Beyond the Emergency Fund: The Frugal Pantry Project

This is the second article in a five-part series on preparing your household, “Beyond the Emergency Fund.” For five consecutive Mondays, we’ll look at a variety of preparedness methods such as food and water storage, alternative power sources and ways to prepare for specific types of household emergencies.

Last week we discussed the importance of having enough potable water storage on hand for each person in your family in the event an emergency disrupts the flow of public water systems. Moving right up the order of importance, next we’ll discuss food storage – something that can be costly in terms of dollars and storage space.

The 72-Hour Emergency Food Pantry

The initial phase of any good emergency plan is one that covers your family in the event you are cut off from facilities and rescue for 72 hours. In most localized, regional emergencies (floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.) help should arrive within three days. That is not always the case, but in terms of survival preparations, you can usually count on some relief within 72 hours of a disaster.

So first things first. Most people should have enough food on hand to survive three days without a trip to the store. However, if you are the type that shops every evening on the way home from work, you might want to put a little money aside and start your own food pantry at home.

When preparing a 72-hour emergency cache of food, the easiest thing to do is pick up a few extra non-perishables on your next grocery trip. Canned vegetables, dried beans, rice, peanut butter, and canned tuna are a good start. You can add in other snacks to build complete meals if you wish, but remember, chances are you’ll be operating without power and could be heating foods and water on a grill or over an outdoor flame.

Don’t forget to toss in a manual can opener to easily open canned goods. We picked up an extra one and tossed in our pantry next to our emergency food storage because in an emergency we didn’t want to have to be digging through the kitchen drawers looking for our can opener.

The Two Week Plan and Beyond

Scaling up a bit in scope of disaster scenarios, now imagine a regional disaster has occurred and basic services have been disrupted. Foods disappear from grocers’ shelves within three days, and resupply is impossible thanks to impassable roads. Now what?

The answer is a larger, two-week emergency supply of foods. Planning two weeks of meals for each person in your household seems daunting. Remember, when calculating water needs we used the rule of thumb one gallon of water per person per day. Similarly, you might estimate each family member’s basic caloric requirement, and then multiply by 1.5, considering in a survival situation you may be moving, rebuilding, scavenging, etc. and burning more calories than usual.

In our case, I’ve planned using 2,000 calories per person per day. That number is probably a little high, but accounts for tougher conditions than we are used to living with, when we might be able to lounge around and get by on 1,200 – 1,500 calories.

All Calories Are Not Created Equal

It might seem easy to come up with 1,500 calories worth of food by eating rice, pancakes and canned veggies and fruit. The problem is, that type of diet is severely lacking in two main types of foods essential to survival: fats and protein.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, I’d suggest checking out The 5-Gallon Bucket Food Storage Project created by Jack Spirko (creator of one of my favorite sites/podcasts, The Survival Podcast). Even if you don’t follow his storage methods, his ideas on planning for proper carbohydrates, fats and proteins in survival food stockpiles are important.

Prepackaged Long-Term Storage Food

If you aren’t up for creating your own food buckets you might want to check out long-term food storage vendors. I have personally tasted (and stocked) Mountain House foods. In fact, our pantry now includes a number of #10 cans from Mountain House, including foods like rice, green beans, beef stroganoff, spaghetti, chili mac with beef, granola cereal, etc.

The #10 cans have a 25-year shelf life if stored according to the directions (basically kept in a cool, dry location). I’ve also heard good things about companies such as Food Insurance and Shelf Reliance, but I have yet to try their products.

Here’s a look at our emergency food pantry – still in the early stages:

The Frugal Pantry Project (long-term storage) – a few #10 food cans, a lantern, flashlights, spare batteries and a few packs of beans and rice

Buying foods in this form is expensive, but the nice thing about such a long shelf-life is that you don’t have to focus on expiration dates and rotating stock as much. With a 25-year shelf life, we can basically buy a few #10 cans each paycheck, store them and forget about them until we need them. I suppose in 15 years or so I might crack one open and make sure it is still edible.

The bottom line when it comes to food storage is to start small. Consider the various disaster scenarios for which you’d like to be prepared, and their likelihood of occurring. For instance, a local natural disaster such as a tornado or a flood is more likely than a large scale, apocalyptic nuclear attack. Not saying we shouldn’t be prepared for both. However, I like to prioritize emergencies and plan accordingly.

With monetary emergency funds we try to get that first $1,000 stashed in case of a car repair, or busted pipe in our home. Will this prepare us for unemployment or a serious medical event? No, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get started. Similarly, I think it is prudent to have a few backup food and water supplies at home to get you through that likeliest, 72-hour emergency.

