Fueling your body during an emergency is very different from your everyday diet. (Think of how an emergency fund functions differently than a savings account.) Because you’ll probably expend more energy than you normally would during your emergency plan, you should eat high-energy, high-protein foods. If the emergency is disease-related (as in the coronavirus pandemic of 2020), it is especially important to eat nutritious foods that will help you maintain good health. And because you’ll have a limited supply in your emergency preparedness kit, the higher-quality foods you eat—and the fewer of them—the better.
“In a disaster or an emergency you want those calories,” says Barry Swanson, a food scientist at Washington State University. “You want some nutrients and some fiber—something to keep your diet normal.”
RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Hurricane Season
“In an emergency, generally you tend to think of meeting more basic needs than preferences and flavors,” says Elizabeth Andress, professor and food safety specialist at the University of Georgia. “But if you plan right, you can have a great variety of foods and nutrients.” Here, Andress and Swanson weigh in on what items—perishable and non-perishable—you should include.
What to Always Keep in Your Pantry
These non-perishable food items (or close to it) have lengthy expiration dates, so you can stash them away for long periods of time, even if it’s not hurricane season or tornado season. Make a list of everything in your stockpile and check expiration dates every 6 to 12 months to keep things fresh. And don’t forget to have a can opener on hand at all times—all that food won’t be of any use if you can’t open it.
A great source of energy, peanut butter is chock-full of healthful fats and protein. Unless the jar indicates otherwise, you don’t have to refrigerate after opening.
To get the most bang for your peanut butter buck, purchase a two-pack of Jif Natural Creamy Peanut Butter, which comes in 80-ounce jars. The natural, no-stir, low-sodium, gluten-free peanut butter is ideal for groups with different needs, and at just 12 cents an ounce, it’s an affordable choice, too. To buy: $10 for a two-pack; walmart.com.
Crackers are a good replacement for bread and make a fine substitute when making sandwiches. Due to their higher fat content, whole-wheat or whole-grain crackers have a shorter shelf life than their plain counterparts (check the box for expiration dates), but the extra fiber pays off when you’re particularly hungry. Consider vacuum-packing your crackers to prolong their freshness.
For added value, purchase a family-sized pack of 100 percent whole grain Wheat Thins. The toasted crackers give a bit more of a healthful kick and are made without high-fructose corn syrup as well. To buy: $4; target.com.
Nuts and trail mixes
Stock up on these high-energy foods—they’re healthful and convenient for snacking during a hurricane, tornado, or other emergency. Look for vacuum-packed containers, which prevent the nuts from oxidizing and losing their freshness.
Choose multigrain cereals that are individually packaged so they don’t become stale after opening.
Granola bars and power bars
Healthy and filling, these portable snacks usually stay fresh for at least six months. Plus, they’re an excellent source of carbohydrates. “You can get more energy from carbohydrates without [eating] tons of food,” says Andress.
Nature Valley’s Family Pack will provide you with a full 30 individually-wrapped bars in both peanut butter and oats ’n honey flavors. And with 16 grams of whole grain per serving, these bars will be more than enough to keep people full. To buy: $6; walmart.com.
Dried fruits, such as apricots and raisins
In the absence of fresh fruit, these healthy snacks offer potassium and dietary fiber. “Dried fruits provide you with a significant amount of nutrients and calories,” says Swanson.
Canned tuna, salmon, chicken, or turkey
Generally lasting at least two years in the pantry, canned meats provide essential protein. Vacuum-packed pouches have a shorter shelf life but will last at least six months, says Diane Van, manager of the USDA meat and poultry hotline. Moreover, vacuum sealed packs may come in handy if you don’t have a can opener.
Canned vegetables, such as green beans, carrots, and peas
When the real deal isn’t an option, canned varieties can provide you with essential nutrients, making these a great hurricane food or natural disaster option. To pack in as many of those healthy vitamins and minerals as possible, order a case of mixed vegetable cans.
Canned soups and chili
Soups and chili can be eaten straight out of the can and provide a variety of nutrients. Look for low-sodium options.
Dry pasta and pasta sauces
It might be a carb-heavy, gluten-full food, but pasta is filling, and dry pasta and jarred sauce can last on pantry shelves for months. If someone in your household has dietary restrictions, look for gluten-free pasta or pasta made from chickpeas (or another alternative).
