If you are a homesteader or thinking about homesteading, you will need to learn how to stockpile both perishable and non-perishable food items. Stockpiling food is critical for several reasons, including the following:
Distance: Your homestead will probably be hours away from the nearest grocery or convenience store. Running out for groceries will take you hours, and this difficulty will limit how many times per week or month you go grocery shopping.
Weather/terrain: If you are snowed in or if the rain washes out your nearest road, you will need to live off of your current grocery supply. The length of time that you are cut off from a grocery store might span several months.
Mechanical issues: If your vehicle breaks down, you won’t be able to walk or take public transit to a nearby grocery store. Until your vehicle is repaired or replaced, you will need to survive on your current food supplies.
Health emergencies: If you and/or your family members become sick or are otherwise incapacitated, you and/or your family will need to live off the current food supply until the health emergency passes or until you return from the hospital.
Cost: When you live far away from a grocery store, the cost of acquiring your food can become significant. To begin with, there are the costs of fuel and vehicle use to consider. Likewise, you will need to purchase coolers to prevent certain food from spoiling or melting on the way home. Finally, there is the time cost- you cannot be working or otherwise engaged in a meaningful activity while driving back and forth to the store.
How much stockpiled food do you need?
When you first begin to stockpile, you may not know how much of a food supply you require. While the stockpiling of food and its specific quantities are always your personal decisions, you should use the following criteria to help guide your judgment:
Length of hard seasons: Depending on your geography, you might have a three, four or even nine month cold spell to contend with. In such cases, you should stockpile enough food to last you through the winter and into the first month of expected thaw.
Alternately, you might live in a climate that undergoes a long heat wave and/or dry spell. If you live in such a terrain, you will more than likely not be traveling during this time and will need to create a stockpile that lasts through that season of intense heat and/or drought.
Family/group size: Obviously, a family of four needs far less food than a family of eight or twelve. According to USDA estimates, the average person consumes 5.5 lbs. of food/day or about a ton of food/year. In the USA, a significant amount of calories is consumed in the form of grains, meats and vegetables.
Daily workload: Homesteaders will typically spend a good part of their day tending to their gardens and/or livestock, chopping wood, and repairing or building homestead structures. This type of lifestyle requires additional calorie intake; for example, a man who spends eight hours chopping wood may require double or even triple his normal daily calorie intake.
Individual preferences: Some individuals prefer to eat calorically dense foods such as meat, while other individuals thrive on nutrient-rich yet calorie-poor fruits and vegetables. Depending on which foods are chosen for sustenance, you might need more or less of them as a result, as well as more or less space for storage.
Farming/hunting: If you intend to maintain a garden, go hunting and/or have livestock on your homestead, you will not require as much stockpiled food as someone who does not intend to farm/hunt/pasture. You will also require different stockpile sizes of items for the preservation (e.g., canning) of your perishable goods.
Based on these considerations, you can begin gradually stockpiling your food supply as various items on your shopping list go on sale at your local store. Once you encounter that “too good to pass up” deal, estimate how long it takes for your family or group to finish that particular item (e.g., a box of cereal). Based on this rough estimate, purchase at least three months’ worth of that food item.
In other words, if your family takes one week to consume a box of cereal, you should try to purchase at least 12 boxes of cereal.
Why three months’ worth of food?
This is because the majority of grocery stores cycle their sales every three months. Thus, if something is on sale in March, that item won’t go on sale again until June. Therefore, if you’re looking for great food deals and can also combine these deals with coupons and/or rebates, be sure you purchase at least three months’ worth of the sale-priced items to save money long-term.
One of the easiest ways to ensure you purchase three months’ worth of food is to shop at club member stores like Costco. Even without using coupons and/or rebates, you can often purchase items in bulk at these stores for a much lower price than if you’d purchased those same items in smaller or single serving quantities. This is because food manufacturers often spend more money on food packaging than the actual food- which is why buying in bulk is economical.
How do you store stockpiled food?
It makes no sense to purchase mass quantities of food that are just going to spoil in a month. Unlike people who purchase and use up their food in a short period of time, individuals who stockpile have several issues to contend with when buying food in bulk. The biggest of these issues include spoilage and insects.
Bulk food must be handled and stored differently than food purchased in small quantities. To prevent spoilage, foods should be either canned, dried, smoked or frozen. All food should be sealed and stored in dry and waterproof containers.
If you wish to can some of your food, knowing about and utilizing proper food safety techniques is critical in order to prevent food poisoning, especially the potentially fatal food poisoning condition of botulism.
Foods that are naturally high in acid content (i.e., lower than pH 4.6), such as most fruits and a few vegetables, stop the growth of the botulism-causing micro-organism Clostridium botulinum. However, most vegetables and all meats are low in acidity, allowing this bacterium to grow and produce spores in the canned food item. The most common cause of death from botulism is an adverse reaction to botulinum, a neurotoxic compound that the bacterium produces.
