Your First Emergency Food List


In August 2020, a rare derecho thunderstorm hit the town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Almost every house and building in the city sustained damage. People were without power for weeks. The storm caused $7.5 billion in damage between South Dakota and Ohio, ranking it as the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history.

I live 75 miles due north of the historic weather event, but that didn’t exclude me from it. People were raiding northern towns for generators, gas, and food. No one had time to prepare. In the land of tornadoes, this “thunderstorm” was never predicted to be as violent as it was. Hopefully, that won’t be a situation any of us find ourselves in.


What do you eat when the power goes out?

When your electric power goes out, eat shelf-stable, non-perishable food that doesn't need to be refrigerated. This is the most easy-to-use food because it doesn't require refrigeration and can be eaten with no food prep or heating. Examples are canned food or food in pouches, crackers, fresh fruits and vegetable that don't need to be refrigerated, or MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat).

See the full list below of no cook food for emergency.

What can you cook without power?

Any food can be cooked without power, as long as you have alternative non-electrical heat sources. MRE's (Meals Ready-to-Eat) can be cooked without power. They contain flameless ration heaters (FRH) that uses a chemical reaction to provide enough heat to warm the food. Cooking without power means you don't have an electrical source such as an electric stove, microwave, electric fry pan or other electric cooking appliances.

The question of "what can I eat with no appliances" starts with a list of alternative heat sources to cook your food during a power outage. Here are some ways and sources to cook food without power:

  • Canned food with the lid removed and cooked right in the can or dumped into a pot or pan placed over an open flame source such as campfire.
  • Food can be cooked inside a plastic bag that is then placed in boiling water heated by Sterno can, LP gas source, or open flame such as a campfire.
  • Sterno cans or backpacking stoves are both small, portable heating sources for food. The Sterno can is a can of fuel designed to burn directly from the can. The backpacking stove is designed to be very efficient because it uses less fuel and water (it basically rehydrates dehydrated food while warming it at the same time).
  • Meat grilled over an open flame or grill with a LP gas source, or camping stove.
  • Baked food in a dutch ovens with a charcoal source do quite well. A dutch oven can cook basically anything an oven can.
  • Solar ovens could also be used without power, but have a longer cooking time.
  • Food can be cooked over a gas stove without electricity, you just have to light it with a match or lighter (the electrical igniter function will stop without electricity). Do not attempt to light anything in your house if you smell a gas leak! This include candles, too.
  • Food placed in aluminum foil and placed next to a heat source, such as a car engine while driving or other equipment that generates heat.
  • Anything over an open flame source such as a campfire: food in aluminum foil or placing an elevated grill above the open flame can function the same as a gas stove.
  • Gas-run generators can power on electrical cooking appliances, but use your generator resources sparingly and wisely.

If you have lost electricity, there will be no means to cook your food – no stove or microwave. There is a chance that you can grill outside (do NOT grill inside due to the extra fumes).

As you can see from this list, you have multiple options to heat food. There will be less flexibility for someone with lives in an apartment. If possible, do your cooking outside or in an open garage.

Foods for a power outage

Here is a list of shelf-stable, non-perishable food that is ready to eat. Shelf-stable means that the food doesn’t need to be refrigerated or cooked (anything that’s sold on a shelf when you buy it). Just check whether the package says you need to refrigerate after opening.

No-cook food is the most important food to have on an emergency list. If the power outage is extended, heating food can be a secondary luxury.

How to make an emergency food supply

No one should be running to the store at the last minute to buy emergency food supplies. Toss in a few extra packages of nonperishable food during your regular shopping trips. Your supply list will soon be complete.

To make an emergency food supply, estimate what it would take one person to eat 3 meals day for 6 days (or 72 hours, which is a common estimate for emergency food). For example, if a can of soup yields 2 servings, three cans of soup could feed two people for one day. You would need 3 cans of soup x 6 days = 18 cans of soup. Of course, that's only one example, you would strive for more food choices.

When planning for clean drinking water, if you have a family of four, you need 28 gallons for a week's supply of  water.

Of course, most of us want variety and may be a bit hungrier than what soup can do for us. The focus should be stocking a food supply that provides the most filling and satisfying meals. With that said, bulking up with rice, beans, and a source of protein can be a good strategy to feel more full. And that soup? Serve it with crackers to feel more satisfied.

High-water and fibrous vegetable can also help us to feel full, such as celery with peanut butter (the fat in the peanut better helps with reaching a state of fullness). Canned stew and baked beans are hearty foods as well. Don't forget canned juices. Stay away from salty foods that will create a thirst for more water.

It isn't long before most people figure out that the longer the shelf life of the food the better. That's when the conversation turns to freeze-dried and dehydrated emergency food. In the next section, I explore those differences between the two and the benefits.

What is the difference between freeze dried food and dehydrated food?

Both freeze dried food and dehydrated food remove water from the food to extend shelf life and remove the need for refrigeration. Freeze dried food removes more moisture, giving it a significantly longer shelf life over dehydrated food. Freeze dried food is more palatable, as it more successfully retains flavor and texture of the original food. Dehydrated food takes longer to cook, needs to be re-hydrated, and tends to taste bland. Freeze dried food only needs water added and rehydrates better and faster than dehydrated food.

