Food. It’s the one thing that preparedness-minded people agree on, and often the first thing they collect and store. But there are many variables to food storage that there is no consensus on. And even more, variables that are often completely overlooked or ignored or have a plethora of misinformation circling the internet as people and companies attempt to tickle the eardrums of the consumers.
As a licensed Sports Nutritionist, Strength and Conditioning Coach, and Certified Youth Nutrition Specialist with a strong preparedness and homesteading mindset, everything from food production to food storage and consumption are issues that are at the center of my passions.
Over the last 20+ years, I’ve coached and trained everyone from the obese to Olympic and professional athletes to reach their health and fitness goals and maximize their physical potential. Over the last 5 years, I have melded that with my other passion of coaching individuals and families on how to prepare for the unexpected, especially in food storage so they can be assured to maximize their health when the circumstances would otherwise almost guarantee a degradation of health.
I don’t know about you, but in an emergency situation, I don’t want to just “survive”, I want to thrive. I don’t want my family merely clinging to life or dealing with avoidable health issues in an emergency situation. After all, that’s why we prepare, right?
We don’t want to dig food out of trash cans or rely on a fragile and unstable outside source, so we plan accordingly and store our own food. So, if you’re going to go through the trouble of storing food, you might as well store food in a way that will optimize the health of you and your family.
But what is “optimal” for food intake and are there preparedness, shelf-stable, long-term storage foods that fit the bill? I’m glad you asked.
Not all calories are equal
Most of the preparedness personalities you see on YouTube and elsewhere focus on one thing when talking about food storage: Calories. Stock up on as many “calories” as possible. Well, that can be a very misleading suggestion.
Calories in and of themselves are not the end-all-be-all measurement for food quality or how well food will sustain you. Let me give you an example: Suppose you have a set of twins. Genetically identical in every way. Now suppose you fed those twins EXACTLY 2000 calories per day and made sure that they performed the same exact functions and tasks every day so that their energy expenditure was exactly the same. So, “calories in” and “calories out” were both exactly equal in 2 people that were genetically equal.
But suppose one of those twins got all 2000 of their calories from pizza while the other got all 2000 calories from vegetables. If you track these 2 individuals for days, weeks, and months with this eating pattern, do you think they would have the same results? Of course not. The outcome would be very different between the twins in everything from their body composition, sleeping patterns, energy levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, immune response…the list goes on.
You might be saying, “Well of course. That’s a drastic scenario. Of course, there needs to be some kind of balance”. But what is that balance? Well, that depends…
Let’s take it a step further. Suppose the two people are not twins. Just 2 random men. Should that “balance” of foods be the same for both men? What if one was 6’3” tall and 240 lbs. while the other was 5’8” tall and 150 lbs.?
That introduces some new variables that would affect their required food intake. Well, what if one was 50 years old and one was 25? What if one of the test subjects was a female? What if one of the individuals had a medical condition and was limited by the types of foods they could eat?
You can see how these variables would drastically affect not only the amount of food required but what types of foods would be required. The biology of that fact doesn’t change when the crisis strikes. And when the world (or your individual world) is collapsing around you, the last thing you need to add to the mix is any health ailment that could have been easily avoided with the proper nutritional intake.
So, what is that perfect balance of food that will optimize your health and physical and cognitive abilities?
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on the 3 macronutrients; carbohydrates, protein, and fat. You also have vitamin and mineral needs (micronutrients), and we will discuss that briefly as well.
Problem with Traditional High-Carbohydrate Food Storage
First of all, let me tell you that you need all 3 macronutrients. Anyone that tells you that “carbohydrates are bad” or celebrates or vilifies any of the macronutrients over another hasn’t seen the forest through the trees. Each of these nutrients works cohesively and synergistically with the others and they rely on the others to optimize their own effectiveness and efficiency in the body.
The problem is, most long-term storage “prepper” type foods are heavy in carbohydrates and severely lacking in protein and healthy dietary fats. Rice, beans, wheat, corn, and oats: They are all carbohydrate dominant. And although you may have heard things like “beans are a good source of protein”, this is mostly marketing and not a true picture of reality.
First of all, beans have far more carbohydrates than protein. So, although it is true that they have more protein than many other plant-based options, you will consume at least 3X the number of carbohydrates than the amount of protein with each serving of beans. Again, it is not that carbohydrates are “bad”, but a 3 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (and that’s being generous) is not ideal for anyone, not to mention the lack of healthy fats.
