First… The Beginner’s Mistakes
If you’ve been prepping for some time now, you probably already know the most common mistakes everyone warns you to avoid with food storage. However, for those of you who are just getting started there are a few beginner’s mistakes I’d like to help you avoid right off the bat. We’ve all done at least some of these things, and it has cost us precious food and money.
Mistake: Not rotating your food. An unorganized food pantry, cans crowded onto shelves, and foods crammed haphazardly into every nook and cranny of your home will lead to loss as stuff goes out of date and eventually needs to be thrown out.
Solution: Whether you’re storing food in the freezer, store-bought boxed or canned goods, or home canned foods, be sure to organize them so that you have easy access to the oldest stuff first. A rotational shelf like the one featured in the video above is a fantastic way to keep things in order by date. Keeping a written inventory of what you have and where it’s located is also a good way to stay on top of your food storage.
Be especially sure to rotate through foods that will turn rancid over a short period of time. Oils, flour (not wheat berries), brown rice, nuts, seeds, etc, all of these will go rancid and are toxic to the body after they’ve sat for too long.
Mistake: Buying foods you wouldn’t normally eat. When we first started prepping, my husband and I went to a local discount store and bought a whole pickup truckload of canned goods. Among those cans were dozens and dozens of evaporated milks. Do we use evaporated milk on a regular basis? No. But at the time it seemed like a good backup in case we couldn’t get fresh milk.
Five years down the road do you know what I had to do? I tossed every single one of those cans of milk. Money down the drain. In the years since we bought our first run of emergency supplies, we’ve had several weeks of being snowed in where we had to rely on our food storage. But when it came to milk I found that we were 100% more likely to use powdered milk than canned.
Solution: Remember this… the most expensive food you buy is the food you throw away. Stick to buying foods you know you would eat on a regular basis. Especially if you have children, who would sometimes rather starve than eat something they don’t like.
Mistake: Not using good labeling methods. When you’re packaging your own food in jars, cans, and buckets, it can be easy to lose track of what you’ve put up unless you use good labeling practices. When I first started packing my own buckets, I had sticky labels on each bucket to tell me whether they were wheat, pasta, rice, or whatever. Over time though, those labels began to come off. Suddenly I found myself with stacks of buckets full of mystery foods.
Solution: Use a sharpie marker to write the contents and date of packaging directly on any buckets or cans you are packaging yourself. If you are sealing food in mylar bags within buckets (which I highly recommend), write the contents and date on the mylar bag as well. That way if the marker gets rubbed off of the outside of the bucket, you can open the bucket and read what it says on the bag inside. Write contents and date on the lids of home canned goods as well, so you can rotate your foods by date.
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Mistake: Not storing a good variety of foods. When most people start thinking about food storage, they almost automatically gravitate toward stockpiling the basics: wheat, beans, rice, powdered milk, oats, pasta, sugar, and salt. This is all well and good as a foundation, but don’t stop there! There’s only so much you can do with such a limited selection, and your body really needs fruits and vegetables on a regular basis in order to stay healthy and strong.
Solution: It’s essential that you store a variety of foods, not only to curb food fatigue (where you get so tired of what you’re eating you’d rather just not eat), but also to ensure a good balance of nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are a must. Don’t forget to store flavorings such as herbs and spices, bouillon, freeze dried cheese, and onions to add interest to otherwise bland meals.
Mistake: Not Storing food in proper containers. It can be tempting when you buy boxes or bags of food from the grocery store to just stick them in the pantry as they are. However, for long term storage this practice can be a very bad idea for several reasons. Rodents can chew through boxes and bags; moisture can get into them as well. Any grain products (wheat, flour, crackers, cereals, pasta, baking mixes), instant milk, beans, even dog and cat food all have tiny bug eggs in them which can hatch out moths or weevils and infest your pantry.
Solution: When you buy bags or boxes of food for long term storage you must transfer these items to airtight containers in order to keep them safely stored.
In order to avoid an infestation and ruined food, place dried goods in the freezer for a minimum of three days to kill the eggs; then store the foods in a moisture and rodent proof container. Alternatively, you can transfer dried foods to an airtight container, such as a glass jar or food grade bucket with O2 absorbers to suck the oxygen out of the container, effectively killing the bug eggs and preventing them from ever hatching.
