How much food to survive the Zombie Apocalypse?
June 28, 2011 11:04 AM   Subscribe

How much food should someone keep stored in their pantry?

Recently I was talking to someone at a bar about how when she lived in Nowhere, WY that they kept a supply of seemingly several months of food available. Where they lived it wasn't uncommon to be snowed in for days or weeks at a time. Being in the city where this doesn't happen, I want to know how much one should realistically keep on hand. I don't want to sound survivalist or nutty, but I've felt the paranoia bug crawling around and I got curious. I've seen anything from the 5 days minimum recommended by FEMA up to one year per the LDS Church and others.

I want to know how much is reasonable, opinions are very welcome. Further, how do you calculate what would be needed for a household of five adults? How do people keep a rotation of food to keep it fresh? How do you do it without breaking the precious bank? How do you best store food? What resources or websites do you suggest? Is there a glaringly obvious AskMe that I didn't find?

Currently I keep a supply of around 2-3 weeks of food and it seems like not enough. Growing up in Michigan lake effect areas it seemed that my parents kept as much as two months worth of food.
posted by Mister Fabulous to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
You buy food. You eat the food. You buy more food. Anything more borders on hoarding, IMO.

A couple gallons of water, a big bag of rice and a few cans of chili or whatever would do for emergency rations.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:13 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I keep backstock, a few cans of beans/tomatoes/tuna, and a few large purchases (Big Lots had a huge sale on Bob's Red Mill products so I have oatmeal to see me through the apocalypse.) I also tend to buy nonperishables like rice and dried beans in larger bags, so if the necessity arose I could probably feed my household of two for a week or two.

In honesty, though, it's not something I give a great deal of thought to. I live in an area that is not particularly vulnerable to natural disaster so I see no compelling reason to hoard food.
posted by workerant at 11:18 AM on June 28, 2011

Well, it's two-fold, really. I keep beans, tomato paste, pasta, vegetable broth, and other long lasting stuff around so that I have it, if I am busy with work, and also so because I stock up when things are on sale. Fewer trips to the market, easier to make dinner, and saves money.
posted by kellyblah at 11:21 AM on June 28, 2011

If religiousness doesn't bother you, The Prudent Homemaker is a good site about creating, rotating, and living off your food stores.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:22 AM on June 28, 2011

If you want to go all out, Costco will sell you a person-years worth of food for $1000.
posted by cgg at 11:25 AM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's being a little too extreme by saying having a well stocked pantry is akin to hoarding.

2-3 weeks sounds perfectly reasonable to me. It's easy to keep shelf stable food in bulk. The freezer can keep stuff for quite a long time.. but i would stick closer to dried pasta/beans/rice and canned veggies.

Also, keep in mind that there's no guarantee if you get snowed in that bad that you will have electricity. So if you have an electric stove or rely on the microwave a lot - you're going to have to find an alternate method to heat the food.. or buy stuff that you can eat cold.

The hardest part of doing this kind of thing is keeping track of expiration dates.
posted by royalsong at 11:26 AM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm a big believer in keeping at least a few weeks of food in your pantry. And there is nothing nutty or hoarder-ish about it. For one thing, there is always the possibility of natural disaster, no matter where you live; even if you live somewhere where floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are unlikely, a good ice storm can knock out power and make roads impassable for a week or more. Also, stocking up allows you to take advantage of sales; when non-perishable food you like goes on sale, you can save a lot by stocking up then.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 11:26 AM on June 28, 2011

You might find this website useful and possibly this page.
posted by Kimberly at 11:27 AM on June 28, 2011

I have a fairly steady selection of things I use when cooking, so the contents of my kitchen don't change very often. I stop at the grocery store on the way home a couple times a week to pick up things I'm lacking -- frequent shopping keeps the trips small so I don't need the car to get my stuff home.