And that’s the best-case scenario of a “high protein” preparedness food. So, what is the solution to get a good balance of macronutrients in our food preparations? Let’s first take a look at each macronutrient.
To simplify, carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy. Again, if anyone tells you to avoid carbohydrates, please run the other way. Even if your goal is fat loss (notice I didn’t say “weight loss” because there’s a BIG difference), carbohydrates are a MUST in any nutrition plan.
The required amount and proper balance with the other macronutrients will vary greatly per individual, but carbohydrates are a MUST. As we’ve seen, carbohydrates are well taken care of in the typical prepper pantry and long-term food storage. Rice, beans, wheat, corn, and oats; The typical staples that fill mylar bags and plastic buckets of preppers around the world, although there are healthier options that I would highly recommend like fruits and vegetables. Yes, fruit!
Another common misconception and downright lie in the fitness/weight loss/diet community is that fruit = sugar = body fat. Please, I beg of you, don’t believe this as it will rob you of vital nutrients that are necessary for optimal health. Now typically fruits and vegetables aren’t shelf-stable foods, but there are solutions for this.
One option is store-bought canned fruits and vegetables. These will typically have a 1-2 listed shelf life but under the right conditions, will last far beyond that. The next option is pressure canning your own fruits and vegetables. This is advantageous because you know exactly what you’re putting in the jars and can be confident of the quality of food that you’re storing for yourself and your family.
The next option, and my personal favorite, is freeze-dried produce. Whether you do it yourself or purchase from a reputable company, freeze-dried produce takes up less space than alternatives, weighs far less than home or store-canned produce, maintains more nutritional value than dehydrating or canning, and has a much longer shelf life (typically 15-20 years).
For the sake of transparency, I do own a freeze-drying company but when I first started freeze-drying, it was for my family and my family only. It only turned into a business because the friends and family that were asking for the product soon turned into neighbors, colleagues, and total strangers.
I simply love the advantages that freeze-drying affords. Having said all that, I highly recommend that everyone is actually producing food by growing the fruits and vegetables that they will actually eat and enjoy. Storing food is great, but once you start to crack open those buckets, you need a resupply plan and if recent events are any indicator, we can’t even depend on stores to have everything in stock right now, much less when the supply chain and society as a whole, degrades further.
Protein. It’s not just for bodybuilders. In fact, every cell in the body contains protein. Proteins are comprised of building blocks called amino acids. Some foods have some of these amino acid building blocks but not enough of the blocks to create a “complete protein” that the body can fully utilize.
In these instances, that particular food can be combined with another food that contains the missing “blocks” in order to create a complete protein that your body can fully utilize. This is why many in the preparedness community advocate for storing rice and beans and eating them together because each of those foods only has portions of these “building blocks”, but they complement each other and fill in the gaps of those amino acid building blocks that the other lacks.
The problem with this, as mentioned before, is that both rice and beans are carbohydrate dominant and although they can be coupled together to get some complete protein, by the time you do that, you likely have a whopping 10 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein! This is not conducive to optimal health.
Ideal Shelf-Stable Protein Sources for Storage
So what is the alternative? You need to store (and preferably produce) several complete protein sources. Eggs, meat, green vegetables, and even protein supplements are the most common examples. Nuts and seeds are often referred to as being “high in protein” but protein is not the main source of their nutrients (more on that later), similar to the way beans are called “high in protein” when they are a carbohydrate dominant food.
Eggs, meat, and vegetables obviously have a short shelf life, so a resupply plan is of utmost importance. Growing vegetables and getting an animal or two that can be a reproductive food source would be very wise.
Protein supplements such as powders and/or bars can be a great tool to add to your arsenal as long as you remember some key factors. First, just like so many other foods, protein powders and shakes are often named as such because companies know that the consumer is looking for protein-rich foods, and that consumer will often fall for the big bold lettering on the front of the package without truly knowing the ingredients.
Many “protein bars” (emphasis on the quotations) would be better named carbohydrate bars. But that wouldn’t sell very well, now would it? Personally, I don’t consider any protein supplement a true protein supplement unless protein is its primary source of nutrients, and it has at least a 2-to-1 ratio of protein to any other macronutrient.
Having said that, yes, some of these “protein bars” do contain more protein than the average candy bar or “energy bar” etc. But in educating clients over the last 2 decades, I often find that people rely on these protein supplements to get their required daily amount of protein without realizing that they are simultaneously getting 2 to 3 times (or more) as much carbohydrates and/or fat than they are protein.
