Common Food Storage Mistakes

December 5, 2013 by | Be the first to comment »

Food storage is the first step most people take on their path to self reliance, but it’s easy to make costly and dangerous mistakes—it’s not as simple as tossing a few extra cans in the garage and watching the latest episode of Doomsday Preppers.

Storing food properly requires planning and ongoing effort, otherwise it will end up spoiled and useless.

Fortunately, it’s relatively simple. This article outlines the most common food storage mistakes and how to avoid them, ensuring you have a fresh supply of food for you, your family, and if you choose, friends and neighbors.

Storing the wrong type of food


Many people base their prepping decisions on what they think our military does. When it comes to food storage, this often leads them to stockpile cases of MREs as their main emergency food source. Don’t get me wrong, MREs have many advantages.  They are great for short-term, grab and go food with plenty of calories in a small package (especially if you field strip them), but their high cost and short shelf life make them one of the least effective food storage options.

There are several reasons they aren’t appropriate as the bulk of your food storage. First, they don’t last very long; when stored around 60°F they have a shelf life of about 60 months, but in a hot environment (above 90°F) like you’d encounter in Florida or Texas, you’ll be lucky if they stay fresh longer than three months. Second, at about $8 per meal, they are significantly more expensive than other options.  Third, although they contain less fluid than normal food, they may freeze and need to be defrosted before eating in a cold environment.

MRE Shelf Life Chart

I typically only pack MREs for short outings (less than a few days) during warm weather, and rarely store any due to their high cost and short shelf life.

Canned food

Our next option is canned food. The main disadvantages are bulk and weight, but this is offset by their low-cost and long shelf life. According to analysis by chemists at the National Food Processors Association of canned foods retrieved from the steamboat Bertrand, which sank in the Missouri River in 1865:

In 1974, chemists at the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. Although the food had lost its fresh smell and appearance, the NFPA chemists detected no microbial growth and determined that the foods were as safe to eat as when they had been canned more than 100 years earlier.

The nutrient values varied depending upon the product and nutrient. NFPA chemists Janet Dudek and Edgar Elkins report that significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost. But protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”

NFPA chemists also analyzed a 40-year-old can of corn found in the basement of a home in California. Again, the canning process had kept the corn safe from contaminants and from much nutrient loss. In addition, Dudek says, the kernels looked and smelled like recently canned corn.

The fact that the food remained nutritious after over 150 years was likely due, in part, to the cool temperature of the river water it sat in, but another canned food shelf life study conducted by the U.S. Army revealed that canned meats, vegetables, and jam were in an excellent state of preservation after 46 years. While heat does affect canned food, the effects are not anywhere near as dramatic as with MREs. In my opinion, thanks to their value and robust shelf life, canned food scores a tie with our next option.

Freeze-dried foods

Freeze-dried foods are a simple and cost-effective addition to your food storage plan, but don’t take their marketing at face value. While they boast an impressive 25–year shelf life, it’s based on ideal conditions; such as a cool, dry location between 50-55°F.

Though not as dramatic as with MREs, heat and humidity will cut the shelf-life of even the highest-quality freeze-dried foods. I don’t have a handy little chart like I did with the MREs to show you the shelf life based on storage temperature, but check back in 25 years and I’ll let you know. 😉

Their exceptional shelf-life is due to the complex packaging process; fresh food is freeze-dried to retain nutrition, then sealed in nitrogen flushed Mylar pouches to remove oxygen, and then further sealed in stackable Polyethylene buckets, making them far less susceptible to the degrading effects of heat. Plus, they are significantly lighter and more easily transported.

Dry Goods

Beans, white rice, oatmeal, wheat, and other dried goods can last well over 30 years, especially if properly packaged, and they are the most cost-effective option available.

I recently packaged about 40 pounds of white rice in a Mylar bag with oxygen absorbers and a 5 gallon bucket for less than $30—though not a balanced diet on its own, that’s enough food for one person for one month. I did the same with kidney beans (about 35 pounds of beans fit the bucket) for about $50, and will be packaging a variety of other staples shortly.

