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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

How to Estimate How Long Your Food Supply Will Last

An online friend and I have had a long back and forth about family food supplies and how long they'd last in an emergency. She specifically wanted me to gauge about how long her own pantry supplies would likely last her, not in days but perhaps weeks. So we came up with a system for quickly gauging how long a pantry would last a family if they had to stop buying food for a period of time. I thought I'd share in case any one here has ever seriously wondered how long their pantry would keep them fed in an emergency.

Step 1. Determine the household's caloric need per day. Here's a basic guideline from Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used:

calories needed for adults
women 1800-2100, men 2400-2900
calories needed for children
under 10 years up to 2400
calories needed for teens
teen boys 2700-2900 teen girls 2100-2200
add on for nursing (+500) or pregnant (+300) women

My friend's household consists of herself, husband, 20 year old daughter living at home while attending local college, 15 year old son at home. We factored in activity level for each individual (very active son, sedentary self and spouse, moderately active daughter) and came up with about 9500 calories per day for their family. 

Step 2. I asked my friend to inventory her pantry, her fridge, and her freezer for calorie-dense basics, such as flour, rice, dried beans, oats, hot cereal, oil, peanut butter, raisins, other dried fruit, sugar, nuts, meat (and I asked her to specify whether it was bone-in or boneless and whether poultry, red meat, pork), eggs, butter/margarine/Crisco, and cheese. I asked for rough measurements by pound, not boxes, bags, or servings.

We weren't going to concern ourselves with items like crackers, boxed cereal, canned vegetables or fruit, or condiments, unless she felt she had an extraordinary amount of any of those. (It turns out she did have more than average number of jars of mayonnaise (9 jars --long story), and we felt since this was a high fat item, in an emergency she could use the mayo as part of the daily fat for her family.) The cookies, crackers, and cereal would likely be gone in a few days if she halted shopping, and the canned veggies and fruits, while they would boost nutrients and add interest, they wouldn't be as calorie-packed as some of the other foods. Ditto on frozen meals and frozen veggies. We did leave in raisins and other dried fruit because a pound of raisins provides almost enough calories for one person for one day.

Step 3. While my friend compiled a list, I jotted down the caloric values for these products, using units that the items are usually sold, such as pounds, gallons, dozen instead of per serving. I rounded the numbers to make calculations simpler. These are just estimates for the average in each group. Here's my list:

dried grains -- average calories per pound (inc rolled oats, rice, flours, meals, dried pasta), about 1600
sugar -- calories per pound of sugar 1750
dried beans -- average calories per pound 1500-1600
vegetable oil -- calories per gallon about 33,000
dried fruit -- average calories per pound 1300-1600
peanut butter or other nut butters -- average calories per pound about 2600
shelled nuts and seeds -- average calories per pound about 2600
mayonnaise -- average calories per 30-oz jar about 5300

bone-in poultry -- average calories per pound (mix light and dark) about 750-1000
boneless poultry -- average calories per pound (mix light and dark) 500-700 (depending on type and with or without skin)
bone-in red meat -- average calories per pound around 1000 depending on leanness
boneless red meat -- average calories per pound around  700 - 1250 (depending on leanness)
bone-in pork -- average calories per pound about 700-1000
boneless pork -- average calories per pound about as little as 475 (deli ham) - 700 (pork loin) 
pork breakfast meat -- average calories per pound 1400-1800 (sausage and bacon)
fish -- average calories per pound 350-650

solid fat -- calories per pound (butter/margarine/shortening) 2400 to 3200
liquid milk -- average calories per gallon (as is or reconstituted dry) 1300, 2000, 2200 (skim, 2%, whole)
eggs -- average calories per dozen about 840
cheese -- average calories per pound about 1300-1700

Step 4. We combined like foods, such as flour with rice and pasta, to simplify calculations. And we used the arithmetic mean value for calories for each type of meat. After totaling the approximate calories for the items in my friend's inventory, I divided by the daily caloric requirement for her family. We were able to roughly guess just how long her food storage would last her family should she not be able to grocery shop as usual. 

As mentioned above, for expediency, there were many foods that we didn't include, such as jarred applesauce, canned soup, canned vegetables, breakfast cereal, etc. Most of those items were in single quantities or have relatively low caloric value. Those foods would increase the time my friend's pantry would last their family, but likely not more than a few days.

This wasn't just a mathematical exercise. My friend and her husband are currently digging themselves out of debt from a struggling business during the shutdowns. They accepted loans from family members to get through the worst and now that business is back up and doing better, they want to repay those generous relatives. My friend was thinking they could make an extra payment or two to both family members in the coming months if they had enough food to live on, or near enough (she could buy some high-nutrient vegetables, fruits, and milk, while spending minimally). As it turns out, she has enough in her pantry and freezer to last about 12 weeks. I suggested they hold back about 4 weeks worth of food for that proverbial rainy day, if their relatives don't need the loaned money immediately.

