The low-maintenance preppers.

th-2I just went shopping in our basement, bringing up several items that were missing in our upstairs cupboards: catsup and ibuprofen (both from Costco), a jar of homemade jam, a can of chicken soup.

It always tickles me to see how much we’ve got stored down there, from the kale we grew and dried to bedpillow-sized sacks of dried beans.

Since I live in a really seismic state, the stockpile also makes me feel safe and prepared. Well, as prepared as one can ever be for another Good Friday Earthquake. (And yes, I’ve thought about what might happen if the house collapsed into the basement: Anger, panic and finally rueful laughter.)

That’s probably why an Everyday Cheapskate post called “Don’t be scared, be prepared” resonated so much and got me thinking, once again, about food preparedness.

The post’s author, Mary Hunt (who also runs the Debt-Proof Living site and writes lots of books), noted that “as a nation we have little to no warehousing backup in the event of a supply shortage.” That’s because our stores tend to get daily shipments vs. having large stockpiles in the famous “back room.”

Hunt talked with a Costco exec who figures that even in that emporium of excess the shelves would be emptied “within three to five days” in the event of a disruption in the food distribution system.

Is such a disruption possible? You bet. Is it likely? Who knows?

What if….?

We think about these things in places like Alaska or Hawaii, where the majority of food gets flown or barged in. The difference between the 49th and 50th states, though, is that Hawaiians can raise quite a bit of grub (and livestock) in their own back yards. Alaskans really have to work at it, and there are some things we just can’t grow without serious greenhouse use.

Last year I attended a press open house at the National Weather Service, during which a representative for the National Tsunami Warning Center opined that another well-placed, high-Richter earthquake could put a world of hurt on Alaskan pantries. That’s because it might spawn monster waves that would wipe out the shipping areas in Washington and California – from which come most of the barges that supply Alaskan stores.

So yep, I’ve been thinking along those lines. So has DF, who actually experienced the Good Friday Earthquake and who also spent his formative years in villages where the Bureau of Indian Affairs shipped food to teachers once a year.

The upside of that: His parents, both educators, saved a lot of money because there was simply nowhere to spend it. The downside: You got food only once a year and filled in with seal, moose, fish or whatever else you could get your hands on.

Is it any wonder that we buy flour by the 50-pound bag? Or that we have probably 40 pounds of dried beans and 30 pounds of rice stashed downstairs? Or jugs of vinegar and olive oil and loads of canned fruit, tomatoes and vegetables?

We’ve even bought chickens on sale and pressure-canned them in jars, in order to have a shelf-stable protein that doesn’t require cooking. When someone gave us salmon that went into jars, too.

Prudent or paranoid?

My former MSN Money colleague Liz Weston has long been a proponent of a well-stocked larder, calling it “the emergency fund you can eat.” I always had a fairly deep pantry even in my one-bedroom Seattle apartment, all of it bought on sale and/or with coupons. We also make our own yogurt, wine and beer, and preserve such vegetables and fruits as we can grow or glean.

Maybe you, like me, consider this prudent rather than paranoid. If so, here are a few tips for low-maintenance food preparedness:

Bulk buys. Not everyone can (or wants to) belong to Costco. But some grocery stores have bulk-bin items that can be noticeably cheaper than the stuff in the regular aisles. Even here in Anchorage I can buy oatmeal for $1.09 per pound vs. $5.99 for the 42-ounce box of Quaker over in the cereal aisle; the price dropped to 99 cents in January so I bought about 20 pounds, storing it in gallon-sized glass jars in the basement. When un-degermed cornmeal went on sale last year for about 59 cents a pound, I bought what I judged to be a year’s worth and stored it in the freezer. Currently working our way through the last bag and keeping an eye out for sales.

