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How to Start a Long-Term Home Food Storage & Prepare for Emergencies

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Centuries ago, food pantries, or “larders” as they were called then, were an essential space in every household. Weekly trips to the market were impractical or impossible, and families relied on their pantries to get them through the lean winter months.

Today, most people live a short drive away from the grocery store, so organizing a home food pantry might seem unnecessary. However, there are a number of reasons why organizing a pantry for long-term food storage is a smart idea.

The Benefits of a Home Food Pantry

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There are many benefits to building a food pantry for long-term food storage.

1. Emergency Preparedness

One of the biggest benefits of a home food pantry is that it enables you to prepare for short- and long-term emergencies. There are many scenarios that could make it difficult or impossible to go to the grocery store, and Ready.gov has an extensive list of possible emergency situations to illustrate the point; these include everything from a biological attack to a major snowstorm to a pandemic. You might find that your stress levels increase once you read the list – mine sure did.

It’s important to realize that food shortages can happen anywhere, at any time, even if your area is not experiencing an emergency. Most grocery stores only have enough food on hand to meet the needs of their community for three days, sometimes even less. If something happens to disrupt the food-supply chain, this means that your local market could run out of food very quickly.

2. Save Money

A home food pantry is also a great way to save money at the grocery store. A large pantry gives you the space you need to buy in bulk, take advantage of weekly sales, and can your own food from the garden. A well-stocked pantry also means you don’t have to run to the grocery store every few days, which saves money on gas. With fewer trips to the store, you’re also less likely to be tempted by impulse buys and other unplanned purchases. You’ll also save a considerable amount of time by shopping less.

3. Food Security

A home pantry provides you and your family with food security. This is especially important if you lose your job, lose a working spouse, become ill, have fluctuating income, or if you only work seasonally. Having plenty of food on hand means you don’t have to worry about feeding your family; this can alleviate a great deal of stress in uncertain times.

How to Organize a Home Food Pantry

Setting up a home food pantry doesn’t have to be a major project. It’s often best to start small and slowly build up your pantry over time.

1. Consider Your Goals

First, think carefully about why you want a home pantry. Your goals will directly affect how much space you need. For example, is your goal simply to have a three-day supply of food for everyone in your family, as Ready.gov recommends, or do you want enough food stored to get you through a longer emergency? Do you want your pantry to serve as a mini market so that you’re able to stock up on bulk or sale items, or do you want extra space for canned produce and farmers’ market goods?

These are just some common goals for a food pantry, and yours might be a combination of all of them. It’s important to think about what you want to use your food pantry for so that you set aside enough space to meet your needs.

2. Think About Location

The best place for long-term food storage is often against an outside wall in the basement because it’s coolest here. However, if your home doesn’t have a basement, any cool, dark corner or closet will work well. If you live in a small house or apartment, devoting an entire closet to long-term food storage might not be an option. Instead, look for other unused spaces you could store extra food in. Under the bed and at the top of your closet are good places to start.

3. Build or Purchase Shelving

If you need to, start shopping for sturdy wire or wood shelves to use in your pantry. Shelving often goes on sale in August during back to school events, and in January. If you have the skills and tools, you’ll save money by building your own shelving.

4. Start Shopping

It can be prohibitively expensive to shop for an extra two weeks’ supply of food all at once, which is why it’s often better to go slowly:

  • Pick up a few extra cans of food each time you go to the store.
  • Take advantage of double coupon days.
  • Stock up at discount grocery stores.
  • Buy extra of your favorite foods when they go on sale.
  • Save on produce by purchasing food that’s in season.
  • Visit you-pick farms to stock up on fresh vegetables. These foods will have to be preserved through pickling or canning, but you can save a lot of money doing it yourself.

What to Store in Your Pantry

When it comes to stocking your pantry, only buy and store foods that you already eat regularly. There’s a good reason for this: If you have to rely on your pantry during an emergency, you and your family will be experiencing higher levels of stress. If you’re forced to eat foods that you don’t like or don’t normally eat, it will make the situation that much more challenging to endure.

Another benefit of stocking up on familiar foods is that it makes rotating your inventory even easier. Regular rotation ensures that you don’t waste food by letting it expire or go bad. If you’re using your pantry to store sale items, it doesn’t make sense to buy a bunch of food you’ve never tried before. If you don’t like it or the quality is poor, then you’ve wasted your money. So, what should you store in your pantry? Here is a list of foods that work well in long-term storage:

  • Rice
  • Dried beans, lentils, or peas
  • Protein bars, granola bars, or fruit bars
  • Canned soups, fruit, and vegetables
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate
  • Powdered drink mixes
  • Nuts and dried fruits
  • Beef jerky
  • Pasta
  • Instant soup mixes
  • Flour
  • Baking essentials (such as baking soda, salt, and yeast)
  • Sugar
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Dried milk
  • Trail mix
  • Applesauce
  • Comfort food (like cookies, candy bars, and chocolate)
  • Evaporated or condensed milk
  • Oils (olive oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil)
  • Crackers
  • Oats
  • Pancake mix
  • Cereal (including hot cereals like Cream of Wheat)
  • Chicken, beef, and vegetable bouillon cubes
  • Liquid seasonings (including soy sauce, vinegar, and Sriracha)
  • Liquid sweeteners (including honey, maple syrup, chocolate syrup, or agave syrup)
  • Spices (such as salt, onion flakes, cinnamon, and ginger)
  • Packaged foods (including macaroni and cheese and instant potatoes)
  • Canned meats (including tuna, sardines, oysters, chicken, turkey, pork, sausage, or Spam)
  • Formula or baby food (for very young children)

Buying shelf-stable food sometimes means buying processed food, which can be low in essential vitamins and other nutrients. This is why it’s best to supplement shelf-stable foods with healthier canned food, or even fresh fruits and vegetables.