My friend had a lot of flour and other grains. She bakes their bread and other goodies in place of buying packaged items. She's also been trying to eat more vegetarian meals, so they had a lot of dried beans in stock. Her husband and son eat a lot of meat, though. However, hubby hunts and fishes and filled a deep freeze this past fall (and there's still a lot of meat left, I'm told). Despite their difficult times in the past couple of years, they really did have quite a lot of the types of food that one normally associates with emergency planning. In addition to holding onto a 4-week supply, I also suggested they not eat all of the ready-to-eat items, such as canned soup, crackers, peanut butter, and breakfast cereal. Instead, she should put some of those items away separately, in case of a power interruption that would affect cooking meals.

It should be noted that just because one has enough calories for their body's energy needs, the diet may not be balanced. This list isn't a prescription for what to include in an emergency pantry. I'd assume one would add various other foods that meet vitamin and mineral needs.

p.s. we came up with a couple dozen ways my friend can incorporate mayonnaise into their weekly meals, using the other ingredients she has on hand.


  1. That was a very interesting exercise to get a ball park of how far your friends food might go. If I didn't have anything else to do, I might do it here, although I don't think we have three months food in store. But who knows? Have you do something similar with your food stores, Lili? You always seem very well stocked.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      Well, that's a good thing that you have other things to do, IMO! Of course, for me, this is part of my job in the household, to make sure we always have enough. If I had a job outside of our household, I might not have the time to do this either.

      You may have more in stock than you think. But then again, I was stunned by how quickly we went through our food in spring 2020.

      And yes, I've calculated before how long our food supply would last, both out of curiosity and in earlier years due to a long-lasting layoff for my husband. In the last couple of weeks, I also went through our pantry basics but not the freezer meat, to see how long those basics (grains, oil, dried beans, nuts, peanut butter, dried fruit, milk powder) would keep us fed. We'd be okay for a while, especially with the spring garden starting to produce for us so I won't have to buy as much produce.

      Have a great rest of your day, Live and Learn!

  2. Wow is all I can say Lili. I could never have done those kinds of calculations. That shows me you have a BIG marketable skill and you need to find a way to use that because people could really use your knowledge!

    I'm struggling with that big stock up pantry from a couple years ago. We couldn't find a lot of things on shelves and when we did we bought several. Now I'm noticing that many are nearing expire dates. I'm not afraid of going past expire dates but I'm trying to reduce what's in the pantry to use those extras in meals. But I don't want to buy more because if I can't get to using those in 9 or 10 months then they get close to expiring. That's why we've been not buying a lot of groceries Jan., Feb., and now March. Just essentials. Some of those things that are getting close are juice, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and some canned goods.

    I'm not seeing empty shelves around here on the things I normally buy but there are shortages on things like, breakfast sausage links, frozen tater tots and other frozen items. But I have seen an increase in my grocery bill each week and I only buy basic stuff so the simple items have increased price tags.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Thank you.
      About your pantry surpluses nearing expiry -- you can freeze all but the mayonnaise. You can even freeze peanut butter. I buy veggies in those extra large #10 cans and then open them and freeze in meal-sized portions. I drain off the water before freezing. You can freeze juice, canned soup, canned fruit, canned chili -- all of those freeze well.

      For the mayo, you can start using it in place of oil/egg in muffins, rolls, biscuits and other baked goods, use it as dressing for salads (vegetable, macaroni, pasta, potato, rice, egg salad), you can make a garbanzo bean mock egg salad, or use as part of the sauce for casseroles (there are several good chicken casserole recipes that use mayo), or in guacamole and other dips and spreads. Anyway, this happened to me once and I was able to use mayo fairly quickly. Good luck!

      You know, the two things I can't seem to get in my local stores are soft tofu and green cabbage. It's been months since I found soft tofu and since about Jan 1 since I found green cabbage. Other food shortages have been sporadic and often limited to store brands, not the more expensive name brands. I've also seen notable price increases on just basic foods. Grocer6y spending is taking a larger and larger chunk out of our income each month. Good luck to you, Alice!

    2. I've also noticed that it's hard to find link sausage. I like to keep some on hand for Sunday brunch but we've been going without lately. I found a bigger box at Gordon Foods awhile back. My husband and daughter cooked a pancake dinner for the youth group a couple of weeks ago and we needed some for that.

  3. I'm with Alce, Wow, Lili! And thank you! I have a question...what all would you suggest I keep in my pantry in case we have a longer term power outage. I can eat peanut butter and crackers. My husband will not touch peanut butter. Just two in our household. I have heard be prepared for 3 weeks? I have a full pantry/home canned goods and freezers, But after surveying, I'm not sure how much would serve us in a long power outage. Thanks in advance. I so admire you and appreciate all the wonderful info you provide.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Thank you for your kind words.

