I tell my friends there are two types of people: preppers and those who laugh at preppers. Why is preparing for a rainy day such a laughable concept? Is it outrageous to think the misfortunes that happen to millions of people could happen to you? In this article, we’ll discuss food preservation examples. And we’ll do it simply, by answering seven questions: who, what, when, where, how, why, and to what extent?
Who Should Store Food?
Everyone who eats food and wants to eat it in the future. Those that want to save money. People who have enough money now but realize they might not have as much if situations change.
In November of 2011, fierce winds toppled power lines, igniting drought-stricken grass and brush in a residential area of Reno, Nevada. Within twelve hours the fire destroyed thirty homes. School was cancelled as police, fire, and paramedic units struggled to contain the blaze. One person died, over 10,000 people were evacuated, 4,100 homes were without power and the governor declared a state of emergency. The fire came within two miles of my house. As I entered my neighborhood supermarket I encountered enraged customers. Frustrated managers and cashiers explained that the store had depended on emergency generators since midnight and couldn’t power the freezers and coolers. All cold or frozen food was discarded per health code. Angered that they had nothing to cook for dinner, the customers blamed the store instead of the current emergency.
Anyone can be left without power for hours or even weeks. Blizzards can confine people for days and it’s been claimed that a local supermarket can only sustain a community for 72 hours. Sustenance declines if the supermarket has to discard half of its stock.
What Exactly is Food Preservation?
The basic answer to what is food preservation; extending your food beyond its natural life through freezing, dehydrating, root cellars, canning, freeze-drying or dehydrating, or converting into products which last longer.
My mother preserved food from her garden. She didn’t know how to freeze dry food, and freeze drying food at home wasn’t the option that it is now with modern equipment. She grew it herself and bottled it in mason jars through water bath and pressure canning. The meat we raised ourselves sat within freezers. We consumed the food through the winter and in the spring she planted again. It was what her pioneering great-grandmothers had done. And now that I have the opportunity to garden my own yard, it’s what I do.
But you don’t have to be the one preserving the food to take advantage of it. Canned food allows consumers to enjoy meals without from-scratch preparation and to keep food for a long time. Some companies specialize in ready-to-eat meals such as pasta and chili while others market for emergency preparation. You can dehydrate fresh produce or purchase it already dehydrated. Developments in vacuum-packing systems allow dried and frozen products to last at least twice as long. Freeze-dried food can be purchased in bulk or small quantities, or you can purchase appliances for freeze drying food at home. And though frozen products have a limited life, especially in disaster situations, they can help with shorter-term needs.
What Foods Should You Store?
Store the foods you eat.
My friend Danielle spent all summer bottling fruit from the local gleaning project. She made applesauce, jalapeno and habanero jams, and prickly pear syrup. Her apartment cupboards overflowed with mason jars. And though her three young children loved the peaches and pears, they weren’t fond of hot pepper jam. Then a series of thunderstorms and flash floods struck. When the power outage continued through dinner time, she realized she had stored the wrong food. Her hungry children could not go to bed on just prickly pear syrup and Danielle did not have a working stove until the electricity came back on. What she needed was dry cereal, canned meals and vegetables, and bottled water. After that incident she slowly stockpiled nonperishable food as she could, buying extra cans of pasta or bottles of juice when she had spare cash.
If you don’t own a grain mill and don’t sprout grains, don’t stock your pantry with wheat. If your aging parent cannot consume much sodium, don’t rely on soups and canned vegetables. Without a wood stove or a yard where you can build a fire, dry beans might be difficult to consume in long-term power outages. And certainly, don’t break your budget acquiring a year’s worth of food at once when you could spend $50 per month at sales.
For a week or two, record what your family eats and how much it costs. Out of that list, consider what can be stored through available methods. Now add in items to replace your favorite perishable products. Use that as your guide for building your supply.
One prepper website advises storing soft grains, beans, pastas and mixes, coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, powdered milk, canned meat/tuna/vegetables/fruits, peanut butter, tea and coffee, ramen noodles, and herbs and spices. Another website lists canned salmon, dried beans, brown rice, bulk nuts, peanut butter, trail bars, energy and chocolate bars, beef jerky, coffee/tea, and sea vegetables or powdered super greens. And Business Insider lists ten foods that would survive an apocalypse as honey, pemmican jerky, MREs (military-style meals ready to eat), hard liquor, peanut butter, Twinkies, rice, powdered milk, and ramen noodles.
Don’t forget to store what you enjoy, such as desserts and hard candy. Most situations where you need that food will be dismal and something sweet gives you a moment of indulgence during a hard time.
And especially don’t forget clean drinking water plus a way to acquire more.
When Should You Preserve Food?
Gardeners advise friends that they will be busy from August through October for food storage season. That’s when my garden pushes out the tomatoes, peppers, and squash. I harvest livestock year-round, with a lull in summer since 100-degree weather is bad for hatching chicks and pregnant rabbits.
