Planning long term food storage

You don’t have to be a doomsday prepper or a homesteader with 100 acres to put extra food by.  It’s reassuring to know you have some food on hand in case of an emergency or financial setback. And it’s really convenient to have a solid supply of home canned food and dry goods. That means fewer trips to the store and less packaging and waste. Finally, it’s often a lot cheaper to buy food in bulk and if you preserve from your garden, it becomes even more economical. Having the resources to store food long term also means you can stock up when things are in season or on sale.

You may be wondering what you actually need to set up long term food storage or to store bulk food. Check out my essential food storage supply list.

What is long term food storage?

I’m using “long term” to mean 1-2 years. There are products and methods for preserving and storing food for much longer, but that’s outside the scope of this post and my experience. My primary goal in setting up food storage is to have 6 to 12 months of canned and dry goods on hand. This is food we are actively consuming and replenishing during that time, not a treasure hoard of food stockpiled for survival purposes. As such, my recommendations are based accordingly. I’m focusing on shelf-stable food for this post, not frozen or refrigerated items.

See my related post How Much Space Do You Need to Store Food? for information on how much you can fit in these container and how much floor or shelf space containers will take up.

Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Lehman’s HardwareAzure Standard and other companies. Clicking on links in my articles and purchasing products may result in the seller offering me compensation. I only share products I use and enjoy. Affiliate relationships help me cover the cost of producing content for Hey Big Splendor.

The Best Containers for Long Term Food Storage

Food safe containers that are appropriate for long term food storage are essential. This is probably the most important thing to consider before you buy food in bulk or start working on your food stockpile. If you’re buying commercially packaged food, it will likely be packaged (sometimes to a frustrating degree!) but that packaging probably isn’t ideal for long term storage.

In order to store food long term, it must be in sturdy, food grade containers, preferably opaque. The container needs to seal completely in order to keep out moisture, oxygen and pests. When choosing containers, look for those marked as ‘food safe’ or ‘food grade’ and make sure they are intended for longer term use.

What’s the best material for food storage containers?

In most cases, you’ll be choosing between plastic food storage containers and glass food storage containers for long term use. By and large, plastic food storage containers are the better choice for long term food storage.

Plastic food storage containers

Plastic containers come in a wide  range of sizes, from tiny to multi-gallon buckets. They’re typically very durable, though they can break or crack and it is possible for determined rodents to chew into them. Many plastic containers are also opaque, which is very important for longer term storage. Size for size, most plastic containers are lighter weight than glass options, which can be very important when considering the weight load of shelves or storage racks. Plastic containers are often cheaper than glass containers. But, of course, the biggest advantage is simply size. I’ve never heard of a five gallon glass bucket and I wouldn’t want one even if they existed.

Glass food storage containers

Glass jars are a great option for storing smaller quantities of food – and obviously if you’re canning food at home, you’ll be storing it in canning jars. But jars and other glass containers  have some drawbacks for longer term food storage. First, they’re breakable. That’s not a deal breaker but it’s not ideal, either. Second, jars don’t hold a lot of food, compared to plastic cannisters or food buckets. In general, save glass jars for smaller quantities of food you use often or for compact foods like dried fruit.

store wheat in a five gallon bucket

Any plastic container, including buckets, needs to be BPA free and food grade

For really large quantities (10 pounds and up), you’ll need five gallon buckets. The cheapest place I have found them is Tractor Supply. If you have those in your area, head there. If you need to order buckets online, be prepared to pay quite a bit more per bucket. Also know that you usually have to buy the lid separately. That’s not as weird as it sounds, though, since there are several lid options and buying them separately lets you pick the best option. You can buy standard bucket lids, which can be annoying to take on and off, or gamma lids, which unscrew easily. Gamma lids are thicker and pricier but if you’re going to be in and out of the bucket often, or if you have arthritis or other hand issues, they’re worth it.

You can see some of my five gallon buckets, with standard lids, below. They hold a variety of grain and legumes.

Long term food storage in buckets

Here’s the best places to buy five gallon buckets online:

I think these are the best five gallon buckets for food storage.

Azure Standard – I love Azure Standard. As noted, I’m an affiliate but even if I weren’t, I’d put them at the top of this list because they’re a great company. If you order produce, legumes and bulk grains from them, go ahead and add your buckets (and lids!).  That way you can pick it all up at once. Azure has fantastic prices on food and household items, so it’s definitely something you should check out.