I keep a spare of canned goods and at least three boxes of pasta, but otherwise I only have duplicates of things I know I'm already running out of. The only exceptions are items I buy at specialty stores I often can't access -- then I buy three.
posted by cranberry_nut at 11:29 AM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: The forums on Flu Wiki have a ton of information on emergency preparedness. But there's a lot of stuff out there; just Google "food storage" and you'll get plenty of reading material. BTW, if you decide to get seriously into this, it's my understanding that anybody can use the LDS Church's canning facilities without being a member of the church; you just need to pay for supplies. LDS folks can perishable foods and also store whole wheat berries, then grind flour as needed. Things like white flour and white rice will keep for a long time, but they have little nutritional value; if you stock up on whole wheat flour or brown rice, you'll want to can or freeze them so that they don't spoil. And, yes, you do have to have a system for labeling and rotating your stock so that it doesn't go to waste; I don't have much stored, so I just do it by putting the newest stuff in the back of the pantry and the oldest in front.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 11:42 AM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: Enough for you to not worry if you have enough. I have boxes of pasta, cans of soup, tomato sauce, some canned veggies, jars of peanut butter, large bag of rice, powered milk and powered gatorade, cases of bottled water, lots of frozen foods including frozen loaves of bread, cans of tuna and lots of cereal that gets eaten and replaced regularly. Quite frankly in the event of a real emergency, I would eat my condiments and my huge thing of olive oil as calories. Then again, I also keep a gun and cash on hand in case the electronic means of paying (credit card, debit card, atm) system is down.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:52 AM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: At the risk of derailing your question, if you're thinking all survivalist/worst case scenario, you might make sure that you don't go stocking up on food at the expense of of getting your water supply figured out. (One gallon per person per day is what I've heard since moving to an earthquake zone, with a minimum supply to have on hand being three days' worth.) I'd make sure that my food scaled with my water supply; starvation won't kill you anywhere near as fast as dehydration (which can be complicated by sanitation issues).

We have probably 1-2 weeks of food in the pantry in grains/beans/etc. in our house, and I'm extremely comfortable with that. If I lived in a zone where I might be snowed in, or had to drive 50 miles to buy food, I might keep more.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:57 AM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: The emergency preparedness class I attended recommended up to 1 weeks worth of food and water. They suggested keeping it somewhat separate from what you'd consider your normal pantry (so you don't eat it and not replace it) and rotating out the contents for fresh stock every few months. Here's a link to the kinds of things they recommend having on hand. Though it says 72 hours, (3 days,worth of stuff) the instructors recommended more. It may depend on what you're preparing for.

I think as long as you are eating what's in your pantry and not having to throw it out it's not hoarding.
posted by oneear at 12:10 PM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: I came to say water supply too. I used to be with the "You buy food. You eat the food. You buy more food." camp, but then I spent ten days without electricity or the ability to travel due to the Ice Storm of the Apocalypse and now I feel somewhat differently. Cooking, heating water, and heating yourself with a woodstove for almost two weeks will change your perspective. (So will having a kid.)

Once you have the water sorted out, then you need to figure out how much food you a) have space for and b) are comfortable having. It can go anywhere from just a couple of days worth to A Mormon Pantry (links to a Google search).

Some foods to consider: canned tuna or chicken (cheap protein, can be eaten cold, doesn't take water to prepare); evaporated milk; freeze-dried fruits and veggies; peanut butter; canned refried beans; jars of applesauce; canned veggies (I know - yuck - but you can eat them cold straight out of the can if you need to); cold cereal (Cheerios, Chex; Total); honey; maybe a bit of chocolate (quick energy). Pasta and rice and such are great - until you find that you have no way to heat the water. You can 'cook' both pasta and rice in cold water, but I don't recommend it. (Oats do slightly better.) Also bear in mind that if you're in a true emergency situation, water is going to be at a premium and you won't want to use it for cooking.

Other things to consider: Asprin, allergy medications, any medications you take regularly, and tampons/pads if you're female.
posted by anastasiav at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: With all due respect to people who think it's "nutty" or "hoarding," we have about 2 to 3 months worth of food stored up. This includes freeze dried food, rice, water, propane to cook with, etc. Consider this: the food on your plate depends on all of the following working:

- your bank
- your job, health, and paycheck
- your supermarket
- the local delivery trucks and their warehouses
- the manufacturer's shippers and the plant itself
- the farmers and their harvesting equipment and delivery trucks
- the crops themselves, and
- the weather

If any of these were to fail (or god forbid all at once because of - who knows - world war? economy collapse?), there would immediately be a run on supplies and you would be left fighting against the masses of the unprepared and panicked. We have health, life, home, auto insurance -- why not prepare for food shortage, for whatever reason?
posted by Falwless at 12:20 PM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well, if we're going by the Zombie Apocalypse you mention in your headline, your large store of food will only cause to slow you down - and if you live in a large city, you're going to want to vacate said city in as short a timeframe as possible. Your giant rucksack of food will make you an ambling zombie snack in a large metropolitan area.

