In an emergency, food and water are top priorities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests stockpiling up to two weeks’ worth of food. Losing power for an extended period can create food shortages if you are caught unprepared.


When planning for food needs, consider:

  • Daily caloric intake
  • Food that can be eaten uncooked or prepared with little to no water
  • Shelf life
  • Easy-open cans or a manual can opener
  • Vitamin-enriched foods or supplements
  • Special food needs (baby food, formula, allergies or specific diets, etc.)

Food choices should be high in carbohydrates that convert to energy. Protein needs can be met through beans or other plant-based options with a longer shelf life than other foods. If possible, lower activity levels to conserve energy. This will reduce your caloric needs. You can ration food, if needed, but do not ration water. You must remain hydrated so your body systems can function properly.


When planning for an emergency, you will need a safe place to store food. Off-the-shelf foods should be kept in a dry, cool, and dark area, if possible. Food containers should remain sealed or covered. If you have bulk food packaging, open the box or can carefully so it can be resealed or covered tightly after each use.

Boxed food that is wrapped inside, such as crackers or cereal, should be re-packed in plastic bags. Place opened packages of sugar or nuts into screw-top jars or airtight cans to keep out moisture and pests. Inspect foods for spoilage before use and date any food that has been stored in other containers. Follow the “first in, first out” practice of using older foods first and placing replacement foods behind them.

Think about your water needs. If you will have limited access to water, select foods low in sodium, fat and protein, as these will make you thirsty. Also think about packaging that can double as a serving utensil and stockpile disposable plasticware.

Shelf life considerations

When stockpiling food, shelf life is a critical factor. Note the expiration dates and rotate food so it doesn’t expire. Don’t overbuy and don’t purchase exotic foods. Instead, simply purchase a little extra of what you normally buy.

If canning fruit and vegetables, always label contents and date the container.

Do not buy chips or other air-packed foods as emergency food. There is little nutritional value, they do not store well in limited spaces, and you can’t undo unintended crushing of the contents.

Here are some guidelines from FEMA to consider:

  • Use within six months:
    • Powdered milk (boxed)
    • Dried fruit (in metal containers)
    • Dry, crisp crackers (in metal containers)
    • Potatoes
  • Use within one year:
    • Canned condensed meat and vegetable soups
    • Canned fruits, fruit juices and vegetables
    • Ready-to-eat cereals and uncooked instant cereals (in metal containers)
    • Peanut butter
    • Jelly
    • Hard candy and canned nuts
    • Vitamin C
  • May be stored indefinitely (in proper containers and conditions):
    • Wheat
    • Vegetable oil
    • Dried corn
    • Baking powder
    • Soybeans
    • Instant coffee, tea, and cocoa
    • Salt
    • Non-carbonated soft drinks
    • White rice
    • Bouillon products
    • Dry pasta
    • Powdered milk (in nitrogen-packed cans)

There are companies that sell “survival” foods designed and packaged for long-term storage (up to 25 years). The initial cost is slightly higher than normal grocery prices but with a limited need to replace or rotate stock. Before purchasing large quantities of this type of food, sample it for flavor and use.

You can also package food in Mylar-sealed containers for a longer shelf life. Follow manufacturer recommendations whenever repackaging foods into Mylar to protect against moisture and air exposure.

Preparing foods

When planning, decide how you will prepare your meals. Consider a charcoal or propane grill or small camping grill that uses smaller propane cylinders or camping fuel. Other options include candle warmers, chafing dishes, and fondue pots.

If you must evacuate your home, consider taking a portable camping stove or similar appliance that will let you heat water for boiling, drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Don’t forget disposable plasticware, a small package of paper plates or bowls, and trash bags. Also include a reusable water bottle.

If you own a home generator or small solar-powered generator, you may have additional options, such as a toaster or slow cooker. Having multiple options can help as time without power goes on. You must also consider how to clean cooking surfaces, especially if it will require water. Sanitizing wipes are a favorite as you can portion out the wipes and keep the remaining wipes in the container.

Experiment with different seasonings and herbs and stock your favorites to flavor your food. These generally have a long shelf life. Smaller containers are better than large containers since you will only open what you need while keeping the reserves fresh for later.

With every plan, conduct a dry run. Knowing how things work and what to expect before an emergency happens will improve your comfort level and help you confidently manage through it.

What to eat and when

If you find yourself at home without power, eat perishable foods first. Start with your refrigerator contents since they are at risk of spoiling first, then the freezer contents.

Refrigerated leftovers, fruits and vegetables do not usually require heating. Have a plan to cook raw meats and use up milk before consuming teas, juices, or soda. If you have a portable cooler or insulated bag, place what will fit into it and pack it with ice cubes or freezer packs.

To avoid frequent opening of the freezer door, post a contents list on the outside. In a well-filled, well-insulated freezer, foods will usually stay safe to eat for at least three days. Processed meats, such as hamburgers and hot dogs, thaw first. Steaks take longer to thaw and roasts or bulk meat take even longer. Your plan should include eating the smaller items first, so they don’t go to waste.

Frozen fruit and vegetables will also thaw quickly, as will ice cream and other frozen desserts.

Once your perishables are gone, you can begin using nonperishable foods and staples.

Canned foods can often be eaten directly from the can. Select cans that are easy-open with tabs, or have a manual can opener on hand. If you heat the contents, remove the label before heating to prevent a fire. The can will also be hot, so have a silicone glove, potholder, or other means to prevent burns.

If you experience flood damage, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends you:

  • Do not eat food that has come in contact with floodwater. If in doubt, throw it out.
  • Do not eat food packed in water-damaged containers.
  • Discard any food or beverage containers with screw caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps, flip tops, and home-canned foods that have come in contact with floodwater, since they cannot be disinfected.
  • Save undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans or retort pouches by removing the labels and thoroughly washing, rinsing, and disinfecting the cans. Use a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of drinking water. Re-label containers with the expiration date using a permanent marker.

Having enough food and water in an emergency is possible with thoughtful planning. Additional information is available through and other agencies.

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