But the best time to preserve food is when you can get the food.
Tactic #1: Grow the food yourself or align with local gardeners. When it’s ripe and ready, preserve it ASAP. If your tomatoes ripen slowly and you want to make a big batch of sauce, simply wash the fruit and stash it in freezer bags. Once the season is over you can thaw and cook down to a delightful marinara then bottle or freeze it.
Tactic #2: Buy seasonal produce and can, freeze or dry it yourself. This takes advantage of fruits and vegetables at their tastiest, cheapest, and most nutritious. In my section of the world that is usually June for strawberries, July for peppers, peaches, and corn, August for pears and tomatoes, and September for potatoes and onions as warehouses clear out last year’s stock in preparation for this year’s harvest. During holidays I can find sweet potatoes, winter squash, and cranberries at lower prices than the rest of the season. Instead of buying enough sweet potatoes to roast with butter and marshmallows I’ll stock up with twenty pounds and keep them in a cool, dry place for several months. If they start to go bad I’ll roast them then freeze.
Tactic #3: Hit sales and clearance racks. These happen year round and the trick is knowing where to go. Watch local ads for case lot sales. Scout out discount shelves. Since stores cannot sell spoiled goods or anything past the sell-by date, most food is still okay to use if frozen or dehydrated right away. Whenever I visit the supermarket I make my rounds and pick up items I can store and use. Bread reduced to a dollar per loaf resides in the freezer and comes out as the family needs it. Using this tactic we’ve enjoyed portobello stuffed ravioli with Parmesan cheese and artisan sausage for two dollars per plate.
Tactic #4: Purchase from food storage companies. Though some distributors offer 5-gallon buckets containing a month of dried goods, you don’t have to purchase all at once. As your budget allows, order fifty pounds of rice or a #10 can of flour. Gradually build your supply.
Where Do You Store Food?
I live in a two-bedroom Depression Era house. We have no pantry, garage, or basement. My home canning decorates bookshelves built into the wall. I converted a half-bath into a storage room by closing the toilet, setting shelves over it, and placing lightweight products atop. One freezer sits at the end of the breezeway, blocking a door we never used anyway, and another rests beside the dining room table.
If you don’t want a pantry in your living room, convert a closet or just put the food wherever you can. One friend built a platform from boxes of #10 cans in his family room, draped a rug over it, and set the sofa on top. My sister stacked bottled water in her apartment’s coat closet, set her shoes on top, and let her coats dangle over. Another friend stacks boxes, sets plywood atop then drapes an attractive cloth to make an end table.
Winter squash, apples, and root vegetables should be kept in a cool, dark place. Chest or upright freezers can stay outside if sheltered from wet or extreme weather; a covered porch or carport is perfect if you trust your neighbors. Home canning withstands most temperatures above freezing, but remember that heat can decrease shelf life. Aluminum cans take the most abuse and dented products are still good as long as they haven’t been opened and are used before the “best before” date. Keep in mind factors like rodents, insects, humidity, dishonest neighbors and possible problems with weather.
How Do You Preserve Food?
Find the food preservation method that works best for you.
Home Canning: This method is best for homesteaders, gardeners and those with special diets. My friend Kathy pressure-cans soups because her elderly father cannot consume much sodium. When her father travels, he takes jars of soup so he doesn’t endanger his health with commercial food. If you want to can your own food, first educate yourself on safe methods. Home canning can save money but the initial cost is steep. New jars, lids, pots, and pressure cookers can quickly reach hundreds of dollars. Earthquakes or relocating to new homes can be hard on glass jars. For reliable instructions on how to can food at home, trust the Ball website.
Freezing: Probably the quickest and easiest method, this involves buying foods and stashing them at 0 degrees in freezer-safe containers. Frozen food is quickly thawed and can take minimal preparation, often without heating. Foods that are not safely home canned can be frozen. But though a fully stocked freezer can last up to a week in a power outage if the freezer isn’t opened, each moment without electricity compromises the food. If you want long-term and dependable storage, do not rely on freezers, especially if you live in hurricane-prone areas or anywhere with sketchy power service. Find out how to freeze different foods at Stilltasty.com.
Dehydrating: Home dehydrators cost between $20 and $300. Herbs, green vegetables, fruits, and some meats are safe to dehydrate then either consume dry or rehydrate later. Dried food weighs much less and packs into smaller spaces than foods preserved through any other method. But eggs are not safe to dehydrate at home and milk takes special care. Also, since no water remains in the food, consuming requires additional stored water to either rehydrate or to keep yourself from becoming dehydrated. Pickyourown.com has great tips for dehydrating.
Freeze Drying: Often freeze-dried food tastes better and lasts longer than dehydrated. And it weighs even less. You may wonder how to freeze dry food. But freeze drying at home requires either purchasing special equipment or following specific instructions using vacuum chambers and calcium chloride. If you want to learn how to freeze dry food, follow this link.