Beef jerky is an example of a dehydrated food. Dehydrated food is dried and "withered" and will need to be seasoned to improve taste. Hands-down, the freeze-dried food is going to provide a more pleasant eating experience, but at a cost. Both types of food make excellent candidates to have in your emergency food stash. Particularly, the ability to preserve meat without refrigeration is a super way to get protein in times of emergency.

There are many companies that have mastered freeze-drying food for emergency purposes, or even convenience, such as hiking. Freeze dried food can be purchased such as this Ready-Wise freeze dried food kit. Interested folks can also make their own dehydrated food with a home dehydrator.

Fun fact: freeze-dried food will have a 25-30-year shelf life in proper conditions (an air-tight container with an oxygen-absorber added) compared to the 5-year shelf life of dehydrated food. Freeze drying removes about 98-99 percent of the water, whereas dehydration removed 90-95% of the moisture. That slight increase in water removal is the key to freeze dried foods' significant extended shelf life.

[Product Shelf Life. 2007. Oregon Freeze Dry. Accessed February 2022. https://www.mountainhouse.com/shelf_lif.cfm]

Non-perishable, no-cook food for a power outage

Here is a great beginner list of food supplies to buy in case of a power outage:

Canned Beverages/canned liquids + can opener!

  • Water: A gallon per person is enough for seven days. If bottles are an option, purchase eight 16-oz. bottles per person — or 56 bottles per person for seven days.
  • Juice: Canned, boxed or plastic filled.
  • Milk: Powdered or shelf-stable, in single-serving boxes. Non-refrigerated individual cartons of organic milk, soy milk, almond milk, or any other milk-like substance that’s sold on shelves and not in the cooler section. 
  • Crackers for snacking with cheese and meats right after the power goes out.
  • Fruit: canned fruits, applesauce.
    Healthy Snacks: granola bars, trail mix, nuts rice cakes, dried fruit.
    Comfort food: Pop-tarts, doughnuts, sweets.
  • Powders such as protein powder or peanut butter powder can be mixed in water (but ideally with almond milk).

Meals

  • Canned soups, chili, veggies, stew, beans
  • Cereal: can be eaten dry or mixed with milk.
  • Preserved meats: beef jerky that is high-protein, low-carb; canned tuna, salmon, chicken, Spam.

Condiments

  • Small jar of mayonnaise, to make chicken or tuna salad.
    Ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, salt and pepper – in individual packets
  • Non-perishable spreads, like peanut butter, honey

Room Temperature Foods

  • Fruit, avocadoes, grapes, melons, apples, onions, potatoes, vegetables etc.
    hard cheeses (such as cheddar) will keep at room temperature. It's a good idea to wash fruit and vegetables that are sitting out ahead of time so you're not using your precious water up during the power outage.
  • Bread, butter, fresh fruit and, jelly

Meal kits

  • Lunchables
  • MREs
  • Lunch kits

SPECIAL CONSIDERATION

  • Nursing moms and need extra hydration to provide for the baby, don’t forget to pack formula! And other foods for infants.
  • Allergies, special diets. If you are a diabetic or have known food allergies, your food emergency list should reflect that. Include safe foods for your conditions.
  • Important prescription medication such as insulin, blood pressure pills, or inhalers. Make sure you have an adequate supply on hand at the first sign of extreme weather. 
  • Pets. Don't forget food and water specific to your animal's needs.
emergency food items

Emergency food items.

Have clean drinking water ready for long-term power outage

Stock up on clean drinking water. Be prepared to boil water before drinking as the storm may leave water sources contaminated. Your life will be much easier by picking up several 3- or 5-gallons water containers. These jugs will serve many purposes: drinking, cooking, and hygiene. Fresh water could be out for weeks. You may want to consider buying water purification tablets or a filtering system at a camping store or online.

Another smart purchase is non-perishable water pouches. These highly portable drinking pouches have a longer shelf life than plastic bottles of water and are easier to store and carry. Make sure you have enough water in your emergency supplies to keep you and your family hydrated for up to 72 hours.

Bottled water does expire. The water itself doesn’t go bad, but it absorbs the chemicals from the bottle and will not have a pleasant taste.

DON'T USE ALL YOUR WATER AT ONCE! During a crisis, the number one goal is to stay hydrated. Secondary goals for water are using it to clean dishes, personal hygiene, sanitary concerns (such as flushing toilets) and washing clothing. Depending on your plumbing/water setup, you may have water reserves that will function for a little while, or not at all.

This is the case in apartment buildings that rely on a pumping system in the basement. Filling up pitchers, buckets, and bathtubs can help extend your water supply and buy you time. Shower and flush sparingly to keep everything running longer. Don't overlook collecting rain water or melting snow for non-drinking uses.

