get and be glad for it. But the fact is that most emergencies are shorter-term supply disruptions similar to what happened during COVID or the Texas Deep Freeze.

So my advice is while putting back some real “the end of the world as we know it” foods is a good idea, don’t make it all of your food supply. A mix of more palatable foods with various shelf lives will work out better for most families.

Staple Foods

Some of the most common, affordable and easily-stored bulk staples for a deep pantry are:

Dried Foods

  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Flour
  • Cereals
  • Whole Powdered Milk
  • Buttermilk Powder
  • Corn Meal
  • Masa Harina (cornmeal that is processed so you can make delicious tortillas)
  • Oats and Oatmeal
  • Grits
  • Polenta
  • Cous Cous
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Fruit

Spices and Seasonings

The basic foods listed above aren’t the most flavorful, which is why it’s important to have a good supply of spices on hand. And salt is necessary for your survival, so store a sizable supply of that, too.

If you don’t regularly cook from scratch, you may be surprised to find out how much salt you need to add to basic foods to make them taste acceptable.

In my opinion, a good spice selection includes the following minimum:

  • Iodized Salt
  • Non-Iodized Salt (This comes in handy for food preservation and hide tanning in an emergency)
  • Pepper
  • Italian Seasoning
  • Seasoning Salt
  • Red Pepper
  • Chicken Seasoning
  • Steak Seasoning ( I buy Montreal Steak Seasoning in a 12 oz container. It lasts a long time.)
  • Taco Seasoning
  • Chili Powder

If possible, buy spices in bulk. 1 lb containers are usually much cheaper per ounce than buying small shakers at the grocery store. You can vacuum seal bulk spices, so they stay fresh over time until you get around to using them.

I’ve found that a lot of spice blends have salt listed as the first ingredient. You’re often better off buying salt-free seasoning blends and adding salt as needed from a financial standpoint. This also prevents over-salting foods.

Gravy packets are a waste of money

Gravy packets are mostly corn starch. I can buy organic corn starch for under $6 per lb and use spices to make many different sauces and gravies. Don’t bother buying canned gravy or small dry mix packets. If you like brown gravy, a little cornstarch and cold water mixed with some soy sauce and black pepper make an excellent gravy for Salisbury steak or as a base for beef stew.


  • Prepared Mustard
  • Mustard Powder ( Much longer shelf life than prepared mustard and takes up less space.)
  • Ketchup
  • Dried Tomato Powder (Useful for making tomato-based sauces and soups)
  • Mayonnaise (Limited shelf life. I advise not buying more than six months worth at a time. You can also buy the small food service packets.
  • Hot Sauce
  • Soy Sauce

Nut Butters

Note: Even though the shelf life of most nut-based kinds of butter is only 1-2 years, I still advise having some on hand for your short-term food consumption. Be aware the natural-based nut butter seem to last even less time.

Peanut butter has a lot of valuable protein in it, and it doesn’t cost a lot. Buy brands that have hydrogenated oils in them for longer shelf life.

  • Peanut
  • Almond
  • Cashew

Canned Foods

  • Meat
  • Vegetables
  • Soups and Stews
  • Fruit
  • Condensed and Evaporated Milk
  • Canned Juice
  • Broth
  • Beans
  • Chili

Cooking Fats

  • Grape Seed Oil (affordable and suitable for high heat cooking and frying)
  • Vegetable
  • Peanut
  • Seasame (adds a little extra flavor to some dishes)
  • Olive
  • Canned butter or ghee
  • Frozen butter ( You can freeze butter to extend its life. I have eaten butter that has been frozen for a year, and it was fine. Just throw 1 lb boxes in the freezer. That’s it!)
  • Lard
  • Tallow

Baking Supplies

  • Vanilla Extract
  • Baking Soda
  • Baking Powder
  • Bulk Bread Yeast (Buy 1-2 lbs at a time. The tiny packets of yeast are not economical.)