Mistake: Storing food in the wrong location. Where you store your food will greatly affect how quickly it spoils and how long it lasts. Storing foods in a leaky basement, where there is high humidity or moisture, or anywhere unprotected from extreme cold and heat will lead to loss. Moisture will cause cans to rust, extreme heat will deplete food of vital nutrients and cause it to spoil more quickly, extreme cold can freeze your stored food causing cans and jars to expand and explode.
Solution: Find a cool, dry location out of direct sunlight and protected from extreme temperatures for your food storage. Underneath beds, in closets, behind furniture, underneath staircases, or in a dry basement are great places to consider. Attics are not an ideal place to store foods.
Other Common (and Less Common) Mistakes
Mistake: Focusing on calories instead of nutrition. For many preppers, the number one food storage priority has been to store foods that are high in calories. Although caloric intake is definitely important, it shouldn’t be your main focus.
Solution: Store a variety of fruits and vegetables along with your proteins for best nutritional content. Your body needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to function optimally. Storing high quality vitamins and supplements will be very important to keep you healthy especially through the winter months when fresh foods won’t be as readily available.
Mistake: Stacking buckets of food on top of each other. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. Unless what you are putting on top is extremely light (like maybe potato flakes), the lids on the bottom layer of buckets will eventually crack or buckle in under the weight of heavy buckets on top.
Solution: Whether you’re using regular bucket lids or gamma seal lids, do not stack them directly on top of each other. Instead, place a board between layers of buckets. Or buy one of those nice bucket shelving units to store them conveniently and safely.
Along those same lines… we collected dozens and dozens of free buckets from bakeries around town and stored them in the top of our uninsulated work shed to save for use later. Of course, we stacked them one inside the other to save on space. What we didn’t consider was that the extreme heat and cold of that out building would cause the plastic buckets to expand and contract. Since they were stacked inside of each other, when they expanded, the bottoms of every single one of those buckets cracked. We lost our whole stash. This was a huge bummer, ’cause buckets are getting harder and harder to come by for free- at least around these parts. Don’t stack empty buckets inside of each other in uninsulated places if you experience extreme temperature fluctuations in your area.
Mistake: Lack of rodent control. This can be a real problem in a food pantry, especially if you live in a rural location. Unless we really stay on top of it, every now and then we get a little field mouse in the house, which inevitably ends up in the food storage closet. Although everything I have in there is in rodent proof containers, they will still crawl over the tops of everything and poop and pee on them as they go. I can’t tell you how many cans of vegetables I’ve thrown away because rodent urine has rusted the top of the aluminum cans. Not cool.
Solutions: Place mouse traps in closet corners to catch any varmints that make their way in before they do too much damage. “Live” traps are less messy than the snap traps.
Be sure to rodent proof your food storage areas as well as possible. If the food is in a closet, attach a metal door sweep to the bottom of the closet door to block any gaps that might allow a mouse to squeeze in. (Mice will chew through plastic, so metal is best.)
Store cans upside down so that if a mouse does poop on them at least you can still open the can from the top without risk of contaminating your food.
Make sure your food storage closet doesn’t smell like food. If you can smell it, you need to put it in a better container.
Mistake: Stocking up on canned tomato products for long term storage. The high acidity level in tomatoes reacts with the container and can lead to corrosion. I’ve thrown away dozens and dozens of tomato sauce cans that were bulging, an indication that they were no longer safe to consume.
More importantly though, tomato products will absorb the toxic BPA lining in most aluminum cans, making them dangerous to consume. Since learning more about this, I no longer store canned tomato products.
Solution: Instead of storing tomatoes in aluminum cans, stock up on tomato products in freeze dried or dehydrated forms, or learn to can them yourself at home in glass jars.
Home canned tomatoes will last for many, many years. Over time the nutritional value will diminish, and the taste and texture might deteriorate, but chances are they will still be okay to eat as long as you canned them properly.
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Mistake: Storing more baking mixes than you will eat in the next two years. I’m talking about dessert mixes, cornbread, pancake mix, etc. Most people don’t realize that baking mixes lose their leavening over time, and won’t rise properly. They can also go rancid and end up tasting very bitter. It would be a shame to waste good eggs and oil to bake a cake that ends up being flat and nasty.
Solution: Store only what you know you can realistically rotate through in 1-2 years. Better yet, store the ingredients to make your favorite baked goods from scratch! Wheat berries, sugar, powdered milk, powdered eggs, baking soda and powder, and oil (coconut oil and olive oil are my favorite to store long term) all last much longer when stored individually. You also have much more versatility in what you can make when you store ingredients individually.
