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Friday, July 10, 2020

What's in My Emergency Pantry?

For me, an emergency pantry is not about a dooms-day scenario or apocalyptic end times.

An emergency pantry is . . .
An emergency pantry is . . .
prioritized savings
An emergency pantry is . . .
Plan B

Winter of 2008-2009 and winter of 2019 showed the PNW that mild winters are not guaranteed, here. Some years, the roads are unsafe for several weeks for my little car. Do I want to be one of the folks whose preparation for a storm begins the evening before it hits? Or do I want to be one of the folks who is comfy in my pjs watching for those first snowflakes? Beyond snowstorms, an emergency necessitating an already full pantry can come in the form of a layoff, accelerated food inflation, or as we've found this year, less-safe conditions for shopping in stores.

My pantry "savings account"
Financial experts tell us to pay ourselves first, that is, put money into savings before anything else. This is a way to prioritize how our income is spent and reduces the chance that we find ourselves without an umbrella on that proverbial rainy day. A full emergency pantry is another way to prioritize savings. It means that at some point along the line, I have chosen to stock my emergency pantry instead of buying that fun pair of sandals for the summer, or eating out at a favorite restaurant, or taking a long, holiday weekend at the beach. I have actively chosen eating over non-essential spending.

Plan A is for us to maintain a good income, a solid savings strategy, and good health, so that we can continue to cover the basics and have some of the fun stuff, too. Plan A is obviously the best-case scenario of life. But when stock markets fall, employment falls apart, widespread viruses hit, or road conditions prevent deliveries or shopping, Plan B, the emergency pantry, will keep us fed for weeks or even months.

One of the issues with emergencies is they usually happen unexpectedly. Keeping a large stock of fresh foods on hand at all times would mean that my household might have a lot of spoilage. So, shelf-stable foods like canned goods and dry foods work best for an emergency pantry. Keep that in mind as you read the following list of foods that may not be part of a typical, weekly grocery list.

So, what's in my emergency pantry?
I tried to cover the basic food groups in quantities enough to outlast several months without stepping into a store or placing an order.
My emergency pantry is filled with grains, dried beans, canned chicken and tuna, powdered milk, seasonings, pasta, small amounts of flour packed in plastic packaging, ditto on the sugar, peanut butter, raisins, applesauce, canned carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, instant mashed potatoes, solid vegetable shortening, vegetable oil, dried cheese, soup base, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, canned pineapple, canned green beans, and lots more. 

Here's a run-down of what I've got in dry storage:

(Where applicable, best place for price that I've found is in parentheses.)

  • powdered cow's milk, enough for 3 to 4 months
  • powdered soy milk, the year's supply as it's less expensive than liquid
  • powdered coffee creamer, about 1/2 pound
  • cheddar cheese powder, about 1 pound
  • Parmesan cheese, 1 large container per month (Walmart, GV in-store)
meat and vegetarian protein
  • canned tuna, a couple dozen cans (Great Value, Walmart in-store or online)
  • canned chicken, a couple dozen cans (Walmart, Swanson)
  • dried beans, several varieties, about 30 lbs -- 2 lbs per week's use (Walmart in-store and online, restaurant supply)
  • TVP (, 25-lb case, gluten-free)
  • peanut butter, 1 large jar per month (Walmart GV, in-store)
  • canned and bagged nuts
fruits and vegetables
  • jarred applesauce (Fred Meyer and Walmart, store brand, 1 or 2 jars per month)
  • canned pineapple (Walmart, GV, in-store)
  • large canisters of raisins (Great Value, online)
  • canned cranberry sauce (Walmart)
  • canned pumpkin (Walmart end of last season, GV)
  • canned yams (Walmart)
  • canned tomatoes and tomato paste (restaurant supply in #10 cans)
  • canned green beans (Winco and Fred Meyer -- last fall's sales)
  • canned corn (Winco and Fred Meyer -- last fall's sales)
  • canned spinach (Great Value, in-store)
  • canned carrots (Great Value, in-store)
  • still looking for good deals on canned peas and canned peaches
  • dried herbs, garlic powder, onion powder (garden on first 1, Walmart on last 2)
grains and starches
  • instant mashed potatoes (Great Value, Walmart, in-store)
  • whole wheat and white flour (restaurant supply and Walmart)
  • cornmeal
  • brown rice (restaurant supply, 50-lb bag)
  • white rice (Great Value, online, 20-lb bags)
  • barley
  • rolled and steel cut oats (restaurant supply, 25-lb bag)
  • popcorn (restaurant supply, 12.5 lb bag)
  • pasta, I bought 3 pounds for every month (Walmart and Dollar Tree -- 3-lb box GV macaroni about 60 cents/lb, in-store Walmart, 4-lb box spaghetti GV, Walmart, online in two-pack, 64 cents/lb)
fats and oils
  • gallon jugs of vegetable oil, 1 gallon for 2 months (Walmart, in-store and online)
  • solid vegetable shortening (Great Value, in-store and online)
  • granulated sugar (Although I buy 50-lb sacks of sugar at the restaurant supply, I also keep two 4-lb bags of sugar over-wrapped in a plastic ziploc. This is "just-in-case" sugar.)
  • molasses (for making brown sugar, pancake syrup, or in cakes and cookies)
  • vinegar (for making baking powder substitute or salad dressings or marinades -- I bought an extra gallon for emergency pantry)
  • baking soda, a few pounds (for making baking powder substitute, use in cleaning, or in baking, as is)
  • cocoa powder (Walmart, in-store, GV or Hershey's)
  • chocolate chips (making candy, melting for s'mores patties, baking cookies -- Walmart, in-store)
  • extracts
  • salt
  • beef and chicken soup base
  • spices -- large containers from restaurant supply
  • corn starch
  • future vegetables in the form of seeds
  • coffee/tea
  • canned olives
  • mayonnaise, a couple of jars (need to get a jar or two of mustard, still)
  • still looking for yeast in my area