Vice Foods and Luxuries

You should put back some foods that are your go-to comfort items. During hard times or emergencies, it can help to have these things. Kids can be cheered up during a crisis with foods that they consider a treat. Here are a few items to consider.

  • Hard Candy
  • Chocolate chips
  • Fruit Snacks
  • Packaged Cookies (Just make sure not to buy too many and rotate them through your food supply before they go stale.
  • Jams and Jellies
  • Soda
  • Alcohol

Sure, alcohol may not be “necessary” for survival, but for some people it helps to have a glass of wine or other beverage with a meal or when trying to relax a little during a stressful time. If you’re a regular drinker, then you should consider that when stockpiling food and beverages.

Liquor offers the most “bang for your buck” if space is limited. Wine drinkers should not be afraid to stock up on boxed wine. It has come a long way over the years. There are some lovely wine options in boxes available as well as cans.

You may also want to consider putting back some supplies to make your own beer or wine.

Canning and Food Preservation=DIY Emergency Foods

Canning, curing, and dehydrating food can save you a lot of money. Canning jars and lids can be in short supply during difficult economic times, so it pays to stock up when you can on supplies. A food dehydrator is good to have as well. There are a lot of foods that you can dehydrate if you don’t have canning supplies or just want to save on space.

Finding Storage Space

Here are some suggested areas of your home that may yield some extra space to store food.

  • Under the bed
  • Storage under stairs
  • Extra shelves in closets
  • Top of cupboards
  • Outbuildings (If not temperature controlled, then you should store only some dried food items in your building.)
  • Food For Very Small Spaces

If you live in an apartment or other small space and want to put back a year’s worth of food for an individual or couple, then the best option is freeze-dried and dehydrated foods. Unfortunately, these are the most expensive emergency foods to put back. The good news is that they have a 25-year shelf life, so you can rest easy knowing that you are not wasting money on food that will go bad in less than five years.

Calories Needed Per Day

Plan for 2,500 calories per day for adults and 2,000 for children.

While caloric needs can vary based on activity level and age, it’s better to plan for more calories rather than too few. Also, consider that kids grow fast, so if you put back food based on their caloric needs at four years old, their needs will be far greater in a few years when you might have to use your food.

I do think I should point out that according to some studies, the average adult in the USA actually consumes 3,600 calories per day yet leads a fairly sedentary lifestyle.

This is not at all healthy and as food storage goes, it can be a treat to your success. If you consume more than the calories you have planned for, your food will not last as long as you think. You either need to ration the food in your home during emergencies or plan for the level of calories that you are comfortable with.

Shelf Life

People always have a lot of questions about shelf life when they are beginning to stockpile food. The best buy date on a package is not always an accurate indicator of what you can expect from food.

For example, salt has an expiration date despite being a preservative. That 120 million-year-old salt is not going to go bad in 2 years. Salt never goes bad.

Repackaging and vacuum sealing foods can significantly extend the shelf life.

The way food is stored also has an impact on shelf life. Mild temperatures and protection from sunlight will help you get the maximum shelf life.

Canned meat’s shelf life varies a lot based on the type of meat. Canned meats with less sodium do not have as long a shelf life as higher sodium varieties. For food storage purposes, buy the regular canned version. You can use salty foods to help add flavor to vegetables and other low sodium foods. A lot of staple foods contain no salt at all. If times are tough, you will want something to flavor all those pots of rice and beans.

Buy powdered whole milk, not non-fat milk.

You can do a lot with powdered whole milk. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I often made yogurt and even frozen yogurt using powdered milk. I then turned the yogurt into yogurt cheese. This was a big help after we stopped going to grocery stores entirely. Hoosier Hill Farm sells powdered whole milk in affordable 6 lb bags. If you sign up for their rewards program, you can get 10% back on every order to put towards a future order. The savings can add up. I make sure to keep 30 lbs of whole powdered milk on hand at all times.

