Cash can help you survive an emergency, but saving as much as financial planners typically recommend — three to six months’ worth of expenses — can take years. You can build an edible emergency fund a lot quicker.
A well-stocked pantry can help you survive a natural disaster or extended blackout, get through a stretch of unemployment, ensure you always have something tasty for dinner, and save you money, if done correctly.
The key to doing it right: Store what you eat, and eat what you store.
You can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on an emergency food kit that has a 10-, 20- or even 30-year shelf life. Chances are pretty good, though, that those prepackaged versions will include stuff you or your family won’t eat. Food not eaten is money wasted.
You’re much better off stocking up on foods you like and then using that stock, replenishing it as you go. Your first goal can be a two-week supply of food, which is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends every family keep on hand. Once you have that stored, consider boosting your supply over time to cover one to three months. (We recommend the same start-small strategy to build a cash emergency fund.)
Here’s how to start:
■Create a two-week menu. Write down what you would feed your family for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for 14 days. Don’t forget side dishes, drinks and desserts. It’s OK to repeat meals if that’s what you do in nonemergency situations. Don’t forget to include water: at least a gallon per person per day.
■Stress-test the menu. How many of the meals could you prepare with ingredients that don’t require refrigeration? Without it, food in your fridge will last about a day, in the freezer two or three. Perishables — fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy — may not be available. What shelf-stable ingredients can you substitute? Some foods you can find at the supermarket have long shelf lives, such as rice, dried beans and canned foods. Others such as eggs, milk, vegetables, fruit and meat are available in dried or freeze-dried form from companies that specialize in emergency foods, such as Augason Farms and Mountain House.
■Decide which of those substitutions you can actually tolerate. Powdered milk is an example of something that’s great in theory, but that some people find revolting in reality. My family uses it to bake with, and we keep shelf-stable almond milk around to drink. Likewise, canned fruits and veggies aren’t our favorites, but we use them in desserts and stews.
■Think about how you’d prepare each meal. If the gas and electricity are out, you’ll need some way to heat meals such as a camp stove or a grill. (Always cook outside; it’s safer.) Between the ingredients and cooking time required, some meals — like the turkey meatloaf my daughter loves — just aren’t practical emergency options, so we substitute others like spaghetti and meat sauce that are easier to store and cook.
■Create an ingredients list. Once you’ve settled on your final list of meals, list every ingredient for every meal and how much you’ll need of each. One serving of oatmeal is half a cup, for example, so you’ll need two cups each time you serve four people — plus another two cups of milk substitute, eight tablespoons of brown sugar and four little boxes of raisins or whatever fruit you plan to serve.
■Don’t forget the treats. Comfort foods and familiar flavors can help you through tough times. Coffee and tea drinkers will want an ample supply, but everyone might appreciate hot chocolate, sweeteners, condiments, spices and hard candies.
■Figure out where to keep it. People can get creative about storage in small spaces, parking emergency food under their beds or behind their couches. I’d rather have food where I can see it and be reminded to use it, so I cleared some old appliances from the kitchen and added some open shelving to our laundry room.
■Fill out your pantry. Compare what you need with what you have, and start shopping to fill in the gaps. Use coupons and sales to stock up gradually.
■Use what you have. Once a week or so, use some of your stockpile. You don’t have to create the emergency meal or cook it outside; you just have to use the ingredients for one of the meals, starting with the stuff that’s closest to its expiration date. Using up a meal’s worth every week or two will have you rotating through your supply in roughly a year.
Liz Weston is a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.
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