Once that first-level emergency food plan is in place, build from there until you have a level of emergency stockpile that makes you feel comfortable. How will you know when that point has arrived? When you can envision practically any type of emergency and sleep comfortably knowing you have done all you can do to prepare.


  1. I’ve also seen 72 hour kits to put in your car and others in backpacks. We have both. We keep the backpacks in an place that is easy to access in case we need to get out of the house super quick. The idea is to just grab and go!

  2. I was once one of those people who didn’t keep a lot of food on hand. In the early ’90s we were hit be a snow storm that knocked out our power for three days. No stores were open. We only had Chinese sausage and grits on had. And a small bag of charcoal. We survived but we am now more prepared.

  3. I just wrote about the opposite…reducing the amount of variety in my food pantry to encourage better food rotation and lower food spoilage rates.

    I haven’t considered buying long life foods for an emergency. We have a power plant in town, so our power outages don’t last that long even in the worst of storms. I think that has made me too lax about emergency preparedness. I think it’s worth trying some of the foods out for a camping trip and stocking a few we like. Thanks for the tips.

  4. Good post; really enjoying your comments. Too often, individuals “wrinkle their noses” @ the thought of food storage. In todays economy, having extra food in the pantry is “insurance”. Be it a natural disaster or personal crisis (job loss, health crisis); having extra food on hand is like having money in the bank. I know several families who were able to endure a job loss or significant change in their income because they had sufficient food on hand. Ergo, they only out of pocket food expenses they had were for milk, eggs & fresh produce.

    Having a 3 month “pantry” is ideal. Food should be rotated to keep it fresh. I would suggest starting out with learning how to menu/meal plan so you know what to have in your pantry and/or food storage. Better to store what you eat than 3 cases of creamed corn that everyone hates!

    Happy Monday!!

    BTW, contacted WaterBob company to place a group order, gave them the name of your blog as the source; they were going to contact you.

  5. I have a pantry full of food, that would probably last me a few weeks or more. If I were to use my grill or Chimenea I could survive for a very long time. Knowing how to cook from scratch helps.

    I think I am missing something, but I don’t see the point of having food supplies for more than a week. I don’t think there would be any disaster in my area that would require me to stay in my home for very long. I don’t know if it is because I live in CO and there aren’t very many weather related problems, or what.

    If there was a financial disaster involving loss of jobs, I still wouldn’t stay in my home for very long. My emergency plan is to move where there are jobs, even if I have to let my house rot.

    Short of Armageddon, I don’t see the point of having supplies in my home that would last more than a week. Except for one fact. Sales lead me to have more than a weeks supply of pantry food on hand.

  6. Where in the house do you suggest the pantry should be located? I always think of the basement as the safest place in a Hurricane, Tornado or Nuclear attack, but in the event of a flood all the supplies would be ruined.

  7. I try and purchased the canned items to build my pantry when the items are on sale. Don’t forget the can opener in the emergency pack.

  8. I’m guessing you’ll post tips on how to cook canned food with a limited energy supply in a future blog post?

  9. Is there any where to get a transcript of that Pod cast? My ears aren’t the best & I’m curious if he has info I haven’t heard before.
    I’ve gotten some long shelf life canned meat from Pleasant Hill and am planning on expanding the stash to other foods that we use a lot and that I can stretch out if needed. I tried last year to build up a stash with regular food and what I ran into was the regular stuff seems to have a shorter life then it used to. The food companies must be trying to cut costs by not preserving things as well? Or maybe the shorter date is a way to increase sales? I dunno – but I like to not have to worry about getting sick from what I’m eating.

    While we have a good power plant here, it was nice this last winter to just stay snowed in and watch the neighbors slide into each other. We just lived off the pantry and at one point I couldn’t even get my car out of our neighborhood for almost a week due to the street turning into a sheet of ice (no traction at all). It was nice to not have to stress about eating.

    I hadn’t thought of getting Mountain House spaghetti & such – I should do that so it’s easier on my kids when I’m too sick to cook.

  10. We have a corner of our basement that we use as our pantry. We have a good 3 month supply of food that I rotate out regularly. We only have about 12 gallons of water, but there is also juice and soda down there. Not the best option, but it would work in an emergency. Also, since we have two children in diapers I keep a supply of diapers and wipes on hand along with formula for the baby. I nurse the baby, but if something happens to me in an emergency I still want to have food on hand for her.

