This is part two in a 4-part series I’m doing on food storage and emergency preparedness, which is something our family is currently working on. The first post was all about how to actually AFFORD to build up your food storage (and why it’s important to do so), and this post is going to be about how to actually start the whole process.
(Did you miss Part One of the series? Check that out HERE!)
Note: There are affiliate links to products and services mentioned below, which means I may get a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no extra cost to you.
The Four Parts of Preparedness
Our family is following the four-part plan put out by our church, which is 1) establishing a financial reserve (aka, emergency fund), 2) short-term food storage, 3) long-term food storage, and 4) water supply and storage.
Since our emergency fund has been in place a long time, I won’t cover that in this series (though you can check out some of our financial posts HERE), but I will be covering short-term food storage in this post and the other two items (long-term food storage and water supply) in another post, as well as how we’re going about the process, what products and staples we’re buying, and our current progress on our goals.
What is Short-Term Food Storage?
I like to think of short-term food storage as kind of a revolving food pantry, or like having your own mini grocery store in your house. While long-term food storage usually involves five-gallon bins and special sealing techniques to make food last for literally decades, short-term food storage is packaged food just like you’re used to it, such as boxes of cereal, jars of peanut butter, and bags of pasta.
The trick with short-term food storage is making sure you’re buying things you actually eat, since you’ll need to eat them within a reasonable time frame before they expire, which means you often have anywhere between a few months and a year or two to consume them.
Now, sometimes short-term food storage items (such as rice or oats) can become long-term food storage if they’re packaged properly. For the purpose of this post though, short-term food storage is going to refer to any food you’re planning on eating within the next six months to a year of buying it.
How Much Short-Term Food Storage Should I Have?
This will vary depending on your individual capacity to store food and on how much of a food safety buffer you want, but for our household, we’re going by our church’s recommendation and shooting for a three-month supply of short-term food storage on hand. This means that if something were to happen that prevented us getting food from a grocery store or if we were to lose a job and didn’t have the income to be spending our regular amount on food for the month, we would have enough on hand to be able to eat for three months.
How Do I Go About Actually Building Up My Short-Term Food Storage?
There are a few different methods for choosing how to go about doing this—I’ll outline four popular ones below.
Follow a pre-set list of recommended items
If you type “recommended items for short-term food storage” or “recommended short-term food storage list” into a search engine, you’ll get thousands of results of lists that have been put together by others that detail common food items that are good for food storage. Some break it down by week or month and list quantities of specific items to get so that by the end of a year, you’ll have all you need. Others just list general items that keep well in the pantry.
What I personally have done is looked around for some of my favorites and then saved them to my emergency preparedness Pinterest board.
Break it down by 3 general meal categories (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
If you’re anything like our family, you probably have some meals on frequent rotation. For us, breakfast is often oatmeal or cold cereal, with the occasional morning of eggs and toast or pancakes mixed in. Lunch consists of simple choices like quesadillas, macaroni and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And dinner is whatever I feel up to making, but we have some tried-and-true favorites that I return to frequently, like country sausage gravy over rice, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken enchiladas. While some meals involving fresh produce could be tricky to include as part of your short-term food storage plan, there are tons of other pantry meals that would work, or substitutions that could be made.
This is one of the strategies we’re using, and we’re basically just thinking of those frequently used items (oats, cereal, rice, boxed mac and cheese, etc.) and making sure we’re stocking up on those beyond what we would typically buy in a weekly or monthly shopping trip.
Breakfast Example: Right now, I typically buy 2-3 extra boxes of cereal each month, an extra bulk box of oats from Sam’s Club, and I buy around 4-6 loaves of bread each grocery trip to store in the freezer (which usually means that we always have at least a few extra loaves on hand, though I need to increase that amount to truly build up to a 3-month supply). I’ve also bought enough brown sugar to last us for at least six months (3 or 4 big bags from Sam’s Club), and I’m planning on stocking up on some raisins in my next grocery trip. Since cold cereal requires milk, I’ve also stocked up on a few bulk bags of powdered milk, which is more of a “long-term” storage option, but which has already come in handy a few times when we ran out of milk and weren’t going back to the store for the rest of the month. We also have 15 chickens that lay eggs for us, but I’ll need to plan on stocking up on extra food for them as well as part of our food storage plan. We do have some ingredients on hand to make gluten-free pancake mix, but I would like to stock up on a few pre-made GF mixes just because GF recipes can often be a bit fiddly and require some specialty ingredients that would be tricky to stock up on because of how they’re processed or because of how expensive they are.
My kids also looooove their afternoon snack time, so I make sure to buy extras in bulk of their favorites (such as applesauce and yogurt pouches, fruit snacks, and goldfish crackers).
Buy extra of items most commonly used
This one goes hand in hand with the one above, but rather than break it down by meal, you simply just take note of those items you buy most frequently and double or triple your order of them where you can. Because I’m a Sam’s Club Plus member and get free shipping (and we actually live almost an hour and a half away from the nearest one), I frequently order my food storage in bulk from them, and their site saves a list of all my most frequently bought items, which makes it super easy to stock up whenever I have some extra money to buy things in multiples. If you do grocery pickup or go through a service like Walmart Plus, you probably have this feature too!
I know one of the most daunting things about building up food storage is the cost of it when you look at the big picture, but if you just think about buying an extra jar of peanut butter one week and an extra four-pack of beans the week after, it all of a sudden seems a lot more do-able. And really, if you do that weekly and just pick up one or two extra items per trip, you’ll have a decent supply by the end of the year!
