Fear of hunger runs deep in the human psyche. Perhaps it’s a long-term genetic memory, because throughout most of human history, food was often scarce, and starvation alternated with abundance through the seasons of the year and the cycles of local climates. This is why food storage was among the first skills humans learned when they abandoned the hunter-gatherer ways in favor of settled living. If they could keep some food around for the winter, they vastly increased their chances of seeing another spring. Food storage allowed humans to come together to create villages, then cities and kingdoms.
Food storage also allowed—and required—people to develop specialized skills. If you think it through, our whole civilization is based on food storage. Every ancient civilization was built on a surplus of food: Corn was the basic food of the Americas, wheat for the Near East, and rice for the Asian civilizations. In the modern world, things are no different. Creating your own long-term food supply is one of the easiest things you can do to be prepared to handle anything life throws at you. You can start today, you can do it on any kind of budget, and you will almost certainly improve your diet in the process.
How to start
You can start your food storage program at any time—and start small in any space you have available. It’s just a bag of rice or a few extra cans of beans or vegetables. Anyone can do this, and it’s easy to be smart about it. Simply designate a space to store your food. The space can be as simple as a card-board box. Over time, you can expand that into an organized pantry with secure storage for bulk foods.
To start filling your storage, just plan on tossing a few extra cans into your shopping cart as part of your weekly routine. Chances are good you won’t even notice the difference on your grocery bill. Many modern foods store really well and, not coincidentally, these foods form the basis of almost every cuisine worldwide. We’ve added the ability to store canned and frozen food, and that offers you a more varied and attractive set of foods to keep in your larder.
Cycling through your stores
From the beginning, you need to understand you are not buying a stash of food that you will box up and forget about. You need to cycle through the food you buy; but once your stores are full, this process won’t cost you anything. All you need to do is eat from the oldest of your stored foods and replace what you use with new food from the market. As a result, your stock will remain complete and fresh at no additional cost to you.
The rule is, “First in, first out.” In general, you want to cycle through your dried foods annually. Many products will keep far longer if they remain dry, but a year is a good cycle time. When your products reach one year of age, move them from your storage area into your kitchen or ready pantry for use and replace those products in your long-term storage. You can use a calendar or a spreadsheet to keep track of your food; and if you marked the cans or bags, that makes it much easier to see at a glance that you’re using up the oldest foods first.
The first stored foods were grains and beans. These foods were stored dry—and that’s still the key. Farmers have extensive procedures to safely silo their grain, but for our purposes, you’re going to buy your food already dry and prepared for storage. The next challenge is keeping your food dry—and this can be harder than it looks, especially if you don’t have a storage space inside your home. Garages are a typical location for food storage, and dampness can seep in and ruin your stores in just minutes. Insects and rodents are also a threat. If you plan to store bulk grains, legumes, or beans, it’s worthwhile to invest in clean, metal trash cans with lids.
Double-bag your food stores, place them in the metal cans, and firmly secure the lids to the cans. This will keep rats, mice, and most insects out of your stores. Smaller amounts up to 10 pounds or so can be safely stored in sealed plastic containers available at any store. You can also store fruits, vegetables, and meats by drying them. Dry foods are less susceptible to molds and yeasts and other microorganisms that cause spoilage.
Invest in a food dehydration appliance. You can make dried foods with an ordinary kitchen oven, but it takes longer, and the results are less reliable. A food dryer keeps air flowing over the foods while heating them to about 140 degrees until they are dehydrated. Dried meats are a special case and can be subject to the growth of salmonella or E. coli bacteria. Take special care if you plan to make beef or other types of jerky, and consider canning or freezing as an alternative plan.
Canning and Blanching
Two techniques our grandparents used to store food were canning and blanching, and these can be used to greatly improve your food storage program today. Without offering an instructional manual on canning in this article, the process basically involves sealing cooked food while hot to kill all bacteria that might spoil the food. The canned food can then be stored at room temperature. Canning supplies, including the large kettles needed to hold boiling water, can be purchased at many large grocery or farm supply stores. Large supplies of canning jars are often available at extremely low prices at garage sales, rummage sales, and on craigslist.
Fresh lids are available at any grocery store. With practice, meats, vegetables, and fruits can be readily canned and stored for several years. Jams and jellies, pickles, and other homemade foods lend themselves to canning (which can become a favorite home hobby). As an extra benefit, canning jars are reusable year after year. Blanching is a related technique that works best in combination with freezing.
Blanching is also known as “parboiling” and involves briefly submerging the food (usually vegetables) in boiling water, which begins the cooking process. You then remove the food from the hot water, plunge it into cold water to arrest the changes, and then quickly bag and freeze the food. This preserves the fresh nature of the food and also makes the eventual cooking easier.
When you get to a year’s worth of extra food in storage, you’ll notice that it takes up quite a bit of space. This is the point at which you might want to build some dedicated storage for your project. The usual space for this is the garage—but it can be anywhere, even a rented storage unit.
Here’s what you need to accomplish:
> The space needs to be dry to avoid mold and rot.
> You want to keep the storage area reasonably constant in temperature, especially with home-canned foods.
> You must keep your food safe from rodents and other pests.
> The space should be conveniently located so you can access it without difficulty and secure it from the threat of plunder. Obviously, an unsecured tin shed in the back-yard meets none of these requirements, while a dedicated pantry in your home meets all of them. But most people choose a set of shelves and bins in the garage as the most convenient and affordable solution. If you do end up building a storage space, here are a few basic rules to follow:
> Chrome “meat rack” shelving is good, because it allows airflow around the stores.
> Wooden shelves are also good, especially if you can make cabinets by putting doors on them.
> Keeping canned foods in the dark helps inhibit any bacterial growth and helps keep foods at a constant temperature.
> Keep adequate room on the shelves, especially around dried foods.
> Don’t store food in paper or cardboard containers on concrete floors. Water condenses and wicks up through the concrete.
> If you use metal trash cans for bulk storage, be sure the lids are tightly bound to the cans. Rubber tie-downs work well for this.
Meal ready to eat
If you have a lot of money to spend and you want to stock up on pre-made meals, this is easy to do. Prepared survival rations are stackable, will keep a long time, and every-thing is already included. The down side is that they’re not very appetizing and they cost a lot, compared to doing your own storage. If you want to stock up on emergency meals, there are many online outlets (and perhaps some advertisers in this magazine) that can help you. Among the vendors are:
The best way to keep meat
Without a doubt, the best way to store meat is alive and walking around! This is just one reason that becoming proficient at fishing, trapping, and hunting should be on your list of personal skills to develop. For instance, a crayfish trap can get you some fresh meat in most of North America and costs about $10. Just throw some old food scraps into it and leave it overnight in a deep, rocky place in a creek or pond.
Ask around the fishing shops in your area, and you’ll get some tips about where to find crawdads. The same is true of basic fishing gear: You can pick up these tools at garage sales and thrift stores for a song and add them to your arsenal of food-acquisition supplies. Fish will stay fresh until you catch it. Hunting, on the other hand, takes quite a bit more training and preparation. That skill has been prized since before recorded history.
The storage solution
Keeping a stash of stored foods just makes good sense. It doesn’t matter if you’re living on a remote homestead or an apartment in midtown Manhattan. Having a little extra food stashed away is a cheap insurance policy against going hungry. Every year, you can see people fighting over the last box of corn flakes somewhere in America for no good reason—why should that ever be you?
Story by Jeff Zurschmeide