Must Have Survival Foods

Sun dried tomatoes and fermented tomatoes
Sun dried tomatoes and fermented tomatoes

It is funny for me to notice that after any disaster or emergency of any type, people suddenly remember they should have put together a grab-and-go kit or a stay-and-survive supply enough to keep everyone safe at your household.

Similarly, when people have a “close call”, such as chronic illness, health condition or terminal illness diagnosis, they suddenly remember what life is for!

The reasons why we all should build a “pantry” are varied: some take it as a “prepper” or “survivalist” strategy; some just follow common sense and responsibility.

The reality is that having a pantry full of enough food for (much more) than 3 days and even a surplus is an ancient practice in almost any culture except for nomads and hunters and gatherers and even they used to carry enough food to survive the trip as it was always uncertain when and where would they find their next source of nutrients, water, etc.

In our times, those of us who live in urban areas and a somewhat “middle-class” life tend to trust that food will always be available at the nearest supermarket and water will always be accessible through the taps.

This is certainly not the case for millions around the world, either because they have been hit by natural disasters, wars, economic collapse or social unrest or because they were born in areas where those conditions (poor access to food and water) are endemic or have been created by irresponsible land and watershed management, oppression and abuse from local and foreign corporations and governments.

Even those living in Canada, US and other “developed” countries may be at risk: you can be hit by sudden unemployment or a change in family structure; in Canada we are certainly already in a recession and climate change and other global factors may change access and availability to food in a matter of days.

My pantry # 1
My pantry # 1

Here are some tips to build your own pantry:

  • Any space in the house can become a pantry. You don’t need expensive furniture or structures. Just look for a clean, mostly dry, dark and cool area where you can store most of the food. Be aware than some food require more moisture than others to keep well.
  • The secret of a good pantry is planning, labeling and rotation system: if you just pile up canned foods without a system, you may end up with expired stuff you’ll need to throw away in a few years. You can also end up never eating these foods or adding insult to injury when your family members are forced to eat the same for an entire week or something they don’t like.
  • Start by listing all what your family usually eats in a week and see if you can stockpile on those items to slowly build a 3-6 month worth pantry. You will find that some of the items may not allow you to stockpile well or at all (perishables such as meat, milk, eggs, yogurt, bread and most vegetables and fruits); this will open up an opportunity to start thinking on alternatives (both alternative items or alternative ways to preserve them such as root cellaring, freezing, dehydrating, curing, pressure canning, fermenting, etc)
  • Make your own “must have” list and start them as priority: this will be different for every family: you need to consider food preferences, food allergies, special diets and basic needs. Not all like or need peanut butter or canned beans!
  • Do not rush or despair thinking that you don’t have the money to buy 3-6 month worth of food: probably nobody does, except the super rich. Start slow and small, and add one or two items to your bags every time you go to the supermarket. Use bonuses or savings to buy extra food from your “pantry list”
  • Home-preserved foods keep for shorter periods than commercially preserved ones. Have a mix of both and check the expiry dates and labels every six months. A rotation system and a list attached to the pantry or your fridge will let you know when supplies are low and need replacement.
  • Once you have enough for at least 3 months, don’t stop: continue with your plan till you have 6 months. The food will not be wasted because you’ll have a rotation plan to eat what’s older first and continue substituting what is gone.
  • It is a good idea to share your plan with friends and other family members living in other households or even neighbours and co-workers or classmates. There is a myth that says people will come and steal or attack you to get your supplies. My own experience and being witness of many emergencies is that most people are willing to share and help. A much better idea is to encourage them to start a ‘pantry club” so you all are prepared and can support each other in case only some of you are hit by disasters, unemployment, etc.