Manager’s specials. I routinely check the scratch-and-dent bin at the back of the store and have gotten some decent prices on slightly marred cans or boxes/bags of food that have had corners torn or crushed. A fair amount of the yogurt I enjoy is made from close-dated milk that’s bought at 50 percent off; I freeze it if I can’t use it quickly enough. Then there’s the “used meat” section, as DF inelegantly calls it; these sell-it-now cuts are often tremendously discounted. Just use them right away or freeze them.

More how-tos

Loss leaders. If something you eat a lot of is advertised cheaply, get as many as you’re allowed. Simple enough.

Learn to preserve food. We can’t all be Martha Stewart, but how hard is it to freeze produce that you’ve grown or gotten at rock-bottom prices during the height of summer? The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a tremendous resource that will walk you through the canning, drying, freezing, jamming and jerkying of flora and fauna. We canned fish that someone gave us, chickens we bought on sale, carrots we grew, jam made from home-grown or gleaned fruit, and jars of pickled red cabbage so tasty that we’re doubling our output this summer.

Hit the bakery outlet. A few extra discounted loaves or some cheap tortillas in the freezer can go a long way toward padding emergency foods like peanut butter, canned soup and refried beans.

Preserve commercially grown food. Once fresh blueberries hit $2 a pound at Costco, we bought and froze them. When I found mandarin oranges for an unbelievable $3.88 per bag, you bet I wanted to preserve that price – you just don’t see citrus that cheap very often up here. I turned them into a simple marmalade, which is delicious with that homemade yogurt and also good with crackers and cream cheese. Those of you who live near farms may be able to score good deals if you’re willing to buy more than a couple of pounds at a time. At times you may find low prices on local green beans or tomatoes even at the supermarket. Shop around.

Watch for coupon specials. Last fall the Fred Meyer chain offered 20 percent off the total bill if you purchased $50, $100 or $150 in a single trip. We bought things like house-brand teabags, on-sale canned tomatoes, Triscuits (a frequent menu item at Café Awesome) and a few Christmas gifts (but not from the “gift” aisle, aka “the marked-up stuff aisle”). We’re still using up those groceries.

Don’t just hoard it

Speaking of which: This stuff won’t do you any good if it sticks around indefinitely. Write use-by dates on the fronts of cans and boxes (not on the tops!) with a black marker, and make it a point to use these items regularly. You can refill as you find sales and specials.

A great deal of peace of mind comes with knowing you’re stocked up, especially if you’ve done it frugally. To paraphrase Thoreau, the food saves you money twice: once in the inexpensive outlay and again when you don’t find yourself running to the supermarket for a can of tomatoes (because do you ever really get out of the store with just that one item?) or, worse, ordering out because there’s nothing to eat.

If the big one hits in our lifetime, one of the things we won’t have to worry about is how we’ll eat. Relatives who live nearby will also be taken care of if necessary; they’re welcome to bring sleeping bags and camp out here.

There’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that we’d all have enough to eat. And while we’re not as prepared as the Mormons or the preppers, we probably won’t have to buy teabags for at least another six months.

So how about it, readers: Do you have a deep pantry, or an actual stockpile? Got any tips to share?

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  1. Seems every where I look there’s people talking about prepping, stockpiling, and disaster. Maybe it’s the long winter we’ve had? In any case, I happen to think it’s a welcome discussion. We’ve got a similar situation in our pantry although we’re still working on the “bedpillow” sacks of rice and beans. We learned to can some things last year, and will do so again this year, and stockpile all kinds of stuff when it’s on sale, or there’s a super coupon involved.

  2. Don’t forget a little stockpile for any pets or livestock.

  3. Ro in San Diego

    I have very little storage space in my kitchen so store my boxed goods in cabinets in my garage. Canned goods and beverages are stacked on sturdy plastic shelving and I keep my freezer full of frequently used foods and marked down meat. I like “shopping in my garage” rather than running to the store to buy one item.

    Tips to share- Some items if priced right I will buy to excess. Many items are needed by charities in my area and if I can get them cheap I can be uber generous. Also be courteous and leave something on the shelf for the next person.