Amazon – If you need food storage buckets asap, this 6 pack is a pretty good deal and it includes lids.

Uline – yes, the box people. They actually sell a lot of random items, including five gallon food buckets with lids. Their price is decent but shipping from Uline can be pretty hefty, depending on where you live.

Printed canning planner

Want to make canning easier?

Grab your copy of my printable canning planner and have your best canning season yet!

These are the best smaller food storage containers:

For 8 pounds or less:

5 pounds and under:

I love these container for storing flours, sugar, smaller amounts of beans or legumes and rice. They’re airtight, easy to open and stack really neatly. They come with the chalk labels, which I initially didn’t care about but they turned out to be really useful.

For anything smaller, I use quart or pint canning jars or product jars from things like salsa or olives. There are plenty of plastic containers and canisters out there but it’s much more economical to use jars. Plus if you aren’t using them for food storage, they’re available for canning and vice versa. You can’t do that with a plastic box!

In the photo below, you can see how I’m using these bins as well as jars and bags to store legumes, lentils, dried herbs and more.

long-term food storage containers for beans and legumes

Long Term Food Storage Supplies

To store ground flour, crackers, powdered mixes, dried noodles and so on, they need to be removed from their original packaging. To store items for just a few months, you can put them into plastic freezer bags or containers. If you plan to keep them longer than that, simply putting them into a freezer bag, jar or bucket likely won’t keep them from either going rancid or getting attacked by pests or rodents.

The most effective way to store these  for the LONG haul is either to vacuum seal them or seal them in mylar bags,  with oxygen absorbers when appropriate. Individual foods and your specific storage environment will ultimately determine optimal storage conditions, so it’s best to do some research and make storage choices for yourself.

Storing Flour Long Term

When it comes to storing flour, in particular, it must be kept dry and sealed. Since commercially processed flour can arrive with insect eggs already in it, it needs to be processed in a low-temp oven or the freezer before being stored. This is also true for packaged mixes that contain flour, like pancake mix, bisquick, etc. I store my flour in sealed plastic freezer bags, but I only keep enough on hand for a month or two, at most.

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Where should you store food long term?

Buckets, canisters and jars need someplace to live, once you’ve filled them. Clear jars, bins or canisters should be stored in a closed cabinet, closet or other dark area. Sunlight will degrade the food more quickly. Your food storage area should be a fairly consistent temperature all year long and shouldn’t be humid.

If you’re lucky enough to have a large pantry or kitchen closet, then you will be able to store most or all of your foods in there. See my post on Food Storage Space if you need to know how much room food containers will take up. If your pantry is small or you don’t have one, then you’ll need to find other areas of your home to store bulk food. The basement is a common choice but you can also use a spare bedroom or a hall close if you have one.

Obviously the amount of food you store will dictate where you can reasonably store it. So long as the space is dry, dark and generally 50-70 degrees, it’s a great option.  Your food doesn’t need to be stored in a single place, either. Some people create several small storage areas throughout their homes. If you opt to spread your food stockpile out, make sure you keep detailed records. And also make sure getting to your food isn’t such a huge hassle that you avoid using it.

The picture below is part of my food storage area in the basement. I reclaimed unused areas around the furnace to set up shelves.

canned good storage

Cabinets and Shelving Units for Long Term Food Storage

I purchased freestanding cabinets to put in my basement as food storage. Hanging cabinets isn’t an option in our basement due to the low ceiling, but there is room to tuck a few of these in. While there are several options, I highly recommend this basic pantry cabinet from Closetmaid. I chose them after doing a fair amount of research on shelf size, weight capacity and overall sturdiness. They offered the best amount of space for the price.

food pantry cabinet

It’s pretty easy to stack five gallon buckets but it can be a nuisance to unstack them when you need access to the bottom buckets. If you have space for it, these metal shelves are very sturdy. It’s simple to adjust the shelf spacing to accommodate buckets (which are typically 15-18″ tall). This style of shelving comes in a huge range of sizes, but I like the 48″ wide by 72″ tall set. I think it offers the best amount of storage for the floor space it uses. It can be configured to hold 8 buckets on the two lower shelves. The upper shelves will need to be close together but they can hold small items, like flats of empty canning jars. There is also a 36″ wide option,which you can see in several of the photos on this page.

