emergency foods

Emergency Foods 101: 8 Low Cost Sources To Get You Started

emergency foods

For many, the idea of storing up emergency foods never comes to mind until it’s too late. A sudden disaster—natural or homemade—can spring up out of nowhere and result in a dangerous or even fatal result.

Think it can’t happen to you?

Think back to those horrendous days after Hurricanes Katrina and Ian. Or the earthquakes in Haiti. Or the fire storms in California. Countless families suffered greatly in the aftermath simply because they were not prepared.

You can’t rely upon your local food stores. High winds or rising flood waters can render those sources inaccessible. Runs on emergency foods can render their shelves bare.

You Need Alternative Food Sources.

In this article, we’ll cover 8 of the top alternative sources you have—beyond food stores–to  build a survival food reserve that can feed your family for any length of time. That might be 3 days, 2 months or even up to a year.

So should your local food store have a supply chain issue—as we’ve seen in the recent past during the Covid pandemic—or be inundated under 10 feet of water, these alternate sources could save your life.

But First: What Are Emergency Foods?

Emergency foods (also known as survival foods) are basically anything that can provide your emergency food and nutrition needs in the chaos and food shortages that often follow a calamitous event.

These are foods that can be stored in advance, and normally do not spoil under room temperature conditions.

Ten of the most commonly stored emergency foods include:

  • Canned Fruits and Vegetables (excellent sources of essential vitamins and nutrition)
  • Canned Fish (rich in protein and healthy fats)
  • Beans (High in calories and vitamins)
  • Rice (Inexpensive and easy long term storage)
  • Pasta (high in carbohydrates)
  • Salt (essential for flavoring and preserving foods)
  • Peanut Butter (powerful source of fatty acids, copper and iron)
  • Sugar (adds flavor to foods and calories for quick energy)
  • Bulk Nuts/Trail Mix (packed with vitamins)
  • Dried Milk (rich in nutrients with long shelf life)

Each of these foods can be purchased at your food store, and make up a good start to your emergency food pantry. Many families begin with these or similar items.

But they don’t stop there.

Preppers know they cannot rely upon food stores, so they incorporate other food sources that are not subject to food chain shortages they cannot control.

Here are 8 of the top alternative food sources that should be part of your emergency food supply program:

#1: Gardening
Why rely upon others for food when you can grow your own?

Grow emergency foods in your own backyard.

A survival garden can bring great peace of mind knowing that you always have a reliable food source (in season) in case of emergencies that might prevent your access to local food stores.

Imagine the joy that comes from eating the freshest vegetables that you grew with your own hands.

First, decide how much time you have to create a garden. How many hours per day or week can you devote to it? How much space do you have on your property? Do you have a greenhouse?

Are there community gardens available that let you share space with neighbors?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re ready to begin.

Step One:  Do your research.

Read up on produce that is both nutrition and easy to grow. You may want to take a local class or talk with gardening experts at your local plant nursery or agricultural extension office.  

Talk with friends or neighbors and get their advice on what works well in your temperature zone. Ask what mistakes they may have made, or what valuable lessons they have learned from experience.

Step Two: Determine the Best Garden Size and Location
Gardens do best when they have good sun exposure and drainage, and ready access to water. Using those criteria, determine where to locate your garden on your property.

How big should it be? The size will vary according to the size of your family, their caloric needs, and the kinds of food they like.

A typical emergency garden will require anywhere from a quarter acre to two full acres to feed a family of four.

Other factors impacting size:

Remember: the larger your garden the more time and labor you’ll have to devote to it. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

Step Three: Decide What to Grow

Deciding what to grow in an emergency garden takes more than simply planting foods you enjoy.

You also have to look at what your available space can return in maximum calories and nutrition. On top of that, look at foods that can be easily stored for the long haul.

Finally, you need to look at the climate. Not all foods do well in different climate zones. So look up your zone and research which of your preferred veggies will grow successfully in that climate.

