More reader questions answered about emergency food reserves


Following earlier warnings from many sources about looming food shortages and the need to keep reserves in case of emergency, I answered a number of reader questions last week.  They keep coming, so here are a few more answers.

One reader asked about simple staple foods that keep for a long time, are nutritious, and can serve in a wide range of meals.  Those are sometimes competing requirements, but there’s one food that’s often neglected.  It’s plain old oats.  Whether you like rolled oats, steel-cut oats, or any other variety, oats can legitimately be described as a “superfood” in many ways.  We all know about oatmeal for breakfast, and I’m sure most of us enjoy it:  but oats are also a rich source of fiber to add to any meal, particularly soups and stews (where they can serve as a thickening agent as well).  They take on the flavor of the food they’re cooked with, so one doesn’t taste oats as such.  A big pot of overly liquid stew can be thickened up very nicely with a few scoops of oats, and make it stretch further, too, helping to feed a larger number of people.  They work as a meat substitute as well:  cook up a stew or soup with bouillon or stock, add oats to thicken it, and they’ll take on the flavor of the stock, tasting more meaty than “vegetable-y”.  Oats are also very low-priced;  I buy ten pounds at a time from Sams Club, which currently costs a little over a dollar a pound and goes a long way.  I’m sure better prices are available if you buy in bulk.  Finally, if properly packed (I prefer mylar bags with oxygen absorbers), oats last for years and years.  Overall, they make a great staple food, along with rice, beans, flour, etc.

A reader asked about emergency water storage.  I have a simple rule of thumb:  take the minimum recommended emergency requirement, then double it, to allow for the circumstances that most emergency manuals don’t cover.  A gallon per person per day is the usual recommended minimum, but that covers only enough for drinking purposes, plus some for cooking, and leaves nothing over for personal hygiene, pets, or what have you.  I work on two gallons per person per day.  Also, many people have filtering and purifying devices to render ordinary lake or stream water potable.  That’s great:  but do you have a second set of containers, to gather such water and hold it ready to be purified?  You can’t use your clean, sanitized purified-water containers to hold non-purified water, because then they can’t be used for pure water any longer.  Make sure you keep a useful amount of water in clean containers, and provide more containers for non-purified water before filtering it.  (Also, remember that filtering and purifying water can take time;  most filters I know need up to an hour, sometimes longer, to purify a few gallons of water.  You’ve generally got to be in one place to do that, not moving around or traveling.  That’s another good reason to have non-potable water containers;  if time presses, you can fill them at a suitable source, then move on until you have space and time to filter and purify it.)

Several readers complained that buying canned food is wasteful, because if you don’t use it by the expiration or “best by” date, it’s no longer safe.  Well, that’s your call.  I’ve eaten canned food that was over ten years old, long past its “best by” date, and found it perfectly OK.  What I do, too, is to keep a spreadsheet of all my canned food.  As it approaches its expiration date, I make a point to either use it, or donate it to local food banks, where it’ll go straight out to people who can use it, and therefore won’t be wasted.  Food banks won’t accept date-expired foods, so you have to make sure to donate it at least a month or two before that.  That way, I’m not wasting anything, and I can replace the food as it gets used or given away.  If there’s a shortage at that time, I’ll use it myself, even if that puts it over its “best by” date.  Whatever happens, it won’t be wasted.

There were several questions about the conditions under which food reserves should be stored.  Obviously, a cool, dry place is optimum.  If you live in northern Texas, as I do, summer heat (often over 100 degrees for months on end) will seriously degrade many of your supplies, so it won’t help to store them in a non-insulated garage that gets as hot as Hades every day.  On the other hand, very low temperatures don’t necessarily help, either.  Your reserve water supply will crack the containers it’s in if you let it freeze during winter, and canned food may “bulge” if it freezes, perhaps breaking the seal on the cans.  Glass jars may also break if their contents freeze.

It’s worth making an effort to keep your food reserves in air-conditioned or otherwise temperature-controlled space.  A lot of folks store them in totes under beds, or even arrange totes in a rectangle or square, put a piece of plywood over them, and lay a mattress on top of that, so that the totes serve as a base for a bed.  That gets them out of the way, and makes them immediately available if needed.  (If you use a bed skirt or other accessory to conceal your base, the totes won’t be obvious to nosy neighbors who want to know what you’ve got, or officials looking to confiscate “hoarded” food in an emergency.  That might be more than a little helpful!)  If you want to store more supplies than you have room for in your home, consider a small climate-controlled locker or room in a commercial storage facility.  I keep some reserve supplies in such a room at present.

