Choosing Which Type of Emergency Food to Store

Choosing the Right Emergency Foods to Store

The first step to preparing your family for a long term disaster is to put away a little extra food, but what type should you pick? Should you buy cases of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), canned foods, boxes of freeze dried foods, or dehydrated/dry foods? Or a combination? These were the questions that plagued me when I first started to get my family prepared for a natural disaster.

In this section I will go over how long the food will last using each method and how to find out which method makes the most sense for you. Preppers have lots of options, but here I will focus on the most practical and effective methods.

Below is a comparison of the various attributes of each type of survival food. This should help you decide which type is best for you and your family. Keep in mind that although all of these foods will store very well at room temperature, I have listed the “ideal” storage temperature for your reference.

Types of Survival Foods

Type of Food Cost Cooked (Avg) Cost Uncooked (Avg) Days of Survival Per $100 Cost Per Day of Survival Shelf Life (Years) Ideal Storage Temp
Dehydrated (Dry) $0.03/oz $0.07/oz 67 Days $1.50 4 – 20+ As cool as possible.
Canned $0.11/oz $0.07/oz 29 Days $3.50 1 – 4 50 to 70°F
MREs $0.43/oz $0.43/oz 4.5 Days $21.50 3 – 4 50°F
Freeze Dried $0.45/oz $1.85/oz 4.4 Days $22.50 7 – 25+ As cool as possible.

The above calculations are approximates based on averages and/or typical conditions. “Cost (Avg – Uncooked)” is the average cost per ounce of the food in it’s uncooked state. “Cost (Avg – Cooked)” is the average cost per ounce of the food in it’s fully prepared state (this includes adding any required water to prepare for consumption, or in the case of canned food, it includes draining the average amount of excess water before consuming). Days of Survival and Cost Per Day of Survival are based on consuming 50 ounces of food per day.

What Type of Food to Store? Dehydrated vs Canned vs MREs vs Freeze Dried

Many preppers start by storing tons of freeze dried foods. This isn’t always the best method (not to mention it’s definitely not the cheapest). There are many options in the types of emergency food to store. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks when it comes to prepping with each of these types of foods will save you time and money.

A large stock pile of emergency food.
Grocery stores across the country stock large amounts of canned food. Cheap and easy, this is a great option for a source of emergency food.
  • Dehydrated and Dry Foods: This option has a strong following as it can be done at home and also provides for an exceptionally long shelf life (often 20 years or more if stored correctly). These means you don’t have to worry about rotating the food. Per calorie, it is also the cheapest option. One major draw back is you are typically limited to storing just basic ingredients, as opposed to complete meals (such as rice, beans, dried fruit etc).
  • Canned Food: Canned foods are by far the easiest to store as canned goods are readily available at your local grocery store. However they typically only have a shelf life of 1-3 years.
  • MREs (Meals Ready to Eat): These are nice because each one will provide you with an entire meal! Sometimes the MRE will even include a chemical heater so your meal comes out piping hot. These will last a bit longer (usually about 5 years depending on storage conditions) but are a little pricey and heavy if you plan to carry the food with you in a backpack.
  • Freeze Dried Foods: This type of emergency food is also known as “backpackers food” since it is a favorite in the backpacking and hiking community due to it’s extremely light weight. It is also easy to prepare (usually just add boiling water and stir) and each pouch has a completed meal inside. The shelf life of these foods is also respectable and is usually in the neighborhood of seven years or more. The biggest down side to storing freeze dried food for an emergency is the cost as it is relatively expensive per calorie.

In my opinion, a varied approach is the best way to be truly prepared for any disaster and ensure your family is comfortable when trouble hits. Whether it be an earthquake, financial collapse, hurricane, civil unrest, super plague, pandemic, or flood.

Below you will find links to a more in-depth explanation of each type of emergency food, including cost comparisons and expected shelf life. We will also go over the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Which Type of Emergency Food is Right for Your Family?

Choosing what type of food to store is important and you should do this by consider your habits. Do you eat a lot of canned food normally and would you be able to rotate through your supplies regularly? If that’s the case, then focusing on storing canned food and rotating through it may be the best approach for you. Their relatively shorter storage life would not be an issue for you if you are good about rotating through your stored supply.

My family doesn’t eat many canned foods normally and we are unlikely to rotate through our supplies on a regular basis. For my family, I really needed an option where I could store the food away and forget about it. That is why I choose to focus on a combination of freeze dried and dehydrated foods as these can often times last over 20 years when stored correctly.