For non-zombie disasters, I would think what you have on hand is sufficient. After 2-3 weeks, you're either going to be evacuated from a disaster area, or you'll want to evacuate yourself before the looting and general anarchy starts.
posted by po822000 at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2011

I run a pretty lean pantry, in contrast to my Mom, whom I suspect could feed an army for a month on Hamburger Helper, Knorr soup mix, fruit cocktail and Jello in the event that the Shout & the Trump happens next Tuesday.

I do have a "emergency bin," though, in which I keep 5 days worth of food (2000 calories / person) that doesn't require cooking (cans of soup, crackers, canned fruit, etc.) and some shelf-stable milk. While I also buy my brown rice in 20 pound bags and keep probably 2-3 pounds of assorted dry legumes on hand, those are not going to do me a heck of a lot of good if our municipal gas is shut off and I don't have access to cooking fuel. (I'm not stockpiling propane... yet.)

I keep the emergency food in a Rubbermaid container, with batteries, flashlights, candles and matches, a first aid kit, etc., ready to throw into the trunk in case we need to evacuate, as well.

Rotating and augmenting my stash gives me a taste of the thrill that I imagine would come from digging a fallout shelter in my back yard while fantasizing about how smug I'll be after the Big One falls. My friends still think my emergency stash is a little crazy, but who do you think is going to come begging for Parmalat when the zombie apocalypse comes, hmm?
posted by BrashTech at 12:29 PM on June 28, 2011

Warning: skinny-bitch-filter:
I have almost universally found that [extra food in pantry]=[extra pounds on residents]
outside of a few staples (ramen,rice,dried beans,some canned goods,baking supplies, flour, spices) i turn over the pantry every week. i walk to the grocery store down the street to do my part for the environment (that 'last mile' of the distribution chain is what eats the most gas) and bring home what i can carry, but i am single so YMM definitely V.
as far as living somewhere you might get snowed/flooded in, well i wouldnt live there...and i am a strong believer in "if you can't drink the tap water, YOU NEED TO MOVE" ...i figure when the Big Earthquake comes, I'll fill up the tub (if i can) as soon as it happens, and add a few drops of bleach as necessary...and thank god I live in a first-world country and count on things returning to a semblance of normal relatively quickly.
long story short: live somewhere sensible, stock ~a weeks worth of boring food.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:08 PM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: and i am a strong believer in "if you can't drink the tap water, YOU NEED TO MOVE"

Just FYI: It's not an issue of "you can't drink the water" - the issue is that if the power goes out the pumps don't work, so nothing is going to come out of the tap.

as far as living somewhere you might get snowed/flooded in, well i wouldnt live there

See 2006 NYC Blackout

thank god I live in a first-world country and count on things returning to a semblance of normal relatively quickly.

See also: 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina
posted by anastasiav at 1:32 PM on June 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

Best answer: What about storing food as a form of insurance against losing your job or rising food prices? Far more of a realistic threat for most people, IMO.

One painless way to add to your food stores is to buy a little extra of your normal staples every time they're on sale. If I can lock in a "10 cans for $10" special on canned tuna or vegetables, it's all good. Do this every time you shop, and your pantry will be full before you know it.

I don't eat red meat or starch, so here are a few things I've found useful to have around:

protein powder
canned tuna
other canned fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, etc.)
canned vegetables
peanut butter
mixed nuts
dried fruit (cranberries, figs, dates, etc.)

If I weren't so strict, here's an alternate list of a few things I'd definitely want around for comfort food:

mashed potato flakes
canned beans
saltine crackers
pancake syrup
egg powder
powdered milk
olive oil
marshmallow fluff

WATER: One easy way to store water is to refill empty two-liter soda bottles and keep in a cool, dark place. Even if you don't touch the stuff, you'll often find that plenty are available on recycling day! Portable, free, and easy-to-store: what's not to like? Some people recommend adding a drop of bleach, but my tap water is so chlorinated, adding more is a little over the top.
posted by aquafortis at 1:57 PM on June 28, 2011

If I had the space, I'd indulge my disaster paranoia more, but my "pantry" is basically a small broom closet, so maybe it's good that I'm limited... However, I do stock up on frequently used items when they're on sale, so this results in having about two weeks worth of dry/canned stuff on hand. To make sure I'm rotating cans, I write the purchase date on top with a Sharpie when I unpack groceries and just use the ol' restaurant-style first in, first out method -- this could easily be expanded to a few months supply if one had the space and inclination. But the stuff I do stock isn't so much open-and-eat as it is ingredients that I cook with (i.e. canned veggies and beans, rice, lentils...). It's only in the winter that I'm more inclined to keep a few days supply of stuff like Campbell's soup around, so if I get word a blizzard's coming, I don't have to trudge to the store along with every other unprepared chump in town.

