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 amazon.com, Azure 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 Storage Containers for Bulk Food
This is probably the most important thing to consider before you buy food in bulk. The food may be packaged (sometimes to a frustrating degree!) but it’s probably not ideal for longer term storage. And it’s a lot easier to use food when it’s stored in smaller quantities. I learned this the hard way recently when I bought 190 pounds of grain and legumes without planning how to store it first.
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.
Here’s my top picks for buying 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.
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These are the best smaller food storage containers:
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 Supplies
To store ground flour, crackers, powdered mixes, dried noodles and so on, for more than a few months, they need to be removed from their original packaging. To store items for just a few months, you can just 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. 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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Long Term Food Storage Environment
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 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.
The picture below is part of my food storage area in the basement. I reclaimed unused areas around the furnace to set up shelves.
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.
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.
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.