    For emergency preparedness I make sure I have lots of water on hand. I live in earthquake country.

    Many years ago we had raging fires in our area which caused power to be out for many days. My son’s friends all stayed with us and I kept all burners on our stove busy with foods that I had to use or lose out of our freezer. We had candles going and ate yummy foods for days.

    Instead of being annoyed by the emergency I was happy to see friends and family enjoying meals with us and the stocked up foods being put to good use.

    • Betsey

      I do not kinow where you live, but storing food in a garage is risky. Food for storage needs to be at @60 degrees or it will spoil or freeze.I suggest storing nonperishables there, perhaps even linens or anything in the house not bothered by weather. Another word of warning is that fabric softener needs to at room temperature it it too will spoil…lost a lot of money there.

  4. It’s not just earthquakes — we saw a similar situation happen in Colorado, when we had snowstorm after snowstorm one winter. Trucks couldn’t get through much between storms — and in less than a week, fresh dairy items (like milk), produce and eggs were stripped off the shelves. It made things even worse that this happened close to the holidays, and a lot of people were hoping to bake cookies, pies and such.
    While at the grocery store, our daughter found a dozen eggs hidden on a back shelf in the dairy area…and brought it to me triumphantly. (She said that she got stopped several times, and asked “Where did you find that??”) After that winter, I made sure to also stock a few bags of dried milk and a can of dried eggs. Just in case. (They also help when you run out late at night, with no time to get to the store.)

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. I have dried milk on hand but not dried eggs. I guess I should give them a try.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a message.

    • Betsey

      You can also dilute cans of evaporated milk for an emergency.

      • Donna Freedman

        Yep. My mom grew up drinking more canned milk than “sweet” milk. She made pudding with a 50/50 combination of canned milk and water. I have half of a large can of powdered milk that I’m working my way through; whenever we run out of regular milk I always have some for oatmeal or cooking. My dad buys the stuff by the case and never buys milk from the store any longer. (Note: It was purchased from the Emergency Essentials company — see the ad under “Sponsors” on the right-hand side of the home page.)
        Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  5. We are stocked well here in food -I can our produce from the garden every summer and can the peaches when they come on sale.
    Your right about making sure you use it before it expires. Good idea to write it on the can. We went on a No Spend January and it kind of cleared it out. Now we are stockpiling again.

    You know, our biggest problem when our ice storm hit (just before Christmas) in Michigan was batteries. We had lots of different A’s but not enough C or D’s for the big lanterns. Since then I have bought a solar lantern and plan to buy a couple more.

  6. Cathy in NJ

    Superstorm Sandy was the worst storm New Jersey in memory. Every family member lost power, so no where to go. We lost power for 7 days. Fortunately it was warm during the day and not too cold at night so we were comfortable sleeping in sleeping bags. We ran a ‘cranky’ generator to plug and unplug a toaster oven, a refrigerator and an electric kettle. Storing extra canned goods in the basement came in handy. We were warm mostly, had food and a way to cook it. So prepping covered the basics but we didn’t get a shower for days because there was no hot water.

    • Donna Freedman

      May I recommend keeping a supply of baby wipes (aka “shower in a pouch”)? And there’s always the famous “bird bath,” a sink full of kettle-heated water and soap. Chilly, maybe, but pretty refreshing.
      Glad you came through it all right. I’m from New Jersey myself, but my neighborhood is far enough south and west (Cumberland County) to have had no Sandy issues.

  7. Vicky Fox

    I have a very well stocked pantry in the kitchen, plus my front bathroom closet has been converted into a stockpile closet for household items and paper goods. I don’t buy many paper towel products, but I do have 2 stacks of bar mop towels to use and reuse.