Finally, some people asked for a good source of information about preparing for emergencies in general.  There are plenty of Web sites out there, including many articles on this blog about that subject.  Some are listed in the sidebar under the heading “Emergency Preparations”.  However, if you want a single-source digest of almost all relevant information, that anyone can use to get ready for any sort of emergency, there is one book – or, rather, a two-volume book – that I highly recommend.  It covers all aspects of preparing for emergencies of every kind, including (but not limited to) food reserves and supplies.  It’s expensive, but IMHO it’s worth every penny.  It’s the “Civil Defense Manual” by Jack Lawson.

I’ve worked as a Civil Defense sector officer in one of Africa’s largest cities, and (as regular readers will know) have all too much personal experience of dealing with emergencies.  I wish I’d had access to this book at the time.  It’s seriously good material, well-informed and comprehensive.  I highly recommend it, and I’ve spent my own money to buy a set.

A much lower-cost option, but still very, very useful, are the training manuals put out by Joe Dolio.  There are four at present, with more on the way.  They don’t cover food reserves as such, but they’re very useful for general preparation for emergencies.  Again, speaking from my personal experience, I get the impression that Mr. Dolio knows whereof he speaks, and I recommend his books.  You’ll also learn a lot from his blog, Tactical Wisdom.  Scroll down past his “stickied” post to read his latest articles.

I’m sure the questions will keep coming.  As I accumulate them, I’ll post answers from time to time.



  1. Bears…
    Be aware that they can chew through plastics.
    And can roll containers trying to get in them.
    On television commercials, they're cute, and seem friendly…
    In real life, not so much.

  2. a couple of thoughts. Oats are high in natural oils, which is great, but means that on long storage they can go rancid, as can whole wheat flour and such. When your readers are planning to store even dry grains, they should do a bit of research on that individual kind and what will be needed.

    And I will second the cans out of expiry. I've eaten canned food long past the best-by guidelines. When you're poor and hungry, you can't afford to be picky. You'd never want to do this with a can that was rusted, dented, or bulging. But otherwise, it's fine.

  3. they've found canned food in old mines from the 1890's that was perfectly fine to eat. all those folks bragging about their full freezers…sad on you if you don't have an empty one, unplugged, as a backup. generator won't keep a freezer running after its been fried by emp/solar flare. and have they tested their genny/freezer combo? mine won't run on a regular genny, something in the circuitry, needs clean sine wave juice. don't buy freeze dried, stick it on the shelf and forget it. i stumbled across several cans bulged: corn meal, bread mix, tomato powder. flour goes rancid, baking powder quits working relatively quickly. i still need to go thru my whole stash.

  4. For hurricane and others, all bed underspace is used here in long but low Numbered totes. Hard supplies such as wood strips, tape, tarp, roofing nails, sealant, emergency lighting, insect screens, etc. are in Alpha identified totes. I also use a table to track locations and expiry. I find Word tables easier to use.

    For long term water we use 5 gal jugs, but for this-hurricane-only we use the "Water BOB Bathtub Storage Emergency Drinking Water Container" as it an hold up to 100 gallons and is super easy to fill.

  5. Tracking supplies with a spreadsheet is a good idea. I am doing a kitchen renovation soon and was staring at my pantry, realized I have no idea what is in all those cans and containers. A lot of stuff that I don't generally cook with but are good staples for an emergency shortage. When I pull it all out for the renovation I think that'll be a good time to rethink my organization and tracking.

  6. I love oats, but be aware that the mass market stuff is tainted with roundup.

    — I see comments like this all the time and they drive me crazy. Not knocking you Brutus because in normal times that might be a concern for some people, but comments like this reveal that you haven't yet understood what Peter and I and a lot of other people think we're facing – actual starvation.

    You won't GAF about roundup, you'll be eating grass to get something in your belly. Expiration dates won't matter, what's in the cans won't matter. ROADKILL will look good.

    Venezuela went thru this over the last couple of years and people were eating zoo animals. The feral cat and dog population disappeared, as did all the urban birds. People who could get food were being robbed outside the store or their home for the FOOD- not money or anything else.

    By the end of WWII the germans were eating cakes made from grass and the brits were experimenting with silage (semi-fermented hay, ie grass) as food for people. EVERY account I've read of long term conflict or social collapse has people eating grass until all the green stuff for miles around is gone. They pulled up the floors in their houses, and the trim from the walls to have something to burn. That is the level of despair and destruction we're talking about.