Canned Goods: If you spend more time at work than in the kitchen you’d probably benefit from buying food others have canned. Don’t feel guilty because your friend bottles her own tomatoes but you’re stuck paying the bills. It’s getting easier to find healthy canned products. They weigh more but survive the toughest conditions. In a true survival situation, you can acquire all the nutrients you need and even some water from canned foods. And remember to collect bottled water, either in single bottles, gallons, or huge containers.
Cold Storage: Though this is the shortest-term option, it can retain the most nutrients by keeping foods fresh and enzymes alive. Root cellars or basements prolong autumn produce for months. Some cheeses are cured in the same ambient conditions that keep potatoes from sprouting. Foods appropriate for cool, dry storage are root vegetables such as onions, beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and garlic. Also appropriate are winter squash such as butternut or pumpkins. Apples last weeks to months in the same space though peaches and pears will go bad fast. If your potatoes sprout, cut off the sprouts and green parts. Do not use any food that is withered or weeps moisture. And trust your nose: if it smells bad, it is bad. If your food is starting age but is not yet inedible you can cook it then store it in the freezer.
Brining, Pickling, Fermentation: Often converting foods from one form to another unlocks additional benefits. Fermenting wine into vinegar makes it last years longer as long as the process is completed correctly. Though the lives of yogurt and kombucha aren’t significantly lengthened, the probiotics enhance digestive and immune systems.
Smoking Meats: A millennia-old method of preserving meat hasn’t lost popularity. Our methods have just gotten easier and tastier. Smoked meat won’t last years, but it’ll extend the life a little and in a delicious way. You can learn how to smoke meats at home.
Very important: Use and rotate your food so it’s always safe and nutritious when you need it. This is easy to do if you store what you like to eat. Buy a case of canned tuna, push the old case forward and place the new one behind. Some commercial racks rotate your cans as you place the new ones in the top of a chute and grab the bottom cans for dinner.
Why Should You Store Food?
Not all of us are preparing for manure to hit the fan. We know we might need this food even if the zombies never arrive.
Preserving the Harvest: You worked this hard to grow or raise the food. Don’t let any go to waste. Surplus cucumbers become pickles and a bounty of apples becomes sauce.
Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, floods, blizzards, hurricanes, fires. Weather so cold the town shuts down and the air hurts your face. Flooding that blocks the road.
Disruption of Food Supply: This can be a drought which raises the cost of food or a strike within the transport system bringing food to the grocery store. Problems within the store itself can cause food to sell out or spoil leaving insufficient supplies for the community.
Short-term Emergencies: Maybe you need to leave home fast and either you don’t have spending money or can’t use a credit card. A 72-hour supply in a portable container can alleviate at least one worry.
Lack of Mobility: Perhaps you live in a remote area and the price of gas just skyrocketed. Or maybe you’ve broken your leg and have nobody to drive you to the store.
Unemployment: I’ve known professionals who have been unemployed for over a year because they couldn’t relocate and their skill set wasn’t hiring. Unemployment benefits only pay a portion of what you previously made, and if you struggled to make ends meet in the first place simply not needing to budget in food can make a big difference.
Disability or Untimely Death: What happens if the main breadwinner in the family suddenly can’t earn bread and the secondary adult doesn’t have the skills or education to meet the cost of living? Food storage can help that adult until he or she acquires the necessary career or education.
Budgeting: Red bell peppers can be 4/$1 in the summer and $5.99 per pound in the winter. If you know you’ll need bell peppers, freeze or can them when they’re cheap. If a store has a closeout sale on a specific pasta brand, buy it in bulk. Plus, based on a proven history of inflation, it’s reasonable to acknowledge that foods will never be cheaper than they are right now.
Healthy Eating: We all know healthy ingredients can cost more than processed food. Often we don’t have time to prepare meals that meet health requirements. Cooking in large batches and preserving can save time and ensure we have what we need for optimal health.
Sharing: Maybe you’re not the one that needs the food. If a loved one hits rock-bottom and you have a good supply of food, you can help them out without spending additional money.
Personal Convenience: If you know you’ll use chicken broth often, keep a supply so you won’t have to run to the store if unexpected guests drop by for dinner. Meals are easier to plan if you already have the ingredients.
To What Extent?
72-hour-kits, also known as bug-out bags, take care of a single person’s need for three days. But hard times can last longer than that. Most prepper or self-reliant groups advocate keeping at least three months of food, including water and medications. Having a year’s worth is optimal for enduring long-term situations like unemployment or disability.
Preserve what you can. Do it when you can and however you can. And while others might laugh at you and accuse you of preparing for doomsday, laugh back as you remind yourself that, whether fire sweeps through your town or you have specific dietary needs, you’re secure. At least, your food source is.
What are your favorite foods to preserve and which method works best for you?
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.