Try to stock at least a three-day supply—you need at least one gallon per person per day. “A normally active person should drink at least a half gallon of water each day,” Andress says. “The other half gallon is for adding to food and washing.”
To ensure everyone stays hydrated, purchase a case of water that comes with essential minerals added to it. Essentia’s bottled water comes with added electrolytes to aid in hydration and improve taste. To buy: $30 for twelve 1.5-liter bottles; walmart.com.
Sports drinks, such as Gatorade or Powerade
The electrolytes and carbohydrates in these drinks will help you rehydrate and replenish fluid when water is scarce. Just make sure your sports drink of choice doesn’t come with too many additives, such as sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Almost all dairy products require refrigeration, so stock this substitute for an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D when fresh milk isn’t an option.
Sugar, salt, and pepper
If you have access to a propane or charcoal stove, you may be doing some cooking. A basic supply of seasonings and sweeteners will improve the flavor of your food, both fresh and packaged.
Supplements will help replace the nutrients you would have consumed on a normal diet. But vitamins don’t have to be boring. Instead, go for delicious fruity gummies that come with a complete day’s worth of vitamins; some even contain omega 3s and folate for complete coverage.
What to Buy Right Before an Emergency
If you’ve been given ample warning that a storm is coming, there’s still time to run to the market and pick up more hurricane food: fresh produce and other items that have shorter shelf lives. Most of these foods will last at least a week after they’ve been purchased and will give you a fresh alternative to all that packaged food. Make sure to swing by your local farmers’ market if it’s open; because the produce there is fresher than what you’ll find at your typical supermarket, you’ll add a few days to the life span of your fruits and vegetables.
Apples last up to three months when stored in a cool, dry area away from more perishable fruits (like bananas), which could cause them to ripen more quickly.
Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruits
Because of their high acid content and sturdy skins, citrus fruits can last for up to two weeks without refrigeration, particularly if you buy them when they’re not fully ripe. Oranges and grapefruits contain lots of vitamin C and will keep you hydrated.
If you buy an unripe, firm avocado, it will last outside the refrigerator for at least a week.
If you buy them unripe, tomatoes will last several days at room temperature.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams
If you have access to a working stove, these root vegetables are good keepers and make tasty side dishes. Stored in a cool, dark area, potatoes will last about a month.
Cucumbers and summer squash
These vegetables will last a few days outside of refrigeration and can be eaten raw.
While most are inedible uncooked, winter squashes, such as acorn squash, will keep for a few months. If you’ll be able to cook during the emergency, stockpile a bunch.
Hard, packaged sausages, such as sopressata and pepperoni
You can’t eat canned tuna and chicken forever. Try stocking up on a few packages of dry-cured salamis such as sopressata, a southern Italian specialty available at most grocery stores. Unopened, they will keep for up to six weeks in the pantry, says Van.
More Food Advice for an Emergency
- If the electricity goes out, how do you know what is and isn’t safe to eat from the refrigerator? If your food has spent more than four hours over 40º Fahrenheit, don’t eat it. As long as frozen foods have ice crystals or are cool to the touch, they’re still safe. “Once it gets to be room temperature, bacteria forms pretty quickly, and you want to be very careful about what you’re eating,” says Swanson. Keep the doors closed on your refrigerator and freezer to slow down the thawing process.
- If you don’t have electricity, you may still be able to cook or heat your food. If you have outdoor access, a charcoal grill or propane stove is a viable option (these can’t be used indoors because of improper ventilation). If you’re stuck indoors, keep a can of Sterno handy: Essentially heat in a can, it requires no electricity and can warm up small amounts of food in cookware.
- If your family has special needs—for example, you take medication regularly or you have a small child—remember to stock up on those essential items, too. Keep an extra stash of baby formula and jars of baby food or a backup supply of your medications.
- If you live in an area at high risk for flooding, consider buying all your pantry items in cans, as they are less likely to be contaminated by flood waters than jars. “It’s recommended that people don’t eat home-canned foods or jarred foods that have been exposed to flood waters because those seals are not quite as intact,” says Andress.