Water is another important consideration, and the amount of water you have on hand will need to align with the goals you’ve already set for your pantry. If you’re stocking up for an emergency, plan on having two gallons of water per person, per day, for at least three days. Two gallons will supply enough water for everyone to stay hydrated, as well as provide water to cook, flush toilets, and do a bit of washing.

Buy Store Foods

You might also need to store some home essentials and personal care items. These might include:

  • Diapers
  • Toilet paper
  • Moist towelettes
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Feminine care products
  • Paper towels
  • Water purification tablets or a portable water filter
  • Dish soap
  • Medications and vitamins
  • Candles
  • Batteries
  • Bleach or other disinfectant
  • Laundry detergent

It can feel overwhelming to think about all the food and supplies your family relies on regularly. To make the process easier, keep your grocery receipts for a month and then categorize everything you bought. This helps you see what you and your family rely on the most. You should also think about whether or not you’ll need to share your pantry food with neighbors or other family members during an emergency. If you’ll be sharing, you’ll need extra food on hand.

Store Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

It’s important to realize that you can store fresh fruits and vegetables for several months if the environment is right. As a general rule, fresh foods need a cool, dark environment with some air circulation in order to stay fresh. One of the best ways to store fresh foods in your pantry is to buy or build a stackable storage unit that encourages air circulation. You could use stacking, open-air plastic or wire bins available at any home improvement store. You could also use a wooden orchard rack, or you could build your own storage system.

When it comes to choosing produce to store, always choose the best. Any fruit or vegetable with bruising or nicked skin will quickly decompose in storage, and this can spread to other foods. Another smart strategy is to choose foods harvested locally. Buying fruits and vegetables from your local farmers’ market will ensure you get the freshest food possible.

Below are some general guidelines for storing specific vegetables long-term.

Onions

Onions are one of the easiest vegetables to store long-term because their high sulfur content aids preservation. Store them in a cool, dry environment with good air circulation. Panty hose works great for storing onions long-term. Onions can last up to eight months in proper conditions. However, note that sweet onions will only last a few weeks in the refrigerator.

Winter Squash

Winter squash (such as acorn and butternut) keeps best at 50 degrees. You shouldn’t allow the squash to touch each other or a hard surface, so wrap them in paper towel or newspaper. Check on them monthly to make sure they’re not developing soft spots.

Potatoes and Other Root Vegetables

Potatoes can last up to six months in a home pantry if they’re cured first. Other root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, and beets, can be stored for three to four months. To cure potatoes, lay them in a single layer on newspaper in an area that’s 45 to 60 degrees for two weeks. This will toughen the skins and prevent them from turning green.

Long-term storage for potatoes and root crops is tricky because they need a cold environment, around 35 to 40 degrees, with relatively high humidity. Most of the time, this means storing them in a root cellar or unheated basement or garage. However, if you have access to a cool space around your home, you can store these vegetables in wooden crates packed with straw or sawdust; this will help keep the temperature cooler and more stable. Fluctuating temperatures are the kiss of death for root-crop storage, as it causes these vegetables to start sprouting.

It’s best to store potatoes in small groups rather than in one large pile. The bottom potatoes will quickly get bruised under the weight of a larger pile; larger piles also limit ventilation. Never wash root crops before storing them. They’ll do best if you put them in a cold, damp environment right as they are. If you’re storing them outdoors (for example, in a box under your porch) never let them freeze; once they thaw they will decompose quickly.

Cabbage

Just like potatoes and other root vegetables, cabbage also likes a cold, damp environment. When it’s stored correctly, cabbage can last three to four months. Keep all the outer leaves intact until you’re ready to eat the cabbage; the outer leaves help protect the inner leaves. Cabbages often do well when they’re hung, head down, from the stem, or wrapped in several layers of newspaper and stored on the floor.

Rotate Pantry Foods

Home pantries can help you save money and be prepared for potential emergencies. However, they can also be a waste of money if you don’t stay on top of your inventory. Forgotten food can rot or expire, making it inedible. This is why you need to set aside time to periodically check on your pantry and rotate out any food that is about to expire.

When stocking your pantry, put items with the nearest expiration date up front so they get used first. It also helps to mark each box or can with its expiration date in black marker so it’s easy to see at a glance. Every three months, go through your pantry and carefully examine cans and preserved foods. Any cans that are beginning to rust should be used immediately. Throw out any cans that are bulging, as this can be a sign that air (and bacteria) has been introduced. Never eat any food that has an unusual texture or odor.

Other Pantry Essentials

If you’re using your pantry for emergency preparedness, don’t forget to pack other supplies that will help you cook food in the event of a power outage. Some ideas include:

Other Pantry Essentials

Final Word

Your food pantry can serve many purposes. It can simply be a space to store extra food you buy on sale, or it can be a life raft for you and your family in the event of an emergency.

I recently started building a food pantry in my own home for winter food storage. We live high in the mountains on a steep, winding road that the state doesn’t plow in the winter. Even a little bit of snow makes driving dangerous, and during a winter storm it can be days before the road is passable. The power also goes out frequently, in summer and in winter, because of all the trees. So, having a well-stocked pantry is essential for where we live.

Do you have a home pantry? What foods do you find work best for you and your family?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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