    I started this not just in case of emergency, but also because I needed to take some time off from work. I could not keep up at the rate I was going after having my Life turned upside down. The results have paid off in ways I could never have imagined 🙂

    • Yes. I’m prepping, not so much for an emergency, but mostly for the first year of retirement. I’m hoping to cushion myself in case money runs short at the end of the month before I can get myself adjusted to my new lifestyle. Also keep 2 liter soda bottles full of water in the basement just in case there’s a boil order. Also (v. important) I’m filling my prescriptions as soon as my insurance company allows to have some extra – just-in-case.

  8. I loved your article Donna but for economic reasons. I am reminding myself to make time to scout for special offers and investigate buying in bulk. Work seems to take up so much of my time and energy.
    Here in Ireland we never(touch wood) have emergencies/very bad weather that would force us to stockpile. I am interested in knowing how you keep track of your stored foods. Do you make notes?
    Thanks again for another very interesting piece.

    • Donna Freedman

      During a cold spell (10 below or thereabouts) we decided to defrost the freezer because we could put the contents outside. And yep, there was stuff toward the bottom we’d forgotten we had. Oops.
      So as we put the items back in we made a list and now cross off items as they get used. We’ve pretty much vowed not to buy any more meat until we get that thing emptied. There’s still a lot of raspberries and rhubarb in there, too, but I am using them pretty steadily for my homemade yogurt and DF puts raspberries in his oatmeal.
      As for canned/dried/boxed stuff, we just eyeball it every time we go to the basement. That way we don’t buy more tomatoes when we already have eight cans, and we resist the on-sale hot cocoa mix because half a dozen boxes are still waiting to be used.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. To the chagrin of family members who feel their households are better run with a limited supply I have always kept a deep pantry and it has served me well. The discounted cost of shopping that way always makes sense to me but there are other wonderful ways. It is a feeling of comfort. You are free to focus your dollars elsewhere when uncomfortable unexpected expenses or unemployment happens, you will never be one of those people who made a mad dash to the store before a snowstorm, you never have to make a special trip for a common ingredient and there are other positive reasons that appear. I remember a number of years ago when something happened that created a shortage of rice. We eat it about once a week at my house and my supply lasted me until well after the situation (whatever it was) was over.

    There is a blog called theprudenthomemakerblog.blogspot.com with an accompanying website I find interesting. It is written by a Nevada housewife who is Mormon (I’m sure the reason for her pantry) but was forced to live on her reserves for 2 years with the downturn in the economy because her husband is in real estate. She has some good ideas, seemed to manage with alot of grace and I think it is worth checking out.

  10. We were eating up our “hurricane stash” in Florida until we moved back to Arizona after Christmas. It sure is nice to pantry shop for a week when you just don’t want to go to the store or you’re running low on food budget. It saved us a lot in the last month or so.

    I try to freeze juice containers with water in them in the freezer if I have room. Keeps the food colder during power outages. I freeze them to put in the fridge and coolers if I think there might be a need. Luckily, hurricanes aren’t too common in Arizona!

    The LDS church members keep food for a year or some other time frame on hand for times of need. They even have canneries for members to use. I’ve always wondered if they have a guideline for what to keep. My friends from school used to gripe about their moms rotating stores and having to eat some food they didn’t like.

  11. Love Ro in San Diego’s positive attitude! We have some stuff in stock, but nothing like the stashes some of y”all have. I worry that a 50 lb. sack of beans or rice won’t keep in my basement in New England. Besides, only DH and I eat beans and rice… thoughts? And Donna, how on earth did you freeze clementines?

    • Donna Freedman

      I didn’t freeze the clementines — I made them into marmalade. Should have been clearer about that. The product is so good with the homemade yogurt.
      As long as you keep the beans dry they’ll last for ages; just read somewhere it’s 6 to 10 years.

  12. Thanks for your thoughtful and informative post. I’m in the process of building my own food storage and appreciate hearing how others prepare and stock up.

