Next to water and shelter, an ongoing supply of good food is the most vital component of a healthy, happy life. But it can be difficult to figure out how to store food to make it last a long time, particularly if you live in a warm climate.
It may seem like a no brainer, but storing food isn’t as simple or straightforward as it sounds. Sure, you know what needs refrigeration and what can go on pantry shelves, but there is a lot more to it than that. It’s not simply a question of buying extras to get through lean times, or through emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic the world is experiencing right now. It’s vital that you know how to store food long term, safely, and these tips will help you do just that.
Think about it: what can happen if your food isn’t stored correctly? The most obvious answer is that all kinds of unwanted bacteria and mold can grow on it, and that makes it not just inedible, but downright dangerous — after all, you don’t want to give someone food poisoning right? Particularly now, in the midst of the pandemic, it’s urgent that you store your food safely and securely. And of course, you don’t want to add to the billions of dollars each year that the world loses in food waste, which goes into the environment and adds to landfills right across the globe.
The coronavirus pandemic may have prompted you to stock up on all kinds of food products because you’ve been worried, understandably, about whether those products will be on store shelves and in markets next week. But storing them properly is key, so here are some tips on long term food storage.
1) Plan Your Purchases & Meals
Some folks think that during a disaster, they should stock up on MRE’s (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), cans of soup, and ready to eat pasta — nothing fresh. Of course, those products have a place in your planning, but there’s room for fresh, wholesome foods too, like rice and beans. Those are just two examples of foods that have a long shelf life and will last in the pantry for many, many weeks.
Before you head out to do your shopping, make a list of all the folks you cook for, along with their food preferences and dietary needs. For example, you may not be able to ensure fresh milk for a family member who needs lots of calcium, but you can stock up on beans of different varieties, as they have plenty of calcium. Do research before you go, and compare nutritional components in different items. Each family member needs a different number of daily calories, so take that into account, too.
Bear in mind that this is the food you will be eating for several, or perhaps many, weeks, so try to buy items that the family enjoys. But keep simplicity uppermost in your mind; after all, the goal here is to buy food that lasts and that your family likes, but isn’t too complicated to make. Plan two or three breakfasts, then rotate the menus. The same goes for supper — decide on two or three meals in advance, plan the shopping list, then head out to stock up. Remember to keep alternatives in mind, in case the shops are out of a particular ingredient. You’ll know you’ve bought enough long-lasting food if you can store it and cook for at least two weeks without going out again. Be sure it’s all packaged to last while stored for several weeks — don’t forget that when you’re perusing the store aisles!
It’s important to note that, the higher the moisture content, the fewer number of days it will last at home. For example, rice has little or no moisture in the bag, so it lasts for many weeks. But fresh produce, dairy products, and similar items have lots of moisture and don’t age well at home. Keep this in mind when planning meals and shopping.
But even foods that last a long time — like rice — are different in moisture content. Brown rice has more moisture than white and lasts only a few weeks. But white rice has less moisture, and can be stored for 30 years! A good rule of thumb is this: any food with a high concentration of oils will not last on your pantry shelf, so always check this before purchasing it.
Food isn’t the only product you should store — you need freshwater, too. Most experts say that you should have a minimum of two weeks’ worth of fresh water on hand in case of an emergency, which means for a single person, having 14 gallons is good. A family of four should set aside at least 56 gallons, or 60, just to err on the side of caution.
2) Choose Foods Wisely
You needn’t panic and stock up on lots of bulk foods like rice; begin slowly, rather than piling a dozen bags of rice in the basement or pantry. There isn’t one right way to approach this process, but it’s important that you get started on it right away — but calmly.
