One of the biggest obstacles people see when they think about preparedness is cost. They’d like to be prepared to survive a major emergency, but they just don’t think it’s realistic. That’s not really surprising. After all, the average cost of feeding a family of four for a week is over $200, according to the USDA’s figures. The bare minimum you should consider as an emergency food reserve is enough for two weeks, and how many of us can afford to spend $400 on extra food? Realistically, to survive a nuclear attack or similar disaster, you should be looking at a three-month food reserve. That’s thirteen weeks – an extra $2,600. It’s no surprise that most people look at the numbers and decide that, while they’d like to be prepared, it just isn’t achievable.
There are cheaper options, but they’re not much cheaper. You can get a bucket of dehydrated food for a bit over $100 that claims to feed four people for a week, but that’s based on an energy intake of just 1,822 calories a day. That isn’t starvation level – quite – but you’d be pretty hungry all the time. Realistically, however long this type of food pack says it will last, you can cut it by about a quarter. If it says it will feed you for a week, count on five days. That means 90 days’ worth is 18 buckets – close to $1,900, plus tax.
Related: DIY $20 Survival Food Bucket
The good news is that an emergency food supply doesn’t have to cost anything like that much. You’re not buying normal groceries, after all, and this is survival food – the aim is to keep you alive and healthy. A lot of the cost of your weekly groceries is stuff that doesn’t need to go in your emergency supply. Instead, you should focus on cheap staples.
If you look online you’ll find survival food lists promising to let you build up a food reserve at a cost of a dollar a day per person. This is actually pretty easy to achieve. The only drawback is that they’re usually aimed at supplying food to two to three weeks, and the nutrition they provide reflects that. If you want to prepare a full 90-day supply it’s going to cost slightly more – but not a lot more. Here’s how to build up a three-month survival food supply for less than $155 per person – just $1.70 a day.
Your first priority is to get enough energy to keep you alive. I’ve aimed for a target of around 2,250 calories per day – significantly more than most emergency food supplies provide. The bulk of this is going to come from carbohydrates, with protein and fat added for balance.
The cheapest, and longest-lasting, sources of both carbohydrates and protein are dry goods. To take advantage of that, this menu is based on three staples – rice, pasta and dried pulses. These are easy to store, can be bought in bulk and are very versatile. Cooked rice or pasta can be easily flavoured or mixed with other ingredients to give an energy-dense meal.
To give the right balance between carbs and protein, the basic daily allowance is split into 6.5 ounces of rice, 6.5 ounces of pasta and 3 ounces of beans or lentils. These are all dry weights, and once they’re cooked it will be more than double that. Obviously you don’t need to eat exactly this amount every day; you can have pasta one day, rice the next and beans or lentils added wherever you want. What’s important is your average intake.
When buying rice, always go for white. The bran layer on brown rice makes it more nutritious, but it also contains oils that will go rancid in a few months – white rice will last almost indefinitely if it’s properly stored. Here you can find 19 more foods that will outlast you. Go for long-grain rice, which has a slightly higher protein content. Parboiled rice has a higher vitamin content; enriched rice is even better, so go for this if you can. Buy twenty-pound bags and you can get it for under 50 cents a pound. To give a three-month supply, get 40 pounds of rice per person.
White pasta is also the best choice, for the same reason – whole grain pasta contains oily husks, which will go rancid quite quickly. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter much what kind of pasta you get. If you stick with own-brand, and buy it in bulk bags, you can get a variety of shapes for around a dollar a pound. Again, you’ll need 40 pounds of pasta per person.
Sugar is another good way to add calories. Some nutritionists claim that sugar is “empty” calories, but that isn’t relevant. Any calories are important in a survival situation, and an ounce of sugar a day will give you another 100 of them. The easiest way to use it is in tea or coffee. Store six pounds of sugar per person.
So far we’ve mainly looked at carbs, although rice and pasta do contain some protein. To boost that, add dried beans or lentils. Both of these are very high in protein, and also contain dietary fiber. You can add some variety here, too; lentils, chickpeas and various types of beans are available, and while they cost more than rice or pasta you can still get them for under $1.50 a pound.
Finally you’ll need some fat in your diet. The best option here is canola oil; it’s inexpensive, versatile and healthy – it’s low in saturated fats and helps lower cholesterol levels. Adding two ounces a day to your diet will give you an adequate fat intake and around 400 more calories a day. To last three months, add 1.5 gallons of oil per person.
Rounding it out
This basic diet will keep you going for two or three weeks, and perhaps up to a month. After three months, though, you’ll be short on some essential nutrients – and probably extremely bored, too. If you want to survive for this long you should add some extras. These will make the diet more balanced, and a lot tastier.
Salt is essential. The typical modern American diet contains too much sodium, but your body does need some to stay alive – and the basic rations we’ve looked at don’t contain enough. A quarter ounce of salt a day is plenty; it will add taste to food as well as keeping your nervous system working. You’ll need 1.5 pounds of salt per person.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, you’ll miss meat. Adding an ounce a day to your diet will make it much more palatable, and meat is also a good source of protein and iron. Any meat will do – Spam, canned beet or chicken, tuna or whatever you prefer. Cans of chili or stew are a good choice, too. Because of the size of typical cans, and the problems with storing opened ones, you’ll find it easier to have larger quantities of meat every few days instead of an ounce every day. Aim for the equivalent of six 15-ounce cans per person.
Vegetables are also a good addition. They also make food more interesting, and they contain fiber as well as carbs and sometimes protein. Opened cans of vegetables can be safely stored for a few days, if you use snap-on lids for the cans or transfer leftovers into Tupperware. Vegetables are also relatively cheap, so get 24 15-ounce cans per person.
Finally, add some extras to add flavor and variety. Hot sauce, herbs and spices, vinegar, garlic powder and tomato paste all let you create tasty meals from basic ingredients. A lot of this is stuff you can throw into a bag as you evacuate the house and head for your shelter, so you might decide not to add it to your actual emergency supply. Don’t forget instant coffee or teabags, too, and get a supply of creamer if you use it.
So, now we have a basic list of food for each person. You can find more detail on our spreadsheet, but this is your shopping list:
• White long grain rice – 40 pounds
• White pasta – 40 pounds
• Dried pulses – 17 pounds
• Canola oil – 1.5 gallons
• Granulated sugar – 6 pounds
• Iodized salt – 1.5 pounds
• Canned meat – 90 ounces
• Canned vegetables – 22.5 pounds
These quantities were rounded up to the nearest convenient unit, so if you stick to the recommended daily intake you’ll have a small amount of slack. The figures in the spreadsheet have been rounded again to the most economical retail packaging. For example, at Walmart you can get just over six pounds of sugar by buying one 4lb and two 20oz bags – but it’s cheaper to get two 4lb ones, and you end up with more sugar too. Obviously, if there are two of you just buy three bags, which will reduce the cost per person.
This diet is designed to be as affordable as possible, but still supply enough energy and nutrients to keep you going for months at a time. It works out far cheaper than emergency food buckets, and has more energy too. It also gives you the flexibility to create interesting meals by adding a few simple extras that you probably already have in your kitchen.
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