If you do end up with out of date cake mixes, I’ve read that they make a good pancake batter. I’ve also read that you can add a box of flavored gelatin to old cake mix to help it rise. Add 1/2 – 1 tsp baking powder to old baking mixes. Or, add 1/2 cup oil and 1 egg, mix and make cookies instead!
Mistake: Relying heavily on wheat for food. I totally did this in the first few years of our food storage. My rationale was that wheat is inexpensive to store; bread is easy to make, delicious, and very filling. If we had soup and bread every day we’d be fat and happy. Right? So, I stocked up on hundreds of pounds of wheat berries.
Unfortunately, many people are discovering that they are either allergic to wheat or gluten intolerant. Two of my kiddos have fallen into this category. You may not even be aware of an intolerance until you are eating it meal after meal, and suddenly you’re experiencing leaky gut syndrome or other digestive or autoimmune issues.
Also, wheat can be hard for young children to digest in large amounts. It definitely shouldn’t be considered a main dietary staple.
Solution: Store a variety of grains along with your wheat berries. Millet, Amaranth, Quinoa, Buckwheat and Spelt are a few good options that store well long term. Make sure to store the varieties your family likes to eat.
Mistake: Storing all of your food in one general location. This is a bad idea for several reasons. That old saying, “Never put all your eggs in one basket” definitely applies to your preps. If all of your food is in the basement and the basement floods, all of your food might be damaged. Also, if all of your food is inside your home and it’s hit by a tornado, all of your food might be lost. If all of your food is in one closet and you’re raided and your food is confiscated, you just made it easier for the invaders to find it all at once.
Solution: Stash your food in different places to hedge against total losses. Put some in your basement (or a family member’s basement), dig a root cellar, store some in your home, bury caches… you get the idea.
Mistake: Not buying basic cooking ingredients. You can have all the wheat berries you want, but if you don’t also store baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, powdered eggs (even if you have chickens), cooking oil, and other essential baking ingredients there isn’t a whole lot you’ll be able to do with your grains.
Solution: Have a good variety of basic cooking ingredients stocked up in shelf stable forms so that you can make a wider variety of foods with your basic storage staples. Be sure to use good rotational practices with the shorter shelf life stuff.
- I’ve found that jars of olive oil and coconut oil last much longer than containers of other vegetable oils, which go rancid over time. I definitely don’t recommend storing shortening for this reason, not to mention it’s terrible for your body.
- Sugar and salt last indefinitely as long as you store them in a moisture proof container.
- Baking soda and baking powder can be purchased from long term food suppliers in cans with oxygen absorbers for maximum shelf life.
- Powdered eggs have an average 3 year shelf life.
- Don’t store brown sugar, it’ll get rock hard over time. Instead, store cane sugar and molasses separately, then mix together as needed to make your own brown sugar.
- I recommend Thrive Life’s brand of Instant milk. Normally powdered milk is nasty, but Thrive’s instant milk is actually really good when reconstituted and chilled. And it has a 25 year shelf life.
Mistake: Not having a few convenience foods. Whole foodies like myself tend to store up individual whole foods ingredients to make meals from scratch. However, it’s important to realize that in a survival situation or major emergency, time may not be a luxury we can afford.
Solution: Store a few quick heat-and-eat types of meals for times when you might not have long to prepare food, or when clean water to rehydrate foods might not be accessible. Canning meals in a jar, such as soups, stews, and chili is a great way to have a quick, nutritious dinner on hand. MRE’s and store bought ready to eat canned goods are also another option.
Mistake: Not knowing how to use what you store. Many people store tons of wheat berries but have yet to ever use them. During a stressful SHTF situation isn’t the best time to try to learn new tricks.
Solution: Learn how to grind whole grains and bake bread or cook with them now, so that there won’t be that learning curve when you depend on that food the most.
Mistake: Not having the equipment to use what you store. This goes well with the previous example. I’ve personally known people who have tons of wheat stored up but have no wheat grinder. You limit yourself significantly when you don’t have the proper equipment to process the foods you store. Again, that’s why it’s so important to learn to use what you store before you depend on it. You may not realize you’re missing a key component until it’s too late.
Solution: If you’re going to store whole grains, be sure you have the equipment you’ll need to process those grains into flour or meal. A hand grinder, such as a Wonder Junior grain mill would be a better option than something that relies upon electricity to run.
