Low Cost Food Storage Ideas for New Preppers. Here’s How To Do It Yourself and Save!.

by Ben W

squirrel-20980_640In today’s economic climate, finances are a major concern for everyone, but doubly so for the prepper or survivalist. Not only are we trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in our everyday lives, we are also attempting to put together a “kit” for another lifestyle altogether, a kit that will keep us alive when everything falls apart.

Generally, the first items purchased by a prepper are foodstuffs, and these preps can be made slowly and relatively inexpensively, over a long period of time, or one can bite the bullet and spend a fortune to “prep” quickly, and in today’s socio-economic climate, quickly is the byword.

This usually involves purchasing ready made and assembled food packs from some company offering a 5-gallon survival pail sufficient to feed you for anywhere from 3 weeks to six months, or by buying surplus MRE’s. Both of these are good options, but you are paying for convenience and there is a better and much less expensive option.

Having been a long time prepper, 25+ years, I was into long term food storage at a time when options were few: Foods packaged for campers, vey expensive, and MRE’s, always surplus and also fairly expensive.

I took it upon myself to put together my own food pails, stocked with items I and my family would eat, and to this day, many of the stored items appear to be store fresh! Before I go on, I want to assure you that there will be many negative comments on the methods I have been using and which I am proposing. There will be flak about the nutrients being gone & spoilage, among other things. I cannot speak to the nutritive value of the items stored, but I can say they look and taste good, show no signs of spoilage. And this after 20 years in some cases!

I started my food storage program with three and five-gallon food grade buckets which I obtained from a bakery at a local market. These came with lids with a heavy rubber gasket. The buckets were taken home and washed thoroughly with soap and hot water. They were then dried, and the interior surfaces of the bucket, the lid and the sealing gasket were all wiped down with bleach. I then placed an unscented trash bag into the bucket, and I used one of two methods to purge the air/oxygen from the pail: Method #1, I dropped a piece of dry ice into the bag and then placed the items I was storing into the bucket.

Most were left in their store packages, some items were repacked, such as bulk beans, rice and flour. These were placed into separate plastic bags and given their own small piece of dry ice. I added items until the pail was full, and then I lightly twisted the outer plastic bag closed. In a few minutes, the bag would swell, indicating that the CO2 being produced by the dry ice was filling the bag. The air/oxygen had been displaced. At this point, I twisted the bag shut tightly, wired it closed and placed the lid on the bucket and locked it down. I did not use any oxygen absorbers or desiccants. Method #2, was to set the pail up as indicated, and instead of dry ice, I used nitrogen from a commercial tank to purge the air/oxygen from the bags.

In addition to bulk items, the pails might also contain pasta, commercials mac/cheese, or any number of items packed in cardboard and plastic. A hose ran from the tank to the bottom of the bag, and when the bag swelled the hose was removed and the bag sealed. Once sealed, these pails were labeled and dated and kept, at various times, in my workshop, garage, storage shed, and ultimately, in a cargo container that was “roofed over” for shade. All these environments were fairly stable temp and moisture wise.

To test the efficiency of this system, I opened some of these buckets that had been sealed many years ago. In none of the contents did I find spoilage or weevils, not in the flour, corn meal or other grains. I did have weevils in ALL of the grain products that were stored in sealed buckets that had not been purged. Canned items appeared to be ok, no swelling or rusting, but due to the ages of these items, I am leery of using them and will replace them. I should have been rotating them, but the items were in sealed pails that I was reluctant to open, so it’s my loss.

As they say about the pudding: My grandkids were visiting and wanted mac/cheese and we were out, stores closed. I opened a storage pail and removed two boxes of commercial mac/cheese, it cooked up great and there were no ill effects, none, other than “Any left?” My wife and I have regularly used various cereals from storage, such as wheat & oatmeal and they are good also. The sugars and honey I store will last forever, and I don’t think they lose their nutritional value.

