Stocking the Emergency Pantry

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2020 Update: This post on stocking the emergency pantry was written in July of 2010. Ten years have passed and it’s more relevant than ever. I want to emphasize that I am not saying hoard all of the toilet paper. As you make your trips to the grocery store just set a little aside each time. If this gets worse, you will be glad you did.
I hope you are well.
I hope you are staying home as much as possible. We will get through this.
If you have questions, please send them to

Dear Home Ec 101,

I’m a big proponent of buying local. Is there a way to do this and still create a pantry?


Sunny Days, Sweeping the Clouds Away

Let’s look at it this way. Prioritize food in this manner, according to budget and time.

Fresh and local is optimal1, organic, frozen, processed, and finally, any food is better than no food.

Building an emergency pantry with local ingredients would be quite time-consuming, especially as most food preservation would fall to your responsibility. If you have the skillset and time to preserve food, it is absolutely possible to build an emergency pantry of locally sourced food. You can use a local butcher to source your meat and local co=ops and farmers’ markets for your fruits, grains, and vegetables. You may need to coordinate with like-minded people to be able to buy cost-effectively, but perhaps those people will also want to coordinate the time to preserve food. Projects like canning do seem to be more effective as a team effort vs. a solo endeavor.

canned goods on an emergency pantry shelf
Orlando, FL USA – January 10, 2021: A home pantry that is organized with various products put away in a tidy manner.

Why should you build an emergency pantry?

If I had all the time in the world, a budget that suited my whims, and the assurance that nothing bad would ever happen to my family, then yes, we would eat fresh and local every day. This is not my reality, and with very few exceptions, I don’t believe it to be yours, either. I don’t care what the talking heads say; disasters—whether on a personal or larger scale—don’t play politics.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, disease, zombie apocalypse, and unemployment happen. Ok, maybe not the zombie apocalypse, but having a pantry with a bare minimum of two weeks’ food supply can significantly reduce the impact of these events. Even the zombies should eventually starve.

Even those of you with a healthy emergency fund should have a decent emergency food pantry. Why join the hordes of people running out for supplies just before a snowstorm or hurricane hits if you don’t have to? If there is an outbreak of influenza or civil unrest, it’s just better to stay home.

If people use winning a sports event to riot and cause mayhem, it’s an indication that tension may be running pretty high. When people are stressed out, tempers are short, incidences of road rage increase, and what would normally be a minor disagreement can quickly escalate. Staying out of the stores is a simple way to stay out of trouble.

Most of us have it relatively easy, and if we’re sitting at a computer and discussing how to build a pantry, there’s a fair chance we’re some of the lucky ones. Yes, even those of us worried about the mortgage and utility bills.

Remember this when saying the economy is great just by looking at the number of people on social media talking about their consumption; it’s not a true representation of everyone. It only represents some people with easy access to technology. We can become pretty insulated if we don’t pull back and look at the broader picture.  A lot of people are tired of acting poor and have stopped worrying about the long-term consequences.

How to build an emergency pantry if you don’t have room in your budget.

If you don’t have ready cash, don’t freak out. A pantry can be built slowly over time. It doesn’t have to be done in one giant run to Sam’s or Costco. Set aside a portion of each week’s food budget to purchase shelf-stable and freezer foods.

There is no finish line for this project. Be deliberate with your purchase, and don’t buy food just to have “things for an emergency.” Increase the amount of the items you already eat that are shelf or freezer-stable. If you normally buy one jar of peanut butter for the month, see if you can buy an extra. Do you normally purchase one lasagna? Try to get one more. By spreading these purchases out over many weeks and only buying extra of what is on sale, you can minimize the effect building an emergency pantry will have on your budget. 

How to rotate the food in your emergency pantry.

After a minimum supply has been built up, it’s time to start rotating the food into your normal diet just often enough to prevent food from expiring. This doesn’t mean waiting until every tuna can is about to expire and having tuna noodle casserole, stuffed tuna tomatoes, and tuna surprise every night for a week.

This just means stocking your emergency pantry with the food you normally eat and not setting it aside as special for later. When you bring home items that are meant to last for a long time, always place those behind those that need to be used next. Try not to push items to the back corners, where they will only be found during a round of The Deep Clean Challenge.

Get creative with your food storage solutions if you don’t have a physical place for your emergency pantry.

