Thursday, January 19, 2012

Emergency preparations, Part 5: Planning your food reserves

(Other articles in this series are listed in the sidebar, or you can click here to display them all in reverse chronological order.)

When planning your emergency food reserves, there are a few very important guidelines you should follow. Also, bear in mind that we're speaking of a one-month reserve of food in these articles. For larger reserves, and longer-term storage, you should plan on a greater proportion of dried foods, as tinned foods will be too bulky and heavy for convenient storage.

1. Nutritional content. This is very important, not in the sense of trying to produce three-course culinary-masterpiece meals on a single-burner camping stove, but in the sense of nutritional values and needs. You need to plan a diet that includes sufficient (and sufficiently balanced) nutrients to sustain health, and provide sufficient energy to enable you to do whatever you need to do. Unfortunately, our modern diet is all too often not very well balanced. We can get away with this in normal daily living by varying our diet - if we find ourselves craving something like milk, or spinach, or whatever, we can usually satisfy that craving. However, in an emergency situation, we may not have access to what we're craving! Our food supply should therefore be nutritionally balanced, and be sufficient to provide enough energy (i.e. its calorie content) to sustain us in good health.

2. Menu planning. This is more important than it might seem. Not only must it cater for our nutritional requirements (see [1] above), but it must provide sufficient variety to keep us interested in our food. Macaroni and cheese may be a quick-and-easy meal to prepare, but eating it three times a day, seven days a week, will get very old, very quickly! I recommend preparing up to a dozen meal plans, each fairly simple and uncomplicated, but providing for different types of meals, different tastes, etc., to keep your family interested in their food. It's not necessary to plan twenty-one different meals so as to have a full week of variety (although you can do so if you wish). We're talking about an emergency, after all, and under such conditions, no-one should expect a full gourmet menu!

When you've prepared your meal plans, calculate the nutritional content of each meal, and make sure that your menus will meet your daily requirements. It's a good idea to have a couple of bottles of multivitamin and -mineral tablets in your stash, enough for each person to take one or two each day to supplement their meals, just in case. Also, make sure that your meals each day provide sufficient calories to give you (and those with you) the energy needed to carry on with normal activities and tasks.

If you've planned your menus 'up front', you'll know that all these needs have been addressed, and you can relax. In an emergency, there'll be enough other things to occupy your attention without having to worry about food and nutrition as well!

3. Type of food preservation. We spoke earlier (in the 'Cost of food' section of Part 3 of these articles) about comparing the cost of different methods of storing food. It was shown that tinned green beans were about a sixth of the cost per portion of the same vegetable when freeze-dried - not a minor consideration, when one's on a tight budget! It's also important to consider what method of food preservation is most appropriate for your emergency strategy. If you're going to shelter in place, tinned foods are a perfectly viable solution. Their weight and bulk don't matter too much. However, if you're planning to pack up and leave (for example, to join other family members in another city or state, to wait out the emergency situation with them), lighter, less bulky foodstuffs might be much more practical, even if they are more expensive. Someone with a big freezer might want to store his emergency food supplies in it; but what happens if the power goes out? If he has a generator and sufficient fuel to power it until his food supplies are used up, all well and good . . . but that presumes his fuel and/or generator won't be stolen by others, trying to lay hands on whatever they can get to survive the emergency. That sort of behavior is all too common, I'm afraid.

This is also relevant to how you plan to prepare your food. Ideally, you should have at least half your short-term food reserves in a form that requires little or no preparation. That way, if you don't have access to a stove or other source of heat, you can eat them straight out of the can or packet, if necessary. They may not taste too good that way, but they'll give you enough nutrition to survive. Similarly, if much of your emergency food reserves are in the form of dry food (beans, rice, pasta, cereal etc.), you'll need water to rehydrate and prepare them. Do you have sufficient water for that purpose in your reserve supplies? If not, where, when and how do you plan to obtain and store it? If municipal water supplies are cut, do you have a means of obtaining water from other sources, and - equally important - making it safe to drink it (i.e. by filtration, purification tablets, etc.)? What about containers for it? Don't forget, if you want to collect water with them, you have to be able to carry them. You can buy very nice water storage barrels, some as large as 55 gallons . . . but you're not going to move them very easily when they're full! Better have smaller, more portable options as well. (I've used large Ziploc bags for the purpose when nothing better was available. They worked.)