It appears that my storage system works well, but to address the nutrition issue, I also store multivitamins, and while I don’t really see a need for them, it can’t hurt. A quick note on dry beans: I have heard that after a few years of storage they become non-palatable, even after cooking. They stay hard and impossible to chew. The remedy for this is to place the cooked beans in a pressure cooker for a few minutes after cooking to soften them up, and they will be as good as fresh.

As for water, more valuable and necessary than food, I have filters and tablets, but I use a homegrown system for storage. As my wife uses bleach, she gives me the empty plastic bottles. They are filled with water without being washed out, and are stored as is. I have drunk water as old as 20 years….no odor or algae, and while flat, shaking to aerate took care of the problem. This water was from a home well, and was not treated in any way before being stored, and I suppose city water, treated, could be stored the same way. The bleach bottles are stored alongside the food pails, and I have had no issues with the plastic bottles degrading or becoming brittle.

On a final note, I use food grade pails for storing my matches and lighters, lantern mantles, and other items which might be moisture sensitive. A desiccant is added, but the pails are not purged. And for soaps, shampoos, scented candles or other items which “smell,” a food grade bucket is ideal for avoiding contamination via “osmosis.” I store these pails in the same area as my foods, and have found no contamination present.

This article deals with preps that I have made over the years, and most were done “on the cheap,” but they have served me and mine well. And while I realize there are commercial alternatives available for long term storage of food and other items, I find “rolling my own” and saving forty to sixty dollars to be much more fun.


  1. patientmomma says:

    Thanks Ben W; I always like to hear what other people are doing. I doubt that there is only 1 correct way to put up long term food. If your method works for you, it might work for someone else also. I think all of us have made a few mistakes along the way and as long as we learn from them and don’t give up, we will get better at doing what preppers do.

  2. I approach prepping in a slightly different matter. For winter storms, I do not keep fridge loaded with foods “requiring” refrigerator as I do not keep power every four hours to the fridg. I run the generator one hour morning and night to keep the deep freeze between 0-6 degrees. It is when I charge batteries, etc. generators use a lot of fuel and I am looking at 3-4 weeks without electricity.

    Now, I buy enough animal feed for a month. Plan B: I have researched how to make animal feed for all pets and chickens. For humans: I buy basic sides or meal starters; rice and pasta. I have those in long term storage, but I do not plan to deplete my long term (2-9 month) storage. I can add canned or dehydrated meat, vegetables, nuts, or fruit. The most important part of my storage is the storage of ingredients that I can or buy, dehydrate, or purchase online in #10 cans. I use dried onions, garlic, and dried red and green bell peppers daily. I also keep lots of spinach, broccoli, celery, cabbage, carrots on hand. If the freezer is down (grid down) freezer will not keep greens for winter.

    To sum it up: I buy, freeze for a week, and then store wheat, oats, rice (white and brown), beans, and pasta. I do have a spaghetti maker so I focus on elbow macaroni and penne when shopping. Then I buy ingredients to go with the above. Learn to make mayonnaise as you can be without refrigeration. Same for other sauces. Learn to can in half pints, pints, and quarts. I do not use energy to cook one batch of beans. I can 3 1/2 pounds of beans (7 quarts or 14 pints). Cabbage and celery both can be canned the same as other vegetables. I am not there yet, but I hope to have 1000 canning jars in all sizes. I buy lids and rings in bulk (Lehmans.com). Finally, make sure you have renewable source of water. Food will do you no good without water.

    I am not “well to do.” I live on social security and teacher pension while helping DGD and her husband get their feet on the ground. Economy is not that good especially if you are just getting started. Both of them have just gotten full time jobs with insurance; $4500 deductible. A miscarriage put DGD $2000 in debt. What wonderful insurance!

    I agree with all in the pack. Put back as you can afford. Do not go in debt to buy food. Begin today. It becomes a part of life.

    • I mention 2-9 months. The grains, beans, and dehydrated food are for years. I plan to replacing vegetables and fruits in next growing season.