Other things to buy to prepare your kitchen for a power outage

Before you jump out the door to go emergency food shopping, don't forget these important items to help you cook when the power goes out:

  • Flashlights, extra batteries, crank flashlight (to see and cook your food in the dark!)
  • Candles, matches, lighter, or battery “candles” that run 4-8 hours at a time
  • Manual can opener
  • Paper plates, napkins, cups, and plastic eating utensils
  • Outdoor grills, Sterno cooking fuel, camp stove and fuel, backpacking stove, matches, lighter, or other camping or emergency supplies to cook without electricity

Emergency food bag is a grab-and-go must

You may have to evacuate your home, so you should also have food and water in a grab-and-go emergency bag. Think enough for 72 hours - that's a lot. Plan on each able-bodied family member to help carry a bag. Some people keep their emergency food bags ready to grab near the front door. I am not so organized! But do have a plan and an easy way to grab your medication to go with it. 

Years ago, I was in a car accident and my glasses flew off. Ever since then I always keep an extra pair of glasses in my purse and glove compartment (I have pretty bad eyesight). Non-food items that are important to you need to be in your emergency bag.

Packing emergency food bag

Packing emergency food bag.

Where to store your emergency food

Keep your emergency food supply easily accessible and safe from damage. A dry, clean, and temperature-controlled place is ideal. Extreme cold and heat can degrade the quality of the food. Emergency food storage under a bed is common or in a basement. You just don't want any risk of water damage or other potential threat (like mouse damage).

No room? Put the food in totes with lids and stack out in the open.

Food ideas when the power goes out

I think it's fair to say that everyone knows about canned food as an emergency food source. The problem is that emergencies are stressful. Our adrenaline is running and we need to be comforted! You probably are here looking for a little more exciting hurricane menu ideas than boring tuna!

Hurricane (or storm) menu food ideas:

  • Tortilla wraps, buttered, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar (mmm, it's just like a cinnamon roll at breakfast!
  • Overnight oats. Mix rolled oats with water and let sit overnight on a counter (I would usually use milk and sit in the fridge overnight, but this is an emergency). In the morning, add peanut butter, raisins or other dried fruit, and a little cinnamon.
  • Small jars of mayo or salad dressing can be popped open and mixed with canned meat to make a sandwich spread. If you are able, you can save packets from carry outs for this purpose.

Food preparation for power outage: cooling and freezing food

There are cool strategies you can take (pardon the pun) to extend your food cooling capacity during a power outage.

Before the storm comes, pack some strategic things in your freezer:

  • Water bottles, which can then act as ice packs to keep the rest of the food cold
  • Perishable foods, like meats or leftovers. This extends your food supply by freezing it.
  • Frozen foods that you plan to eat when they are partially thawed.
  • Use your ice maker to freeze extra cubes ahead and bag them up in large freezer bags so they're ready for the cooler.
  • Filling your freezer up will help it stay cold longer. This might mean putting a bucket of water in the freezer as soon as you know the potential for severe storms in the weather forecast.

The American Red Cross recommends using coolers if the power outage is expected to go beyond a day. Pack refrigerated food into your cooler surrounded by ice. Keep it at a temperature of 40 degrees F for as long as possible.

TIP: Eat the food in the fridge before the storm so it doesn’t go to waste. FoodSafety.gov has a list of which refrigerated foods are still good after the power has been out.

After power outage NEVER taste a food to determine its safety or if it is "OK." The first rule to remember is "when in doubt, throw it out." If your power was out just a few hours and you didn't open the refrigerator or freezer, chances are the food is OK. Foodsafety.gov has a cold food storage chart with temperature guidelines for safety.

A refrigerator should keep food cold for six hours if the doors are shut and a half-full freezer for 24 hours (48 hours if the freezer is full or 24 hours if half-full) if you don't open the doors, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Consider setting the fridge and freezer to the coldest setting (don't freeze the fridge, though!). This will buy you a little time by making everything colder to start with. If your power doesn't go out, make sure to adjust back down to normal temps.

Be strategic about organizing your fridge and freezer. You want to be fast about opening and closing doors, so that means having a good idea where things are. Put things near the front and on top that you plan to use first.

TIP: Keep appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer at all times. When the power is out, an appliance thermometer will always indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer no matter how long the power has been out. The refrigerator temperature should be 40º F or below; the freezer, 0º F or lower.

Shelf life of emergency food

  • Non-perishable foods may be shelf-stable, but they still expire eventually. Make note of expiration dates, and check your emergency food supply twice a year. That way, you can be ready to switch out some of your food if it goes bad.
  • An MRE (“Meals, Ready-to-Eat”) can have a 10-year shelf life if the packaging isn’t compromised and it’s stored at the right temperature. It’ll stay fresh for years in a cool, dry cabinet (non-military conditions).
  • Check for food compromise. Cans can leak, bugs may have gotten into rice or other boxed/bagged food products. In the case of MREs, if the packaging becomes bloated, then it’s gone bad, so toss it out.
  • Rotate your emergency food every five years to be safe.

I hope this list encourages you to start thinking about the importance of food in emergency situations. This article focuses on emergency food during a power outage, but there are dozens of other non-food emergency supplies you can invest in, such as duct tape and portable toilets. 

You decide how far you want to go with this. Just know that being prepared in an actual crisis is a huge feeling of relief. Being ready doesn't have to consume your time - just toss a few extra items in your food cart!

Be safe and be well!  -Renée

RESOURCES

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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