So when you’re choosing a protein supplement, there are 2 types to aim for. First, a protein shake/bar with high protein, moderate fat, and minimal to no carbohydrates. This would be most helpful for the last meal of the day (unless you engage in intense exercise within a couple of hours of bedtime).
The other type of protein supplement to aim for is one with high protein, moderate carbohydrate, and little to no fat content. This would typically be most beneficial as the first meal of the day and/or immediately following intense exercise. Of course, this is somewhat of a generalization. I am a staunch advocate for customized nutrition plans that are tailored to an individual’s sleep/work/exercise schedule as well as their height, weight, age, body type, activity level, gender, and more.
But those guidelines for protein supplements would be a great starting point for the vast majority of people. Now in terms of preparedness, we have to consider shelf life when it comes to these protein supplements.
Protein Powder Shelf-Life
Protein powders typically have a printed “best by” date of about 1 year from the date of purchase. As with most bottled or canned products, this date can be extended if the product is stored properly (cool, dark, dry) but just how long past that date largely depends on the macronutrient content of the supplement.
For example, the higher fat-content protein powders will sour more quickly as the fats have a higher potential of turning rancid. You can repackage these products in mylar with oxygen absorbers to extend the self-life if you desire, but as with other powdered products, they can get rock hard in that scenario.
This won’t necessarily mean they are “bad”, just much more difficult to work with. My suggestion is to keep a supply up to the length of the product’s shelf life and rotate regularly. For me, I keep about 15 months’ worth of protein supplements at the ready and rotate through as I purchase each month’s supply.
Fats. The mere word often scares people away. But it’s important to understand that dietary fat does not necessarily translate to body fat. Dietary fat is a vitally important part of our nutritional intake and serves a role that no other micronutrient can fill.
One of these main functions is to slow the digestive process and this can be very important so that your body can fully absorb and utilize the nutrients in the food you consume. Please read this next part slowly and if there is anything you walk away with in this article, let it be this: There is a BIG (HUGE, ENORMOUS, GIGANTIC!) difference between consuming nutrients and actually digesting, absorbing, and utilizing those nutrients.
There are many foods that claim to have miraculous nutrients, extraordinary minerals, and spectacular vitamins, but all of that means nothing if it is within a food substance that your body cannot properly digest. And there are many foods that fall into this category where much, if not most of the nutrients go to waste because our bodies simply don’t easily digest the food and therefore cannot absorb and utilize the nutrients that the food source supposedly contains.
This also becomes a problem when foods are not eaten in the proper proportions with one another. Remember, each macronutrient works synergistically with the other, kind of like the old song about love and marriage (you can’t have one without the other).
Dietary fat, when eaten in the proper amount and combined with the proper other nutrients is very helpful in aiding this digestion and utilization of consumed nutrients, specifically protein and fat-soluble vitamins. The problem we run into in the preparedness community is that dietary fat sources typically do not have a long shelf life.
Freshly pressed oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, egg yolks, and fatty meats… all have a relatively short shelf life, compared to other typical preparedness food items. You can extend the shelf life by canning or freeze-drying but fatty foods typically do not do well even when canned or freeze-dried (in comparison to other freeze-dried foods).
This is where food PRODUCTION over food consumption and food storage really becomes necessary for long-term preparedness plans. An avocado tree or nut tree, egg-laying chickens, cows/goats/sheep will all serve your dietary fat needs better in the long term.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t store dietary fat sources. I absolutely encourage you to do so. Just be aware that these are items that will need to be rotated more frequently than other items and are very susceptible to heat and light. Similar to protein powders, I typically store about 12-15 months’ worth of organic cooking oils and rotate that supply as I purchase every month.
So, can you “survive” on beans and rice? Sure, if you have enough of it and depending on how long your tragedy lasts. Would it be pleasurable? Not for most people. Would it be delicious? Probably not after the first few days of grasping at straws to find new ways to prepare it. Would it contribute to optimal health for you and your family? Absolutely not.
Show me a person living on beans and rice and I’ll show you a person with a nutrition plan that fits their macronutrient ratio needs who will outperform in every physical exertion scenario, get better sleep, and have overall better health and longevity while actually enjoying their food.
My hope for you and your family is that you don’t merely survive a tragedy or emergency, but that you thrive in health and happiness. The last thing I would want for you after you have taken the interest and effort to prepare is to have you or a family member experience health issues on top of whatever another problem is happening that is requiring you to utilize your food storage in the first place.