You may need to get creative if you don’t have a lot of pantry or kitchen storage space. Linen closets make great storage for canned and boxed food. Consider adding shelves to a coat closet or putting beds on risers and storing the food in drawers or boxes. If you have to get creative with your emergency pantry storage, it’s best to keep an inventory of everything, this way, food doesn’t accidentally expire. Just remember to keep flour and grains in appropriate air-tight containers to prevent inviting moochers (mice, bugs, etc). For grains like rice and oats, I like to use 5-gallon frosting buckets from the bakery at the grocery store. Usually, they are happy to get rid of them; all it takes is asking nicely and washing them out.

What non-food items belong in your emergency pantry?

Don’t forget to keep your prescriptions as part of your emergency pantry. Ask your doctor and insurance company – if you have one – about the best way to ensure that if there is an emergency, you won’t have to do without.

  • Flashlights and batteries
  • a weather radio
  • toilet paper (thank you, 2020)
  • chlorine bleach (replace every six months)
  • a first aid kit
  • a manual can opener
  • trash bags
  • paper towels
  • Water Bob (bathtub water storage, if you live in hurricane country. If you have small children, this solves the how do I have a full bathtub of water and not worry about drowning dilemma)

Stocking an emergency pantry isn’t about living your life in fear; it’s an edible insurance plan without all the red tape.

Do you keep an emergency pantry?

1Local produce keeps money in the local economy. Just because a food isn’t certified organic doesn’t mean it’s not grown in congruence with organic standards. The organic certification process is difficult for small farmers to achieve regardless of their actual farming practices.

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35 thoughts on “Stocking the Emergency Pantry”

  1. The movie that came to mind for me is "I am Legend" with Will Smith. As a survivor of zombie apocalypse he ate a lot of canned food and often broke into abandoned apartments to look for food. He used the pantry principle, only it was other pantries.

    Seriously, I am a big proponent of emergency pantries but I don't see how you could do that with local food. If someone wants an local emergency pantry, they'd pretty much have to can the food themselves, and even then it would be fruit/veg rather than protein. I believe it's possible to home can sausage or similar but you'd be flirting with botulism.

    • Right and that's why I answered somewhat obliquely. Fresh and local is often best, but the cost (time especially) makes building a pantry out of these options difficult. I do can, but it's time consuming and labor intensive.
      It's not that much harder to can meat, but it does require a pressure canner and I also have that skeeve factor preventing me from trying, even though my rational side knows it's most likely just fine.
      I can't shake the image of my over-dramatic 9th grade biology teacher intoning, "And they never got up from the table."

      • I've canned meat for several years. Not dead yet. 🙂

        Seriously, it's not that hard, it just takes time and patience, and a good set of instructions to follow. I recommend the Ball Blue Book.

        I like that I get to control what's in it – I use celtic sea salt or no salt at all. AND, if the power goes out for a long time, you don't have to worry about it thawing out. I've also got vacuum-sealed jars of beef jerky that I've made in my Excalibur dehydrator. We do have meat in the freezer, but I've tried not to keep all my eggs in one basket, so to speak.

        I've canned beef chunks, pork chunks and hamburger. With canned beef chunks, I've made up a nice beef and noodles dish rather quickly. Canned hamburger is handy to have on hand to whip up chili or sloppy joes. Heat up pork with some barbecue sauce and serve on bread or over potatoes or rice.

        I love canning and I've managed to do it for the last 10 years using only a hotplate and a roaster oven. If I can do it, anyone can.

        • That sounds interesting. I do have a Ball home canning book, not sure if it is the Blue one. I have to admit that being able to can meat would make the large warehouse store meat packs more worth buying (though I do freeze some currently). I'll research this and perhaps someday I'll get my courage up to try it. 😀

  2. yes ma'am. We do have an emergency pantry stock and one mother of a generator, too!
    You know, for the hurricanes that keep heading towards the gulf.
    Lots of canned foods, which last forevah when we don't have to use them 😉
    GREAT post, Heather!

    • The generator has been on our list for years. We do have an inverter which will let us charge batteries when the car is running, so as long as we have gas we won't be completely miserable.
      As a stopgap I want to get a power dome (or whatever it is called) so we'll be able to run a fan during the heat of the day. Everything else I can more or less live without, but August with no moving air? Oy.

  3. I have a friend who's husband lost his job and they lived off their emergency store for three months – eliminating their grocery bill almost completely until he was able to find a new job. Having a store of food built up is just a wise move all-around.

    For meat, we raise our own for the most part and have a large deep freeze. We can store a year's supply of meat easily in a mid-sized chest freezer which we keep in the laundry room. For emergencies we have a generator and enough extra gasoline to keep the freezer cold enough in an emergency to last quite a while.