News of a hurricane prompt a run on food at the local grocery store.
News of hurricane Sandy caused this run of food and water at a local grocery store. In a few hours the store’s shelves were picked clean.

Another possibility is if you live in a larger city or any other environment that you know you need to leave as soon as possible when disaster hits. You may be in the situation where you need to stay extremely mobile. If that is the case, storing MREs or freeze dried (backpacking) food would be the most logical since they can easily be quickly consumed while on the food, provide a respectable shelf life (5-7 years depending on storage conditions), and come as complete meals.

Consider these factors when you are deciding what is best for you and your specific situation. Whichever option you choose, it is best to diversify somewhat. For example; although you may expect to be able to leave the big city quickly during a disaster there may be times when you have to shelter in place. If that occurs, it might be worth while to have a five gallon bucket of dried food (like rice for example) hidden away in your closet and save your expensive MREs for when you do finally have a safe opportunity to leave the area.

Ensuring the Longest Possible Shelf Life

You should be aware of the basic factors that affect the longevity of food that is stored for long periods of time. This will help you decide on where you should store the type of food that you choose and ultimately, which type of food is best to store away for your family. There are a few basic factors that will affect the shelf life of the food you store:

  1. Temperature
  2. Light
  3. Moisture
  4. Oxygen

The basic rule is that you want to keep each of these factors to a minimum. That is because this is what affects the growth of bacteria in the food. Temperature, in general, should be as low as possible. Forty degrees Fahrenheit is usually optimal (see above sections for storage temperatures of specific foods).

Light should be minimal or non-existent (bacteria loves light). The food should also remain as dry as possible (this is why dehydrated or dry foods last so long). One study showed that in most foods, reducing the moisture content by as little as 1% can double the shelf life. Bacteria also needs oxygen to survive so reducing or eliminating oxygen in the packaging the food is stored in will also drastically help to prolong the shelf life.

Freeze dried food in # 10 cans.
Even Walmart now sells freeze dried foods. This is one of the more popular options for emergency food.

The Bottom Line: Which Type of Food Should You Store?

I suggest you store some food from each category (dehydrated/dry foods, canned foods, MREs, and freeze dried foods). This will ensure you are diversified and ready for any situation. I suggest you go with a 40/30/20/10 percent split on the food (easy to remember as “The 4-3-2-1 Rule”). This split ensures that you will have a bit of each type of food stored away for an emergency.

  • 40% – This should be the bulk of your emergency foods and should be whichever type of emergency food that you decided is best for your situation. This should be the type of food that will be easiest for you to store large quantities of to keep your family alive.
  • 30% – This should be the second best food source that you choose for your family. At this level, you should consider more than just how many calories this type of food provides and how long it lasts, you should consider food that tastes good. This will be the food that makes your family’s life a little better during a bad situation and lifts their spirits. Don’t be afraid to include some treats to cheer everyone up.
  • 20% – This food you are storing away so you are a bit diversified and ready for any situation. For example if you were planning to shelter in place and were just storing away large 5 gallon buckets of rice and beans as the first category, this should consist of light and easily mobile food such as MREs or freeze dried food.
  • 10% – This is the last type of food, and may be last on your list of the type of food to store for your family. While you may have decided this type of food isn’t the best for your situation, it is important that you store a small amount of it away anyway. Since we all know that situations can change and they seem to do so most abruptly and often during a disaster. Think of it like an investment, any good investor will tell you that it is important to diversify.


One of my favorite sayings is “some preps are better than no preps.” So don’t feel overwhelmed about getting just the right type of food or just the right percentages. This is meant to be just an outline of what I have found is the best way to stay prepared for any type of emergency.

Take some time to flip through the detailed information I have gathered on all the main types of emergency food:

Once you have read through the differences of each of the types of emergency food, you’ll have a better understanding of which type is best for you and your family. Make a list and number each type of food as option 1 – 4. Option 1 will be the option that makes the most sense for your situation and option 4 will be the one that makes the least sense. Then you can apply the 40/30/20/10 formula to get a solid understanding of how much of each type of emergency food you should be storing.

Remember, don’t be afraid to deviate at any point you deem necessary as this is just a general guideline to help keep you on track. If you have questions along the way, shoot me an e-mail under the “contact” page listed in the menu at the top of this page and I will do my best to help you out.

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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