Another way is to buy special ‘survival food’ that you don’t crack open until an emergency but usually lasts much longer than supermarket food. Either way is fine, and most people end up doing both.
The beginner prepper guide explains the pros and cons of each method, plus basic concepts such as how much food to store for your family. And if you’re not yet familiar with the FIFO “store what you use, use what you store” model, check that out too.
What to look for when shopping
Although there’s a specific food list below — and you’ll be just fine if you only buy from that list — it’s worth understanding the basic differences between what’s good for your prepper pantry and what isn’t. The more you understand, the easier it is to customize or improvise.
- Long shelf life. Even though you’re not trying to match the same kind of 20-30 year shelf life of freeze-dried food, or the 5-8 year shelf life of MREs, you still want to be smart about picking durable products. Try to avoid anything that doesn’t last at least a year.
- Easy to store. Durable packaging, like a can or box, is much better than the kind of packaging you’d find with potato chips. Food that needs to be cold/frozen isn’t automatically disqualified, but be careful about relying on electricity too much.
- Easy to prepare. In the kind of emergency where you’re relying on this food, you might not have utilities or other stuff that makes cooking easier. So we favor foods that can be eaten as-is, only need basic reheating or rehydrating, or are easy to mix and match with other ingredients.
- Nutritional. Not everything needs to be “healthy,” and while mental/emotional comforts are valuable in a crisis, you don’t want to make things worse by trying to live off junk food — including Nuclear Twinkies 🙂
- Calorie density. Some food (or how it’s packaged) gives you more caloric bang-per-square-foot than others, and limited space is often your biggest problem when building up a pantry.
- Dietary restrictions. An emergency isn’t the time to be picky, but it’s okay to avoid foods that your family universally hates, are discouraged by your faith, or someone has a dietary problem with (eg. lactose or gluten.)
There’s an old canard about healthy grocery shopping: shop in the outer aisles, where fresh meat and produce are usually placed, and avoid the inner aisles, where processed, sugary foods live. When shopping for preps, you want to do the opposite: shop the inner aisles where shelf-stable foods are usually displayed.
The best items are found on the interior aisles. Skip the fresh stuff around the store perimeter.
Besides budget, space is often one of the biggest limitations when building your at-home food stores. So you want to cram as much nutrition as possible into your space. Most of the foods on this list are already dense (eg. a bag of rice), but even a bag of pasta that’s half food and half air can add up over time.
For instance, a large bag of potato chips is about the same size as a 20-pound bag of pinto beans. One cup of chips has about 137 calories, 9.4 grams of fat, 12.4 grams of carbs, and 1.6 grams of protein, while a cup of pinto beans has 240 calories, 1 gram of fat, 44 grams of carbs, and 16 grams of protein. Not to mention that the bag of chips is full of air.
Beans are a good example of thinking about things like ease of preparation, nutritional value and density, and versatility. For example, we recommend having both dry and canned (wet) beans because dry beans last longer, but canned beans can be eaten right out of the can without spending any fuel on heat.
Beans also pair well with other staple ingredients, not just for taste and variety, but as a powerful combo that levels-up your prepping game — that’s why USAID recommends pairing beans with grains in emergencies:
Beans are consumed as an affordable source of protein in most parts of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. They are a good source of fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants. When combined with a grain, beans provide complementary amino acids to create a complete protein meal.
What it means to be shelf-stable or non-perishable
One of the easiest ways to build up your pantry is through buying a little extra during your normal shopping trips and following the simple but powerful First In First Out method. The key to the FIFO method is taking advantage of the time left between when you buy the food and it’s expiration date.
So, the longer the food lasts, the easier and better your prepping will be. The US Department of Agriculture defines “shelf-stable” as:
Foods that can be safely stored at room temperature, or “on the shelf,” are called “shelf stable.” These non-perishable products include country hams, canned and bottled foods, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, spices, oils, and foods processed in aseptic or retort packages and other products that do not require refrigeration until after opening. Not all canned goods are shelf stable (these will be labeled “Keep Refrigerated.”)