    My mother-in-law cans eggs in vinegar – she called them "pickled eggs" – and that would serve as a great source of protein and nutrients. Eggs purchased locally from grass-fed, free-range chickens would be much higher in nutrients than the typical store-bought egg (my husband calls them plastic-mass-produced eggs) and would be another way to store locally purchased foods in an emergency food pantry.

    Angela <><

    • I was watching some neat videos on dehydrating scrambled eggs to make powdered eggs. I'm definitely intrigued by this and may eventually break down and buy a dehydrator.

  4. I've always kept a well stocked pantry — not as an emergency solution, but because I never know what I'll want to cook/eat in advance. I admire those of you who can plan a week's worth of menus and then stick to the plan. I go to the store and find the specials and plan. My pantry is where I keep all the ingredients for the items that I love and find myself falling back on over and over. But the side benefit is a well stocked pantry. My children used to complain, "There's nothing to eat…!" and of course there was. However, it just required cooking which they did not wish to do at the time. My pantry staples always include cans of black beans, red beans, rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, mushrooms, olives and ingredients to use when baking.

    There have been a few times when the supply has "saved" me; like when I was a young mother and ran out of money before I ran out of week.

    I've never canned meat, but do know it is easily done. My country mother in law always canned vegetable beef soup made with the vegetables she raised as well as beef from her cows. In addition she canned beef chuncks too. She taught me lots about canning, preserving and drying as did both of my grandmothers and mother.

    My son hunts and keeps his family in venison all year. Their freezer is stocked to last and they have a large generator to run the fridge should they have a power outage.

    Canning is a romantic concept, but in reality it is laborious work. I used to can every summer with all the women. I also canned my own figs, pears and made lots of jams and jellies. I love standing back and admiring my handiwork, but it used to be very hot work in an un-airconditioned kitchen. When my mother-in-law passed away, we were all discussing how to divvy up her canned goods as well as her freezer contents. She had so many cakes and pies already baked and in the freezer. She was a model of an incredible woman who never knew an idle moment or an unproductive day. She was a paragon who left us all better for having known her.

    • I plan my menu from the specials and the pantry. I count the freezer as part of that. I happen to post menus on Mondays, but that's not usually when I write them. The circular arrives on Tuesday and I (usually) shop on Wed. I do better if I can stay out of the grocery store during the week.
      Your MIL sounds like an amazing person.

    • You and your family sound like you’re doing everything right in re: preparedness. And what a loving memory to your late MIL!

  5. As an NC'er all too familiar with ice storms, we have an emergency garage "pantry" of things that can cooked on a gas grill when there's an ice storm and 2-3 days of no power. (We have a garage, not all that common in the South.) This 'pantry' includes several canned goods and a REGULAR can opener (which is what I use most of the time), decent instant coffee (but I use a French press so all I really need to do is boil water) and we're usually fairly stocked in the garage freezer with grill-able meat and fish (once the power goes out, we grill a lot of it). We also keep a full extra tank of grill gas and at the end of the summer, buy lots of grill toys & tools that make all of the above easier to deal with. Specifics include things like: canned veggies (hate 'em, but have 'em), instant starch food (anything you can microwave for 1 minute can also be grilled) and all bread toasts on a grill.

    We've had ice-storm parties where the neighbors bring "meat that must be grilled" and because it's generally cold outside, a cooler can keep it (with defrosting ice packs) for 1-2 days. (And of course, a lot of dry and canned dog food for the pooches).

    We learned this the hard way about 30 years ago when we moved down South and although we haven't had an incident in a while, it's useful to keep around. Each year, we donate the unexpired canned goods that we don't really want to a food pantry and re-stock during a sale or a Costco trip. It helps to have a hubby who is grill-master incarnated and loves his grill. But I made him type out the directions for turning it on and off safely because I'm not very mechanical and rarely use the grill myself.

    • Some of my absolute favorite memories are of the post Hurricane Hugo clean up. I was 11 and was put in charge of a bunch of the younger kids. The adults were all home, they just needed to work uninterrupted. We went from cookout to cookout as people emptied their freezers.
      I will probably never see the stars again as bright as they were the night after the hurricane. Hardly anyone in our neighborhood had a generator and the band of the Milky Way stood out more clearly that night than I've ever seen.
      What I remember most, after the night from hell (when it hit) is the days of neighbors helping each other with clean up, card games by candle light, and having the best forts ever. Thankfully I was pretty oblivious to the insurance and other headaches.