  11. @ Sam, we have ordered/used many of the Mtn. House products & have found them not only to be very tasty but very cost effective. Walmart is now carrying limited “flavors” of M.H. But if you watch the Mtn. House website, they will have sales (about $2 off per pack). I also recommend purchasing the meals for 2 or 4. We had a “Mountain House” for ourselves & 2 other couples. I purchased about 15 different kinds of their meals. We prepared them & then passed the pouches around the table, tasting each one. At that time, I realized a single serving spaghetti did not go very far ergo, buy the larger portion.

    I have long term (#10 cans) storage but I keep about 2 weeks of Mtn. House food in the event of an emergency i.e. power outage. We live in “hurricane alley” and know many who have been without power for > 2-3 weeks during an event.

  12. Great post! I’ve been working on putting up rice, dried beans, salt, cooking oil, flour, sugar, etc., plus laundry detergent, toilet paper, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and other staples. My comfort zone is to have at least 2-3 months of the shelf stable food items available. We’ve been very fortunate over the years not to have a disaster here, but you never know when something will happen.

    I also keep an extra tank of propane for the gas grill in case I need to use it for cooking/heating water on an ongoing basis. If that goes, I guess it’s building a fire outside in the yard!

  13. We have focused more on building our car emergency kit, rather than home. Partly because we are in an apartment and lack the space. We have a bookbag with waterproof matches, 3-day food and water supply (the food consists of 3600 calorie ration bars with a 5-year shelf life), medical supplies, thermal blankets, and other items.

    We now need to turn our attention to our home, and will probably check out some of those 25-year cans that you have.

  14. There’s a fairly inexpensive product called the Can Organizer that lets you automatically rotate your pantry items. Whatever you put in first comes out first. That way you’re using up your older food first, as you should, without having to keep track of dates, etc. Also, a company called The 7 Store has a storage food calculator on their site. All you do is plug in the number of people in your household, and it gives you the numbers on a chart of how much flower, sugar, etc., you need for a whole year.

  15. Any wood that falls out of our trees I keep in a pile that “officially” is for the pit pit we’ll have some day but it’s really so if the heat goes out we can either fire up the grill or make a fire pit. It makes me feel better knowing it’s there. The pile is currently the size of my car so it’s definitely enough for a while.
    Also got a kerosene heater (used) and have a sealed 5 gal bucket of fuel for it in the crawl space – packed for long term storage, the guy at Ace that sold it to me, called the manufacturer to make sure I’d be OK in keeping it i the bucket & it’s supposed to be good for 5 yrs.
    Also have a wash board on our back porch wall for “decoration” but it’s usable and I have a double wash tub stand with a wringer (farm auction find) that I keep a pot of flowers in & during parties they get filled with ice for drinks to set in but those are also decorative back ups. It just makes me feel better knowing that in the event something breaks I can still make do in a reasonable manner.

  16. Sorry for the typo – it’s supposed to be “fire pit” not “pit pit”. Wish I could go back & fix such things 🙂 I keep doing that more as I get older.

  17. Sam,
    Don’t forget that the flash point for kerosene is about 100 degrees. If you are going to use it in your house- make sure it is well vented. Charcoal and kerosene are full of CO2
    How about propane instead? Easy to get and can be used in a bbque. This is the time of year to stock up on such things.

    Enjoyed the article. My pantry is low, but it is the time of year to begin to stock up for winter…again:>)

  18. As someone who lives in Houston and has to deal with hurricanes at least every few years, peanut butter and jelly is an awesome staple. As long as you have a jar or two of each and either bread or crackers, you are good for a few boring days.

    I’m also a fan of owning a propane grill with a backup propane cannister…you can pretty much cook anything on them and you won’t lose as much food to power loss. 🙂 We don’t have a gas line into our home, so our propane grill and small charcoal grill are our main food cooking units when the power goes out.

  19. I talked to the chemistry guys at my work and the 4 engineers in my family before I bought the heater and for the possibility of kerosene fumes I’d just need to crack the kitchen window. They said a fireplace is more of a CO2 hazard then the heater.
    My Dad caught our house on fire with a propane BBQ during a power outage – not to mention they say on the news all the time to not do that to heat a home because of the fumes the BBQ puts off being lethal. I don’t know if that’s actually true but I’m not going to be volunteering for testing it. If chemists & engineers tell me it’s not safe then I’m not doing it.
    The kerosene heater I have is made to actually be used inside a home and is way safer indoors then having an open grill that’s made for outdoor use.