Some plants do better in long term storage than others. For example,

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Turnips
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Rutabagas

Other crops do well in cold season, which means they have a longer growing season. Look into plants like kale and spinach, for example.

Or, if you’re looking for plants that you can easily can, freeze, ferment or dry, check out foods like tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli or peppers.

TIP: Another thing to consider is whether the plant produces seeds that you can use in the next season to grow new plants, thereby saving your budget on new plants!

You should also think about growing perennials such as nuts, herbs and fruit. These plants grow larger each year and produce increasingly higher yields, while at the same time reducing your workload.

Among the perennials we like are grape vines, rhubarb and asparagus, along with fruit and nut trees/bushes of all types. If your family likes a particular perennial, consider adding it to your list!

Finally, save some space for beneficial medicinal plants and culinary herbs. These are low maintenance plants (mostly) and are great pollinators for other plants in the garden.

Small Space Gardening

When space is at a premium, small space gardening may be the perfect solution to growing your emergency garden.

Naturally, you’ll have to avoid plants (like pumpkin or squash) that take up lots of space. Keep your plants loosely spaced. That will often produce a larger yield than if you position them too close together.

Next, if you’d like to product a crop all season long, space out your plantings by a couple of weeks rather than planting all at once. If, for example, you eat 5 to 7 carrots a week, plant about 10 carrots a week, then 10 the next week, and so on.

This system works well for plants that produce all of their fruit at once, rather than plants like tomatoes or melons that continue to produce off the same plant even after you harvest the first crop.

What works well for short season vegetables? We’ve had good luck with lettuce, radishes and peas, to name a few.

Container Gardening

Some of us don’t have space for even a small garden, so what do we do? Container gardening!

grow emergency foods in containers

If you have only a patio, balcony or even a flat rooftop, you can join the thousands of successful container gardeners who harvest tons of vegetables and fruits every year from very limited spaces.

A big advantage of container gardening is being able to pick up plants and place them where they’ll get more sun, avoid cold breezes, or simply be out of the way while they do their thing.

Another major advantage: fewer weeds! Need we say more?

For the best returns, locate your containers in spots where they’ll get at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. Southern and western exposures usually provide the warmth and sunlight your plants thrive on, so look for locations in those directions that have access to a watering hose.

Containers tend to need more water than in-ground gardens, so if you can easily run a hose to them, you’ll avoid lots of extra trips. 


Another popular solution for gardeners who don’t have lots of space is hydroponics. Simply put, that means growing plants without soil. Instead, the plants receive nutrients via a flowing water system that directly accesses the roots.

Hydroponics gardens can be grown indoors or out (depending on the type of equipment used), and tend to product large plants quite quickly.

Some versions of hydroponics feature the bare roots dangling in the water. Other versions have some kind of soil substitute such as aged bark, peat moss or clay pebbles.

Many agriculturists are so hyped up on the hydroponics approach that they see it as the way most plants will be grown in the future. It certainly deserves your attention if you’re still looking for the best approach to growing your own emergency food.

#2: Freeze Dried
During the recent pandemic, the sight of bare shelves in the local food stores underscored the need to keep some non-perishable food around the house. Knowing that you have such food as a backup is very comforting.

One of the best ways to build your non-perishable food supplies is freeze drying. In fact, stocking freeze-dried foods in a key element in the long term survival plans of many preppers and other forward-thinking home owners.

With a typical expiration date of around 30 years, nothing else come close in the food preservation world.

Where can you find freeze dried foods? You can buy them at various discount food stores (such as Walmart, Costco, Sprouts, Whole Foods, etc.), at online shopping sites, or you can even make your own.

What Exactly Is Freeze Drying?

Freeze drying is a dehydration process in which moisture is removed from a food, giving it a massively long term shelf life of up to 3 decades or more. Freeze-dried products are typically crisper than conventionally air-dried foods, with reduced weight for storage, shipping and handling.

Once freeze-dried, the food can be quickly rehydrated without losing flavor, texture or fresh food appearance.

If you decide to do your own freeze drying, the best route is to use a home freeze drying such as this one. With prices ranging from $2400 to $3000 (depending upon size), these machines can be expensive, however.

Advantages of Freeze-Dried Foods:

  • Long shelf life (without losing quality or nutritional value) of 25-30+ years. Dehydrated food lasts only 1-3 years.
  • Quick restoration when you add water, reverting to the same texture, size and flavor of original food. Dehydrated foods can change in flavor and texture.
  • Can be stored at room temperature without using electricity. Withstands extreme heat and cold (in contrast to canned food).

#3: MREs
The military knew what it was doing when it came up with MREs. Soldiers could break open an MRE pack and immediately be ready to eat, with no preparation needed in most cases.

That ready access plus a long storage life makes MREs the ideal emergency food for civilians, as well. Each packet contains around 1250 calories with a balanced amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates that can keep you well satiated and energized until your next meal.

MREs require no refrigeration, can be heated if preferred (which we think makes them taste better) and can be stored for as long as 5 to 7 years in a relatively cool storage room or pantry environment.

Each MRE packet contains a main entrée, a side dish, a cracker with spread, a small dessert, and sometimes a flameless ration heater. Other packets may include things like gum and candy, cornbread or other surprises.

Like Forest Gump said, “You never know what you’re going to get!”

Typical MRE packets might include:

  • Vegetables in sauce with noodles and chicken
  • Pasta and garden vegetables
  • Pork with sauce and rice
  • Beans with chicken and rice
  • Spaghetti with meat and sauce
  • Cheese tortellini in tomato sauce
  • Lentils in masala sauce
  • And many more!

MRE’s can be a bit expensive (around $18-$25 per portion) compared to certain other emergency foods, but many consider it worth it due to the variety of recipes, easy storage and prep, and calorie density. Many survivalists dedicate around 10% of their total emergency foods budget to MREs.

Online stores are usually the best place to buy MREs. Here’s one website where you can usually find competitive prices.

#4: Dehydrated Foods

Dehydrated foods are not the same as freeze dried foods, though the end products may be similar. The dehydration process is different, and many believe, the benefits are as well.

In both processes, the water content of food is reduced, leaving a product that can be safely stored for a long time. Dehydrated food is only about 5 or 10% moisture, while freeze dried food is 1 or 2% moisture.

Dehydration can be achieved either by drying in the sun or air, or by using a dehydration machine. For good dehydration, you need both airflow and heat. That process has been mastered down through the centuries as a reliable way to preserve food for the long term.

You can usually tell the difference between dehydrated and freeze dried foods by looking at the texture. Dehydrated food is hard and often brittle, whereas freeze dried foods tend to be more porous and lighter.

If you’re trying to choose between dehydrated and freeze-dried, it all comes down to personal preference, cost and purpose. Dehydrated is less expensive, but freeze dried rehydrates a bit better and faster.

You can’t lose with either process.

#5: Canned and Boxed Goods

These are the emergency foods readily available in your local food store. They’re also where most people looking to create an emergency food supply often begin.

Which of these foods should you consider storing? Here’s our list of recommendations:

Foods that are nutritious, with the most calories and vitamins per dollar spent

Canned or boxed goods you may consider include:

  • Soups
  • Vegetables
  • Meat and Meat Products
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Pancake Mixes
  • Butter and Ghee
  • Nut Butters
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Juice
  • Fruits

#6: Frozen Foods

You may be surprised to see frozen foods on an emergency food list. Especially since electricity is lost with many major cataclysmic events.

But for other events, less serious in nature, you don’t lose electricity and you don’t have to panic about your freezer full of frozen foods.