If you have wall space,  this shelving unit is top notch. It’s easy to put together and the shelves are adjustable. At 48″W, it covers a lot of ground but the shelves are two buckets deep. I have the same unit but it’s 60″ wide. Unfortunately that size is no longer sold, but the 48″ W set is still a fantastic choice for storing heavy buckets and bins.

All of the shelves or cabinets I’ve linked to are well-built and really sturdy. I have the same units in my basement and have been using them for years. Whatever you choose, be sure to check the weight capacity for the entire unit as well as each shelf.

How to decide what foods to store long term

The most important factor in starting your food stockpile is….buying foods you already eat! It doesn’t do you and your family any good to have shelves of food you won’t eat. Look at your weekly food consumption and see what items you eat regularly. Of those foods, which are shelf-stable at room temperature? Start with those items and decide how many weeks or months worth of them you’d like to have on hand. Then consider if those foods will need to be repackaged for longer term storage. (hint, they probably will)

Remember, the goal is to have a well-stocked pantry, not to have buckets and bins full of weird ‘survival’ foods your family will never use. Instead, think of long term food storage as setting up your own private grocery store, in your home.

Here’s a basic  example of planning long term food storage:

Let’s say your family eats spaghetti with meat sauce once a week, on average. That means your household uses a large box of spaghetti noodles, 28-32 ounces of spaghetti sauce and one pound of Italian sausage or ground beef each week. To have a six month supply, you’ll need to buy the equivalent of 25 boxes of spaghetti, 25 jars of spaghetti sauce* and 25 pounds of meat.

That probably sounds like a LOT of food! And it will be, especially if you go to the store and try to buy it all at once (though you certainly can do that, if you have the budget). And certainly some people do create their food stockpile by making infrequent grocery runs where they buy months worth of food.

An easier way to start building that stockpile would be to double up your shopping list each week. So buy two boxes of spaghetti, two jars of sauce and two pounds of meat every week. Use one set of ingredients to make that week’s dinner. Then freeze the extra meat and stash the drygoods in your pantry or basement. If there’s a good sale on any of those ingredients, go ahead and buy extra.

Accumulating food for long term storage

If you do that every week, you’ll slowly build up a stash of basic spaghetti ingredients. As soon as you have a few weeks’ worth, start using the oldest ingredients for your weekly meal and add the two new boxes, two new jars and two pounds of meat to your stockpile. Because you’ll be replacing each weeks’ ingredients AND adding a second set every week, you’ll quickly establish a stock of spaghetti ingredients. Once you have six month’s worth, you can just buy one box of pasta, one jar of sauce and one pound of meat each week, to replace the one’s you’re removing from storage.

You can use this same plan to stockpile any food you consume regularly. Just make sure you have enough room to store the food and a way to keep track of what you have on hand. You’ll always use the oldest food in your stockpile first, saving the newest additions for later.

Another option is to buy ingredients you use regularly in bulk. Things like dried beans, white rice, lentils and grains are easy to buy in large quantities, meaning you can easily pick up a 6-12 month supply. I use Azure Standard to stock my dry goods twice a year. My favorite items to buy from them are sea salt, lentils, dried peas, oatmeal and chicken feed.

Consider canning or preserving your own food

I put an * next to spaghetti sauce earlier and it’s because plain tomato sauce is one of the easiest things to make from scratch and can, if you wish. Growing or buying pounds of tomatoes in the summer and canning them for winter is usually more cost effective than buying jars of tomato sauce. The flavor is generally better and it’s easy to customize the sauce to your liking when you’re making dinner. And, of course, when you can your own supply of food, you know exactly what’s in it. If canning food isn’t your thing, that’s cool. But consider buying canned tomatoes and making your own spaghetti sauce instead. It will taste much better and a stash of canned tomatoes is more versatile, long term, than jars of spaghetti sauce.

If you’re thinking about starting a food stockpile or storing food for long term use, remember that you can start small. While it’s nice to buy cabinets or put up shelves, you can  start storing food just by putting up a few cans of garden surplus. Start with what seems manageable now and add to it as you go. Do you store extra food? If you’ve got any tips, let me know in the comments.