4. Selection of food. I'm constantly surprised by people who stock up on emergency food that they don't normally eat - even food they don't particularly like! What's the point of buying a couple of dozen tins of spinach if you don't like and/or eat spinach in your normal diet? And if you do like and eat it, have you tried the tinned variety? It'll taste rather different to fresh spinach, so it might not be a bad idea to find out whether you like it before you invest in a few weeks' supply of the stuff! Base your emergency food supplies on ingredients you already eat and enjoy. Obviously, you won't bother to store the full variety of foods you presently buy - that would be unnecessarily complex for an emergency reserve. Pick foods that meet your nutritional requirements (see [1] above) and start from there.

5. Look for easy-to-store alternatives to fresh ingredients. You can't easily store fresh meat, but most supermarkets stock corned beef, Spam, tuna, tinned chicken, canned ham, etc. I also recommend looking for smaller producers of canned meats. They frequently concentrate on quality rather than quantity, which makes their product more expensive, but you get what you pay for. I currently have in my emergency supplies up to a dozen 1½-pound cans each of pork, beef and turkey, plus a number of ¾-pound cans of ground beef. I paid something like $4 a pound for them, including shipping. Given their superior taste and quality, and five-year shelf life, I think it was worth it. Similarly, try to identify fresh ingredients you use a lot, and look for equivalents that can be easily stored. For example, potatoes, onions, etc. are all available in dehydrated form. Milk is available as a low-fat powder that can be easily reconstituted with water, or in dehydrated or condensed form in tins.

I'm not going to tell you what to buy in the way of food. You know best what you like and enjoy. I'll use my own emergency reserves as an example. They contain the following bulk supplies:

  • Black, kidney and navy beans (canned and dried);
  • Vegetables such as sweet corn, green beans, peas, spinach, carrots, etc. (mostly in tins, but some dehydrated);
  • Beef, pork, turkey, chicken, tuna and stew (canned);
  • Pasta of various types;
  • Rice;
  • A selection of half-a-dozen commonly used herbs and spices for food preparation;
  • A gallon of cooking oil;
  • Dried milk, flour, sugar, artificial sweeteners, salt, pepper, etc.

I've bought enough of those foods to meet the needs of my group for a month, but not so much that I can't rotate them into my everyday cooking. That way, when I need one of those ingredients, I get some from my reserve supplies, and write down on my shopping list what I've consumed. Next time I shop, I buy more of them, and put them at the back of my emergency supply of that particular ingredient, moving older stocks to the front. In that way I rotate my emergency supplies on a routine basis, so that I'll use all the cans or packages before their "best by" date. I only need to use half-a-dozen items every week from my emergency supply to keep the rotation going.

I can't emphasize too strongly that you should not buy things like MRE's or freeze-dried foods if you've never eaten them before. You won't be used to their taste or their effect on your body (MRE's in particular are notorious for their effects on your digestive system - see here and scroll down to the section marked 'The Ugly' for more information). Instead, buy foods that you currently enjoy. That way, you can be reasonably sure you'll enjoy them in an emergency, too! Freeze-dried foods taste pretty good, in my experience, and are worthwhile; but even so, taste-test them before you buy, and stock up only on those varieties that you enjoy.

Finally, if you buy emergency food in cans, buy multiple can-openers! The last thing you need is to sit there, looking at your stash of food, unable to open it because you've lost the can-opener! Buy two or three good-quality units, keep one in the kitchen, and store one or two with your food.

EDITED TO ADD: Fellow blogger Carteach0 makes a very important point in this comment:

Something that cannot be stressed enough... 'flavor enhancers'.

A can of Rotel tomatoes turns rice and beans into a feast. Hot sauce has a serious purpose when the food is bland. Spices, herbs, seeds for fresh herbs. These things can turn 'survival' into thriving.

There is a reason the spice trade changed the world.

