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Many governmental agencies recommend keeping a three-day supply of emergency food and water on hand at all times. However, weather-related disasters and human-made emergencies can disrupt your access to food for far longer than three days.

Large-scale power outages and impassable roads caused by threatening wildfires, high winds, and dangerous flooding can keep stores closed and upend supply chains for weeks.

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That’s why more and more people are building up a long-term emergency food supply for their families. It sounds like a daunting task. However, you’ll find that if you approach it with small steps, you’ll be on your way to establishing a stockpile in no time.

But what are the steps you need to take to prepare and store food safely for years, even decades? Here is a beginner’s guide.

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1. Take stock of what you have and what you need

Many families have more mom-perishable food on hand than they realize. Check your kitchen cabinets and pantry for shelf-stable supplies like beans, rice, soups, and other canned foods.

Make a list of meals you could make with the shelf-stable foods you have and determine what you might need for a week, two weeks, and more. Keep in mind that you don’t need to buy all your emergency foodstuffs at once. Instead, try purchasing a little extra for your stockpile each week – like an extra box of pasta and a second can of beans.

2. Consider your family’s needs and tastes.

How much food you store and what foods you store depend on the number of people and animals in your household and their specific requirements and preferences.

The stress and worry that come along with a disaster are no time to introduce new foods or foods that you don’t already enjoy on a regular basis. Of course, you’ll want to store shelf-stable foods, but they should be items you typically use in your meals already.

3. Find a suitable space for your stockpile.

The ideal location for canned and dried food is a cool, dry, dark place with temperatures in the 40°F to 70°F range.

While a root cellar or a dry basement is ideal, these locations are not a requirement. The most important factor is keeping your supply away from heat, humidity, and light exposure. That means a spot that is away from windows, furnaces, heat ducts, and water heaters, for example.

An interior room, such as a closet located at the lowest level of your residence, can work well.

4. Choose containers carefully.

Next to location, the packaging of your food is the most critical factor for long-term storage. You can protect the food from pests, moisture, and heat with the proper container.

For the best long-term results, consider placing your food in sealed Mylar bags inside covered food-grade plastic buckets. Food-grade oxygen absorbers are another important step in lengthening shelf life. You can purchase Mylar bags in various sizes to meet your needs. Some sets of bags are sold along with oxygen absorbers, or you can buy the bags and absorbers separately.

You can create an air-tight seal on the bags with a vacuum sealer, or you can use an iron or a hair straightener. Here’s a video that shows the process of sealing Mylar bags.

Placing the bags in plastic buckets gives an extra layer of protection from pests (both animals and insects) and the elements. Just make sure the buckets you use are listed as food-grade. You’ll also want to close the buckets securely with fitted lids.

5. Label your food.

When you take food out of its original packaging, you can increase its shelf life, but you also lose identifying images, terms, and instructions. How will you remember what’s in all those opaque bags and buckets? The answer is careful labeling.

With a permanent marker or label, mark each bag and bucket with the date, contents, expected expiration, and any instructions. Nutritional information and calorie counts can be helpful too in a long-term crisis.

6. Inspect your stockpile.

It can be tempting to store your food and then forget about it in the hope you will never need it. However, building a successful emergency stockpile also requires some maintenance.

No matter how careful you have been with the previous steps, you still need to inspect your food supply regularly. Keep your eye out for any of the following:

  • Signs of pests (including droppings, openings in packages, and flies)
  • Changes in containers, such as color change, leaking, or residue
  • Mold or mildew growth
  • Unusual odors

7. Rotate foods.

To keep your stockpile at its most useful, consider rotating foods every six months to a year.

Store your foods with easy access to those items that have been stored the longest. Use the first-in, first-out method to use items in your regular meals. Replace them as needed with a fresh supply.

8. Choose long-term food items wisely.

Food expiration dates are widely inaccurate and are the cause of millions of pounds of wasted food each year in this country.

The confusion comes from the fact that many consumers believe that food expiration dates indicate how safe the food is to consume. However, the dates usually only tell when the product is at its freshness peak. In other words, the dates are not related to food poisoning or foodborne illness.

When appropriately stored, many foods can last well for decades. Here is a list of foods and food supplies that will keep for 25 years or more.

For more tips and ideas on long-term food storage, here are some helpful resources.

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