Mistake: Not storing comfort foods. Sometimes we focus on the bare bones basics, and forget about the foods that make life a little more pleasant. Anyone who has been through any sort of long term emergency situation will tell you that comfort foods are an incredible morale booster.
Solution: Stash a few goodies to break out on days that are especially hard. It’ll do your soul good.
Mistake: Using trash bags for food storage. Many trash bags are treated with pesticides and other dangerous chemicals you don’t want in your food. Please don’t line your food buckets with trash bags.
Solution: Always use food safe bags and buckets when storing food. Mylar bags are a safe, effective way to seal foods in buckets.
Mistake: Storing a lot of junk food. I’ve seen some real doozies on YouTube! Pantries stocked with cases and cases of soda, tons of highly processed, sugar laden foods. Cans of soups drowning in MSG. Fruits swimming in high fructose corn syrup. Folks, these types of fake foods are killing Americans slowly every day. They surely won’t help you in a time when proper nutrition will determine who lives and who dies.
Solution: Watch out for artificial ingredients and preservatives in the foods you store: high fructose corn syrup, MSG (monosodium glutamate), aspartame, red dye #40, and any other ingredient that isn’t easily pronounced or identifiable. Try to stick with all natural ingredients so your body can focus on maintaining health and isn’t bogged down with toxic overload. It can be overwhelming if you’re new to navigating the grocery store to find healthier versions of your favorite foods, but it’s getting easier and easier (as the demand increases) to find “all natural” or organic alternatives. You just have to look for them.
Mistake: Storing more food in a bucket than you can consume in a reasonable time frame. When you put perishable foods in a container that holds more food than you can practically consume within a reasonable time, you end up with spoilage. For instance, we started out storing rolled oats in large, sealed mylar bags in 5 gallon buckets. We’re a family of six, so it seemed like an amount that we could go through fairly quickly. We began rotating through our food storage and opened a bucket of oats to begin consuming. Despite the fact that we were eating it on a regular basis, the oats went rancid before we could finish the bucket. I threw out about 3/4 of a gallon of oats.
Solution: Store grains, such as rolled oats, in smaller quantities sealed in mylar bags. You can fill several smaller bags of food and store them all in one bucket. This way you won’t have to open a huge amount of food at once and risk losing some to spoilage. I now only buy my rolled oats in #10 cans, a size we can go through before it sours.
Mistake: Canning foods without following proper safety procedures.
As I’ve traveled the East Coast teaching canning workshops to preppers, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody come up to me and tell me that they’ve been canning all of their food either in the oven or in a water bath canner. I’m flabbergasted at the risks people will take to cut corners! More often than not, their reasoning is one of the following: 1) They don’t have or don’t think they can afford a pressure canner. 2) “That’s how my grandmother always did it.” 3) “I saw so-and-so do it like this on YouTube”.
Solution: Listen folks, just because the lid seals it does not mean your food is safe. If you want to can ANY vegetables, meats, cooked beans, and meals in a jar, you absolutely MUST pressure can them. Any other method of preserving low acid foods runs the risk of botulism- a very real and deadly form of food poisoning. Please don’t take the risk. What’s the good of going through all of the trouble of storing up your foods only to die from not canning them properly? Seriously.
Mistake: Depending too highly on freezers for food storage. The downsides to freezers are that they are dependent upon some form of energy to keep them running, the food in them won’t last much longer than a year, and food is susceptible to freezer burn.
Solution: Don’t rely too heavily on freezers for food storage. Definitely have what you’d need (supplies and knowledge) in order to can your frozen foods if you suddenly lost power to your freezer and stuff was beginning to thaw.
Mistake: Throwing food out too soon! Manufacturers put expiration dates on many products without any real science behind it. Canned goods will actually stay edible for many years beyond their expiration dates. It’s kinda sad that the guy in the above video tossed out all of those canned goods based on their expiration dates. Likely, most of them were still very much edible.
Solution: Look for signs of spoilage before making the decision to toss canned goods:
- bulging cans
- a broken seal
- rust or corrosion
- sharp dents, creases, or punctures in the can
- the can is oozing food
- bubbles in the food when you open the can
- food is moldy or doesn’t look right
- there is a foul odor coming off the food
- the can spurts liquid or food when you open the lid
If you notice any of these signs in your canned goods, it’s a safe bet they need to be thrown away.
From my experience in food storage over the last 7 years those are the best tips I have to share. Now it’s your turn! What are some food storage mistakes you’ve made in the past, or what advice would you add to this list?
By Kendra Lynne