      For a long term power interruption, you obviously need foods that you can eat right out of the package. in addition to peanut and crackers, stock nuts, powdered milk, breakfast cereal, canned and dried fruit, fruit and vegetable juice, canned beans (you can mash canned garbanzo beans with a potato masher to make hummus for crackers), canned vegetables that you'd be willing to eat cold (you can turn most canned veggies into marinated veggie salad, like pickled beets, 3-bean salad, marinated canned corn), shelf stable Parmesan cheese, shelf-stable canned meats like tuna, Vienna sausage, and canned chicken, instant potatoes, and maybe a box or two of granola bars for something fun. If you can contrive some way to heat food, for instance over a charcoal or propane grill, you can also heat canned soup, canned chili, canned ravioli, canned veggies, use dehydrated soup mixes, make quick-cooking oats. If you can't use a grill (bad weather), do you have a fireplace you can cook over, contriving a cooking surface over a low fire? I've thought about this. I think I could use 2 stacks of bricks, topped with our grill to make a cook surface in the fireplace, feeding a small fire underneath to heat food. We'd use our camp cookware to heat food in.

      Here are some meal ideas for using this sort of food. So, for breakfast -- cereal and milk (made from powdered, 1 cup at a time) or overnight -soaked quick oats (Muesli), small amount of nuts for fat, canned or dried fruit or canned/bottled juice. For lunch -- chicken (canned) salad, crackers, canned fruit. For dinner -- 3-bean salad, crackers, cold-soaked in water (takes several hours) instant potatoes, nuts, canned fruit, a canned soup or chili if you can heat something over a fire.

      I think the idea of 3 weeks depends on where you live and what the power issue could stem from. In Texas a year ago, people were without power for about 1 week. During the hurricane this last fall, I heard of some folks being without power for many weeks. In my area, if you are rural, you could lose power for several days to a couple of weeks in a really bad snow storm. But if you're urban or suburban, power is usually restored within a day or two. Still, it's possible we may see power outages that last a week or more and we should use now to think through how we'd heat food and ourselves. I've long wanted a wood stove, but we have yet to think of a logical place to put it. A generator sounds like our best choice for back-up power.

      Keep in mind, that if you are stocking regular foods (not special emergency preparedness foods specially packaged), you'll need to rotate them in and out of your regular menus (to avoid losing food to expiration dates), so you'll need to restock these items at some point. I mention this because likely to stay in a grocery budget, you'll want to buy foods that you might normally buy (and enjoy), like canned tuna or quick oats.

      Good luck as you figure out what to keep in stock.

    2. Thx, Lili for the great suggestions. I have planning to do!

  4. I ditto the "wows"! I look at my pantry and just casually think that it might last a few weeks - depending on how dire the situation might be. I have many canned items like powdered milk, beans, and macaroni, but they were canned over 20 years ago. You have provided me inspiration to look closer at my pantry situation and what we would actually eat, and what I need to add so that it is more balanced, nutritionally speaking.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      Aww, thank you. It sounds like you have a good start, at the very least. These canned items -- are they dated with use-by dates? Could you incorporate them now into your regular meals and replace with new canned items? Just a thought. Good luck to you!

  5. I'm also amazed at your method of calculation. I have always felt a little more secure knowing that we have items in our pantry, but between covid and the current state of the world, I definitely like knowing that we have a back up food supply. You have a very logical and concise way to make calculations. I'm sure your friend appreciated your help!

    Interesting question, Linda. I keep a stash of different varieties of canned beans and a few cans of tuna, which can supply protein needs and can be eaten without need to prepare them. Nuts would be good but I don't know if your husband would eat them. Do you have a camp stove and fuel, or a generator? That would give you options for cooking simple meals.

    1. We do have a generator. Of course, fuel on hand for that can vary depending on what we've used some for. I need to think about maybe some Sterno or such. Yes, I do keep lots of nuts...thanks for mentioning. My husband will not eat tuna, peanut butter or raisins. He said that is all his mother packed in his school lunches and there is no way he could eat ever again. I suppose if we were hungry enough, most of us mind change our minds. We raise dried beans. I need to get busy and can up some or at least cook up some and freeze. Neither of us really like much processed stuff so I usually don't keep much of that on hand. But with the world situation, I have been thinking just what we would do if our power was suddenly gone. Thx so much for your insight!

    2. Hi Kris,
      I agree, it is reassurance to know we have enough to get through lean times or a power outage. And like you, we've stocked items that would be part of our normal rotation. Having camping equipment would be a good help. My husband has his old, old camp stove. We need to pick up some fuel for it. What we do have is lots of wood and a few places we could burn it for cooking (fire ring, bbq, fireplace). And I just bought a large pack of matches this past fall, so we could light the fire. What's funny is thinking this all through sounds like "extra" work, but in generations past (1800s, and before), planning for food and fuel to get through winter was normal work.

      Have a great rest of your day, Kris!

  6. I wholeheartedly agree, Linda -- given enough hunger, I think we'd all change our minds on what we'd be willing to eat.


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