Stocking Your Pantry: Pandemic Shopping, Emergency Preparedness, and Winter Food Storage

Whether you live in an urban center or out in the middle of nowhere, stocking your pantry with enough food to get you through at least a short-term emergency has always been and always will be a good idea. It’s not fun to think about what would happen if the power was knocked out or roads were closed for 2 weeks in the middle of a winter blizzard, hurricane, or other event, but it’s far less miserable than living for those 2 weeks without enough to eat. And I suspect a lot more people have been thinking about how to keep at least a 2-week supply of food and other essentials around since the emergence of COVID-19 and the threat of 14-day quarantines.

Quite frankly, buying 2-weeks worth of your usual food at a time is a good start (and a smart move during a pandemic), but it’s not the same as stocking your pantry for an emergency. Nor is it the same as stocking your pantry for the human equivalent of hibernating during the winter. Here’s what I mean.

Emergency Food Preparedness

When stocking your cupboards for an emergency situation, you need:

Shelf-Stable Foods

In many emergency scenarios, the biggest problem with food storage is a lack of power. Your refrigerated or frozen foods may go bad during an extended power outage. This is why an emergency pantry should include bottled water, shelf-stable milk that doesn’t need refrigeration until opening, such as almond milk, and canned foods (whether store-bought or canned at home).

High-Calorie Foods

For extreme emergencies, especially in cold weather, it’s also a good idea to have high-calorie foods, such as granola, trail mix, peanut butter, and canned meats, on hand that can help you survive.

Easy-to-Prepare Foods

It’s great to be prepared with an alternative cooking method, such as a camp stove and several propane bottles or even a store of wood and an outdoor cooker, but during an emergency, you may not be able to cook up your typical meals. Some people even go so far as to buy buckets of prepackaged foods that are meant to last 25 to 30 years on the shelf. With most of these emergency food kits, all you have to do is add water. These kits can offer you the peace of mind you’re looking for without having to constantly analyze how old your rice, beans, canned meats and other items are and whether or not they need to be rotated into your regular food and replaced before they go bad.

That is emergency food preparedness in nutshell – keeping enough shelf-stable, high-calorie, easy-to-make foods to last you at least 2 weeks. It’s for survival.

Stocking Your Pantry for Winter

Now, if you’re thinking about taking the big step of stocking up your pantry for use over an entire winter, you have to take a slightly different approach. Once you’ve got your 2-week emergency supply of food, you can start filling your pantry with items that you would regularly use over the course of 4 to 5 months. This is a key point – don’t buy or preserve items that you won’t use just because you think you should have them or because they’re on someone else’s stock-up list.

If it’s not something you and your family will eat, it will eventually go in the garbage, and that’s a huge waste of time and money.

Buying Food in Bulk Quantities

Even homesteaders have items that they don’t produce themselves, which means they have to buy it or trade for it. For food items that you can’t produce, you can try to buy it in bulk from a co-op or buy larger quantities when they are on sale at your grocery store. Items you regularly use to make your meals, such as pasta, tomato sauce, flour, sugar, butter, dried beans, rice, salsa, and more, easily store for a winter on a shelf or in a freezer, depending on the item.

While it can seem daunting to figure out how much food you’ll need for a 4- to 5-month period, the best way to plan ahead is by first observing what you eat. Write it down for a week (or two weeks if you eat a large variety of meals), then extrapolate. If your family eats a box of pasta almost every week, get yourself 16 to 20 boxes of pasta (roughly 4 weeks x 4 to 5 months) or the equivalent amount of pasta by weight from a bulk food store.

Did you just ask, where am I going to put all this food? Yep, it’s going to take some space and organization. Multi-tiered shelves and air-tight food storage bins come in handy for this.

40-pound bag of local, organic rolled oats from Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY
A 40-pound bag of rolled oats from a local, organic farm. Because rolled oats are something I eat every morning, stocking up on them for winter in this manner makes sense. They’ll go into airtight containers and into the freezer. Thanks to Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY.

Gardening and Preserving Your Harvest

One of the major goals of a homesteading lifestyle is to produce as much of your own food as possible. Food grown in the garden has to be preserved and saved for use during the months when it can’t be grown. If you intend to grow and preserve your own fruits and vegetables, stocking up for winter starts with planning your garden to match what and how much your family will eat and what can be grown in your region. It continues with a variety of preservation methods (canning, dehydrating, freezing, fermenting, and more) employed throughout the various harvest times (spring through fall). And, it ends, hopefully, in a pantry, freezer and root cellar with enough delicious ingredients to last you through the winter.

In addition to determining how much food you need over a 4- to 5-month period, you have the added step of determining the typical yield per plant and deciding how much to grow based on the gardening space you have and how much you can reasonably preserve. This advanced level of planning also goes into putting up enough meat in your freezer.

Preserving food is a lot of work. It’s rewarding work, but there’s definitely a good reason why most people simply walk into the store and buy their pasta sauce, salsa, jams, and pie fillings. In some cases, when you take into account your labor (both gardening and preserving time), it’s actually cheaper to buy it from the store. If saving money is your primary goal, it’s worth analyzing the costs before trying to produce an item instead of buying it. That said, preserving your own food is beneficial for many other reasons, including food quality, reduced use of plastic and packaging, and the sense of independence and pride it can give you.

Resources for Learning How to Preserve Food

One of the best resources for learning how to preserve food by canning is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. This classic gives you all of the information you need to safely can at home. And, many free resources can be found on the Food in Jars blog.

For a comprehensive guide to fermentation, try Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes.

If you want to improve your long-term food security, you can also extend the shelf-life of pantry staples, such as rice and beans, by preparing them for long-term storage. Check out Emergency Food Storage: how-to make five essentials last 30+ years by Rocky Mountain Preparedness for an quick tutorial on how to do it.

Has living with the global pandemic changed the way you shop for food, think about emergencies, or how you’re planning to stock up for winter? Leave a comment below.

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8 thoughts on “Stocking Your Pantry: Pandemic Shopping, Emergency Preparedness, and Winter Food Storage

  1. Having school go remote in March gave us the opportunity to spend more time starting seedlings. My goals were expanding our garden (out of concern that that there might be disruptions in food chain) and teaching Henry to grow food. We didn’t preserve much, but we do have some winter squash and collard greens still.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have definitely focused more on how to best preserve foods to last for months in a way that we know we’ll eat it. I am exploring more with buying fruits while they are in season and dehydrating them. Pineapple, apples, cherries. Ive found i need to do more as they didn’t last very long. Too yummy and a great snack.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An informative post. I’ve expanded my gardening so we have more fresh food over a longer period, so I don’t have to preserve quite as much. I’d planned to reduce food production and grow more flowers, but when the virus began, I switched and grew as much food as possible in order to share with older friends who can no longer garden. My freezers are full, and the pantry shelves are overflowing into the garage, but I will grow as much as I can again next year.

    Liked by 1 person

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