Building an Emergency Food Supply

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 02, 2022
4 min read

In the event that a natural disaster strikes your community, you could be cut off from food, water, or electricity for days or possibly weeks. Having emergency food supplies can help you provide for your family while you wait for things to return to normal. 

You should have emergency food and water to be prepared for a natural disaster or other emergencies. Taking the time to prepare for an emergency will give you peace of mind and ensure your family will be provided for during the immediate aftermath of an emergency. While a two-week food supply is an ideal amount to have on hand, you don't have to start with that. You can begin by putting together a three-day food and water supply for each family member. 

When you start stocking up on a three-day supply of shelf-stable food, consider the following: 

  • Look for shelf-stable foods that don't need to be refrigerated. 
  • Once you've prepared food, it's usually no longer shelf stable.
  • Only stock up on food your family likes and normally eats.
  • Every six to 12 months, use your stash of food and water and rotate it. 
  • Buy cans that will provide the amount you need for one meal instead of larger cans that will result in leftovers. 
  • Make sure you include a can opener and eating utensils.
  • Consider including instant foods if you have a way to boil water without power.
  • Store your food in rigid plastic, metal, or glass containers to avoid insect and rodent damage.

Many shelf-stable foods are highly processed and loaded with ingredients you don't want. When you're planning your food supply, think about how you'll meet your family's nutritional needs with limited water and without access to refrigerated or fresh foods. 

Include fruits and vegetables. Canned fruits and vegetables can offer valuable nutrition during power outages. Opt for brands without added sugar and sodium. Dried fruits and nuts are also good choices for shelf-stable nutritious foods.  

Choose low-sodium foods. Canned foods can be loaded with sodium. Foods with too much sodium can cause you to feel thirsty and drink more than you normally would. This may be an issue when you're having to ration water. Look for cans labeled "low sodium" or "no sodium." Check the nutrition labels since the amount of sodium can vary drastically from one brand to another, even among the same foods.  

Add protein. Protein is an essential part of your diet, even during an emergency. Including protein in your emergency food supply will also help you feel full, so you won't be tempted to overeat your supplies. Shelf-stable foods that are high in protein include: 

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Peanut butter
  • Peanuts and other tree nuts
  • Canned meats

Avoid excess sugar. Choose foods without added sugars. When you're checking the label, you may see added sugars listed as:

  • Dextrose
  • Sucrose
  • Table sugar
  • Syrup
  • Honey
  • Concentrated fruit or vegetable juice

Remember to include any special dietary needs in your emergency food supply. Other items you can include are:

  • Dried fruit
  • Dry cereal and granola
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned fruit and fruit juice
  • Canned meats
  • Canned vegetables
  • Protein bars
  • Fruit bars
  • Nonperishable, pasteurized milk
  • Comfort and stress foods
  • Bottled water

Although your emergency food supply kit will contain food that doesn't have to be cooked, many foods will taste better if you heat them up. You have several options for cooking when the power goes out. You can cook in your fireplace inside. If you don't have a fireplace or don't want to use it, you can cook over a charcoal grill or camp stove outside. A candle, chafing dish, or fondue pot can keep your food warm. 

If you're heating food up in the can, remove the label and wash the can before heating it. No matter how you cook your food, make sure you extinguish any open flames before you leave the cooking area.

In case of an extended food shortage, here are some tips to keep in mind: 

  • You can survive on half your usual amount of food for an extended period of time.
  • You can survive without food for many days.
  • Food shouldn't be rationed for children and pregnant women.
  • Water shouldn't be rationed.
  • Include a vitamin and mineral supplement in your food supply kit.
  • Your body needs a half gallon of water daily to function properly.

Having enough clean water is a top priority in an emergency. Under normal circumstances, a healthy, active adult will need a half gallon of water each day. Children, nursing mothers, ill people, and people in hot climates will need more water. Don't forget extra water for food preparation and hygiene. Plan for 1 gallon per person per day. Try working up to a two-week supply for each member of your family.

If you start running out of water, don't ration it. Instead, drink what you need today and try to find more for tomorrow. There are some hidden sources of safe water in your home, including the water in your hot water tanks and the water in your pipes. Don't use water from your toilets, pools, spas, radiators, or water beds. 

If you run out of water in your emergency supply and your home, you can find water from outside sources, including: 

  • Rainwater
  • Water from streams, creeks, rivers, and other moving bodies of water
  • Lakes and ponds
  • Natural springs

Avoid water from the following outside sources:  

  • Floodwater
  • Salt water, unless it's been distilled
  • Water with floating material
  • Water with a dark color or a smell

You should treat any water you obtain from outside sources before you drink it.