MREs are not as great as you might be led to believe.

I have taste tested plenty of MREs. My findings have been that they are expensive, salty, and create a lot of waste. They are not practical for the average person to use as a food supply beyond a week.  Many people think that a single MRE contains enough calories for one adult for an entire day. That is not true. Even the best MREs only contain 1200-1400 calories meaning that you need at least 2 per day at the cost of around $9. That is $18 per day per adult. Plenty of MREs are being sold containing as few as 500 calories and cost nearly $8 each.

Emergency Food For Restricted Diets

If someone in your home has food allergies or sensitivities, it can be challenging to put back an emergency food supply. Here are some suggestions for those that have to be careful.

Legacy Food Storage

This company has an excellent selection of foods with a 25 years shelf life that can be mixed and matched to suit a restricted diet. Those who are just looking for vegetarian options or gluten-free will find Legacy is among the best if you want some buckets containing various foods with little planning. All of their foods just require boiling water and simmering. The most negative factor is the cost. As stated before, anything freeze-dried or dehydrated will cost more than foods you can pick up at the grocery store and repackage.

Read labels very carefully if someone in your home is susceptible to some ingredients.

Those who are very sensitive to peanut, wheat, or soy know to look for food labeling, indicating that it is processed on dedicated equipment. For example, Tinkyada Pastas are made from rice and processed in a facility that only processed rice products. Tinkyada pastas are an excellent choice for those with Celiac or other wheat sensitivities.

Be sure to put back multivitamins.

While it is possible to plan out a well-balanced diet for emergencies, you should put back multivitamins to fill any nutritional gaps. A multivitamin is essential for women that are still in their reproductive years. During long-term emergencies and collapses, nutritional deficiencies often become common, and it happens faster than you would think. You don’t have to put back the fanciest one a day you can find either. Anything is better than nothing.

Inexpensive 8-day Food Supply For Emergencies

This section will detail a bundle of emergency food that is easy to find, budget-friendly, and suitable for people who want to start with around a week’s worth of emergency food that they can just heat and eat boil. Some of these options may contain more salt than you are used to. Remember that you can always add a few other items to dilute down the sodium content per serving.

Augason Farms 72 hr Food Kit

I have tasted tested these kits and found them to be a great deal for the money. Are they what I would normally want to eat all the time? No. But they are far better than some of the Red Cross Meals I had to eat when the town I lived in as a child flooded. The 72 hr kit contains a total of 8,000 calories and cost $26 last time I checked. That is enough for an adult to eat 2,000 calories for 4 days. Under $7 per day is not bad for emergency food!

For around $16, you can purchase twelve 5 oz cans of chicken for a protein boost. Let’s do the math and see how many day’s worth of food you get if you purchase two food buckets and some chicken.

2 Augason Farms 1 person 72 hr kits= $52 for 16.000 calories

12 cans of Hormel White and Dark Meat Chicken=$16 for 1,680 calories

Calorie Total=17,680

8 days of food at 2,210 calories per day for a total cost of $68 or $8.50 per day.

Not bad for food that you just have to boil for 20 minutes!

Auguson has larger food buckets available for families and longer timelines. Just remember to look at the bucket’s total calorie count and not how many days it is supposed to last.

Don’t waste money buying too many fancy freeze-dried or 25-year shelf life foods. Think of food storage as short-term, mid-term, and long-term, and buy a variety of foods. You will eat well and have more money to spare.

Over the years, I have consistently been asked to give exact shelf life numbers for many different foods. As discussed previously, this depends on packaging and storage conditions.

It would be best if you stocked a variety of foods with varying shelf lives. Most emergencies and events last mere weeks. Even an extended event of 2-5 years means you can put back a lot of foods found at the grocery store without even worrying about repackaging.

Rotating Your Food Supply

Dry goods like rice, beans, and flour will last a long time if adequately sealed in mylar. These types of foods you don’t have to worry about rotating out unless something comes unsealed. It is still a good idea to date your foods, so if you start to use your long-term food supplies, you can use the oldest first.