Here is a list of what I consider my “Pantry Musts”, as I mentioned before, you can use them as a guide, but each family, individual, situation and community is different:

  1. Water! I have 4 gallons of (drinkable) water in each room of the house so each member can access them if trapped; I have two extra barrels of regular water in the basement/garage and other two in the balcony. Unfortunately, by-laws do not allow me to have a proper rain harvest system as I live in a townhouse, but I can still collect water in those barrels. The trick with water is to keep it with a lid and use it so there is always new water at least every six months. I also have water tablets and filters, however these are not water substitutes, they can only be used for a short period of time, in reduced circumstances and when water is present and not too contaminated.
  2. Vinegars: I have commercial white, wine and apple cider vinegar and some homemade. Homemade vinegars tend to last shorter and we have no control over their acidity levels. However, vinegars are good for a huge arrange of used, from disinfecting and cleaning to pickling and adding flavour.
  3. Sprouting seeds of all kinds: sprouting seeds are a great way to keep something for years that is small, does not require lost of space or preserving techniques, but becomes fresh and provides both nutrients and healthy energy in a day or two after sprouting. The only concern is that you’ll need clean water and they take a couple of days to a week to fully sprout and become edible and not all in the family like them. Use them in salads, sandwiches, soups or as a snack
  4. Dry legumes/beans (black, red, white, lentils, etc.): they provide a source of energy and can be eaten for days. Keep well for years if kept in dry and dark/cool areas inside well sealed glass jars or the bags they come in. The challenge is that they require water to be soaked and cooked and many take long hours and energy that may not be easily available during a disaster. Some people also have canned beans for these reasons, they are easier to just open and warm or even eat from the can.
  5. Dry rice of different types and pastas, quinoa, couscous, barley, etc. They are usually easy to store (same as beans) and fast to cook, requiring only three times the same amount in water and some energy. With patience and luck they can be cooked in solar ovens or inside bamboo and other similar artifacts
  6. Canned sauces and soups: I make my own and they last 1 to 1.5 years but as I make them to be consumed, I don’t need to worry as I am always circulating them. They are great to eat with rice, pasta, beans, bread, meats or on their own and in emergencies they can be eaten cold or warmed in the sun or solar oven. Some people also buy the commercial ones to make sure they have a backup as homemade are canned in glass jar that may break in certain disasters, while commercial ones usually keep well if the disaster just push them to the floor
  7. Canned jams, marmalades, butters and plain fruits with or without syrup: I make my own and again, they keep well for over a year but I try to make only enough so I can circulate/rotate them and always have fresh ones. They keep your mood healthy and pampered in times of despair and give you a boost of sugar and freshness when you need them most.
  8. Pickles (fruits and vegetables, sauces, etc.). I have my homemade ones and they tend to last anything from 3 weeks to 6 months or more depending whether I processed them in the canner after pickling them. Pickles are great to eat as companions or on their own. I pickle all kind of stuff, not only cucumbers: I pickle zucchini, apricots, plums, peaches, apples, carrots, etc. For a great website with pickling recipes, check Punk Domestics:
  9. Fermented foods: many vegetables and herbs keep really well for weeks and sometimes months when fermented: sauerkraut is probably what most people know, but you can ferment almost anything you can think of and even more! Have enough pickling salt for fermenting, your own cultures, learn how to create your own whey or mother or scoby (depending on what you want to make) or buy them from a reliable source and store them. Learn them to use them now and keep a batch of different fermented foods at all times, they can save your life and your pocket! For a good source of safe fermented recipes, check this:  and better, buy and study/apply all what is said in any of Sandor Katz books: or have a copy of Bill Mollison “Permaculture Book of Fermentation and Human Nutrition”:  For a source of cultures, workshops and equipment, check this awesome store in Vancouver: For consultations and workshops, contact me. (there is a fermentation workshop coming on September 12! Check this out!)
  10. Crackers and cookies: they are a substitute for bread when bread is not available or you can’t make some and keep well for months.
  11. Most root vegetables, tubers, bulbs, some fruits and even dairy can keep well in a root cellar; some keep well for weeks (such is the case of eggs and some cheeses or leaf vegetables and fruits) and some for months (such is the case of potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, etc.). Having a root cellar is easy, you only need a small space and can build one even in an urban home or an apartment. The key is to know how to organize the crops and what each tends to need. This article guides you through the steps to build a small one and also shares some of the basics as to where to put what:  and this guide (also from Mother Earth news excellent magazine) helps you to understand root cellar and veggies/fruit preservation further:
  12. Nuts and dried fruits: they are an excellent source of nutrients and tend to keep well for months as well. You can dry your own fruits during the summer and keep them in jars.
  13. Flours: they allow you to make bread and other pastries but require cooking. Good for times when time, preparation and energy are not the issue.
  14. Salt: I have salt to last for years. Salt can be used to condiment and cure foods and some first aid uses as well.
  15. Seasonings (both dried herbs and oils): if you have an herb garden you can dry your own and make your own oils and ointments. Otherwise buy commercial ones and keep them in a dry, cool and dark place, use same rotation system. I keep oregano, basil, parsley, cilantro, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic and onion powders, etc.
  16. Teas and coffee grounds and leaves: I keep all types of teas, some from my herb/flower garden and some commercial. Coffee is a great thing to have as it may become scare in the future. Some people also have cocoa in powder and chocolate bars to make hot chocolate and cakes/cookies
  17. Baking soda and baking powder, yeast and other kitchen staples, depending on what you usually make. I also have at least one package of cultures for yogurt, cheese, kefir and bread (these last ones usually require refrigeration)
  18. Sugar: I have both white and brown sugar, some regular and some organic. Sugar is used to sweeten foods, may help in first aid and also preserves some foods or helps in making vinegars
  19. Oils: I have lots of olive oil and some grapeseed oil because I have noticed they keep well and I use them regularly so it is easier to rotate them. They are not only good for cooking, greasing, salads, etc but they also help to preserve foods such as sauces and dried vegetables or mushrooms as a layer of oil prevents oxygen to reach the food under. Oil, however, is organic and can also get bacteria, so learn to use and keep it wisely.
  20. Canned juices: I keep some that we continuously circulate. Unless you buy the commercial ones, they don’t last much. The commercial ones may be full of sugars and preservatives, but they may be a substitute for water if water is not safe to drink and you didn’t get enough. You can also have Gatorade and similar drinks just in case.
  21. Some ready-made meals in jars: some of them can be pressure canned complete meals, some dry meals that only need to add water and some may be a combination of both, in any case all are homemade meals make to please your family and make it easier for you to cook either in regular times or emergencies. Some can be stored for long periods of time (dry meals can last for decades!) For some step-by-step and fun recipes, check this book: “Meals in a Jar” or check some recipes from here:
  22. Energy bars and comfort food, including snacks and candies your family like: I have chocolates and some candies for my children. When things are not ok, the power is down or the finances are not as bright as you would like them to be, a chocolate bar can make miracles for the child in all of us!

