How to Build Emergency Food Storage on a Budget

I grew up in a family that always had food storage, and I learned firsthand how food storage can provide families with greater financial and food security. When my family hit lean times, food storage supplemented grocery trips, and stretched dollars. 

I still have a healthy respect for the importance of disaster preparedness, which includes having adequate food on-hand for potential emergencies I might face. We’ve all recently experienced how a disaster impacts the food supply. 

But how can you get started storing food without hoarding or dropping a huge amount of money at once? Here’s what you need to know to build your emergency food storage on a budget.

Start with a three-day emergency supply

FEMA advises keeping a three-day supply of food and water for all household members on hand at all times. Here’s what this should include:

  • Three days’ worth of non-perishable, shelf-stable and ready-to-eat food
  • Thee gallons of water per person
  • Three days of vital medications or medical supplies
  • Infant food or formula
  • Food and water for pets

Choose foods that are nonperishable and require little to no preparation to be ready to eat — meaning you can safely eat it even if the power is out. Think along the lines of canned goods, protein bars, or cereal and boxed milk.

Build up to mid-term food storage

Having three weeks’ to three months’ of supplies provides more security and options during disaster recovery or uncertain times. Look into disaster preparation and supplies recommended for emergencies more common in your area such as wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornados.

During a pandemic, for example, having extra stores on hand makes it easier to self-quarantine if you’re sick. You won’t have to visit a grocery store to get food or medicine, which is crucial to limiting the potential spread of whatever illness you have. For in-depth preparation instructions specific to a pandemic, see this checklist from Dartmouth College Safety and Security. 

Shop your pantry and fridge first

The first step of building a food storage supply on a budget is to review what you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Set aside items that would be ideal for your three-day emergency supply. 

Take note of what you already have enough of, and identify holes in your food stores and emergency supplies. Which foods, drinks, or medicine would you and your family need to have at home to recover from an illness? What else would you need for a complete earthquake or hurricane kit? Make a shopping list of what you’d need to expand your stores. 

Plan out your food storage

Most stored food doesn’t last forever, and you won’t just buy the food once and be done. Instead, you’ll rotate food storage, using older supplies first (before they hit their expiration date), and replacing them with new purchases.

So keep an inventory to track what you have stored and when you bought it. You can also put together a meal plan that uses your pantry items. And print out emergency preparedness guides and instructions to use supplies to keep with your stored goods.

Budget to buy a little at a time

There’s no need to buy all your food storage at once. Especially if stocking up tomorrow would drain your bank account or put you into debt. Instead, budget for your food storage and buy a little at a time. 

Take a look at your overall spending and income. Figure out a specific amount you can safely spend on food storage every grocery run or month. Consider if you could trim some grocery expenses to free up funds to buy food storage instead — such as cutting back on soft drinks, treats, or alcohol. 

Once you have your budget set, prioritize your food storage shopping list and start stocking on a few items of each trip.

Stock up when things are on sale

Food prices are a little all over the place at the moment, and shoppers don’t have the same ability to shop around for the best deal. Even if you’re limiting grocery trips to once a week, however, you can still take advantage of sales. 

Review the weekly ads from local grocers in your area, and find dried, canned, or frozen goods that could be at home in food storage. If there’s a great deal on nonperishable or freezer items, stock up and buy a little more — while staying within your budget, of course. Compare prices between stores, too, and head to the outlet offers better prices on your whole list. 

Buy foods you eat — but cheaper

You don’t have to change your diet or buy new or weird foods to build up your supplies, however. Indeed, planning out and using your food storage will be easier if you buy more of the food you already eat!

But you can still look for more cost-effective versions of your staple foods. Instead of canned beans, for example, consider stocking up on cheaper dried beans. Or opt for a box of oats over packets of instant oatmeal. Compare shelf-stable options, like boxed versus powdered milk, to find your lowest-cost food options.

Expand your cooking skills

As you expand your supplies, consider learning new cooking skills and techniques that will give you more options to store and use food. Learning to make your own pasta sauce, means you can opt for a cheaper can of tomatoes rather than jars of marinara. 

Try out new ways to prepare or use up foods in storage. If you don’t love frozen veggies, experiment to find ways to make them delicious (I love oven-roasting them). Find ways to use up oats other than making oatmeal: turning it into oat milk, using them in meatloaf or meatballs, or in baked goods. 

Print out some handy cooking guides you can refer to for simple food prep such as boiling rice, soaking and cooking dried beans, or roasting veggies.

Maintain a safe and balanced pantry

Work toward a supply that is nutritionally balanced, with protein sources, carbs, fats, and fruits and veggies. Add in foods that are also emotionally satisfying, such as coffee, treats, or comfort foods. Don’t forget to include flavor in your supplies — such as condiments, bouillon, and spices!

Learn more about safe food storage to prevent food-borne illness, as well as food waste or spoilage. The basics: store food somewhere dry, cool, and dark in food-safe containers and away from chemicals or gasoline.

As you fill out your pantry, continue to maintain it and make it an ongoing part of your grocery shopping and meal planning. Review your food storage regularly to make sure you’re using up older items. 

Having food storage gives you peace of mind and stability. But don’t be afraid to use your food storage when you need to! Maybe you want to go longer between grocery trips to limit exposure to germs, or your income has fallen and you need to use up food on-hand to preserve cash savings. Turn to food storage as another resource that can help you get through unstable and uncertain times.

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