      • Anonamo Also says:

        Ditto here, canning as much as possible and buying shelf stable foods.. lots of beans and rice, freezer time for mine is 10 days to 3 months ususally, depending on the size of the container and the time I have to work them up to get in repacked. We are grid dependent at present..and our gardens for the past 5 years have been minimal.Buying things in season and preserving them has been my answer to this temporary problem. Dehydration is a favorite way, and can use in many ways once rehydrated…
        I try to have more than one year of veggies , because of crop failure, weather changes, sickness ect. Tomatoes and highly acidic things I keep,smaller amounts and rotate diligently.
        The keys to my storage are stretcher foods… pastas, rice, beans,various grains, quiona, flax… looking at adding amaranth, and sunflowers to growing areas. I keep dry soup mixes…bullion being predominant. Want to do dry mixes , self, but just have not gotten there yet…
        If my family Won’t eat a food, no need of having it available. If my family.. Can’t eat it I am wasting my money. Items eaten by only one member due to intolerances are kept for variety, but in smaller amounts. Foods we all like kept in abundance. Just use your head and look at what your family prefers. store plenty of those foods now, with the stretcher foods..ie “mac and cheese”. splurge items…extra peanut butter, jelly, honey, sugar., vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa..a variety of treats can be made
        One alternate for greeens for food storage is sprouting supplies. and knowing how to use and having the taste for them. Sprouting of seed can give enormous benefits esp high in B vitamins…
        I use similar method to orig post, but use ox absorbers, packing all ingredients tightly, vacume sealing some items..and wrap lid seals with several layers of duct tape. I store canned goods completely separate for ease of rotation.
        Having the freezer full of shelf stable foods as opposed to being empty is an energy saving measure. If sudden windfall of meat, or frozen foods can easily remove them.

  3. First off let me say we live in a grid-dependent house. As our awareness has grown, this has become more and more of a concern. We have taken all the mitigaing steps we can, next is to move.

    I already was an avid shooter, so guns & ammo were not an immediate issue. Both of us are retired military and spent time outside, so we felt we had those issues covered.

    So it came down to food. Growing our own was not a real option; only as a suppliment.

    We started in 1998. I found our 1st inventory list earlier this year. 5 x 8″ piece of lined paper, 2 columns, 1 1/2 full, single sided. And I was proud that were were that far along.

    I felt we should not go with Freeze-dried meals for 2 reasons; although we do have some. They are expensive and I really didn’t like the flavors of most. The same with MRE’s. We do have about 1 month of supplies that do not require a lot preparation time/resources.

    We dehydrate and vacuum seal frozen vegitables, cooked hamberger, and cooked/diced chicken. We do buy canned meat (tuna, ham, chicken). We buy mac & cheese.

    We are learning more and more about cooking with bulk foods: pasta, rice, wheat, barley; bought in large bags and put up in 5 gallon buckets. We put up instant oatmeal and single-serve hot chocolate in buckets.

    In our enviornment store bought peanut butter and jelly lasts quite a while. Canned coffee. Bulk tea, instant pototaoes, quick oatmeal stored in gallon mylar bags with a zip lock end, store in 26 gallon clear tubs.

    We buy items as the go on sale. Stocking up when (like this week) items like tuna go on sale for $.38/can.

    I would like to make a few suggestions from what we have learned. Keep a data base (i use a spreadsheet) of what you have, how many servings, how many containers, the year purchased, what I paid for it, and what it weighs. Store you items in a clear tubs, if tubs are appropriate. and LABEL EVERYTHING! These simple steps will save you much time and effort later.

    • Always Forward says:

      Really good suggestions!

      • Lynn Brown says:

        I have just started prepping and I hyperventilate when I start looking at the price of the freeze dried foods. I invested in the Excalibur dehydrator and a food saver. I will buy food grade buckets to store my food in(did not know before reading this post) was just putting in plastic tubs. thanks so much to all who take the time to post so many great ideas.

