Now that you’ve planned how much food to store, let’s examine where will you store it, and in what kind of containers. Canned food from the supermarket is an obvious first choice for stockpiling, as no additional work is needed to prepare it for storage (beyond labeling and rotation discussed below. Note, however, that bulk foods (e.g., grains, dried beans, etc) have a very low amount of packaging for the amount of food that can be stored. As an example, approximately 220 lbs of wheat can be stored in five 6-gallon stackable buckets, which covers the grain requirement for two adults for three months. Hence, food storage is possible in all but the very tightest of residences. The ideal pandemic pantry will have a mix of canned and dry bulk items, depending on one’s budget and the availability of sufficient water and energy needed for each item’s respective preparation.
The storage location would ideally be a cool, dry place, to ensure the greatest longevity of the stored items. The storage lives of most foods are doubled by every 18º F decrease of the storage location. Humidity would ideally be low, but food storage techniques can obviate most limitations in this regard. Basements or first-floor closets tend to be the most promising, as they are the coolest places in homes. Clean out existing closets single-mindedly to make room. If shelf space is not available, then be creative with locations throughout the house. Large Tupperware containers under the bed, buckets under end tables with decorative cloth draped over, etc.; let the sky be the limit to your imagination.
There are several ways to store food that don’t require refrigeration, from dry-store containers to different canning techniques.
Containers for food storage are primarily chosen for their structural integrity and protection: it’s easier to stack buckets and Tupperware than it is small sacks, and mice will find it harder to chew through High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) than a simple paper sack.
The quality and nutritive value of the food extracted from food storage can never be better than the quality and nutritive value of the food when it was harvested (with few exceptions), so take care to buy fresh, quality food, and store it quickly and effectively soon after you purchase it. Try to time your purchases to harvest time, if possible.
Some whole grains (i.e., wheat, corn, rye) and most beans and peas will stay relatively fresh for five years in a cool, dry location. Other whole grains, refined grains, and some legumes (e.g., oats, barley, brown rice, soybeans, peanuts and split peas, for example) need protection from oxygen to prolong their shelf life beyond a year.
Another storage consideration is insect infestation, especially in ‘“field” grade produce. Many a stored container of grain has been opened after much time has passed only to reveal a complete loss of the stored crop, as insects can live on the oxygen that filters through most containers.
Rodent and varmint control
Rats and mice can pillage your dry food store if it is not properly packaged and protected. The first rule is to provide physical barriers. Second, pack your stores in the HDPE containers with Mylar bags (mentioned below) to eliminate smell and access. Third is the use of traps or poison baits. All these methods are effective and should be implemented when you begin storing bulk foods.
To preserve freshness, eliminate possible insect infestations, mold, mildew fungus, and/or eliminate the problems of humidity, use humidity- and oxygen-barrier containers. The most popular such container combinations are Mylar bags in HDPE buckets. HDPE buckets can be found in many hardware stores (look on the bottom); choose the non-dyed ones if you are going to be storing directly in the bucket without a Mylar bag.
The next step is to remove the oxygen and elevated humidity levels. This can be accomplished with:
- Oxygen absorbers
- Vacuum packaging
- Nitrogen packaging
The easiest to use are oxygen absorbers, which come in two basic styles: one reduces humidity while removing oxygen (“B” type), and the other is humidity-neutral (“D” type). If grain or legumes have a moisture level of 11% or slightly higher, use the absorbers that reduce humidity. If you are not sure, use at least one of each. The two most common capacities of oxygen absorbers are those that remove oxygen from 300cc and 500cc of air.
To determine how many oxygen absorbers do you need, first estimate the amount of space left at the top of the container. Next, estimate the amount of space left in the voids between the grains/legumes. With whole grains and legumes, a rule of thumb is 1800 cc of oxygen in a 6-gallon bucket. For example, if you have the 300cc absorbers, use 6 in this situation.
