I love food. My wife would probably tell you I have a food fixation, and she’d only be halfway joking. I love cheeseburgers, pizza, Tex-Mex, Chinese food, hot wings, big breakfasts, CHEESE. I also like most fruit and some vegetables. Vegetables are heavily represented on the short list of food I DON’T like. Squash is at the top of that list. I only like fried squash. My mom used to make boiled squash and I hate it. I’d rather starve to death than eat boiled squash. Speaking of starving to death, let’s talk basic preparations for food.
How Much Food Should I Have For an Emergency?
Many mainstream preparedness websites (i.e. Ready.gov and FEMA) recommend a 72-hour supply of food for an emergency. For the math-challenged, 72 hours is 3 days. I personally think that demonstrates either a lack of imagination, an unwarranted level of optimism, or both. It’s easy for me to imagine a situation where three days isn’t enough – It happened in the Texas winter storm in 2021.
In Winter Storm Uri, we went three days without any option to go to the store, then we had a 1-day gap before the next wave of snow came. During that 1-day gap, our local convenience store was crammed to the gills with people buying whatever food they could get their hands on, and the place was picked bare. The people in the store that day were NOT only from our neighborhood.
I don’t have to imagine 3 days, and I am not foolish enough to think 3 days is the upper limit. So if you are relying on three days worth of non-perishable food, then you have to optimistically believe that some sort of food relief is coming on day 4.
I’m going to make a rare split from ready.gov / FEMA / etc. and recommend a full week of non-perishable food for basic food preparation. The full week could save your bacon if you need to go a full week without going to the store. It could also help you stretch any resupply you get in an extended / low-intensity event. For example, consider where supply chains are so stressed that you only have sporadic delivery of staples. You can use your seven days to stretch the new food you’re able to acquire.
Food Math – How Much Food Do I Need Per Day?
Estimating food for survival preparation purposes can be confusing. You have to find a way to navigate different measures of food energy content and consumption patterns:
- Days (as in ’14 Day Emergency Food Supply’)
My goal is to convert all of these terms into a single planning metric: “Person-Days.” A Person-Day of food is the amount of food a person needs to consume per day and stay reasonably healthy. For short-term and intermediate-term emergency preparations, we don’t worry about macro-nutrients or micro-nutrients. These things ARE important over the long-term but they’re not how you’re going to starve to death. Starving is about calories. So we need to figure out how many calories you need per day.
Basal Metabolic Rate
The first step in determining your daily caloric needs is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Your BMR is specific to your age, gender, and size, and represents how many calories your body burns every day while at rest. Another way of thinking about BMR is the number of calories your body requires to manage current weight, without consideration of effort. There are a lot of calculators for this online, because it’s a pretty standard, commonly-used formula. For our purposes, we’ll use calculator.net’s BMR calculator.
Here’s how my family’s BMR calculates based on our age, gender, and size:
- My BMR is just under 2000 calories. My body burns 2000 calories just to keep me alive and maintain my current weight. If I get 2000 calories per day and don’t exercise (this is important, as you will soon see) then I stay at my current weight. If I get fewer than 2000, then I lose weight. If I get more than 2000, I gain weight. There is a ton of debate about the validity of the calories in / calories out thinking for weight loss. I’m going to skip that debate because it’s not our goal. BUT I am going to adjust my BMR for emergency planning purposes because I’m overweight. I’m going to plan on limiting my calories to 1750.
- My wife’s BMR is about 1400.
- My two teenage sons have a BMR of about 1600.
One thing you need to understand about BMR is that it won’t cover your exercise calories. In a short-term emergency situation you will either be stationary (i.e. at home) or you will be moving to get to safety. If you’re moving to get to safety, then the BMR is NOT going to be enough calories to keep you going for very long. Especially considering the fact that if you are moving during an emergency, you are probably carrying a load. Carrying a 40-pound load burns around 750 calories per hour.
I still want to use BMR, because my ‘Plan A’ is to stay home in an emergency if I can. If I’m at home, I can control my effort. But if I need to hit the road, I just need to plan on consuming (and therefore bringing) quite a bit more food.
Back to my family’s BMR, the four of us average 1,650 calories per day as our BMR. So my ‘Person-Day’ value for my family is 1650. If I have 6,600 (1650 X 4) calories, then I can feed my family of four for one day.
I’m not a big fan of shortcuts, but I’ll give you one here: If you’re too lazy to figure out the BMR for you and your family, use 2000 calories per day. It’s probably high, but if you’re buying emergency food you’d probably rather have a high estimate.
Once you know your family’s BMR, then you can convert all of your emergency food to Person-Days, using calories as the exchange rate:
- An MRE has 1250 calories. For me, that’s a little less than a person-day.
- An Emergency Ration bar has 3600 calories, or a little over 2 person-days.
- A package of Mountain House Freeze-Dried Food has about 500 calories. I need a little over 3 of those to make a person-day.
Before you go further, calculate your family’s Basal Metabolic Rates, and then use those rates to calculate an average Person-Day value for your planning target.
The Food In Your House
Much like your water preparations, your food preparations are probably easier because of food you already have at your house. If you have a food emergency accompanied by a power outage then you should operate in the following order:
- First, you should eat what you can from your refrigerator. Depending on your fridge and the temperature in your house, the food in your fridge will still be safe to eat up to 4 hours after the power goes out. Different food will have different thresholds. A personal note here: 4 hours? Seriously? These guidelines come from the FDA – Foodsafety.gov.
