Stock up on food today, be well prepared for the hunger games of tomorrow.
Whether we like to think about them or not, food shortages have been a reality for many generations of people in the world. They can be caused by public panic, natural disasters, economic collapse, and even war.
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” American humorist Mark Twain is credited for saying, “but it often rhymes.” And, although you can’t predict a food shortage—or the worldly event that causes it—you can definitely prepare for one.
They say that the best time to prepare for a food shortage was yesterday, and the next best time is today. Most of us start by inspecting the pantry, making a shopping list, and then heading out to the supermarket to stock up.
This, as I’m sure you will agree, is best done at a time when others are not on the same mission as you are. Avoid the panic, skip the lines, and stock up on emergency food so it’s there when you need it the most.
To help you out, we’ve rounded up a list of the best foods to stock up on so that you don’t have to worry about what to cook and eat in the event of a food shortage.
Table of Contents
- What to Look For
- How to Store
- Powdered Foods
- Dried Foods
- Canned Foods
- Cooking Oils
What to Look For
Moist foods spoil quickly because the breeds of bacteria that cause spoilage thrive at room temperature and sufficient humidity. When fats are exposed to air, they oxidize and sooner or later become rancid. Not surprisingly, raw, fatty foods that contain a lot of water last the least, whether that’s meat, dairy, vegetables, or fruit.
Thousands of years before the age of refrigeration, people devised ingenious methods to preserve food for extended periods of time by drying it to remove much of the moisture, and sometimes grinding it up into flour and meal.
They also found that curing meat with saltpeter (the precursor to the nitrites and nitrates that meat is preserved with today) not only improved its texture, aroma, and flavor, but allowed it to keep for months instead of go bad in hours.
Flour, cornmeal, dried grains and legumes, and cured meats are still among the longest-lasting foods in the supermarket and, along with canned foods, are your go-to choice for an emergency stockpile.
How to Store
Store flours, dried goods, and canned foods in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat.
In particular, don’t keep foods above your stove, under the sink, on the windowsill, or in a damp garage or unventilated basement. If you have humidity problems in your home, a good dehumidifier is often the only, albeit expensive, solution.
Critters can, and often do, chew through paper and plastic packaging. To keep your foods safe and prevent infestation, separate them out into food storage boxes with the lids closed, or remove them from their original packaging and transfer them into mason jars or food storage containers.
Many of the foods on our list last indefinitely. A bold statement, we know, but we’ve taken the time to research these claims and link out to reputable sources, such as the Food Safety & Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a number of American universities, wherever we’ve made them.
That said, no food stays fresh forever. Eventually, cured meats spoil, dried foods lose their appeal, and canned foods turn to flavorless mush. So, when you’re storing an item on the shelves or putting it in the freezer, write down the date on a label.
Rotate your food supplies by using them up and restocking on them every 2-3 years. That way, if and when, for one reason or another, a food shortage does hit, all the items in your stockpile will be in their prime.
Powdered foods are made by drying and grinding grains, kernels, beans, nuts, or seeds until much of the outer layer is stripped away.
The starches and proteins turns into shelf-stable powder that keeps at room temperature for extended periods of time. We call fine powders “flour” and coarse powders “meal.”
Brown powders are coarse have been ground less; white powders are fine have been ground more. The darker and coarser the powder, the more nutrients and oils it contains, and, therefore, the shorter its shelf life.
The powder obtained by grinding grain, typically wheat, flour is a pantry staple—and the main ingredient in baking and, when mixed with oil and heated on the stovetop to form a roux, can be used to thicken and bind any dish.
Although there are many types of flours, and each country tends to have its own gradin system, flour can generally be classified into one of three categories: low-protein, mid-protein, and high-protein flours.
Low-protein flours, like cake flour or pastry flour (7% gluten), yield tender, delicate goods. High-protein flours, like bread flour (13% gluten), yield firm, chewy goods. All-purpose flour (8-11% gluten) and most other flour varieties stand somewhere in-between.
As a golden rule, baked goods made with bread flour are loftier and heartier. While stocking up on all-purpose flour is always an option, unbleached bread flour gives you the optimal balance between affordability, durability, and nourishment.