  13. Kristina

    As an emergency manager I keep a well stocked pantry at all a times. While I live in an area that doesn’t usually experience many natural disasters I plan for them on a daily basis for my state. And they could occur at any time.

    I keep a well stocked pantry because I was raised that way. We always had canned (store bought or family canned-I hated those summer days in a hot kitchen) goods in the house.

    In January and February of this year I clocked over 100 hours of over time and more than three weeks of 14+ hour days, 7 days a week, responding to an emergency situation. I barely had time for laundry let alone grocery shopping but I made due just fine and ate from the freezer and pantry. I have been reequipping my freezer and pantry over the past few weeks because we are gearing up again for a series of responses.

    It is possible to purchase and stock you family for an emergency-whether natural disaster or human caused or financial-for much less than people think.

    And please, get water, batteries, flashlights, candles and matches and know where they are at all times.

    Great entry Donna!

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed: Every room needs a flashlight, and you should have a gallon of water per person per day stored (plus extra for pets). Be really careful with candles; I suggest setting them inside wide-mouthed canning jars and placing them high enough that they can’t be pulled over by a curious kid or a tail-wagging dog.

  14. NowACountryMouse

    During Katrina we were without electricity for 33 days. So now whenever there is a storm warning of any kind, you can find me washing every stitch of dirty clothes/towels in the house and cooking whatever are the most prized possessions in the freezer. Cook those rump roasts, bake the ribs, etc. If you have a little grill and some charcoal, you have another option to save some of your freezer food if there is no power.

  15. I live in the UK, on a hill, so low risk for flooding, or other extreme weather but I have a “Snow Shelf”, stocked with one roll or box of each essential item ~(loo paper, box of matches, candles, dishwasher and laundry soap, packet of coffee, teabags)and enough canned/bottled/dried food for 3 days of meals. For example, a packet of pasta and jar of sauce, a bag of rice, tinned tomatoes, and chilli beans, and the ingredients for a couple of soups/stews. There’s noodles and a tin of coconut milk for a curry, and hot chocolate. I keep catfood in stock too, and a bag of flour for bread-making. In the event of snowfall and school closure, my kids and I are freed to go playing and sledging rather than struggling to the shops. It’s good knowing that if the flu strikes, or my car breaks down, or I get offered a few days extra work, we have enough food for a few days. I’m also always aware that it is a great back-up: my budget is very small, and it gives me confidence to know we have a few days in hand if financial emergencies come. It has also saved me more than once when an essential item has run out: I just use it, and replace at my next weekly shop, which cuts down tempting trips to the shops. I check it before a shopping trip, in the same way I check my regular larder stores. I keep an eye out for offers, and because it’s stuff we would ordinarily buy, it’s affordable to top-up. I keep it on a separate shelf, so whenever I open my larder I can see it: it’s reassuring, and it also makes me smile. Of course, in an unforeseen emergency, I would also be ready!

    • Donna Freedman

      Here in the U.S. the government used to say we needed three days of food and water. Now it’s edged up to seven days. Given our super-centralized food distribution system, I hope people take this to heart — and also that they make it more than seven days. In my one-bedroom apartment in Seattle I had enough food stashed to keep me fed (if not excited) for months on end. Even in a studio apartment it wouldn’t be that hard, as long as you were OK with all breakfasts being oatmeal and all lunches being soup and crackers. You wouldn’t be thrilled but you also wouldn’t be hungry.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

    • Kristina

      Actually recommendations have been inching to ward 10-14 days for a about five years now. Sadly, most people are not (and will never be) prepared for that duration of an emergency.

  16. Melissa

    I read through some great prepping tips from Christie Jordan over at Southern Plate.com. She has video tutorials on how to dehydrate cooked ground beef and frozen vegetables for dry storage. It saves space in the freezer and you wouldn’t have to cook a bunch of meat in a hurry if you lose power. I don’t have a dehydrator yet, but that sounds like a great way to preserve food when you buy things on sale but are short on space.


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