Tip: When in the store, get in the habit of looking at the expiration dates before putting something in your cart — it’s not uncommon to end up with something that’s already wasted much of its life sitting in the market, or worse, has already expired.
You might be wondering if the expiration date printed on a package is truly the end of life for that food. In medicine, for example, the “expiration” date is often when the medicine becomes slightly less effective — it doesn’t mean the medicine is worthless or harmful.
We’d love to give you a list of common foods and tell you exactly how long they’ll last, but that’s more difficult than you might expect. For example, the LDS Church says that wheat berries can last 30 years or more, Be Still Farms says they last about a year in the fridge, while the Whole Grains Council says six months is the max. Who to believe?
USA Emergency Supply, a provider of preparedness supplies, gives as honest an answer as we’ve seen:
Determining the storage life of foods is at best an inexact science as there are so many variables. These range from the condition your food was in when you first purchased it and includes many other factors… This information should be used as a general guide only, and should not be followed “as the gospel truth” because your results may be different.
There are five enemies of shelf life:
The more you can reduce these factors, the longer your foods will last. An unopened bag of rice won’t last as long in a garden shed as it will in your home, for example.
For dry goods that you need to repackage once home, the gold standard for storage is mylar bags paired with oxygen absorbers and stored in sealed buckets.
However, shelf-stable foods often last longer than you think. Many canned goods give a “best by” date within two years of production, for example, even though they’ll last much longer as long as the packaging isn’t compromised. The USDA says:
Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor.
They also add this warning about botulism, a particular danger of canned foods:
NEVER USE food from containers that show possible “botulism” warnings: leaking, bulging, or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; canned food with a foul odor; or any container that spurts liquid when opening. Even a minuscule amount of botulinum toxin can be deadly. Can linings might discolor or corrode when metal reacts with high-acid foods such as tomatoes or pineapple. As long as the can is in good shape, the contents should be safe to eat, although the taste, texture and nutritional value of the food can diminish over time. Home canned foods should be used within 1 year.
These are the most common foods on a prepper’s shopping list, organized by category and backed up by research.
Grains should be one of the “anchors” of your prepper pantry. They’re versatile, nutritious, and store well.
- Rice: long grain, short grain (sushi), and basmati (Indian)
- Wheat berries (white, hard preferred)
- Dried corn
- Rolled oats
- All purpose flour
- Cake flour
- Instant grits
- Instant mashed potatoes / potato flakes
Beans and legumes
Another anchor in your pantry. Beans and legumes are packed with much-needed protein and fiber, plus they’re versatile and store well.
- Pinto beans
- Black beans
- Navy beans
- Kidney beans
- Chickpeas/Garbanzo beans
- Lima beans
- Black-eyed peas
Fats are essential for cooking, nutrition, and feeling full — don’t just assume “fat equals bad.” Whether saturated or unsaturated, most of these fats last at least 1-2 years on the shelf.
- Peanut butter (also a decent source of protein)
- Vegetable oil
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Coconut milk (good for Indian and Thai dishes)
Meats and other proteins
- Canned salmon
- Canned tuna
- Canned chicken
- Vienna sausages
- Textured Vegetable Protein
- Imitation bacon bits
- Country ham
- Dry-cured bacon
Canned meat: some people love it, some hate it. But it’s a good thing to have on hand, and you might be surprised at the meals you can make with it. Canned chicken can be surprisingly good. Canned salmon can make for delightful and surprisingly elegant salmon croquettes. If you get a sushi hankering, you can make spam musubi.
You might be surprised by meat substitutes in the list, such as textured vegetable protein (TVP). TVP can last up to 20 years if stored properly. Imitation bacon bits are made from TVP and last much longer than real bacon.