Almost all of the above is in addition to my regular pantry. I keep the bulk of this on a set of shelves behind a door in my office.  Many folks keep their emergency supplies in a basement on shelves or in a garage on shelves in well-sealed storage totes. But for those who lack a basement or completely rodent-free garage (this is us), I can testify that shelves in a closet (or in the open) in a spare bedroom, office, or den also works. 

Although the purpose of this pantry is for emergencies, it is a working pantry. That is, I am currently using items from it; however, I replenish what is used on a monthly basis, rotating the stock so I'm always using the oldest items first. In this way, we have ample emergency supplies, but risk nothing to overextending the expiration dates.

For my own emergency pantry, I selected items that would be normal or normal-substitutes for my own family. An example of a normal item-substitute is the instant potato flakes. My family prefers whole potatoes. But whole potatoes are subject to spoilage. It's not really practical to store 40 to 50 pounds of whole potatoes in my office. I'm also not the biggest canned spinach fan. But canned spinach is shelf-stable -- doesn't take up valuable freezer space. I can make-do in recipes with the canned stuff, should an emergency strike. Ditto with carrots and using the canned for the emergency pantry instead of fresh carrots. 

What's not in this pantry is snack foods. Items like crackers and chips would be raided from the emergency pantry long before any actual emergency hit. So, I stuck to inexpensive basic foods that need some sort of preparation. There's little chance my family will gorge on pasta; but if they did, the cost of pasta was so low, it would be okay.

To determine how much of each food item was needed, I simply multiplied the amounts that I know we normally use in a month by the months that I expect my pantry to sustain us in an emergency. I spent about 2 months procuring everything for my emergency pantry. 

I compared prices between Walmart online, Walmart in-store (using the free pick-up service), Target delivery, Fred Meyer (using pick-up), and Cash & Carry (our restaurant supply store). There were limits on many items, so the purchases were spread over a few visits/orders. While most of the time, buying foods in-store was less expensive than ordering online, there were a few exceptions and I noted those. Often times, the online deals were due to buying multiple quantities. But at least in one instance, the online product was simply cheaper than the in-store version.

With what I bought in addition to what I already hand on hand, my family of 4 adults could live for several months (6 or more), without any further shopping.

About cost . . . I used our vacation money for 2020 to pay for all of the above. However, this is simply pre-paid food. With a few exceptions (powdered milk, for example), I paid close to what I would normally when shopping on a monthly basis. An example, the canned spinach was 48 cents for a 13.5 oz can, or 57 cents/lb. I normally buy frozen spinach for about 80 cents/lb in 3-lb blocks at the restaurant supply. With the canned carrots, also 48 cents each, my normal good price on fresh carrots is about 45 cents/lb. So, for some foods, I came out a little ahead and others a little behind my normal spend for the item. As a result, I feel okay about the cost to stock this emergency pantry. No one likes to spend a huge chunk of money on basic items. But for peace of mind as we possibly approach a second wave of this virus, which in turn could result in employment instability (this has been a worry for our family, living on one income), this was a good move for my family.

I consider my freezer to be an extension of our emergency pantry. Many foods are either more economical, save time, or retain a higher level of nutrients when in frozen form. I'll write up what I bought for our freezer this next week. 

When I began writing this post, I wasn't sure if I would publish it. However, as Kathryn (in the comments a couple of days ago) requested more information about stocking an emergency pantry, I went ahead and finished this up to post. Kathryn, I hope this post answers your questions. You've seen how I prepare meals for my family. I mostly use basic ingredients, cooking from scratch, and try to vary the resulting food. Especially for an emergency pantry (which would only need to be the sole source of food for a limited time), this seems to be the most cost-effective way to provide meals, even if there would be some redundancy.

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