I don't really care for the taste of my tapwater, so I also have two 3 gallon water jugs that I refill regularly, so at any given time I have at least 3 gallons of water available. Again, if I had more space, I might increase that to maybe four jugs.
posted by hegemone at 2:07 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my answer to "how much food should I store?" is "however much it takes for you to stop worrying about it, as long as you can use it all before it goes bad".
posted by aquafortis at 2:09 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a couple of Rubbermaid Bins filled with emergency supplies (food plus other stuff- first aid, a thumb drive with important docs scanned on it, etc.) in the garage. I originally set them up when we lived in the Berkeley Hills and might have had to evacuate on very short notice in the event of fire. Now we've moved elsewhere but still in earthquake country, so I keep them current. I have an auto reminder on my Google calendar every four months to refresh the food supplies, so I go buy shelf stable stuff we eat (canned soup, canned chicken/tuna, peanut butter, some chicken broth, some boxed juices and some of those UHT boxes of milk for the kids, KIBBLE FOR THE DOG, etc.) I leave them in the shopping bags, and just drop the whole thing in the Rubbermaid bin, take the older ones out and unload into the kitchen cabinets. That way nothing gets too stale, and the reminder helps me not forget.
posted by ambrosia at 2:23 PM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you search for terms like food storage spreadsheet you can find a variety of tools to help you calculate what to stock. I myself have one that accounts for existing inventory, purchasing decisions that vary from the recommendation, and price accounting, and which features precisely the list of products that you can get from a Mormon cannery (you may have to update the price list, but they are selling them at cost; you do not have to be a church member). MeMail me if you want a copy; the Google group I got it from seems to be defunct.

If FEMA's saying they may not be able to reach you in a disaster for five days, I'd store a week's worth to be on the safe side.

2-liter bottles are great for water storage; ask your city utility or whoever whether you need to add the drop of bleach, then rinse them out, fill them up, and throw them under the bed. I know people who store water in 50-gallon plastic drums from soda bottlers (who receive syrup in them), but having all your water in one container makes it immovable and vulnerable to contamination.
posted by eritain at 2:48 PM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: I keep a well-stocked pantry. Not out of paranoia or a religious belief, but because being prepared appeals to me. If you looked at my shelves, you'd see several hundred home canned goods, cereals and pasta, store-bought canned goods, baking supplies, and a number of white food-grade plastic buckets filled with bread flour, sugar, and rice. I have a chest freezer for the pork I raise, and we won't speak of the dozen boxes of eggs currently in my refrigerator or the plastic bottles of water in the basement. Hello, I'm a prepper. As long as there's a place and a purpose for everything, I'm happy; more than that, and the clutter takes on the cast of hoarding. A pantry should be useful--a place to reach for what you need, rather than a space to shore stuff up against your fears. That's my own definition of a reasonable pantry. More pantry advice from the green here.

Filling it up reasonably means something different to everyone. Here's a link to a food storage calculator, courtesy of the LDS. Your local Mormons may offer educational lectures about approaches to storage and using what you choose to have on hand. Here's a good tutorial on storing food in buckets and in #10 cans (literal trigger warning; this comes from a site devoted to the AR-15). You may want to learn to can your own veggies (brief how-to in my profile) and then enjoy their beauty and utility for many months. (Check with your local ag extension for classes.) I'm a fan of keeping a big bag of yeast in the freezer so I can make my own bread year-round, and yeah, I love hefting the 50-lb. bag of high-gluten flour up on my shoulder as the stock clerk stammers "Ma'am? Ma'am? You got that OK?" But I go through flour like mad, and replentish often.

Rotating stock is a challenge, and it takes a conscious effort to use the older items first (more discussion of canned goods' shelf life here). For me, it's more of a mental list kind of deal, along with checking what I have *right before I go shopping.* If I can't store it, or am unlikely to use a sale item, I pass it up. On the other hand, storing in large quantities means that I can wait for the good sales. So you may just have to experiment for a while and keep records, formal or informal, of what you seem to be going through the most. Luckily, when I do my shelf cull, I have instant oinky disposal; my pigs are happy with the stuff that has gone over its date by a bit.