      • Up here in the north, multi-day power outages are much easier to deal with in winter than in summer in terms of preserving your food. In December/January/February, if the power goes out and it will be a while before it’s back on, we can just put it outside in the snow. But the “meat that must be grilled” party definitely happens up here with your family/friends/neighbors if that same outage happens in the middle of the summer like it did to my family (we were the ones emptying the deep freeze) about 5 or 6 years ago when we had severe thunderstorms and the power was out for about 4 days in June.

  6. Thanks for this post. The post and the comments above give me some things to think about and plan with for an emergency. I have, you know, food in the pantry, but I haven't intentionally built it up for this purpose. It certainly wouldn't be a balanced diet as is–mostly pasta, tomatoes and tomato sauce, milk, and some beans.

    • Having a good supply of food in the pantry is like a security blanket. You can get through most small crises with less hardship and it can certainly cushion the blow of a big one.
      That said, it isn't something that needs to be undertaken in an all or nothing way. Some is certainly better than none.

  7. As a Floridian who has been through numerous hurricanes, tropical storms, etc (even one which devistated the community – Hurricane Charley, I lived where it hit landfall). My husband and I definately have an emergency food supply….probably larger than most as my husband is also a survivor enthousiast (sp?). Robert Neville would be delighted to find our house! haha

  8. I started storing food almost a year ago, and I will definitely be looking into canning meat – I have not tried that yet, but all of my other canning experiences have gone well, including my most recent experiment – canned butter! It is actually very fast to do – melt the butter in the microwave while your jars are sterilizing, fill the hot jars, cap, process as you would jelly, and allow to cool until you can pick the jars up without burning yourself. Then dunk the jars into an icewater bath. Spend the next 15 minutes or so periodically picking up the jars and shaking them – butter separates when heated, and this will help re-homogenize it as it cools. The goal is to have smooth butter again when set. Worked like a charm. Pickled eggs and fish are next on my list.

    Remember to have a good stock of oil, sugar, salt and baking soda. You may be surprised how quickly you go through these things. When planning for a longer-term emergency, store some Vitamin C and a source of iodine…fresh produce and seafood will go away and scurvy and thyroid trouble are no fun. If you have room, consider storing EXTRA coffee, tea, bulk spices, oil, sugar, and salt, and also toilet paper, soap, and Vodka – relatively cheap to buy, these things can become valuable trade goods.

    Realize while planning your emergency food pantry that many dry bulk foods come into your home already contaminated with eggs from bugs that will hatch later and spoil your stored food. There are two ways to deal with it, one foolproof and the other not, but better than nothing. The method for the squeamish is to freeze your bulk food for a minimum of 36 hours. This may kill the eggs, but does not always do so — it only takes two surviving eggs to contaminate your entire supply. The other method requires diatomaceous earth (DE) to mix with your dry stored food and scatter liberally around your food storage area. You can rinse the food to remove the DE before cooking. DE is a mechanical irritant, not toxic, and is not harmful to humans in the residual amounts present after rinsing (in fact, some people use it occasionally in larger amounts for bowel health…I have not tried this, but know one who swears by it). It also will kill bugs dead. Wear a good quality and well-fitting dust mask when handling DE, as it can do a number on your lungs if inhaled (imagine inhaling fine pieces of glass, which DE pretty much is). If you intend to store more than six months worth of food, you need to use DE.

    In addition to prescriptions and basic first-aid supplies, spend some time on building a list of other basic supplies, too…basic toiletries, cleaning products, toilet paper, feminine hygiene, etc. The easy way to do this is to locate pads of paper around the house for a week, and every time you pick up something, consider how it would impact you to NOT have that thing "ever again" – and what you would do instead. Write down your "necessities." Be creative, for example, one cleaning product can do multiple jobs, the dishwasher won't work without power, so diswasher soap would be redundant, etc. Taking the time to live a week "as if" – operating only out of your stores – is also an eye-opener. Good preparedness!

  9. Well I have to chime in to say that almost my entire emergency pantry is local, as in from my back yard local, but I realize that is not realistic for everyone. I think a Fearless Friday in the near future should be canned meat. Canned stew meat is one of my favorite "go to" meals. The meat is tender and juicy. We can venison every year, but I image it would work the same with beef stew meat. It is a great way to tenderize that cheap and sometimes tough cuts of meat.

    • Steph, you know I totally admire you, but you are the exception to the rule. Sometimes I wonder where we'd be if more people had the homesteader mentality, but I guess part of what makes this country great is that we don't have to have it (usually). It's on our longterm plan, but impractical for us at the moment. Keep writing about the things you do, it is inspiring.