Finally, also consider dry-cured meat products, such as whole country hams, which can last indefinitely as long as they remain unsliced, and dry-cured bacon, which does not require refrigeration. (Don’t confuse dry-cured bacon with the wet-cured stuff you find in the refrigerated section.)
Tip: You can extend the shelf life of meat by several years by turning it into nutrient-packed pemmican bars.
Spices will help make your bland anchor foods taste better, which improves morale. Salt is especially important to store because it’s essential for bodily functions and can be used for food preservation. Vinegar, especially white vinegar, is useful for cleaning in addition to flavoring and preservation.
Many of these items, like salt, granulated sugar, and honey, last forever if properly stored. Many other pre-ground spices will last for years, though they lose potency over time.
- Granulated sugar
- Honey (soak it in warm water if it crystalizes)
- White vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Rice wine vinegar
- Soy sauce
- Black peppercorns (requires a pepper mill)
- Cinnamon sticks
- Chicken bouillon
- Garlic powder
- Italian seasoning
- Garam masala
- Chili powder
- Cayenne pepper
- Curry bars
- Ginger: powdered and crystalized
Outside of the top four — salt, granulated sugar, honey, and white vinegar — take these as suggestions. We suggest a few “combined” spices like Italian seasoning and garam masala for convenience but feel free to buy the individual spices and mix them yourself. Also, consider whole spices like cumin and coriander seed, which retain flavor longer and can be roasted whole for more flavor.
Tip: Quality honey will last forever, but it might crystallize and look weird. Just soak the container in warm water to heat the inside and everything will mesh back together.
One odd thing we threw in that you don’t see on most food lists is curry bars, which are blocks of fat and seasoning. Just cook up some meat and vegetables, add water and the curry bar per directions, pour over rice, and you have dinner.
Tip: You can buy many of these spices in large plastic jugs from warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club.
Even if you don’t bake in your daily life, you might want to keep some of this on hand in case you want to bake bread during an emergency, for example.
- Syrup (imitation pancake syrup lasts two years or more, corn syrup lasts indefinitely, but maple syrup requires refrigeration after opening)
- Powdered milk
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Corn starch
- Pure vanilla extract
- Powdered sugar
- Jell-O mix
Fruits and vegetables
Besides general canned fruits and vegetables, also take a look at raisins and other dried fruit that might not be in a can.
Interestingly, high-acid canned foods like tomatoes have a much shorter shelf life than non-acidic ones — about 18 months — but the list of dishes you can prepare with canned tomatoes is endless: Butter chicken, chili, marinara, salsa, etc.
Instant coffee and drink mixes like Kool-Aid or powdered Gatorade can come in handy because drinking nothing but plain water can wear on you in an extended emergency — or worse, trigger the caffeine-addicted monster to show up at the worst time.
Tip: Caffeine is included in the first aid kit list for the same reason 🙂
Food to avoid or store sparingly
There are a few items that seem like they’d be shelf-stable, but actually have inferior shelf lives. Try to avoid:
- Brown sugar. There are conflicting reports on brown sugar. Some authorities, like the LDS Church, caution against storing it, while DoesItGoBad.com says it lasts a long time. In our experience, it won’t go bad but it will harden over time. You can use the sugar if you’re able to break it up. Brown sugar is an important ingredient in a lot of recipes, so it’s good to have some on hand, but we wouldn’t fill a bucket with it.
- Brown rice. While white rice can last for decades, brown rice has an oily layer that limits its shelf life to 6-12 months. It also takes longer to cook, which means more fuel used.
- Whole wheat flour. Just as with brown rice, whole wheat flour does not last as long as white flour due to its higher fat content. If you prefer whole wheat flour, look into milling your own wheat berries since the berries will last much longer than the flour.
- Beef jerky. Besides being expensive, it usually only lasts a year or two.
- Granola. Granola is a great hiking food, but it only lasts about six months.
- Nuts. Packed with nutrition and reasonably shelf stable, but be aware their high fat content limits their shelf life.