Food Storage Baby Steps

My food storage and preservation class starts today, and I thought it was worth reproducing this essay - the very basics of getting started on storing food. Why would you want to do this? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, I don't think anyone who has tracked events over the last decade can argue that it would be a good thing for you to have enough food to go through a period of disruption. Whether we look at various Hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes or events in Japan, we know that the kind of social disruption that can affect access to food supplies really does happen quite frequently. The work involved in getting your food reserves organized is pretty small compared to the pain of having no food and water in a crisis.

Second, it is just common civic obligation - we are fortunate enough to know that in most societies there are people who will risk a great deal to help others. And we know that there are people who are too poor, too vulnerable or who were in the direct path of the disaster who really need that help. But if those of us who have the means and resources to prepare do not, we risk overwhelming the helpers, putting them at risk, and risking that the most vulnerable, the true victims don't get the help they need. It is our obligation to meet our own needs first, to be responsible for ourselves, and be able, if possible to help rather than hinder.

Third, the most likely reason you will need your food storage is not that your household will be in the path of tsunami or other disaster. The most likely reason is the simplest one - that you will lose your job, that you will have an extended illness, that your family will enter a period of difficulty and stress, and you will need a reserve of things built up when times were good. Most of the people I know who most gratefully fell back on their storage are not disaster victims, but ordinary people going through hard times.

Fourth, all of this serves you in good times as well - it enables you to spend less money, eat higher quality food adapted to your taste, to know what is in your food, to reduce the quantity of industrial preservatives and chemical additives, to eat locally year-round.

Finally, self-provisioning is in many ways one of the most basic human projects - it long predates even agriculture. Human beings have been putting aside what was abundant and finding ways to make it last for just about as long as we've been human - it is a fundamental part of our history. Connecting to our food this way ties us back to our grandparents and beyond. So let's get started! BTW, I do have two spots left in my class if you would like to join us! Email at and see the syllabus in the post immediately previous for details!

Project one - Sit down with a cup of tea. I give you official permission to use another beverage if you prefer, but get a drink, tell the kids to go outside and play, the spouse that you are busy, get a pen and paper, and give yourself a little quiet time before you begin rushing madly off in all directions (and yes, I do know how hard it is to find the time - I've got four kids, remember ;-)). Put on some music, breathe deeply, put your feet up, and relax a littlle.

All of the first projects under this heading involve drinking something and having time to think. So wait until you've got them, and come into this not in a panic "I've got to get food now!" but calmly. Now, you are going to do three things.

1. You are going to sit down and list 4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 4 dinners and 4 snacks that use mostly ingredients that can sit on a pantry shelf or come out of your garden and *that your family likes.* They don't have to be complicated - in fact, ideally they won't be. If you can't think of enough of each, begin thinking through the recipes you make regularly, and asking "could I adapt this - that is, could it use shelf stable tofu instead of the fresh stuff, could I try it with kale instead of spinach in the late fall." You can get seasonal about it, listing separate meals for different seasons, but if that seems overwhelming, just focus on four basic meals that everyone will eat - pasta with tomato-garlic sauce, your best dal recipe, stuffed wontons...whatever.

This will be the basis of your first food storage projects - you are going to build up enough of the ingredients to be able to make these meals easily, without going to the store. These are things you will eat anyway. These are things that will save you time, if you don't have to run out when you need the ingredients. This is not a commitment to anything strange or weird - it is just shopping ahead. So figure out how many times you want to be able to make these meals. Let's say you get the ingredients to do each of them four times (and if money is tight, it may take some weeks to gradually add a little extra to your cart) - by then, you'll have 16 days of food you like in the house without much extra worry. If you can get case or bulk discounts, you will probably even save some money. And it is food you are going to eat anyway. If you are ambitious, and no one has interrupted you, make the grocery list(s).

2. Now you are going to get up and walk around your house. Because the next project is finding some space for food storage. Now buying a few extra ingredients probably won't require you to do any major rearranging, unless you have a miniscule kitchen. Even then, you should be able to fit a lot of this food in the cupboards if you do some rearranging. Don't do it now - today we're still drinking tea - but put that on your "to do soon" list - just sort through the cupboards, move the stuff you don't use that often, consider getting rid of things. (You know how the nesting bowls always get cluttered because you only use the bottom 2 regularly, so the little ones are all over the place, and how your baking area has 6 little heart shaped tart pans that you use once a year, if that... that stuff can get moved to a different place, odds are. We have the sense that all like things must go together in a kitchen, but this was not actually laid down as law anywhere I know of )

But if your goal is to get more food than just your meal list, you'll need space for it. So now is the time to begin looking. How are you fixed for closet space? Could anything be packed up and moved around (remember, if you haven't used it in a while, you probably could move it). Are you storing any junk (and no, it doesn't count if all the "junk" belongs to your partner, and your stuff is "good stuff" that is absolutely needed - first rule of decluttering is "you've got to get rid of some of your own stuff" ) that could be given away or sold? What about under the bed? What about the basement? What about up along the top of the kitchen cabinets? What about your bedroom? Just because it is food, doesn't mean it has to live in the kitchen. Ideally, what you want is a pantry space - so now is the time to establish one. What will you need? Do you need shelving? Need to rearrange furniture? Need to build something? Have a yard sale? Again, don't do it, make a list. There's still one more step.