Most people should find it relatively easy to afford 6–12 months worth of dry goods, which you would supplement with other stored food, livestock, and vegetables, fruits, and nuts from your garden. Finding space to store it may be a little tougher, but it takes up less space than any other option.

Not storing what you regularly eat

Wheat is versatile and inexpensive, but if you hate it, what’s the point of storing it? Most people who think they’ll eat whatever is available in tough times are wrong—you can’t say for sure until you’re forced into that position.

More often than not, people in disaster situations eat less or simply don’t eat at all until it’s too late—then the added stress and lack of nutrients weaken their immune system, bringing on illness.Getting sick is bad enough, but getting sick when you’re out of medicine or can’t reach a doctor can mean the difference between life or death.

It’s simple; figure out what healthy foods you eat most frequently and every time you buy them, pick up one or two extra packages. I started with canned vegetables. Peas are a winner with everyone in my house, so I always toss a few extra cans in the cart. Over time, I managed to store a variety of canned vegetables, fruits, spices, pasta, and more. It didn’t take long before I had a one year supply of all the foods and condiments we regularly eat.

Storing food under less than ideal conditions

I doubt that you live in an eight bedroom mini-mansion (if it makes you feel any better, neither do I) so storage space is probably tough to come by. It may be tempting to store your food out-of-the-way in the garage—avoid this if possible. We’ve already talked about the effect of heat on shelf life, so I won’t beat that dead horse any longer.

I’ve lived almost everywhere: military barracks, tents, tiny condos, and large homes—this has taught me that you never have enough storage space. I’ll admit that I do store some food in my garage, mainly because of the sheer quantity, and although this isn’t ideal, it’s less of a problem because we regularly eat from it so it’s constantly rotated, in other words, FIFO.

There are better places to store food inside your home, away from the elements though. For example, you’d be surprised just how much space you can find in your home if you really try, such as:

  • Under beds
  • Behind couches
  • Inside the cold air return
  • In a basement
  • Under the stairs
  • Inside an ottoman
  • In your entertainment center
  • Closet floors
  • Utility room
  • Inside tables
  • The space in a corner cabinet

Not rotating stored food

When grocers stock their shelves, they place the newest products in the back. This ensures they don’t get stuck with expired food they can’t sell. You should do the same with your food storage.

Thrive Life makes some of the best damn shelves I’ve seen for effortless food rotation, but they aren’t cheap. They also offer smaller units that fit in your pantry or cabinet.

If these are out of your price range, you have a few other options. Handy folks can make their own shelves from plywood, or you could simply place store-bought shelves two or three feet from the wall, or even place them sideways, then load them from the rear. (This is what I did.) The key is to ensure your shelves are sturdy because the weight of cans adds up very quickly.

Underestimating food needs

It’s easy to look at your food storage and think you have enough, but unless you’ve actually calculated the caloric value, you don’t know for sure. Filling foods like rice and beans take up a lot of space, but don’t provide many calories. The average person needs about 2,000 per day—more if you’re physically exerting yourself. Remember, you need to keep you caloric intake up to keep your immune system functioning and stay healthy.

Evaluate the food needs of each member of your family. Babies will require formula if you aren’t breastfeeding, and the amount will increase until about eight months when they start eating solid foods. (In case you didn’t know, breastfeeding also increases the mothers caloric needs.) Those with chronic illnesses may not be able to eat certain foods; for example, someone with a gluten allergy (celiac disease) won’t be able to eat wheat, barley, rye, and many other foods without an adverse reaction, and the elderly may have difficulty digesting MREs or dehydrated foods, so you’ll need plenty of other foods they can safely eat.

You shouldn’t just think of yourself or your family though. When your neighbors are starving and find out you have food, how long do you think it will be before you have a crowd beating down your doors? A little extra food to keep the peace is never a bad idea.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

Was this info helpful? Share it with your friends!

Share Your Thoughts...

Leave a Reply: