Storing Canned Foods for an Emergency

Storing Canned Foods for an Emergency

Storing canned foods as a means to be prepared for any type of emergency goes back hundreds of years. Nicolas Appert, who is known as “the father of canning”, perfected the art of canning back in 1810 as a means for the french government to effectively feed their troops.

Canned food was also the primary means of emergency food storage for both citizens and governments alike during the 1960’s, when the threat of a nuclear world war was a very real possibility.

Today, storing canned food for an emergency is still just as practical. This food is cheap, very shelf stable, and can be easily found on the shelves of your local supermarket. There is also a very wide variety of delicious foods available that are stored in a can.

Attributes of Canned Food

  • Average Cost Per Ounce Prepared: $0.11/oz
  • Average Cost Per Ounce: $0.07/oz
  • Approximate Number of Days of Survival per $100: 29 Days
  • Approximate Cost Per Day of Survival: $3.50
  • Shelf Life: 1 – 4 Years
  • Typical Storage Temperature: Room temperature (65-72°F)
  • Ideal Storage Temperature: As cool as possible but above freezing

A Note About the Above Calculations: “Average Cost Per Ounce Prepared” is the average cost of the food once it is fully prepared. The “Average Cost Per Ounce” is the average cost of canned goods, per ounce, in their shelf-stable canned state. An average canned food product contains only about 65% food and the rest is water that is typically drained away during preparation. This is why your cost per ounce increases once it is prepared. A “day of survival” is based on consuming approximately 50 ounces of food in a day. This should be sufficient to ensure you receive a 2000 calorie a day diet.

A broad range of foods come in canned forms.
One of the biggest benefits of canned foods is the large variety of foods available. Meats, soups, pasta, vegetables, fruits, and so much more can be found in shelf stable canned form.

Pro’s and Con’s of Using Canned Foods as an Emergency Food Source

Just like any type of emergency food source, there are benefits and drawbacks to choosing canned goods for this purpose. Below are the main points to consider.


  • Inexpensive when compared to many alternatives.
  • A wide variety of food is available canned.
  • Many items can be consumed directly from the can, without a need to cook.
  • An empty tin can may be used for a variety of other purposes (i.e. to cook with).
  • Usually contains a considerable amount of water in the can which can be a positive if hydration is an issue.
  • Available just about everywhere groceries are sold.


  • Heavy and sometimes awkward to carry in a pack.
  • Shorter shelf life than many alternatives (see below for more information on shelf life).
  • A can opener is often times required.

While storing canned goods for an emergency is a very reasonable route to take, they do generally contain a high amount of water (usually about 35% of their weight is water) which makes them fairly heavy. This makes canned goods a poor choice if you need to be mobile and carry your food in a backpack. However, if you plan to remain inside your home in an emergency, canned goods may be a great choice.

Shelf Life: Official vs. Actual

Canned goods are extremely shelf stable. While manufacturers may print an official shelf life on their products of one to five years, that number is only to ensure the canned food has the same texture and taste as when it was produced. Generally, canned goods remain edible and nutritious far past their expiration dates, they just may not taste as good.


We at are not doctors or scientists. We are merely a group of passionate preppers sharing what we learn as we go. We do not endorse consuming any food past it’s official expiration date and cannot guarantee its safety.

Printed on expiration date
The expiration date printed on your can is the “official” expiration date per the manufacturer. In reality the canned food will likely last many years longer.

Official Shelf Life of Canned Food

Below you will see a table of the typical official shelf life for canned goods. Check any can for the printed on expiration date. This is the official shelf life as per the manufacturer where the foods texture, taste, and nutritional value should be the same as when it was produced. These shelf life numbers are assuming the can is stored at room temperature (65-72°F).

Official Shelf Life of Various Canned Foods

Type of Canned Food Examples Typical Shelf Life
Foods with a High Acidic Content juices, fruits, pickles, vinegar based products 1 Year
Foods with a Low Acidic Content meat, vegetables, spaghetti, potatoes 2 – 5 Years
Home Canned Foods All types 1 Year

Note: The above table describes the typical “official” shelf life assigned to canned goods by their manufacturers. These foods generally remain edible long past their expiration dates. See the below section for more information.

Actual Shelf Life of Canned Food

Canned foods are incredibly shelf stable long past their printed on expiration date. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published an article detailing how in 1974 samples were taken by the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) from the canned goods found in a steam boat that had sunk in 1865, over 100 years prior. The samples were shown to be completely safe to eat. The food’s texture, color, nutritional content, and even smell had degraded significantly over this time but it was shown that the food itself was safe. The study showed that significant values of vitamin’s C and A were lost, however protein and calcium levels remained high making the food still of value nutritionally.

Around the same time, NFPA scientists also analyzed a 40 year old can of corn and found that it was not only still safe to eat and hadn’t lost much of it’s nutritional value, but that it even “looked and smelled like recently canned corn.”

Multiple studies have concluded that canned food has a very long shelf life. Much longer than their printed on expiration dates. While the food’s taste and texture may degrade, a majority of the nutritional value will remain for many decades past what is printed on the cans by the manufacturers. The storage conditions of the canned goods will make a significant different on how well they food itself holds up over time.

Ideal Storage Conditions

It is important to ensure that your canned foods are stored as close to the ideal conditions as possible. While it is generally accepted that canned goods will be stored at room temperature when they are produced (generally considered to be 65-72°F) and are expected to perform very well in such conditions, there are a few points worth noting if you are attempting to achieve the longest possible shelf life.

  • Store as close to 50°F as possible: While these foods will be very stable at room temperature, they will hold their nutrient value, texture, and taste best if stored at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or 10 degrees Celsius). If the cans are allowed to get much colder that that and freeze, it will significantly degrade the texture of the food inside. Another risk is that during the freezing process, the can may become compromised which could lead to spoilage.
  • Ensure consistent temperatures: While the temperature the cans are stored at is very important, ensuring that the temperature stays consistent is critical. The food will degrade quickly if exposed to large swings in temperature. Choose a room or storage area near the center of your house where temperatures stay fairly even all year round.
  • Store in a safe area where they wont be moved: If your canned food supply is constantly getting moved around, it increases the chances that the cans may be bumped or dropped. A dented or damaged can may lead to spoilage of the food inside in a short amount of time.

While ensuring optimal storage conditions is not as critical for canned foods as it may be for other types of foods, it can certainly help to extend the life of your food especially if you aren’t the best at remembering to rotate through your emergency food supply. Some examples of appropriate storage areas for canned foods would be a wine coolers, cellars, closets near the center of a home, or any other place that is likely to be cool and relatively temperature stable.

A nice canned food storage rack system.
This prepper has organized their food in a storage rack made specifically for canned food which helps ensure they keep their supply fresh by rotating through it.

The Importance of Rotating

The best possible way to maintain a large supply of canned foods for use in any disaster is to be constantly rotating through your supply. There are many canned food racks that are available to help you do this. By pulling from the front of the rack and putting newly purchased cans in the back, you can ensure that you are always rotating through your supply. This will ensure that your supply of food is as fresh as possible at all times.

It is important that you get into the habit of storing away canned foods that you family actually use one a regular basis. There is no use in storing away cases of canned anchovies if you family never eats them. You will never rotate through your supply and in the event of a major calamity, you will have a supply of food that your family doesn’t want to eat. So make sure you are storing what you eat and rotating what you store.

“Store what you eat and eat what you store.”



From the French army of the 1800’s to the countless backyard bomb shelters of the 1960’s, using canned foods as a means to ensure you always have a supply of fresh food available is a proven strategy. The canning process does amazingly well at ensuring that no microbial growth will occur on the food and it is safe to eat for many years, even decades.

Aside from their relatively heavy weight due to high water content, they are almost the perfect food to have on hand for your family in an emergency. If you choose to store a significant supply of canned foods, make sure they are in a temperature stable environment (preferably somewhere cool), and if possible, rotate through them so they are always fresh. I would consider adding some dehydrated or dry foods as a supplement to you canned food supply.

If you are planning to use canned foods in a backpack or any other mobile manner, there are better options out there such as meals ready to eat (MREs) or freeze dried foods. You can read more about these alternative options below.

Other Options for Emergency Foods

A Note About the Calculations Used Here

The numbers used in this article are the result of calculations that contained averages and estimates. They are not exact and are only meant to give you a good general guideline for using canned food as an emergency food source.

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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