Shelf life: Stored in a cool, dry place, bags of flour will keep for 6 to 9 months. When flour stales, it deteriorates both in terms of taste and ability to rise. Flour that shows yellowing, graying, or mold growth should be discarded.
Frozen flour stays safe to eat indefinitely, but will lose its best qualities within 1-3 years of freezing.
Storage: Store bags of flour in food storage boxes with the lid closed. Alternatively, transfer the flour from its original packaging to mason jars or airtight food storage containers. Always store flour in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and sources of heat.
There’s more than one use in the kitchen for cornmeal, the coarse flour made from dried and ground corn kernels.
First and foremost, you can mix it with milk and eggs (or water and butter) to bake cornbread. You can also coat cutlets with it to give them a crispy, golden-brown crust when fried in oil. Or you can dissolve equal parts cornmeal and water in a cup and whisk together to make a slurry that thickens watery sauces, soups, braises, and stews almost instantly.
Shelf life: Stored in a cool, dry place, bags of cornmeal will keep for 1 year. When cornmeal stales, it deteriorates both in terms of aroma and flavor. Cornmeal that shows yellowing, graying, or mold growth should be discarded.
Frozen cornmeal stays safe to eat indefinitely, but will lose its best qualities within 2-3 years of freezing.
Storage: Store bags of cornmeal in food storage boxes with the lid closed. Alternatively, transfer the cornmeal from its original packaging to mason jars or airtight food storage containers. Always store cornmeal in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and sources of heat.
Pea protein is the dust-like powder made from dried and ground yellow peas. Healthline’s Erica Julson calls it a “high-quality protein source” that contains “all nine essential amino acids that your body cannot create—and must get from food.”
Admittedly more popular among smoothie drinkers than preppers, a bag or two of pea protein deserve their rightful place in your emergency food stockpile: It can be used to make German erbswurst and works well as a thickener in pea soup (or any soup made with green vegetables, for that matter).
Shelf life: Stored in a cool, dry place, bags of pea protein will keep for 1 year. When pea protein stales, it deteriorates both in terms of aroma and flavor. Pea protein that shows signs of mold growth should be discarded.
Storage: Store bags of pea protein in food storage boxes with the lid closed. Alternatively, transfer the pea protein from its original packaging to mason jars or airtight food storage containers. Always store pea protein in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and sources of heat.
Drying is the oldest method of food preservation in the world. According to the National Center for Food Preservation at the University of Georgia, people in the Middle East began drying food in the hot sun as early as 12,000 B.C.
Generally, dried foods will keep for 1-3 years if stored in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight and moisture, such as a cupboard or your pantry, basement, root cellar, or survival shelter.
As long as they do not show signs of mold growth, in which case they should be discarded, dried foods can be stored and consumed 1-2 years beyond their expiration date. However, their texture, aroma, and flavor will be affected by storage, and they will eventually become inedible.
Drying preserves food so well because it removes much of its moisture content, either dehydration or desiccation, which inhibits the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds—all of which need water to thrive.
Dried pasta, known as “boxed pasta” because it’s sold in boxes at every supermarket, is one of the best foods to stock up on to prepare for a food shortage. (In the event of a food shortage, dried pasta is also one of the first food items to disappear from the shelves.)
Pasta is cheap to buy, stores without fuss, and, to cook it, all you need to do is boil it in generously salted water and mix it with a sauce. That sauce can be anything from garlic and olive oil to canned tomatoes to shredded cheese.
It is not only a good source of carbohydrates and some wheat protein but, as nutritionist Nicola Subrook tells readers of BBC’s Good Food, also “has a good mineral content including calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as B vitamins.”
Shelf life: Properly stored, dried pasta doesn’t really expire, but it keeps its best qualities for 1-3 years. Make note of when you stocked up on it—and rotate your supply every few years.
Storage: Store dried pasta in mason jars or airtight food storage containers. If you want to keep it in its original packaging, store the packages in a food storage box with a lid to protect it from infestation.
