Best Foods for a Disaster-Ready Pantry

February 22, 2016

Best Foods for a Disaster-Ready Pantry

If there’s a sure thing in life, it’s that things won’t go as planned. And when they don’t, such as when a natural disaster occurs, it pays to be prepared.

Part of being prepared, of course, is having an emergency supply of food and water on hand. If the power fails and you’re unable to leave your house, you’ll rely on this supply to sustain your household until help arrives. Nearly any emergency preparedness checklist will give you a rundown of nonperishable foods to stock, but which foods are best?

Here, recognized nutrition expert Amari Thomsen, MS, RD, LDN, owner of Chicago-based nutrition private practice Eat Chic Chicago and author of “Idiot’s Guides: Autoimmune Cookbook,” shares her expertise to help you choose the right foods for your pantry’s emergency stockpile:

Choose Nonperishable, Nutrient-Dense Foods

It’s a given that foods you set aside for emergencies should be nonperishable, but Thomsen points out that they should also be nutrient-dense. She explains that nutrient density refers to the number of nutrients—such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and/or minerals—included within each calorie of a particular food. And each nutrient, according to Thomsen, has a role: Carbohydrates give the body immediate energy, protein helps to maintain muscle mass, fat provides long-term energy stores and aids in brain function, and vitamins and minerals are key to preventing long-term deficiencies.

While eating nutrient-dense foods is important for every meal, Thomsen says it’s even more critical for meals consumed during a disaster. “When you’re limited to rationing your food, or when you don’t know how long you’ll be in a food-rationing situation, the more nutrients you can take in per bite, the better,” she says.

With this in mind, Thomsen suggests creating a stockpile of the following on your pantry shelves:

  • Canned tuna, salmon, chicken and beans: All are great sources of protein.
  • Canned seafood: Especially when packed in olive oil, it is a great way to get your healthy omega-3 fats.
  • Canned fruits and vegetables: Fruits such as pineapple, oranges, and peaches; and vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and asparagus, provide carbohydrate energy as well as key vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin A, and B vitamins.
  • Trail mix-type snacks: Dried fruits and nuts offer sustaining calories and ample nutrients, giving you, as Thomsen likes to say, “a big nutritional bang for your buck.”

As for the amount of emergency food to keep on your shelves, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, via its website, recommends storing at least a three-day supply. When it comes to water for drinking and sanitation, FEMA advises stocking one gallon per person per day for at least three days.

Just Say No (or Not Too Much) to Certain Foods

Not all of the foods listed above are created equal, however. Thomsen says to steer clear of those high in sodium, as they will increase your thirst. She also cautions against stocking up on too many foods that have a high water content. “These tend to have a lower nutrient density per calorie, so don’t let all of your canned food items fall into this category,” she says, citing an example of tuna packed in olive oil versus tuna packed in water. “But on the other hand, a higher water content would be beneficial if you don’t have a reliable water supply.”

Look for Sealed Foods With Resealable and Single-Serve Packaging

When you’re perusing the grocery aisles, look for sealed food items that are packaged in resealable or even single-serve containers. This type of packaging, Thomsen explains, will keep you from totally compromising a food item’s freshness after opening it. And, such packaging can help to keep out bugs and rodents. She adds that choosing single-serve packaging is a must for items that need to be refrigerated once opened. “For instance, shelf-stable milk is an ideal source of protein and calcium,” she explains, “but you’ll want to buy this in single-serve cartons so you can ration servings during an emergency without causing your entire supply to go bad.”

Don’t Stock Expired Foods

Once you’ve added an emergency stockpile to your pantry, be sure to check it regularly—Thomsen recommends every three to four months—to make sure nothing has expired. And if you find something that’s gone past its expiration or perishable date, don’t risk it—toss it out. Thomsen outlines a good practice to easily stay on top of expiration dates: “When you buy something for your emergency stockpile, put a label on it clearly noting when you bought it and when it expires,” she says.

Don’t Delay: Shop and Then Stock

Although it’s tempting to put this kind of pantry preparation on the back burner, don’t. Make a trip to the grocery store, follow Thomsen’s tips, and stock your pantry with foods that will nourish your household in trying times.

You can’t plan, but you can prepare. And it could save your life.

For more on emergency food supplies, visit FEMA’s disaster preparedness website at

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