The third thing you are going to do is make another cup of tea or other preferred beverage and answer some questions. You may want to run these questions by other members of your family, or you may not, but the idea is to help you figure out what you want. You don't have to write the answers, although you might want to.

1. What am I storing food for? What are my concerns? What kinds of situations are likely in my region?

2. How much food do I want to store? For how many people? For how many pets? How much water do I want to store? Am I likely to have people outside my immediate household who are with us in a crisis? Are there other things I want to store - clothing, medical supplies, tools? What are they?

3. How much time and energy do I have to devote to this? How much space do I realistically think I have to devote to this? How much money can I spend each week/month on this project. What are my biggest constraints (ie, is my family not supportive, am I working long hours, are there no good sources of bulk food near me?) How might I overcome them?

4. Where will my stored food come from? How much of it will I grow/produce? What are my goals for food preservation? How much of my food will I buy, and from where? What can I get locally, and what do I have to get through the industrial food system? What's the best and most ethical source for my food? Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote - if you spend it at an industrial source, you say "great, do more of this" - if you spend it locally, you say the same thing to your local farmer. Now every one of us buys some food through the industrial system it is safe to say, and some of us don't have the money or the access to do more than get their food any way they can. Those people are off the hook - but if you have *any* discretionary food income, you need to think a little about the votes you are casting when you buy food. Also, how can I use my food storage to save money and time?

5. What do I imagine doing with my food storage? Do I want it mostly to provide a hedge against a crisis, or for day to day use? Do I imagine myself eating regularly out of it and replacing it? Do I want to be able to share with others, or is my first priority protecting my own? How will I prevent loss of food to age, insects, mold? That is, what's my plan for making sure the older food gets eaten regularly and that I'm adding more food as I go - food is not like antiques, it doesn't get better with age . How much am I and my family prepared to adapt our eating habits so that we get the most out of our food storage - that is, we save the most money, we make fewer trips, we always have food to hand, as well has having a reserve?

6. Finally, ask "Do I have to do this all alone?" How can I get others - from my own family to my neighbors and my town or city involved in the project of becoming more food secure? How can I see my own food security as part of a larger community project. Do I have neighbors who might be interested in forming a buying club, a coop or simply in a "stocking up" club? Do I have friends who would like to share the work of preserving? Are there people in my community who could benefit from food storage - can I get them involved? Should my community have a reserve of food on hand in case of a crisis - can I bring this up with my municipality? What about water - does my community have water pumping stations for when the power is out? Could they be established? Are there community resources I don't know about - gleaning programs, bulk buying groups, community kitchens, food preservation classes, friends with the same interests. What's out there?

And what's in here? Is my family supportive? Neutral? Hostile? Are there ways to get them on board? How did I approach this issue, if they aren't interested in participating - could I approach it differently, with a emphasis on saving money, or on likely short term emergencies (hurricanes, blizzards, power outages) in ways that would be less scary than the way I came at it? Can I involve my husband, my wife, my partner, my kids, my parents, my friends? Can I get them excited about helping with the menus, picking out things to store, building projects, saving money, working together as a family?

Ok. Now that you are done drinking tea, and probably have to pee , you can stop. That's enough for today - I know you are all excited, and I can't stop you from running off to reorganize the kitchen and buy 60 cans of tomatoes, but I'd encourage you to stop here, and leave some stuff for tomorrow, so you'll remain enthusiastic, rather than getting exhausted and overwhelmed. Although if you really, really can't stand waiting to reorganize a kitchen, you are welcome to come over and do mine .

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thanks for this start! now i'll be ready when i finally am able to do the food preservation class, and will feel a little less insecure about our household's self-sufficiency.

I love this post. Thank you for your tips and unique perspective. I needed this. I love how you can also offer a way to approach this mentally and present this to others that is approachable. I have been wanting to take steps in this direction because it really does make sense, and also because we live in a VERY hurricane prone area of the U.S., so it actually is likely to happen that we will need food stores - it's happened before for Rita and Ike. The extent of my food storage during hurricane season though has been canned grocery items. I like the idea and the "digestibility" of thinking of 4 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners the family likes and eats often, and starting there. I love your writing style, ideas, and the way you make this approachable to others who may not be as "into" this.
Thank you again for this post.

By Jayne Anne (not verified) on 31 May 2011 #permalink

This is a great way of approaching food storage for a newbie. Anyone on a special diet of any kind will vouch that the first step is always planning meals. One meal is much more manageable than trying to start with ingredients.

Good post.
Personally, I keep plenty of food in the house; dried beans, lentils, peas, frozen, dried and canned stuff, etc. ... but I'd be one happy woman if I could get my dearly beloved spouse to stop emptying out my #$!@#%&@ stored water ...
Ah, well. We'll be fed, if thirsty ...

With all the natural disasters around the world, making sure your family is prepared is top priority. Adding freeze dried food storage makes being prepared easy!