Rice is a boon to the pepper who wants to stock up on dried foods in the event of a food shortage. It’s inexpensive, filling, and pairs well with hearty meats or spicy sauces. It makes for a main dish, a side dish, or, with a sprinkle of sugar in the cooking water, a delicious dessert.
Of all grains at the grocery store, white rice has the longest shelf life: “When properly sealed and stored,” food specialist Brian Nummer writes at Utah State University’s Preserve The Harvest, polished white rice will store well for 25 to 30 years.”
Although brown rice contains more nutrients than white rice, it becomes stale more quickly because of its oil content. As a general rule of thumb, brown rice has a shelf life of 6 to 12 months. With time, brown rice develops a rancid odor and begins to taste bad; it should then be discarded.
According to the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center at the Colorado State University, rice is a rich source of carbohydrates, “the body’s main fuel source.” Brown rice is also rich in fiber, manganese, selenium, magnesium, and B vitamins.
Shelf life: Properly stored, white rice lasts for two to three decades and brown rice lasts for half a year to one year. Frozen white rice stays safe to eat indefinitely, but will lose its best qualities within 1-3 years of freezing.
Storage: Rice can, and often is, infested before you bring it back home from the store. Freeze rice in its original packaging for a week to kill any insect eggs or larvae.
After the initial freezing, transfer the packaged grains to a food storage box with a lid—or transfer the grains to mason jars or airtight food storage containers—for room-temperature storage.
Whether we’re talking beans, lentils, or peas, legumes, also called “pulses” when used dried, are affordable, keep well, and pack plenty of nutrients for rainy days and food shortages. Because they are rich in protein, they are also a viable substitute for meat.
One serving of beans, which equates to ½ cup of boiled beans, registered dietitian Nicole Hopsecger tells the Cleveland Clinic, provides approximately 7 grams of protein, “the same as 1 ounce of meat.”
Many cultures, as a matter of fact, pair legumes with grains for a hearty, filling meal that nourishes the body and the soul with proteins from the legumes and carbohydrates from the grains: Just think of Italian pasta fagioli or Cuban black bean chili.
Shelf life: Beans, lentils, and peas will last for 1 to 3 years in their original packaging. Frozen beans stay safe to eat indefinitely, but will lose their best qualities within 1-3 years of freezing. Packaged in Mylar bags with the air removed, beans will last for upward of 10 years.
Storage: To store beans in their original packaging, put them in a food storage box with the lid closed. Alternatively, transfer them to mason jars or airtight food storage containers. In any case, keep the beans in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
In the 1790s, French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert began experimenting with ways to preserve food. He discovered that heating food in sealed glass bottles kept it from spoiling. And so, Appert started a business selling preserved beef, fowl, eggs, milk, soups, and stews.
Thus, canning—one of the most modern methods of food preservation—was born. Canned food is placed in glass jars or tin cans, both of which airtight, and sealed by boiling. The high heat kills all bacteria and inactivates the enzymes that cause spoilage, giving canned foods an indefinite shelf life.
That said, canned foods only stay tasty for so long. “High acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit will keep their best quality up to 18 months,” it says in a knowledge article at AskUSDA, “low acid foods such as meat and vegetables, 2 to 5 years.”
Canned foods are delicious, nutritious, and mandatory in the pantry, basement, or survival shelter of the home cook who wants to be prepared for any event, whether a food shortage, natural disaster, or worse.
You can can foods at home. However, for your safety, and the safety of your family, you must ensure that you’re doing it properly: Clostridium botulinum, the deadly bacteria that causes botulism, thrives in low-acid foods and the absence of air, which describes many canned meats and vegetables.
If you have an interest in food preservation and canning, by all means, read about it and try it. Else, stock up on canned goods from the grocery store; they are cheap and, for most people, good enough.
From Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup to Amy’s Organic Split Peas, canned soups come in many varieties, and, especially at some brick-and-mortar stores and certain online retailers, you can stock up on 12-packs of your family favorites cheaply.
It’s wise to keep a supply of canned soups. They’re basically pre-cooked, which means you can heat them up for a hot dinner or eat them cold if the power goes out. Condensed soups give you more bang for your buck: Simply dissolve in water, stir to incorporate, and heat in a pot or eat cold.
