The Prepper’s Dilemma: Choosing the Right Emergency Food 

Choosing the right emergency food is a critical first step in preparing for potential disasters. But since not every food stores well as an emergency food, just how do you do that? 

What works best—canned foods from the local supermarket, freeze dried foods, dehydrated foods, or MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat)?  

In this article, we’ll help you pick the food selections that work best for you and your family.   

Once you’ve decided to step up your preparedness program, your first step is choosing the right emergency food.  

Typically, you have 4 choices: 

  • Canned Foods 
  • MREs (Meals Ready to Eat 
  • Freeze Dried Foods 
  • Dehydrated or Dry Foods 

Most people will go with a combination of these, both for long term and for a 1 year emergency food supply. What you end up with may depend upon such variables as how nutritious the food is per pound, the number of calories, the difficulty of acquiring it, shelf life, and the cost.  

Let’s dig into each food type to identify how some food types differ from others: 

Canned Foods 

Storing canned foods is often the first choice of new preppers. They’re available in any local food store, with plenty of options. Picking up a few cans of your family’s favorite canned foods every week can fairly quickly give you a pantry full of emergency foods that can be stored at room temperature.  

One possible downfall: canned foods typically don’t last much longer than a year to a year and a half. So if you go this direction (even when in combination with other food sources) be sure to consume the food before its expiration date.  

MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) 

These are popular emergency foods because each MRE contains a complete meal. Many are best consumed hot and may even come with a chemical heater so your dinner is deliciously warm. Depending on how you store them, MREs are very shelf stable and can last up to five years. They’re a bit heavy for packing in a backpack (but not a problem on shorter trips), and can be a bit expensive compared to other options.  

Each MRE will typically provide around 1250 calories (13% Protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbohydrates), will provide up to 1/3 of recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals. 

Freeze Dried Foods 

Choosing the right emergency foods, such as frozen fruit

Freeze dried vegetables or fruits (like these strawberries) can be a tasty snack or dessert in camp or on the trail. Lightweight and easy to prepare, they’ve been a long time favorite among backpackers and hikers.  

Even big box stores like Walmart are starting to add freeze dried products, so they’re easier and easier to find.  

Just add some boiling water, stir, and you’ve got a tummy-warming food that’s especially inviting after a long day of hiking. One standout advantage of freeze dried foods is their 7 year shelf life.  

On the other hand, they can sometimes be a bit pricey. Nonetheless, it’s always a good idea to add a few of these to your emergency supply cache. 

Dehydrated and Dry Foods 
Many preppers look for foods with extremely long shelf lives, and a good solution for that requirement has always been dehydrated and dry foods.  

You do have to store them properly to get that shelf life, but it’s well worth the effort. Per calorie, dehydrated and dry foods are the cheapest options.  

One potential drawback is that you’re usually limited to basic ingredients instead of whole meals. But for items like rice, beans, dried fruit etc., dehydration and drying techniques are ideal.  

Choosing the Right Emergency Food—What Works For You? 

Different families have different emergency food preferences and retirements. Your emergency pantry likely will not look like mine, for example. 

In planning your supply list of the best emergency food, think about your family’s habits and needs.  

Do you eat lots of canned foods? Then focusing on growing a supply of canned foods and rotating them out over time should work for you. The shorter shelf life wouldn’t be a problem for you because you can consume the food before it expires, replenishing your supplies as you do so.  

Other families may not eat many canned foods, so this rotation wouldn’t work as well for them. They might concentrate upon longer shelf life options such as freeze dried and dehydrated foods, or even MREs.  

Your choice of supplies may also depend upon where you live. If you’re in a large city and you need to move out in an emergency (such as a hurricane or other natural disaster), you may want to build up the easily transportable food selections such as MREs or freeze dried (backpacking) foods. 

If you have to bug out, you don’t want to be weighed down by lots of canned foods, so these lighter, more portable options would work better and that’s where you might concentrate your efforts.  

In any case, it might be wise to diversify your selection. You want to be able to have food available for both emergency, get-up-and-get-out occasions, as well as long term situations following a major natural or manmade disaster.  

And by the way, while we’ve been talking food here, don’t forget to store up your water supplies, as well. FEMA recommends having access to one gallon of water per person per day for a minimum of three days.  

A Word About Shelf Life 

Naturally, you want your emergency food supplies to last as long as safely possible. Keep in mind these variable factors that directly impact shelf life:  


Generally speaking, you want to keep temps in the storage area relatively low. Higher temperatures tend to promote bacteria growth, so the cooler the better. Most experts agree that 40 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal.  


Bacteria also thrives in light, so you want to keep the light in your storage area low. 


Bacteria also loves moisture, so again, keep it low as possible. A recent study showed that reducing moisture content in many foods by as little as a single percentage point can doubt the shelf life.  


Oxygen is another factor in reducing shelf life, so keep it as low as possible to extend shelf life. That’s just one reason freeze dried foods are so popular with preppers.  

For Best Results 

Be flexible in your food choices. We’ve found that a good way to decide which foods to store is what some call the 40/30/20/10 food split. Here’s how it works.  

40% of Your Most Preferred Foods 

These would be the kind of food that best fits your family’s normal diet or food choice (canned, freeze dried, etc.). Store large quantities as necessary to keep your family alive over an extended period.  

30% of Your Next More Preferred Foods 

This could be food that tastes a bit better and helps boost spirits during a difficult time. Throw in a few treats that store well (such as dried fruit).  

20% of Diversified Foods 

If you’re preparing to shelter in place and built up  your supplies with, for example, 5 gallon buckets of rice and beans, then you should also diversify with a more mobile food such as MREs or freeze dried foods. The change in the menu will help your family feel less restricted and life spirits at the same time.  

10% of Miscellaneous Foods 

These would be the foods that you otherwise would not consider storing. They may be lower in calories, have a shorter shelf life, or are not as mobile. It’s always a good idea to add a small percentage of these to your pantry, just to diversify your selection a bit.  

Choosing the Right Emergency Food: The Most Important Step 

Hopefully we’ve given you some food for thought—no pun intended. But whatever your emergency food supplies eventually look like, the most important step is to get started now.  

Begin by writing down you initial thoughts on what your pantry should look like, then head off to the store.  

The sooner you begin, the safer you and your family will be.  

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