(Note: This is the other method I’m doing. I don’t have the brain space right now to be devoting to a super specific food storage plan, so I basically just buy multiples of things when I can of things I know we eat a lot of. Since a large chunk of my shopping is done at bulk warehouse stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, this adds up pretty quick over a few months’ time!)
Examples of things I’ve bought extra of in the past six months: peanut butter, Ranch dressing, salt and other bulk spices, vegetable oil, canned corn, canned beans, chicken broth, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce
Detail a weekly or monthly menu and multiply it by # of weeks
This is by far the “safest” plan (in that it means you won’t have gaps or holes in what you remember to buy), but it’s also the most time-intensive. Basically, you sit down and create a one- or two-week plan (I probably wouldn’t go too much more than that myself just because it could get complicated) and therefore have 7 (or 14) breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Then you make a list of all the ingredients you need for each of those meals and multiply it by however many weeks you’re trying to stock up for.
Example: If I chose a basic spaghetti option (no meatballs, no homemade sauce) and wanted to count that as one of my weekly meals, I would need to buy 12 packages of spaghetti and 12 cans of spaghetti sauce (because I would eat the spaghetti once a week over three months, which is approximately 12 weeks).
A really good resource for this method is the book A Year Without the Grocery Store, which you can often find for a steal on Kindle.
How Do I Use Up This Food Storage Before It Goes Bad? Do I Have to Eat the Same 7 Dinners Each Week Forever?
If you’re following the #1 most important rule of only buying food for your food storage that your family actually likes to eat, then having a short-term food storage will naturally use itself up, and you’ll just need to keep replacing things as you run out. The trick is to to get your stash up to the 3-month mark, then just restock each item as you use one up.
In order to make sure you’re using the oldest things first, an easy trick is to put all the new food in the BACK rather than right at the front. You can also take a Sharpie and write the “best by” date really large in a prominent location so you can quickly see which box/can/jar you should open first.
Obviously your family is not going to eat the same 7 dinners every single week for the rest of eternity. The trick is just to find 7 dinners (and breakfasts and lunches) that you know your family really likes and makes anyway, and then make sure you have a 3-month supply for the ingredients of each of those on hand. Then once you’ve built up your stash, you can just replace the same amount that you used up, put it in the back, then keep on going.
If this all seems overwhelming, just think of your food storage as your family’s mini grocery store, and as the grocery store owner, you need to take inventory every week or so to see what you’re running low on, and then replace that. You can make it more complicated and specific (I love me a good spreadsheet!), or you can just build it up once to the full 3-month mark and then just make a list of things you run out of and replace them when you go to the grocery store next.
Over time though, this will all become second nature–you’ll sleep easier at night knowing that you have plenty of food to feed your family should something happen or should you all be unable to go to the grocery store for a couple weeks, and you’ll come to recognize at a glance when you’re getting low on something. It just takes getting used to!
What About Non-Shelf-Stable Foods, Like Dairy or Meat?
Being a member of a family heavily reliant on cheese products every day, I totally get the worry about the desire to have more perishable foods on hand!
For the perishable stuff, a freezer will be your best friend (especially if you can swing it and get an extra freezer!). We were able to source an old freezer for free from a former neighbor, and it’s been so nice to have all that space to store back-ups of things like butter, cheese, loaves of bread, frozen fruits and veggies, and meat.
If having an extra freezer is not an option, you can usually source these things in other ways, though they won’t usually be quite as tasty as the fresh version. For example, even though I’m not one to ever really use canned meat (such as chicken) in my cooking, I’ve still stocked up on several so that I have them on hand for a more long-term storage option. You can also find canned tuna and salmon, Spam products, and things like bacon bits, which all store for a long time. Additionally, you can buy freeze-dried meat as an option, although it will be more expensive (but it can also count as part of your long-term storage plan!).
As far as the dairy goes, it would be prudent to at least stock up on powdered milk and maybe some powdered cheese, even if those won’t be things you would use regularly other than in an emergency. While I do try to actually use up all of our food storage before it goes bad, I’ve also bought a few things that keep for a super long time “just in case,” and I’m fine just having them on hand and not necessarily working them regularly into our meal rotation (such as powdered cheese, or how I would be with long-term wheat if we weren’t gluten-free here).
Wow, This Seems Overwhelming
I know sometimes when you look at the big picture like this, it can be super easy to feel overwhelmed by it. So if food storage is something you want to start trying to be better at, start small—SOME food storage is better than NO food storage. Make it a goal to buy ONE extra thing for your food storage every time you go to the grocery store. Write down ONE meal’s ingredients and then buy some extras of those the next time you have a few extra dollars on hand.
Each time we’ve moved to a new house, I’ve felt like we’ve had to “start over” when it came to our food storage since we’d often used up most of it in the months leading up to the move (so we wouldn’t have to transport so much to the next house). We’ve only been in our new house 5 months, and with just a little bit of extra focus (and maybe only about $100 extra per month), we’ve been able to build up the food storage shelves to the extent shown in these pictures (and that’s not even looking at all that’s stored upstairs in our kitchen and pantry area!).
Slow progress is still progress, so just do what you can starting NOW, and you’ll be glad down the road that you did.
That’s a wrap for part two of the series! If you have any questions, make sure to drop them below, and stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4!