Anyway, that's my general answer to your question. MeMail me if you want more specifics about readiness. Good luck, and good prepping.

P.S. Water, water, water. As mentioned above, a safe, accessible water supply is essential.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:25 PM on June 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

You might also want to think about prescription medications. How long could you go without your medication? I'm hypothyroid and I start to feel lousy after about 3 days without my meds, so I have some extra in case of emergency. Over-the-counter meds would also be a useful thing to have on hand, though meds will need to be rotated the way food is.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:56 PM on June 28, 2011

I live in Florida and usually set aside 2 weeks worth of food/water in the pantry during hurricane season.

I also keep a smaller stock (about 3-5 days) of emergency food that is far more important to me -- food I can stomach when extremely ill. Gatorade, fruit cocktail, graham crackers... all the stuff I can keep down when I'm falling-down-sick and by myself.

I've had to dip into the latter stash many times over the years and it's always been a godsend.
posted by Wossname at 6:59 PM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

We have about 3 weeks worth of "extra" food (kept seperately from our pantry) on hand at any given time. It's nice to say "You eat food, you buy more" but I'm from southwest Florida and have gone through some pretty bad storms. In 2004 when Charley, Ivan etc hit, all of our roads out were blocked by fallen trees- we had to walk about a mile to get to somewhere we could be picked up. We had a palm tree trap a power line against the side of our house, and it took about a week and a half for the power company to send someone out to remove the tree, so our whole block was without power for that time- and we were about 80 miles from the most severely affected areas. I now live in the FL panhandle and have been flooded in from storms more than once without power. I would rather have extra food than not enough. We also have about 15 gallons of water (a week's worth) and a large bag of pet food for each of our pets stored away.
posted by kro at 7:41 PM on June 28, 2011

Best answer: Check out The Survival Podcast. This guy is all about preparing to make your life better, whether things get bad or not. He recommends that you just stock up food that you will eat anyway. Start with getting a months worth of food, then 2, 3, up to six or more (whatever you can find space for). Keeping extra food is not nutty and certainly not hoarding. If you do it right, and store what you eat, eat what you store, then it will save you money in the long run as you will be able to take advantage of sales.

Start out by buying two cans of tomato sauce instead of one next time you go to the store. Only buy food that you will eat. Once you get enough to fill up your pantry, move some of that to a rubbermaid tub, stick it in the closet (labeled!) and start again. When you go grocery shopping, shop from your stored food first to ensure rotation.

If you do this, you will save money and in your next disaster (even a job loss) you won't need to worry about food, and it will help you regain control.

Personally, I am working on 2 months of food. There are some good calculators upthread to help determine the amounts you need, but start by keeping a food journal. See how much you use in a two-week period, convert that to store-able foods (pasta, canned chicken, tuna, rice, beans, ect.) You might want to look for some recipes that solely use your food storage. Check out Harvest Eating for good, seasonal recipes.
posted by yb2006shasta at 7:44 PM on June 28, 2011

Whatever you put in your emergency pantry, make sure it's something you (and your family) will actually eat. The Mormon sites and the survivalist lists always have stuff like 100 pounds of wheat berries, 50 pounds of rice, etc. But if you normally don't make your food from really basic ingredients, would you know what to do with it? If you're not used to the taste or texture, would you eat it? Or would you rather have something you're familiar with?

In other words, store what you eat. Pick a meal that you normally eat that doesn't involve fresh food (e.g., dry pasta, jarred pasta sauce, the grated Parmesan in the green package). When you buy the ingredients for tomorrow's pasta meal, buy enough for one or two more meals. Don't go crazy, one or two meals is enough to start with. Store the extra. Maybe do the same thing with another meal this week. Right there, you have enough extra food for four meals you'll actually eat. Come up with half a dozen recipes or more, keep doing this once or twice a week, and soon enough you'll be ready for a one-week emergency, with food your kids (and you!) won't refuse to eat, and your wallet won't take a huge hit. In a few months, start rotating the stock: eat one of those meals from the pantry, but replace it with newly purchased food.

If you need ideas for things to store, try this list. And, if it's good weather and you have a place to grill, keep a small grill and a bag of charcoal briquettes around, so you can cook the meat in the fridge before it goes bad.

(And don't forget water!)
posted by bentley at 7:59 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I forgot: also buy an extra bag of pet food. As soon as you open a bag, buy another one to have.
posted by bentley at 8:06 PM on June 28, 2011

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