        • Food grade buckets are available at Walmart. Gamma lids are available at Home Depot in the paint dept. Just check the lids to make sure both seals are present. I bought one that didn’t have one. I buy the oxygen absorbers at our local LDS dry food cannery. We aren’t LDS but they are very nice to outsiders in my experience. Also, a vacuum packer is inexpensive and we have used it to pack flour (in the original bag) and more and have found it to be extremely valuable.

    • JP, good planning. I hope you can move some day. A spreadsheet does not work for the daily to 2 month storage as we eat daily from the pantry, but I agree one is needed for the longer storage items. In fact, I was checking quart jars of sealed potato flakes, rice, etc. I found 5 with broken seals. I have at least a 100 jars but I cannot tell you how many have rice, potatoes, or pop corn in them. One of these days I need to do an inventory.

      Keep up the prepping. Always look forward to your post.

      • Docj:

        We actually have 2 parts to our “storage”. What I described is the longer term stuff. We do not keep the short term (daily to 2 months) items on an inventory; we replenish it from a visual count. The DW takes care of this. I track and plan the long term stuff.

  4. I also use bleach (minute amounts) for water storage…wife makes all our laundry soaps and have chemist friend who makes awesome natural soap bars (unscented) we use –

    I really like your approach, being from a hillrod family that always raised/grew 75% of the food we ate, (low end ) canning is always a solid approach and done right, is an indefinite shelf life in a low too no light, regulated temp (root cellar) environment –

    Love the nitrogen and co2 approach…actually can see that working very well, shared with chemist friend, he agrees, doing it that way reduces loss of nutrients…nice!

    Love love love this article!

  5. Quietly_Will says:

    Nice treatment of this topic. I used to keep about a months worth of canned goods on hand since the 70’s. I have purchased “2 years” of freeze dried food slowly over the past few years. Anyone who looks at the calorie counts knows that advertised “2 years” does not mean there are enough calories to survive on so I plan to use this as my “base”. I buy extra canned goods every week as I shop. I get things such as pinto beans and soups in 16 oz cans as they have a lot of fluid. I also get instant rice as I can add it to soups using less water/fuel than if I cooked regular rice. I expect to add things like instant mashed potato to the freeze dried packets to bring the calories up. I do have spices to make things less bland and luckily am not a foodie. I also look for cans of food that I can eat without cooking in a pinch such as ravioli. The initial cost is not my main driver although I find store brands much cheaper. I don’t cook real meals at home so there is nothing to can, even though I think it is the way to go. I am not in an area that I could hunt in. Water to live on is do-able by harvesting rain water, though I have about a years worth treated and stored. Discrete ways to cook are more of an issue for me as I live in an area full of progressive folks and can see them not having the supplies to take care of themselves. That being said, I find that those who could take care of themselves plan to go “home” to the “country” and I wish them luck on that trip. I don’t worry about electric as expecting the grid to go down hard and long is why I do what I do. I’m in a warm climate, have thermal clothes and have been practicing ways to heat/cook from the sun. Here even clear water bottles on the dash board in the sun get to about 120 degrees during winter after 2 hours. I think I have enough toilet articles, soap, trash bags, wipes etc for about 2 years. Do what you can as you can…… and I agree – never go into debt.

    • Crazy Joe in South Jersey says:

      …… ” as I live in an area full of progressive folks and can see them not having the supplies to take care of themselves. ”

      …. ” A human can go for more than three weeks without food (Mahatma Gandhi survived 21 days of complete starvation), but water is a different story.  The maximum time an individual can go without water seems to be a week — an estimate that would certainly be shorter in difficult conditions, like broiling heat. ”

      I do not see a problem here QW . 7 to 12 days gone or to weak to matter . By day 20 their will be no waiting time at the local golf course .. gotta love that .

      After 7 days what problem would there be ?