Here are five categories of foods that store well:
a) Whole grains
These are the least expensive choices of foods that handle long term storage well. Grains can be bought in bulk, and aren’t too heavy if they’re stored in rubber, sealed food bins. Whole wheat is your best option of all the whole grains.
b) Oils, fats, nuts & seeds
It’s important to have these on hand because they keep your physical system functioning smoothly, and boost energy. They can be used in cooking, of course, and last up to a year if you store them properly. Nuts must not be stored for longer than two years, at most, as they go rancid, but seeds that are properly sealed will last up to five years.
c) Meat & fish
If you wrap up meat tightly in foil or plastic, it will last in the freezer for up to two months. Beef cuts like steaks and roasts preserve the best, but ideally should be cooked within one year. Fish, organ meats like liver and pork chops last about 3 — 4 months. Smoking or salting meat before freezing it lends a marvelous flavor to it and helps it last for about 12 months.
d) Dairy products
Butter, milk, and cheese require different storage methods. You can buy powdered skim milk, which has all the nutrition of “regular” milk, though many people don’t enjoy the taste nearly as much as fresh. But if it’s not opened, you can keep it for one year — that’s a lot longer than fresh milk! Cheese can last years if you wrap it in beeswax — a little known but valuable tip! As for butter… well, you can buy it powdered too, but again, it just won’t taste like the real, fresh thing. But sometimes it’s better to choose a product that lasts a long time, and is nutritious, even if the flavor is not everyone’s top pick.
e) Fruits & vegetables
These foods are packed with crucial minerals, vitamins, and other vital nutrients, but if left in their natural state they simply don’t last very long. But by taking out their moisture, you can keep them for months. Using a dehydrator enables you to store dried fruit for as long as one year. Dried veggies last about six months. Skip the hard work and buy these products already dried, like peas, beans, and other legumes, and they’ll keep on your pantry shelf for months at a time.
3) Storing Food Properly
Experts all over the world say that storing food long term isn’t just about safety; it is about preserving color, texture, and nutrients, too.
But if food isn’t stored correctly, all kinds of nasty bacteria can grow in and on it, which can become dangerous and cause food poisoning. Bacteria grow in temperatures ranging from 5°C to 60°C. Therefore, food must be kept out of this “danger zone” to be edible and safe.
a) Room temperature:
Staples like rice and dried beans have a fairly long shelf life and can be stored on a pantry shelf for longer than their “best before” due dates. A bag of pasta, for example, can last a lot longer than the package says, although its nutrients may diminish, and so may the color.
There is a common guideline to always keep in mind regarding perishable food — if it’s been out of the fridge for more than two hours, it’s time to pitch it in the garbage. So don’t leave fresh food sitting out, no matter how long your dinner party is continuing! Get the leftovers into the fridge as quickly as you can. Food left in an area that 90°F or warmer will spoil quickly, so don’t leave it out for longer than 30 or 40 minutes, at most.
Your fridge should always be at 5°C or lower. Its freezer should be below 15°C. Just to be sure, use a thermometer to check the temperature.
One common mistake lots of folks make is jamming too much into their fridge — avoid this at all costs! If food is blocking airflow, the food chills unevenly, meaning that something at the back of the fridge may freeze, while something near the front isn’t cold enough. Keep the fridge tidy, with foods easy to see, and not all crammed together is the best way to ensure all your goods are getting the right amount of refrigeration. And don’t forget to change the water and air filters twice each year, if your fridge has them. Finally, clean the condenser coils annually, at least.
This is far and away the best way to store food for a long period. Freezing food allows you to have a lot of it close at hand for two weeks, or even longer. The only drawback is that you must have access to lots of electricity to keep it running at an optimum minus 18°C.
Assuming you do have a freezer for long term food storage, remember that this process, unfortunately, does affect food quality. The longer something is left in the freezer the more likely it is to develop freezer burn, which affects the quality and taste.
Keep track of what goes in the freezer by date, perhaps on a calendar or whiteboard, then mark down a date to cook each item. That way you’ll know when frozen foods need to be cooked, by what date, and when it’s time to replenish your supply.
Plenty of factors affect long term food storage, including moisture, temperature, light, and oxygen. Using well-sealed jars goes a long way to keeping staples like rice last for months, particularly if you put them on a dark, cool shelf in a pantry, away from any source of light.
So go ahead and stock up — a little! — on some items you use repeatedly, so they are at hand the next time you want to make supper without taking the time to go shopping.
The coronavirus has been a terrible ordeal for the world, but it has taught people to be prepared to feed their families for a week or two without going out shopping. In that sense, the virus has been a valuable teacher, and it has given everyone a unique opportunity to learn about storing food safely!