  10. We live in Florida and went through 2 hurricanes in 2004 which made us realize how unprepared we were to deal with a disaster in a warm climate. Right now I have enough dehydrated food for one hot meal a day for 2 people for 3 months. We have 72 hour backpacks and am building a year pantry that we will rotate though and maintain. We ordered a sampler package of the dehydrated food first to make sure it was something we really eat. One thing we learned in 2004 is don't boil water for coffee while you're grilling meat, turkey flavored coffee is the worst!

    Don't forget to plan for your pet food too.

    • Excellent point, Sunny. And if you are in a position to buy the pet's supply of food in bulk, it's nice to call the store ahead of time rather than just show up and expect there to be enough to purchase.

      • Peepads and poop bags are a necessity too. You can't walk a dog in the middle of a hurricane and you can't tell him to hold it. During Hurricane Ike we lined the floor of one of the bathrooms with pee pads and managed to convince the dogs to go in there. Fortunately it was only once or twice since Ike hit during the night and by mid morning it was safe to walk in the side yard on a leash.

    • One thing we learned in 2004 is don't boil water for coffee while you're grilling meat, turkey flavored coffee is the worst!

      -I totally read that as coffee flavored turkey and I couldn't figure out how that could happen unless you spilled the coffee on the grill.

  11. Any suggestions on what to keep in a pantry – especially for a vegetarian? I grew up in earthquake ville and we just keep canned food and water for three days. I have no idea what a real pantry should have!

    • Yes, that would be helpful, all you ever here is canned food. What kinds of canned food? If I'm desperate enough I'll eat anything, but from a planning standpoint something other than canned fruit and tuna would be good.

      • I'll work on putting together a list, but they are highly personal dependent on your tastes and preferences. I'll put together a sample (as time permits) for a single person and for a 4 person family. It will have to assume no special diets.

  12. I'm preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse. That failing, we have plenty of tornados in this area every year. I've not done good with my pantry, but it is difficult due to the size of our pantry, and we have the 2 extra adults we are feeding currently. That said, I will think a little harder on this. My mom and I have been talking about canning spaghetti sauce. Looks like we might have to do that now.

  13. Our emergency pantry usually consists of rice, dry and canned beans, peanut butter, sardines and tuna, some canned soups, fruit, and vegetables. We have camp stoves and extra fuel. We also have an earth stove which will heat the house, at least for a couple of days, and can be used to heat food. We never have a lot of wood for it because we only burn it in emergencies since it triggers my alergies. Periodically we stock up on jugs of water, and have some empties that can be filled quickly in an emergency. We also have an emergency bucket by the door ready to grab. It has some first aid things, an emergency crank radio, a crank flashlight, rope, and some other things in case we have to leave the house in a real hurry.

  14. We don't have an emergency pantry but with these uncertain times with the economy and job security I feel the need to have one. It's what our tax return is going to be used for. I like the idea of going to bakeries for their used buckets.

    • The time to start is Now tomorrow may be too late. There are tons of how to videos on you tube. I learned how to can meat this year (pressure canner) and Beans (dry beans) and have been on a roll every sense. Pinto Beans at The Dollar Tree are 2 lbs for $1.00 can’t beat that price. Anna In Ohio.

  15. My mother canned food from her garden in jars. Think of your favorite meals: spaghetti, beef, chicken, or pork stew, chicken & dumpling, rolled lasangna noodles stacked vertically in a jar. A lot of ethnic & casserole dishes may be canned. Freezing food is convenient, but not without power. Meals in jars sealed with a food saver type machine. Water is precious, it helps to just open a jar, heat, & eat. I am an sixth generation Floridian & have survived many hurricanes & many more power outages – we lived out in the country. Think about what you need during each day & night, then figure out how to do it without power. When prepared well, you will not worry. Train your children.

  16. I have been prepping for years it’s a never ending learning experience. The time to get started is now, don’t put it off. Here in Ohio we had high winds just yesterday and in our city 40,000 people were immediately without power at 4am. If you are prepped and in that mind set “O.k. get the flashlights because you know where they are and have batteries to operate them” ( I keep some in the bathroom linen closet). Coffee? I have a old fashioned percolator pot and butane cooker plate.. Covered. Breakfast? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for hubby, I usually have precooked eggs in the fridge that I could warm up on that cooker plate or boil eggs. A disaster can strike when you least expect it.. have a plan instead of everyone running around “Mom I’m hungry what do we eat”? though most people have cereal and milk so that is a option too. My sister who was a waitress at Ihop went in to work at 4am only to find the doors locked and the business shut down.. how immediate is that for losing your job? Fortunately she also keeps a stocked pantry and found another job pretty quickly but Wow. You just don’t know what life can throw at you.. be prepared is a motto that never goes out of style.


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