For that reason, we’ve included a number of important frozen foods that you may want to keep on hand for emergencies. Here are some of them:

  • Fish Sticks
  • Pierogies
  • Frozen Pancakes
  • Pizza
  • Meatless Nuggets
  • Mac & Cheese Bowls
  • Chicken Nuggets
  • Frozen Dinners
  • Frozen Bread

Frankly, this list could go on endlessly. The point we’re making is that you don’t have to exclude frozen foods from your emergency food plans. Your freezer could provide enough food for you to live on for days.

Even if the electricity is lost, you might still be able to consume some of the freezer foods or cook them up in recipes that could last a few days without needing to be frozen.

#7: Canning

No discussion of emergency foods would be complete without addressing that ages old tradition of canning foods.

Generations ago, families everywhere canned foods to last them through long winters. Done properly, canning is a very safe and simple process of preserving foods.

The canning process itself consists of placing foods in jars and heating them to a temperature that destroys all bacteria that could cause the food to go bad or cause people to get sick. Air is sucked out of the jar during heating, and as the jar and contents cool, the lid forms a vacuum seal.

If you’re interested in adding canning to your survival skills, be sure to get properly trained in this long-time art. Ignoring the do’s and don’ts of canning can be disastrous to anyone who might eat a poorly canned product.

Here’s some starter information on how canning should be conducted in order to avoid problems.

Canning itself has many benefits. Your canned foods don’t have to be refrigerated. Canning tends to reduce food waste. It gives you a ready supply of nutritious, ready-to-eat food that your whole family loves.

And one more point: canning jars are re-usable, so you save money. Can’t beat that.

#8: Raising Animals

Some of the best emergency food you can have on hand is the kind that runs around on 2 or 4 feet!

The advantages of raising animals for emergency food supplies in case of a serious disaster are many.

  • They provide a quickly available food source.
  • They contribute to the environment (fertilization).
  • They are a potential revenue source.

In the COVID pandemic, threats to the food supply chain have occurred on numerous occasions. Barren shelves, choked ports of entry and slaughter house shut downs led to fears of rising prices and meat shortages.

During those times, families who raised their own livestock had little to fear.

They had multiple meals running about their yards, pens and hutches. If the food supply had shut down entirely (it didn’t), they had a potentially rich food source to get them through the crisis.

If this kind of option appeals to you as it has to thousands of other families, here are a few of the animals you may consider raising:

Raising your own chickens can give you a steady supply of meat and eggs, saving you lots of money in your food budget. Chickens take up very little space, improve gardens by uprooting weeds and eating insect pests, and contribute to your garden compost.

To get started, you need enough space for a coop (which you can build yourself if you’re so inclined), plus some minimal yard space. Growers recommend starting with several full grown, egg laying hens that will give you not only multiple eggs per day, but new chicks, as well.

Here’s a good, indepth link to more information about raising chickens.

By the way, over 13 million Americans are already raising chickens in large to small operations. Maybe you should join the crowd?

Like chickens, rabbits are easy to raise, don’t take up much space, and provide delicious meat at harvest time. They have one big advantage over chickens: they don’t make as much noise!

Just make sure you don’t start giving your favorite rabbits a name.


The demand for goat meat, milk, cheese and hide has been steadily increasing in the U.S. and abroad. If you have the space for it, raising goats is a great way to supplement not only your food pantry but your wallet, as well.


Many small property owners like to raise one or several cows as a nice food reserve should they need it. They need more space than some of the other animals listed here, of course, but the meat, milk and other products they provide can be well worth it.

No list of animals to raise for emergency food would be complete without pigs. If you do it right, you can enjoy a year round supply of pork for less than you’d pay at the supermarket.

Plus, if you have a few extra piglets running around, you can make a few extra dollars that you otherwise would not have.

Here’s a good link for the pros and cons you should consider before moving ahead.

Ready to Bolster Your Emergency Foods Supply?

Be sure to do your homework before you begin. With so many choices and the right knowledge, there are many ways to succeed. The next step is up to you.

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