After the Mylar bag has been placed in the bucket, the food is poured into it. To increase space utilization of the buckets and bags, lift the buckets up about 8 inches and thrust them down brusquely to floor a few times to remove air gaps. If you have more than one bucket to seal, repeat the above process until all buckets are ready to seal. If you have regular Mylar bags, make sure your Teflon-coated clothes iron (or Mylar sealer) is at the right temperature for proper sealing. Then open the container holding the oxygen absorbers, drop them into each container per the estimated quantity, seal the absorber container, press out any excess air from the bag, and quickly, but carefully, seal each of the Mylar bags by ironing the Mylar flat across a board1, striving to eliminate wrinkles. A complete airtight seal is sought, so seal as much of the Mylar as you can all the way from the top of the grain to the top of the bag. If you have the Ziploc Mylar bags, this step is much easier, and the bags are reusable for future rotation.
For those stockpiling for themselves or one other person, you may use multiple, smaller Mylar bags for each bucket to limit the amount of food you have open at any one time.
The two major canning techniques are water bath and steam pressure. Water bath is limited primarily to high-acid foods, such as tomatoes and most fruits. Steam pressure allows you to can a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and even meats. Food is loaded into the canning jars in two basic methods: Raw pack: food is loaded fresh, then cooked as a part of the canning process Hot pack: food has been cooked first and is loaded hot
Foods that work well with hot pack are apples, strawberries, figs, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, rhubarb, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, corn, okra, onions, peppers, potatoes, winter squash, soybeans, spinach, sweet potatoes, and zucchini. Foods that work well with raw pack (and there is some overlap) include strawberries, cherries, grapes, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, asparagus, beans, carrots, peas, and zucchini. Real canning Ball® jars and lids are preferable to regular glass jars (i.e., mayonnaise jars), as the former are far more reliable. Make sure to follow a careful sterilization process for the jars before use. Refer to a canning guide for full instructions and timing information.
Food dehydration is simply the removal of moisture from food through evaporation, without cooking. The most complete drying can be achieved with good circulation of warm, dry air. In hot, dry regions, air-drying can be employed. But in other places, mold or mildew could contaminate the food before it is dry enough.
Drying can be conducted outdoors, using drying racks by themselves, or in combination with a solar collector. Drying indoors can be accomplished in an oven or a food dehydrator appliance. Refer to a dehydration guide for full instructions and methods.
Pickling is another option, though the process can strip a significant amount of the nutrients away; 75–85% of the B-vitamins are lost, and 100% of vitamin C is eliminated. And pickled foods contain a high amount of sodium; just look at the labels next time you go shopping. So while pickling is an alternative, don’t expect to employ it to help you store nourishing food.
Food Storage Practices
Weight, label, inventory, and place your food stores in your designated storage area (until the time comes to rotate them out). The labels should include the harvest and packaging dates, the source of the food item (in case a particular food product is found to have gone bad, you know which of the other ones to pull), the type of packaging, and final weight.
Always date your stored food, labeling containers with the source and type of food. This will come in handy as you rotate your food stores to maintain freshness. Every time you take a canned item out, mark it on a handy shopping list positioned by the food store. Every time you near the end of a bulk container, mark it down on a bulk buy list, so that you can pick up another 25 or 50 lb sack of the item consumed.
Keep track of the expiration dates of bulk items so you can determine how much to consume on a regular basis to finish the food item before the expiration date. For example, if you have 27 cans of evaporated milk that expire in 2 months, you would need to consume an average of 3 cans per week to use it before the expiration date.
When: Begin your family’s food storage planning now without delay. If you plan to can/dehydrate/pickle, contact the farmers who frequent farmers’ markets and determine when you can buy large amounts from them and at what discounts. Begin buying storage containers, Mylar bags, and oxygen absorbers now, as online suppliers, who are already experiencing backlogs, will be swamped when Phase 4 begins.
- Food Storage and Emergency Preparation
Why Food Storage? What to Store (includes Food Storage Calculator, does not include fruits and vegetables), How to Store, Using Food Storage, Gardening, Emergency Preparation
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
- Food Storage Cooking Schoool. Use It or Lose It.
Utah State University Extension
- A Management Plan for Home Food Storage 6 pages pdf from Utah State University Extension
- Food Storage, Rodents and Hantavirus 5 pages pdf
Utah State University Extension
- Alan Hagen’s Prudent Food Storage FAQ