To address this potential danger, you should learn about the option of acidifying your food as it is being canned. Typically, citric acid is added to artificially acidify canned food. If you don’t wish to add citric acid, lemon juice or vinegar is another canning option.
If you don’t wish to acidify your food at all, pressure canning is another method you can employ to safely can low-acid foods like meat. For your own safety and the safety of your family or group, DO NOT use water canning methods to can meat or any other low-acid food. Water canning should only be performed on high acid foods (e.g., fruit).
With a pressure canner, you are able to raise the temperature of your food beyond 100°C (212 °F) and into the range of 121.1°C (250 °F). This is important because C. botulinum spores are more thoroughly inactivated at temperatures exceeding 100°C (212 °F). Other bacteria and fungi, as well as their spores, are also more thoroughly inactivated at temperatures exceeding 100°C (212 °F).
If you have a reliable power source, you might also wish to invest in two or three chest or upright freezers so that you can safely store your food there. Even if your power source isn’t always reliable, it makes good sense to have large freezers for the sudden influx of wild game or a bountiful harvest that might show up at your homestead. You can purchase gas-powered generators as backups for these freezers should your home be without power for any length of time.
Make sure that these freezers are NOT frost-free. In other words, the freezer should build up a layer of snow and ice over time and require manual defrost. The reason you do not want to have a frost-free freezer is because such freezers periodically cycle their temperatures so that the ice build-up melts and disappears. Over time, this constant state of thaw and re-freeze results in “freezer burn“ and even food spoilage.
To prevent insect infestation, dry foods should be stored in sealed glass jars or sealed hard plastic containers. Do not use paper or plastic bags or cardboard boxes to store dry goods- insects such as pantry moths can eat through paper, thin plastic and even cardboard and start colonies of larvae in the food. Likewise, if any food is already infested with insects when purchased, sealed glass and plastic containers enable you to easily isolate and dispose of the contaminated sources.
How to store individual food types
The following general storage rules and options apply to the following food categories:
Fruits– Fruits may be dried or frozen and stored almost indefinitely in either of these states. Because of their natural acidity, fruits can also be canned using water bath canning and stored indefinitely.
Vegetables– Akin to fruit, many vegetables can be dried or frozen. When canning vegetables, take note of which items are more acidic and which ones are more basic. The vegetables that have low acidity need to either have acid added to them to maintain food safety or they need to be pressure canned.
Meat– Meat may be dried, smoked or frozen. If canned, either acidify the meat or use a pressure canner to prevent spoilage and/or food poisoning.
Dairy– Dairy items are more challenging to preserve and maintain than other food groups. Cheese can be overlaid with wax and stored long-term in a dry and cool environment, or it can be frozen. Butter can be frozen and thawed with no adverse changes to its quality. Milk can be frozen in its liquid form and then “homogenized” by being briefly blended in a kitchen blender. Eggs, once take out of the shell, can be blended and frozen.
Sour cream, yogurt and cottage cheese can also be frozen; however, they will likely lose their original consistency and quality and will only remain useful as cooking ingredients. Some homesteaders report being able to roll out and dry yogurt.
Fats– Ideally, fats like butter, lard and oil should be frozen to stop them from turning rancid. If they cannot be frozen, they should be sealed and stored in a cool and dry location.
How to determine food expiration
At the grocery store, all food is labeled with an expiration date that informs you when a particular item should be used by. Once you start stockpiling and (especially) freezing food, almost all of your stockpile will go past its initial expiry guidelines. How do you keep track of actual expiration dates and judge when to use or throw out an expired food item?
First, understand what is meant by expiration. Most grocery stores now stamp food items with a series of dates, including “Best by,” “Best before” and “Sell by.”
The “Best” stamps simply refer to the quality of the food being at its peak before that stamped date. If you choose to consume the food after that date, it will not technically be expired but may have some issues with freshness or quality. For example, bread might be stale or granulated sugar may have started to clump.
“Sell by” is a term typically used with meat or dairy items and is an indicator to store personnel of when new stock should be ordered to replenish what is almost sold out by now.
The “Use by” date is the actual expiration date. If food is consumed after this date, and even if it has been refrigerated and/or stored in a cool and dry climate, you risk eating possibly spoiled food.
However, if you freeze your food, the USDA states that such food, though technically expired according to its stated labels, is safe to eat “because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.” If you can your food or buy canned food and store it, the USDA states that “canned foods are safe indefinitely…if the cans look ok, they are safe to use.”
Once you take out frozen food and attempt to prepare and eat it, though, the clock starts ticking on how long it should be stored in the refrigerator and by which date it should be consumed. These recommended time frames are provided by the USDA. Going by these time frames, even if your bacon technically expired two months ago, for example, you can still defrost and eat it today. However, if that bacon stays in your refrigerator for longer than seven days post-defrost, it should be discarded.