    For pete's sake, put up some buckets of rice if you do nothing else. You can supplement whatever is available, if anything, and stretch it out for a long time. If you add a package of bullion cubes to every bucket, or some gravy packets, you'll be even better off. Worst case, you've spent 100$ you could have used somewhere else, best case, you aren't eating your pet when things get desperate.

    And don't do it later, do it now. Rice is already up 50-100 percent in cost from a few months ago, but it's still in stores. Salt is basically free, and you'll need that too, but it could be as precious as it was in Roman times, if you don't have any.

    Please stop finding reasons NOT to do it, or to put it off. Some is better than none, and every person who has put some food away is someone who isn't looking to rob or kill ME, so I've got a vested interest in you getting prepped. Especially if you have dependents, take at least the minimum steps today.


  7. And Roundup, despite the concerted and biased efforts to taint public perception of it, is not actually harmful to humans. It does not cause cancer. The lawsuit was lost on emotion, not science.

  8. At the end of the Civil War an overloaded steamboat hauling freed Union prisoners back north sank in the Mississippi River Over time the river changed course and where the boat was buried became dry land. In the 1960s it was discovered and excavated by archeologists. There were cans of food still on the ship and still sealed. When tested it was found to be safe and palatable. If that technology was safe for 100 years, I wouldn't worry about any modern canned food in INTACT and sealed containers.
    One thing I would suggest is several cases of canning jars and lids and a pressure canner just in case of an EMP or grid failure. Nobody can eat everything in an average freezer before it would go bad. You can always rig up some kind of heat source to run the canner.

  9. We live off grid and our freezer is twelve vol so I don’t know if an EMP would affect it but we do have a canner and lots of jars! Oats make a good extension for a meat loaf or salmon Patties as well as breakfast and uses mentioned above. Don’t forget things like spices, dried onions and garlic. They can turn unusual ingredients more palatable. I’d say to store the things you normally eat but the say many people eat predominately commercially prepared ready to eat stuff so I can’t help you there. When they started talking about killing and burying chickens and hogs early in the pandemic I declared local squirrels as tragic meat reserve. A couple squirrels, rice, beans or barley and some seasoning would make a nutritious soup! Don’t forget some old time cook books!

  10. My personal stash is beans, rice, corn meal mix,flour, dry milk, and vegetable oil. I keep 2 extra 20 pound propane tanks for using the grill eye or camp stove, and I have 10 acres of woods right behind the house and a chainsaw and maul and wedge if reduced to wood fires….and all the above can easily be cooked on a wood fire. We keep extra multivitamins, and both frozen and canned meat. Add in a several large containers of spices and you can last a long while on supplies you can stock up on for less than 200 USD. I had not thought of oats, I think I will add 10 pounds this week when we go to Sam's. We keep 12 extra pounds of sugar for the high calorie count, and canned bacon grease. The bacon oil will keep for 2 plus years, and my wife just empties the oldest quart jar into the trash, washes the jar, and starts filling it again as we cook bacon. We always make more than we use because BACON. Just get 4 quart or 8 pint jars and cycle through them. Add to beans and you pick up most of what you need for a subsistence diet.

  11. Be leery of stocking up on a food item that you don't normally eat on a regular basis. Having to rely on something that you decided to buy because it was a good deal price-wise, and discovering that it causes an intestinal upset if consumed daily, could be a major problem. Make sure your family members can eat it, or stock something else for those who can't tolerate it.

    One item that can cause this is whole wheat. It was discovered early in agriculture that refined wheat is what needs to be eaten, not the whole thing. What was discarded for most all of history was added back by cereal makers and bakers who were ignorant of the facts. It adds some bulk to cereal and bread, but it is not healthy for humans.

    Food allergies seem to be somewhat common, and it is likely that there may be multiple items that a person may react to. This is a good reason for marking containers with all the contents it holds. Most food allergies are not lethal, but some can be. This general allergy problem is a good reason to avoid seasoning stored foods, as even something as simple as black pepper may be a problem for some individuals. Got multiple berries on hand? Don't combine them into a fruit mix, package them separately.

  12. A general rule is that one pound of grain is about 1000 calories, corn, rice, wheat or oats, with minor differences. 1000 calories/day is about the minimum to keep an adult person alive and healthy, but feeling very hungry.

    Plan for one pound of basics/day, and add on above that what is needed for nutrition, protein, vitamins etc. Cans of tuna, peanut butter, powdered milk, cooking oil etc.

    A bushel of corn is about 50 pounds. Check out the local farm or pet supply store for large bags of whole corn, like people use to feed animals. At my local store it is $12 for 50lbs. $98 for 8 bags, a minimum food supply for one adult for one year.

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