He's right, of course. Definitely a point worth remembering! Thanks for your input, Carteach0.



Carteach said...

Something that cannot be stressed enough... 'flavor enhancers'.

A can of Rotel tomatoes turns rice and beans into a feast. Hot sauce has a serious purpose when the food is bland. Spices, herbs, seeds for fresh herbs. These things can turn 'survival' into thriving.

There is a reason the spice trade changed the world.

Anonymous said...

Building "reserve stocks" is actually pretty easy - just add a few extra of whatever you're regularly buying to the shopping cart.

Some items - such as Peter's 3/4 lb cans of ground beef - may not be available where you routinely shop, but pretty much everything else you eat regularly will be.

A tip: when putting things away in the pantry it's useful to date them with a permanent marker rather than depend on the cannery for an intelligible date code. For example, "51" on a can of beans tells me I purchased it in May of 2011, so I can use it before the can with "121" (December 2011). (I use a single year code because that covers a decade, and I plan on using it long before that; canned food has a "flavor" shelf life of approx. 2-2.5 years, and a "nutritional" shelf life of 3.5 - 5 years, assuming proper storage in cool temperatures).

If you have a friend or relative in the restaurant biz, talk to them. They undoubtedly buy in case lots from the warehouse of a food wholesaler, which has better deals than the "consumer warehouses" (Costco, Sam's, BJ's, etc.). Be forewarned: you'll be buying in full case lots only, and they don't take returns, so be sure you really, really like corned beef hash because there are 48 cans of it in that case....

Which is actually an opportunity for several families or groups to purchase quantities together and split them up. FYI, the wholesalers are volume driven, deal only with commercial organizations, and won't tolerate either you or Aunt Suzy discussing the various brands of pudding they might have to make a choice. Give them the order, they'll pull it and you can load it yourself (I suspect your Cousin Tony who runs a pizza joint won't want another 20 cases of whatever sitting in his kitchen for a week, but adding stuff to his regular order is one way of getting the case pricing).

raven said...

In defense of MRE's- and I have eaten a lot of them....
There is nothing better to toss in your car or backpack, along with a plastic liter of water. (do not fill it to the top so it will survive freezing) With no thinking you have a snack, coffee,a meal (sorta) toilet paper, matches, maybe drink mix and a candy bar. They last forever , have an extremely durable package, and are perfect for a toss and forget about it emergency ration. Add a mre heater to it as well and the "meal" can be warm.

Jerry said...

One way to ensure that you will have something to eat that you will like, and that your supply will be fresh, is to use your emergency food on a daily basis.

My pantry is also my emergency food storage, and it is constantly rotated. Even though I have a couple of cases of MREs on hand, there will come a time when they are expired and need to be thrown away (unless I use them first). Keeping a well stocked and organized pantry, I am checking weekly to see if we need anything that needs to be re-stocked.

tweell said...

A note about food storage - colder is better. Even the mighty MRE will become inedible after a year of baking in a car trunk (at least it will in Arizona).
The best/by date of dry goods and such is with an assumed storage temperature of 70F. For every ten degree change, double (or halve) the maximum storage life. So, if white rice has a ten year storage life, in a 60F cellar it will be good for up to 20 years! Conversely, my rice is stored at 80F and I must use it within five years.

B said...

Flavor enhancers are important....But don't count on the tomatoes or other high acid foods lasting more than 3 years before the liner on the can gives up and the can rusts out.

Better to choose dehydrated tomatoes or other items to change the flavor.

StxRynn said...

Don't stock up on Chlorox, it'll evaporate thru the plastic bottle. Then you won't know it's efficacy to sterilize water. Better to use powdered pool shock treatment (granular calcium hypochlorite). It will treat thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of gallons of water when mixed up (1 heaping teaspoon to 2 gallons of water yields 5% chlorine solution). 8 to 10 drops/gallon, 2 drops/litre for clear water, mix very well, let stand 30 minutes. Cold or cloudy water? double the drops. Let stand longer or pour between 2 vessels if you object to the taste.

Happy surviving!

STxRynn said...

Also, stock up on commercial size coffee filters to filter solids from your water before sterilizing.