Shelf life: Properly stored and unopened, canned soup stays safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 2-3 years.
Storage: Store canned soup in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
For the carnivore prepper, canned meats are a non-negotiable, and for good reason: From ham and corned beef to chicken breast and turkey to anchovies and sardines, canned red meat, poultry, and seafood are a good source of fats and proteins that sticks to the ribs and comforts the soul.
When in doubt, consider the classics: Classic Spam, Libby’s Corned Beef, King Oscar Mediterranean Sardines, and Cento Flat Anchovies. Eat them cold, heat them up for a standalone meal with a few slices of bread, or cook up supper with them, from corned beef and cabbage to pasta e sarde.
Shelf life: Properly stored and unopened, canned meat stays safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 2-3 years.
Storage: Store canned meat in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
Canned tomatoes are the most versatile canned food of them all, and an absolutely must to stock up on in the event of a food shortage. Whole tomatoes are a better choice than diced or crushed tomatoes, as you get to choose what exactly to do with them and they tend to stay fresh for longer.
With canned tomatoes, your dinner options are limited only by your imagination. For example, you can make Andalusian gazpacho on a sultry summer’s night, cook up Spanish rice or a pasta dinner for the family in less than half an hour, or slow-cook them in a braise, soup, stew, or—controversial, we know—chili.
Shelf life: Properly stored and unopened, canned tomatoes stay safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 2-3 years.
Storage: Store canned tomatoes in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
At every grocery store, you will find a variety of canned vegetables to stock up on.
Consider white beans, red kidney beans, and black beans for chilis, burritos, and enchiladas; green beans, sweet peas, and asparagus spears for soups; beats, corn, carrots, and mushrooms for salads; artichoke hearts, turnip greens, and yams for variety.
Canned vegetables are pre-cooked, which means you can eat them cold, warm them up, or cook with them; they’re ready to eat straight from the can and, at the end of the day, the choice of how to eat them is entirely yours.
Shelf life: Properly stored and unopened, canned vegetables stay safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 2-3 years.
Storage: Store canned vegetables in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
From sliced peaches and pineapple chunks to mandarin oranges and maraschino cherries, you can make the most delicious cakes, tartes, pies, and danishes with canned fruit, even in the event of a food shortage.
They are less vital than canned vegetables and meats, no doubt about it. Still, when times are hard, nothing can cheer you and the kids up like a sweet dessert that can be indulged in for days on end.
Shelf life: Properly stored and unopened, canned fruits stay safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 2-3 years.
Storage: Store canned fruits in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
Speaking of dessert, no milk keeps like condensed milk. Thick and sweet, condensed milk can usually be found in the baking aisle at the grocery store, right next to the evaporated milk (condensed milk is sweetened; evaporated milk not).
In 1820 in France, the father of canning Nicolas Appert was the first European to condense milk. In 1853, American Gail Borden Jr. also came up with a process for making condensed milk, so that it could be transported without refrigeration.
Shelf life: Canned, unopened, and properly stored, condensed milk stays safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will only keep its best qualities for 1-2 years.
Storage: Store cans of condensed milk in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. Cans with severe denting, swelling, bulging, leaking, or rust should be discarded as they are no longer safe to eat.
Unopened, most cooking oils last for 18-24 months. Once opened, a bottle or can of oil starts to react to the oxygen in the air. Eventually, it oxidizes and goes rancid, which smells bad and imparts your foods with an unpleasant flavor. Rancid oil can, however, be burned in a lamp for light.
At the end of the day, the type of cooking oil you stock up on comes down to your personal preferences. Most opt for olive oil. If you’re one of them, buy filtered extra virgin olive oil; it offers the best balance of quality and longevity. Unfiltered olive oil contains olive particles that greatly reduce its shelf life.
Tin cans are a larger and cheaper emergency supply. Once opened, they are difficult to use up before they go rancid, at least in most households. Therefore, it is better, although unintuitive, to buy the oil in bottles (buy your oil in tinted glass bottles; they’re plastics-free and protect the oil from the adverse effects of sunlight).