Learn What to Look For
Don't be intimidated. Ask questions. Don't buy until you get the answers you want.
Think in terms of calories per person per day
High stress situations require more calories. Under normal circumstances, adults need 2000-2600 calories per day, more if very active. Children need 1500-1600 calories per day or more to maintain growth and energy1. Be sure you can determine how many calories per person per day you are purchasing. If you are unable to determine the quantities in a kit, combo, or year supply, you may find yourself not having as much nourishment as you thought. For example, 2,000 calories per day for a month for one person is about 60,000 total calories; for a year, 730,000.
Look for nutritious calories, not empty calories.
Try to get calories from as wide a variety of sources as possible. A lot of calories from sugar drinks or candy are far less healthy than from balanced meals.
Be informed about nutritional values
For example, how much daily nutritional value, on average, will you get in carbohydrates, protein, iron, or vitamins A or C? During times of stress or disease, nutritional values take on additional importance.
Do not rely entirely on number of servings
Not all servings are created equal. Servings per person can be misleading if it's not clear what the serving size is or what is included. For example, a cup of orange drink, a cup of beef stroganoff, a tablespoon of butter, or a quarter teaspoon of salt all technically count as a "serving". Make sure you are comfortable with what your supplier means by "servings per person". Three servings per day could mean only 600 calories per day. Also, serving sizes for similar products are not necessarily consistent from one supplier to the next.
Be concerned about menu fatigue
Buying only a few menu options may be challenging to endure should you ever need to use your food over an extended period of time. The more variety you have, the more enjoyable your eating experiences will be and the less shock it will cause to your body. Think through what it would be like to eat entirely from your food storage for a week, a month, six months, or longer, and compare that to the variety you've enjoyed over the past week. Having a variety of grains, legumes, dairy, meats, fruits and vegetables plus a variety of seasonings on hand will go a long way toward expanding your meal options. Clearly, you should not sacrifice calories and nutrition for the sake of variety–after all, your first priority is to save lives–but for almost no additional cost, and with some forethought, you can have a dramatically more enjoyable and healthy food supply.
Be aware of weights and volumes.
Gross or shipping weight includes the weight of the packaging materials. "Net weight" is only the weight of the food and the best measure of how much food the package contains. Knowing the net weight or volume of what you are buying makes it easier to comparison shop. For example, focus on dollars per ounce (weight) or dollars per gallon of like items when comparison shopping, just as you do when shopping at the grocery store. Remember that the equivalent quantity of food occupies more space if it's freeze dried than if it were dehydrated.
Know what kind of cook you are
Better yet, anticipate which kind of cooking you most want to do during an extended period of difficulty. If you like to cook or bake from scratch, you can save money by emphasizing basics like wheat, rice, legumes, milk, eggs, and individual types of dehydrated vegetables, fruits, and seasonings. This gives you the greatest flexibility for menu choices and is the best way to avoid menu fatigue. If you prefer just-add-water options, you can save time and heat resources using dehydrated or freeze dried meals or entrées. If you want to heat and eat without adding water, MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat)–like what the military uses–may be the ticket. Most people settle on a combination of all of the above, due to the variety they allow, to save both money and time.
Scrutinize shipping and handling charges
Food storage orders can be quite heavy and shipping can be a major cost if you're not careful. Some suppliers charge a flat fee, others charge according to the weight of the order. Take into account the entire cost, including shipping, when price comparing. A reasonable flat shipping charge presents an opportunity to add additional items to the order without incurring additional shipping costs.
Don't just look at the price
Not all food storage companies are the same nor do they package and price their products the same. Products perpetually on sale may actually not be the best available price. Beware when you can't determine price per net weight, calories per day, cans per case, number of complete meals, etc. This might be a situation where you are not getting the best value for your dollar.
Understand the pros and cons of the different kinds of packaging
The enemies of food that has been prepared and packaged for long term storage are heat, moisture, oxygen, and light. Protecting against heat depends 100% on where the product is stored, but the other three–moisture, light, and oxygen–are mostly controlled by the packaging. Make sure oxygen is removed from the container by using an oxygen absorber or by nitrogen flushing. For pails, which are not 100% air tight, make sure the product is sealed inside a metallized bag (a common brand is Mylar®), otherwise oxygen will leak back in. Certain freeze dried foods kept in oxygen-free cans that are stored in a cool, dry environment can retain nutritive value for 25 years or more (see tip regarding shelf life).