- Next, you should eat from your freezer. Your freezer will start defrosting, and depending on how full it is, what kind of food, and how warm the ambient temperature is, you will be able to eat food from your freezer 24-72 hours after the power goes out.
- Now it’s time to move on to the other perishable foods. Think bread, fruit and veggies, etc.
- Save the canned and dried foods (aka ‘non-perishable’) for last.
Time for an exercise. You’re here on a prepper website, thinking about food in an emergency. Put your thinking into action. Get up and go to the kitchen. Check your fridge, freezer, counters, and pantry. Add up the calories, and calculate how many person-days worth of food are in each of these storage places.
What Emergency Food Should You Buy?
I don’t like wasting money. I’m not saying I DON’T waste money – my wife will confirm that I frequently waste money. But I don’t like it. One good way to waste money is to buy food that you’re not going to eat before it spoils. I’ve learned a thing or two about picking emergency food and not throwing it away.
- There are three kinds of emergency food:
- Normal Food is whatever non-perishable food you bought before you were a prepper. Most adults will have some combination of soups, canned beans, canned fruits and vegetables, crackers, rice, flour, breakfast cereal, and other nonperishable staples. You probably don’t have to worry much about this stuff going bad. You already buy it because you already eat it.
- Semi-Normal Food is stuff that you never bought before but you’re willing to change. Some examples might be some dried fruit, protein bars, beef jerky, nuts, canned stew / meat, etc. You don’t already buy it, but you’re reasonably confident that you wouldn’t let it go to waste if you had it.
- Special Food is stuff that is designed for special circumstances. This is what most people think of when they think “Prepper Food”: Freeze-Dried Food, MRE’s (Meals Ready-to-Eat), and Emergency Rations
Normal Food – The Stuff You Already Buy
Buy more of your Normal Food than you normally would, and rotate it out. If you know that you eat 2-3 cans of corn a month, then instead of buying 3 cans, buy 9 the next time you’re at your grocery store. Maintain 3 months worth by rotating your food. Rotating your food just means using the oldest stuff first. An easy way to do this (especially if you’re talking about 3X as many cans) is to put the new stuff behind the old stuff when you put it in your pantry. They also sell these FIFO can stackers. I don’t have any, but they might help you.
The idea behind buying more Normal Food is that this is the least likely stuff to go bad. You already eat it, so the only new habit you need is to manage / rotate your products.
Semi-Normal Food – Give it a Shot
Start slow on Semi-Normal Food. Don’t go nuts on stuff you don’t normally buy. Instead of 4 bags of nuts, 7 lbs. of beef jerkey, and 100 granola bars, why not start slow and see how much you like it? You want to start shifting your Semi-Normal Food into the Normal Food category, but before you do that, you need to get into the habit of actually eating it. Once you’re sure it’s a Normal Food for you, then treat it as such. Buy 3 months’ worth and rotate it.
Special Food – Ideal for Emergencies
I don’t have a LOT of Special Food, but I do have some, and I buy something in this category every year. This is an article about Basic Emergency Preparation, and you probably don’t need any special food to last one week. If anything, get a case of MRE’s and spread them around in your vehicles and other ‘away-from-home’ places.
The Fastest, Cheapest Way to One Week of Emergency Food Preparation
If your goal is one week (and that’s what we said at the top of this article) then you should probably just stick with buying more of your Normal Food and a few items of Semi-Normal Food.
In addition, you should consider purchasing multivitamins for you and your family.
Finally, how are you going to cook if the power is out? We’ll cover this in more detail when we talk about basic prep for the grid going down.
- Shelf-stable staples (rice, beans, pasta)
- Canned fruit, vegetables, corn, beans, and soups
- Cured, dried, or canned meat (Jerky, Spam, etc.)
- Dried fruit, raisins, trail mix, nuts, etc.
- Treats and candy that won't melt. I like M&Ms.
- One case of MREs.
- Manual can opener
Food Heating Options
- First, calculate the Basal Metabolic Rate for each member of your household. For a shortcut, use 2000 calories per person.\
- Second, take a look at the food in your pantry. Look at the labels. Add up how many calories are in there. ESTIMATE. You don't have to be perfect here - just ballpark how many calories are in your pantry. If you only have ketchup, potato chips, and bourbon then you can skip to step 4.
- Next, increase your purchase and storage of shelf-stable foods that are already in your pantry. This is your 'Normal Food' and your strategy is to buy more of it. If you normally have 4 cans of beans, work your way up to 8. If you normally buy 2 packages of Macaroni and Cheese, go ahead and get the 12-pack.
- Start exploring other foods that you don't currently purchase, AKA semi-normal foods. Look at canned fruits and vegetables, dry staples (rice, beans, and pasta), dried fruit, nuts, trail mix, jerky, and shelf-stable meat like spam. Don't go nuts - just buy a little bit to start.
- Start USING these semi-normal foods in step 4. If you like them, buy more.
- Get a case of MRE's. This is for food on-the-go. Stash a couple of them in your car, maybe one in your backpack, etc. I don't recommend Government Surplus. My favorite brand is Mea Kit Supply but I've also had MRE Star. Both of these companies make MREs for Uncle Sam, but their consumer packaging takes away a lot of questions about shelf life.
- Speaking of shelf life, you need to pay attention to expiration dates. Every 4-6 months take a look at what you have. If it's close to going bad, donate it and replace it. If it's old, chunk it.
- Make sure you think about how you're going go open and cook your food.
- I won't recommend something I don't own and use.
- The items on this list are more expensive than other options, but they're build to last. I'd rather buy it once and pay extra so I can count on it when I need it.
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Feature Image: Van Camp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common