Apart from “Must Haves” in food staples, it is a good idea to have some kitchen/emergency essentials, here are mine:

Preserving in oil
Preserving in oil
  • Extra manual can openers: nothing more frustrating that not being able to open that can when you are starving and there is no fuel to cook a meal!
  • Alternative cookware (camping ware) that’s easy to heat, clean and store: I have my camping ware that helped my family to make some tea and heat a soup last Saturday when the power went down.
  • Alternative sources of energy for cooking/warming: a solar oven, a camping stove with enough gas, wood, etc. anything is better than nothing if you are to survive for days without power
  • Better to have waterproof matches, extra regular matches and fire starters. Also have enough newspaper, some cardboard and woodchips, sticks, etc. You can easily collect these things from your garden or a park or near forest. Just be extra cautious if you are using wood stove or gas for cooking/heating as they tend to be toxic when used inside. They are also more dangerous than an electrical stove, so take extra precautions to avoid starting a fire or getting hurt or burned: better to use them outdoors, such as a balcony or parking, driveway or patio. BBQs may be better and less dangerous
  • Camping ware for eating; you may not want to use everyday dishes and pots during emergency times as they tend to be more difficult to wash and make also break. Metal or enamel ware tend to be sturdy and can be “washed” with dry sand or just the contents of a small cooking pot.
  • If you love tea and coffee, have an enamel or camping kettle and coffee “maker” that doesn’t need to be plugged
  • Glass jars for preserving dry and canned or pickled food/meals are great. However, they can break during an earthquake or windstorm, flood, mudslide, etc. For grab-and-go backpacks and as an alternative, consider either commercially canned food/meals or metal/plastic containers

Got any other ideas? Want to share your own “Must Haves”? Have a question?

Just contact me or leave a comment below!

Be always prepared...and enjoy life!
Be always prepared…and enjoy life!

2 Comments on “Must Have Survival Foods

  1. Pingback: In the Event of an Emergency | SOSU

    • Just to clarify: the workshop on September 12 was changed and now it will be about Food Fermentation. We finished the canning last Saturday (Aug 29) but if enough people are interested, I can run a second one later in the fall


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