  6. Chuck Findlay says:

    Ben the only thing I would change is to store wheat as a grain and not as ground flour. The whole grain has a built in protection that a cracked or ground grain (such as flour) doesn’t have.

    I think we all started out buying a few extra cans of food each week, I still do this. Canned food has a drawback in that it’s heavy, but for most of us this is not a big deal as we are going to stay in place. It’s benefits are numerous and is an almost perfect way for a prepper to store food. Canning your own food is also great.

  7. Crazy Joe in South Jersey says:

    ….. ” I find “rolling my own” and saving forty to sixty dollars to be much more fun. ”


    And not a bad article for those willing and wanting this much stuff .

  8. CAUTION! CAUTION! CAUTION! Did I type that enough? fr those new to the site and considering buying package deals, either MREs or buckets of freeze dried foods. DO NOT MISTAKE servings with meals. One company might say 96 servings in this package and you think that will last me a month. You buy the pail then realize that each serving has 300 calories. Figuring you need a 200 calorie a day you now have a 14.4 day pail instead of the month you thought you had. BEWARE SURPLUS MREs. One company was selling genuine GI surplus MREs at a really good price. I bought and all though they may have been surplus they were not the MREs that the troops in the field were eating. They ha about 300 calories and the field issue ones have about 1200 calories.
    Grocery stores and big box stores carry meals similar to MREs that are designed to be heated in a microwave but are fine cold and compare to the 300 calorie MREs. I have a dozen under the front seat of my car and they should sustain DW and I if we have to walk for a couple of days to get home.
    Spam is another old standby and Dollar Tree has an equivalent that is not as nutritious as Spam per serving. Spam has a 180 calories with 6 servings a can and costs $2.61. Dollar Tree equivalent has 140 calories with 6 serving for, you guessed it, $1.00. Neither of these are foods you would want to eat on a long term basis but should be considered for get home bags or bugging out. Just remember to COUNT THE CALORIES!
    average person needs around 2000 a day for a sedate life and around 3000 if working. Military figures around 3600 a day in the field but these are for soldiers carrying a full combat load. Not sure what that is now but in Viet Nam we averaged around 80 to 100 pounds.

    • In my caluclations I record the number of servings that are on the package. I also list the serving size, then make appropriate calulations so I know what I’m buying. An example is one company will say a serving of XYZ is 1/3 cup, another company’s XYZ serving is 1/4 cup. I end up changing one so that everything is the same serving size.

      After that I look at what a “serving” is based upon volume and caloric count. I then have a column that shows how many servings per day/per person. Then I run it out to show me how many man days I have for 2, 6, or 10 people, the number I might have to care for.

      Again, serving size and caloric count are the reasons I do it this way. One envelope of instant oatmeal may constitue “one serving”, but it is not enough for a meal NOW, let alone when I am having to physically work harder. Try feeding the average active teen boy one envelope and see how long he lasts!

  9. mom of three says:

    One thing with off brands food’s, make sure you try them out I know if that was the last food, we all would eat it but…lately with some store brands they have been horrible and if you like mac and cheese, find a brand that is good all the time. I’ve dumped canned food because I could not eat it, I have even returned it to the store’s. Watch out for the sauce packets, if you don’t put oxygen absorber the packets of sauce go stale. I know I’ve said it many times but I can water in my quart jars I had left over from canning, I also have 1 gallons of water I use in my coffee pot to help on the scaling it can get from the city water.

    • Do you use new lids to can the water. Do you pressure can it or water bath can? I’m very interested in this as I have to store the jars anyway and have little water on hand for my family of 10.

      • Water bath canning is the easiest way to do the water. I often reuse used lids provided they’re still in good shape, same with the rubber part. If in doubt, use new lids.
        For timing, you’d want the jar water up to boiling point, then time for 10 to 15 minutes depending on jar size. Half gallon mason jars could easily be used for water.