Canned goods and shelf-stable foods with a shelf life of fewer than five years need to be rotated. Canned food racks that dispense cans will help with this. There are many plans online to make your own if you want to save some money or make a rack customized to your pantry or storage space.

Writing the best buy date on items using a Sharpie permanent marker can make it a bit easier to see what needs to be used first. Organizing food into totes that have similar best buy dates and labeling the tote can also work. The system you choose needs to be easy for you to use. There is no reason to get into a situation where you have a lot of food to dispose of because it has gone bad.

Be sensible about best buy dates. A few months expired is not anything to worry about as long as the food smells ok.

So how do I keep track of exactly how much food I have on hand?

There is no easy way to keep track of the calories you put back unless you are just buying buckets of food that have the calories listed or put together with meal plans designed to deliver so many calories per day. For example, you can buy a year’s worth of food from an emergency food supplier like Legacy or Augason Farms and know exactly how many calories you have on hand.

If you are putting together your own emergency food supply, you will need to use a notebook or spreadsheet to track what you have. Of course, you will need to subtract items from your inventory as you use them for this record to be accurate. A spreadsheet is easier for most people than a notebook. As you put food into storage, make a note of how many lbs and the calorie count. Even just keeping track of the lbs of staple foods will allow you to go back and do a calorie tally later on.

Consider how you will prepare meals during an emergency.

Many foods that are made for emergency preparation require some water and a method to boil them. Make sure to plan on backup cooking methods when you start putting back food. This will ensure that food preparation is not a problem in case of an extended power outage or if you run out of your standard cooking fuel.

Camp Chef makes some great small propane-powered ovens and stoves for camping and emergency use. Years ago, I was sent a Camp Chef Outdoor Oven in exchange for an honest review. Not only did we use it several times to cook meals, but Matt’s parents used it to do all of their cooking for more than six months while contractors remodeled their house, and they had no formal kitchen. It worked great. The oven uses 1 lb propane cylinders, or you can get an adapter that allows it to use a 20 lb propane cylinder like you use for BBQs. You can cook a 13″x9″ pan of food and use two stove eyes. The whole oven weighs under 30 lbs.

Sterno stoves are another option. Esbit makes some excellent collapsible backpacking stoves that use fuel tablets. Of course, you need to be careful using any flames inside.

Diet changes can cause health problems. Keep some medications on hand.

A sudden change to your diet during a short to long emergency can lead to constipation, heartburn, or indigestion. Purchase a few of the following items, so you have something to provide relief. Most issues go away as your body adjusts to a new diet.

  • Tums
  • Pepto Bismol
  • Colace or other gentle laxatives


Build up your food storage over time as you can afford it. Look for foods with a wide range of shelf life and set up a good rotation system based on your family’s needs.

If storage space is a major issue, dried foods are a better option. You can save some money by purchasing a dehydrator and drying foods that are in season. Packing dried foods and vacuum sealing them will provide your family with affordable and easy-to-store food for emergencies.

A well-stocked pantry and emergency food supply can help you and your family get through some hard times. I believe that shortages and inflation are going to be an ongoing problem. Stocking up now will provide some security and peace of mind.

About the Author

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Samantha learned the foundation of preparedness on the banks of the Skagit River in the North Cascades of Washington State with her single father, a Vietnam combat veteran. At 16, she moved to his home state of North Carolina where she worked on farm projects before attending Warren Wilson College, graduating in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Sustainable Forestry. After college, she spent a few years in Ketchikan, Alaska before returning to N.C., moving into a 1970s Holiday Rambler camper on 11 acres of family land when the adventure of building a house and farming began! Over the years, her articles have appeared in various homesteading magazines such as GRIT, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Countryside and Small Stock Journal. She is currently a managing editor and writer at Ready To Go Survival.