Understand the differences between "freeze dried" and "dehydrated" food–and be sure you're not paying freeze dried prices for dehydrated products
Technically, all freeze dried food is dehydrated, but not all dehydrated food is freeze dried. However, the term "dehydrated" usually refers to processes whereby most of the water is removed naturally or by the application of heat. "Freeze dried" means the food is flash frozen and placed in a vacuum chamber and through a process called sublimation the ice is changed to a gas and removed
Both types of food, freeze dried and dehydrated, are important parts of a comprehensive food storage program. One is not necessarily better than the other. Depending on the food, one method may be better than the other for preserving the food for storing long-term. Dehydration is the best method to reduce moisture for many types of foods, such as grains, legumes, baking mixes, and some fruits and vegetables, especially carrots. Because heat is involved, adding water doesn't necessarily return products to their original form and taste. The two main benefits of dehydrated food are that it generally costs less per ounce than freeze dried equivalents and more can fit into a can than if it were freeze dried, sometimes several times more, requiring less storage space.
On the other hand, freeze dried food retains much of its original size and shape with freeze-drying while dehydrating (heat or air dried) will cause the food to shrivel much like a raisin. Freeze dried foods rehydrate more quickly than most dehydrated foods. When rehydrated, freeze dried food is much like frozen food that has been thawed retaining most of its original appearance, taste, and nutritional value. Under the same conditions, freeze dried foods generally store longer than dehydrated foods. The downside of the freeze drying process is that it is more complicated, making the food more expensive. Most just-add-water meals, with the exception of Mountain House's freeze dried entrées, contain a mixture of dehydrated and freeze dried ingredients. When purchasing a year supply or other long-term combo, pay attention to how much is freeze dried and how much is dehydrated. Generally, the greater the percentage of freeze dried, the more expensive per net weight it will be.
Do not take promises of a 25-year shelf life at face value
Sweeping promises of a 25-year shelf life abound in the food storage industry. Of a truth, only certain foods in a narrow range of conditions have been tested. Wheat, rice, corn, and sugar have life-sustaining value in excess of 30 years; pinto beans, rolled oats, pasta, potato flakes, and apple slices have lasted as long as 30 years also; non-fat powdered milk and dehydrated carrots, 20 years. Additionally, independent university studies of Mountain House brand freeze dried foods stored in airtight #10 cans–in not always ideal conditions–have a shelf life that exceeds 25 years. The same freeze dried foods stored in pouches last only seven years2. Because both storage conditions and packaging have dramatic effects on shelf life, promises of long shelf life must come with assumptions that the packaging is ideal (cans are best, metalized bags a distant second), and that the storage conditions are cool and dry. It is unknown whether untested foods may or may not be long lasting.
"The most common misuse of the promise of a 25-year shelf life is when a variety of meals and food items are bundled together, for example, such as in a "year supply". Many, if not most, of the items thus bundled are untested or may not be in ideal containers. Could they have a 25-year shelf life? Possibly. But it is not known. Unless they have turned rancid, they almost certainly will have life sustaining value (so don't throw it away!), even though some diminishing of taste and nutrition may occur. Until multiple independent tests are undertaken, no one can say definitively, except as noted above, how much of the original taste and nutritional value will still remain after 25 years.
Know the facts about "year supplies" and large food storage "combos"
These are usually described as providing all the food necessary for one or more persons or a family for a set amount of time, be it for a month, three months, six months, or a year. Such turn-key solutions can save you a lot of both time and money. If you are not careful, however, bundling food together can impede your ability to follow the other tips detailed above.
Questions to answer before buying a pre-designed year supply:
- What are the total calories?
- What are the total calories per person per day? (Should be 1500-2800, depending on needs.)
- Do "empty" calories comprise a high percentage of total calories? (Empty calories are calories whose source has little or no nutritional value. For example, beware if crackers, sugar drinks, and desserts provide half the calories.)
- How much cooking from scratch will be involved?
- How much variety or flexibility in menu options is there?
- How much is freeze dried and how much is dehydrated? (Get more details if the answer is 100% freeze dried because that would be unlikely and impractical.)
- What is the daily average nutritional value? And if it's deficient, what other food items would I need to adequately supplement this year supply or combo?
- How is the food stored, or what containers does it come in?
- What are the shipping & handling charges?
Find a trusted supplier
One of the most important things you can do when shopping for food storage is find a trusted supplier. Since long term food storage is packaged in opaque materials such as metal cans, it is impossible to see the quality of the product without opening it. Is the can full? What is the quality and taste of the food being canned? Was the right amount of oxygen absorption used? These issues are especially important when buying a year supply – that's a lot of cans that may not be opened for years! When shopping for year supplies, additional questions arise as mentioned in Tip #14. When the cans are finally opened - likely in a critical time of need - the last thing you want is to discover substandard food or packaging. Several ways to search out a trusted company include asking questions, talking to other customers, tasting their products, knowing how long they have been in business, looking at customer reviews, evaluating their satisfaction guarantee, etc.