    If the damp, musty crawl space UNDER my house exceeds 100 degrees then I have more issues going on then a 5 gallon bucket of kerosene going poof.
    Also, a $60 heater is not equal to spending hundreds on a propane grill that is so big I can’t fit it in my car. Not to mention the additional storage space required for the grill.

  20. I enjoy your site very much, I am glad to see an article about food storage. We just recently started our food storage plan, starting with buying extra canned goods and rotating them, and now adding Mountain House dehydrated food. Along with our budget constraints, living in an apartment poses challenges due to lack of space so we try to be creative. Thanks for all your helpful articles.

  21. This is one of my biggest fears–in Dec ’08 we had a vicious ice storm in the Northeast which knocked out power for a month or so in my area. Where it’s cold, you have to worry both about food and water AND about heat. No good having enough food if you freeze to death. A generator is a sound investment.

  22. As a sidenote, if you have a generator make sure you know how to use it properly–carbon monoxide poisoning also isn’t pretty.

  23. Generators are great, especially since they are going down in price. Our town has an ordinance against them- something about how our power grid is setup. And I’m sure someone did something stupid that involved one and that caused a law to be made.

    And, honestly if I’d known about that ordinance before I bought my house I wouldn’t have bought one in the town I did.

    All emergency means I can think of for food & heat make CO2 and furnaces make it too. It’s always a good idea to have at least one CO2 alarm in case of a malfunction .

  24. Being prepared for an emergency sounds like a great idea but it also seems like a little bit crazy to. At least where I live there is hardly ever anything if anything at all to classify as an emergency. We have nothing that could cause a natural disaster.

    • Tracy,
      While it may not seem like there is anything that could go wrong, it’s never a bad idea to have a backup plan. The area I live in has never had tornados or earthquakes, and in the last 5 years we have had a few of each. It’s always best to be on the safe side, just in case.

  25. Tracy – then you are blessed.

    Where I’m at we have at least two or three massive blizzards every year & every few years a blizzard that drops enough to bury houses. This last winter I literally had snow up to my roof line in front – took me forever to dig out the front door enough to get outside. Oh, and the drifts were so high my dog could (and did) run up them, over the fence & out of my yard (that was hilarious until she kept running and didn’t turn back).

    And then there’s the tornadoes – the storm cells that generate those have such high winds that some trees crack like tooth picks even if the storm doesn’t make a twister. And those trees fall on power lines, block streets, etc.
    Oh & lightening from those storms can wreak havoc on various systems – if it hits the sub-station by my house then I loose power for hours if it hits the city water tower then it takes out all the wireless antennas and such up there. Every time lightening hits that tower my work has to replace the wireless antennae.

    Two years ago, in December, something happened (don’t know what) and my entire neighborhood lost power for over 10hrs. That was scary at 15 degrees outside and you don’t know how long it will be before power resumes so the furnace can kick on again.

  26. Great tips. Folks with pets should also keep a store of pet food too. We do.

    I’ve got a store of food and water that should last me at least a couple weeks. But having recently seen both “The Book of Eli” and “The Road” I am now considering a much longer store of food and water. 😉

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com

    • I’ve yet to see “The Book of Eli,” but “The Road” was one of the more disturbing (and I mean that in a good way, I suppose) apocalyptic films I’ve seen. If it doesn’t move you to start preparing for hard times, nothing will.

  27. I am one of the types that picks up groceries on the way home from work in order to make that night’s dinner. I have trouble planning ahead a couple of days, so planning in case of an emergency isn’t something that has crossed my mind. You bring up a lot of good points though. In an emergency situation, you would be working without power, so you need to keep some non perishable foods on hand. You have to think about things that don’t need to be cooked at all and don’t go bad when left out of the fridge for days.

  28. It is far more economical to use ready-to-eat canned foods (soups, stews, beans, etc.) than buying freeze-dried foods (needs large amounts of water to prepare) for a few weeks of food storage.

    Freeze-dried foods are also not very palatable for home use (on the trail most are just OK)

  29. If you live in a region that gets snow – you could melt snow for the freeze dried food. Just an idea that my grandparents & parents used during winter plumbing problems.

    I think having a combination of different things is best so if something goes wrong (like the can opener breaks) you have options & can adapt to the resources available at the time of emergency. Just my two cents.

  30. Great article. I guess I’ve always had a mindset about having plenty of food on-hand, passed down from my Dad who lived through what I am now calling “the previous depression”. Now I spend a lot of time making my own long-term preps by dehydrating food from my garden. I do, however, purchase things like powdered eggs, milk and cheese for my long term storage needs.

  31. What if ur allergic to iodine. What do u do to make water drinkable. The water tablets have iodone in them