  10. Another point against purchasing long term bulk pails of meals is that very often short term items are added to the long term pails, which can/will then spoil the whole pail, not to mention a pile of money. When buying ready packaged #10 cans of foods, the cans are almost never filled to the top, but very often only to the 2/3 mark, if even that – so, your perceived quantities are actually lower and you need more.
    This gal did a good job of explaining it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPJzjLFkhc8

    And JP is right about premade serving sizes. In a bad situation, when you simply can’t make 3 meals a day for whatever reason, then your overall health diminishes because one ‘serving’ of food is simply not enough nutrients when you physically need 4 or 5 times that to just keep going, never mind stay in optimal health even in the short term. As for MREs, one comment I consistently hear is that they’re good for the very short term but nothing a smart person would try to live on.

    • I’m too old to comment on long-tern use of MRE’s, but eat C-Rations for a week and you will need a laxative!

      • Crazy Joe in South Jersey says:

        To this day I miss the chocolate cake and peaches … loved mixing them together . Still got my P 38 just in case.

      • Chuck Findlay says:

        I’m too old to comment on long-tern use of MRE’s, but eat C-Rations for a week and you will need a laxative!

        Please, please don’t give us the details of how you know that….

        • Chuck:

          I’ll just say that long field training exercises in the Army will give you some perspective that others just don’t get.

  11. G’day Ben, good article, thanks for sharing. Always good to get a different take on how to approach the vexed issue of long term storage etc. If S does HTF, I’m sure there would be some rapid re-assessment of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates… Cheers ;-D

  12. when we first started prepping , we used 5 gal mylar bags ,oxygen absorbers and placed in 5 gal buckets with gamma seal lids. we have buckets of beans , rice, pastas, sugar and salt. we also bought wheat, spelt, and amaranth (not sure of that spelling). I now do my sealing in 1 gal food saver bags and store in the 5 gal buckets with gamma seal lids. I also can meats,beans ,butter and cheese. we try to go to costco once a month .I by 4 of the boxes of water that have 2 of the 2 1/2 gal jugs of water. we made the mistake of buying those jars of fruit for about a dollar a jar. I cleaned out my pantry this weekend and had to throw out about $100 worth of that fruit. lesson learned. I will be dehydrating my fruits from now on.we have begun to rotate through the canned meats . I have some we canned in 2013, which are still very tasty.I have spent the better part of this month making jellies. I also grind my own flour and bake breads weekly. I make my own ranch, onion soup ,taco and italian mixes. I also make apple cider vinegar and vanilla extract. I have a friend that makes bar soap, so we trade my laundry soap for bar soap.I use old plastic ice cream tubs to store my laundry soap. I’m going to try dehydrating eggs this weekend. I will scramble them without oil and then place in the dehydrater. then make a powder and vacuum seal. Aldi had eggs for 69c a dozen. we bought 16 doz over a few days as they had a 4 doz limit. we had to replace our hot water heater a couple weeks ago. darn thing only lasted 15 years, LOL.so that set us back a bit on our prepping goals for the month. I would like to buy the grain mill that can be used manually but has an electric attachment ,wish they would do lay away. my arthritis is making it harder to hand grind my flour. so many plans, so little time and money.

  13. Great initial article, Ben and all the comments that followed!
    My family has been in this boat with you for 14 years on a serious level. We are rural too, but not enough. All you guys make me feel good to know there are people out there doing all the same things. Thank you for all the sharing in detail. I like picking up the occasional tips. So I have nothing different to add but thank God you are prepping too. God bless you all.

  14. I just noticed the Lehman’s ad for canned beef – 28 oz cans for $11.66 each! That’s the case of 12 price. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to can your own, even if you buy the meat from the store. If for some reason you can’t can, canned foods from the store are still a lot cheaper, even buying top-of-the-line – foods.

  15. I never thought to re-use bleach bottles to store water. What a brilliant idea! Is it only for cleaning/disinfecting though? Can you drink it or cook w/ it?

    • Because the plastic in bleach bottles isn’t food grade, probably not a good idea to drink it. But perfect for washing.

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