Articles and Topics
Planning an Emergency Food Pantry
The last time I thought about setting aside food for an emergency was in December of 1999, as we prepared for the new millennium. At the time, I didn’t take the threat seriously. My faith that our computerized world would not throw us back to 1900 was stronger than my belief that I would not be able to purchase food for my family due to a “Millennium Virus.”

However, the tsunami and devastating hurricanes of 2005 have caused me to rethink the need to keep certain supplies in an “emergency pantry”—a stash of storable food and drink readily available in case of disaster.

Just as we all keep first-aid supplies on hand for everyday mishaps, setting up a pantry should be just as easy. If an emergency does occur, food and water are two fewer things you have to worry about, but just as necessary as a bandage for a cut.

Before you start storing food away, first evaluate what natural disasters might occur in your area. If you are likely to be housebound due to a blizzard or ice storm, what and how you store will differ than if you live on a fault line or flood plain and might have to evacuate quickly.

As you plan your pantry, be realistic. If you live near water or are prone to flooding, keep foods in cans and water-tight containers. If tornados or quakes are your concern, portable boxed foods are probably fine. Adapt the following list to your personal needs when setting items aside.

It’s the most important nutrient of all, so plan for enough. We can live for a few days on stored body fat, but dehydration can be critical. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross recommend keeping a three-day supply of food and water for your family. Plan a minimum of 2 quarts of water per person per day as your guideline, but increase if someone in your family is pregnant, breastfeeding, if you have small children or live in a hot climate. If you might have to evacuate in a hurry, individual water bottles can be divided among family members for transport. If you are likely to be homebound, storing water in clean gallon jugs is acceptable. Remember, water pipes can freeze and break, so don’t overlook this step in cold climates.

Canned items are your best bet for long-term storage. Choose basic foods that are familiar to your children and can be rotated back into your regular meal planning.

The following food list considers the most drastic conditions—extended loss of power, impassible roads or “grab-and-run” evacuation. Remember, it’s better to be prepared than not.

  • Homebound: canned tuna and chicken, peanut butter, baked beans. Plan on three servings per tin and store enough of each for one or two meals using lightweight containers. Other possibilities are ready-to-serve soups, which can be eaten warm or cold, and canned nuts.
  • Evacuate: tuna, meats in foil packets, peanut butter and jelly combos, high-protein breakfast bars, packets of unsalted peanuts.

Fruits & Vegetables:
  • Homebound: soft, canned fruits are easy for children to eat. Peaches and pears can be mashed for infants and are universally loved by toddlers. Any kind of canned vegetable will work, as long as your kids will eat it. Also, store boxed fruit and canned vegetable juices. (If you have an infant, avoid corn and citrus fruit.) Use fruit spreads (not jelly) for the peanut butter.
  • Evacuate: dried fruits such as raisins, apricots or plums. Juices in foil containers or boxes.

  • Homebound: ready to eat cereals, crackers with unsalted tops. Cereals can be eaten dry and crackers can be used to make kid-sized peanut-butter sandwiches. Avoid anything that will require additional water or fuel, such as rice or noodles.
  • Evacuate: cereal bars, crackers.

Other necessary items:
  • Mechanical can-opener.
  • Waterless hand sanitizer to clean hands and can tops before opening.
  • Paper plates and utensils (forks, spoons and serrated knives).
  • Zip-close bags, quart size, to store opened foods.

For Infants:
If you are pregnant, please consider breastfeeding. There was nothing so sad, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as witnessing all the powdered formula donations with no water to mix it with. FEMA recommends keeping formula on-hand if you are breastfeeding in case stress or family separation limits the amount of breast milk available. Even if you have difficulty nursing during a disaster, you can easily relactate once it is over, and you can donate unopened formula to a food pantry when your baby is a year old.

For formula-fed infants, consider keeping ready-to-feed formula on hand or store extra water to reconstitute powdered formula. The recommended amount is one quart of formula per day.

In either case, check the formula expiration date before you store it.

I am not advocating powdered or canned milk for this list because they require additional water, a storage container and refrigeration. You can get by for a few days without milk.

As you can see, this list requires no cooking or additional preparation. Refresh the contents of your pantry by replacing the items at least once a year and rotating the foods into your family meals. Avoid salty foods, as they will make you thirsty.

If you expect to be housebound, keep your pantry in a cool, dry place away from regular food storage. If you think you might evacuate, pack your food items in a handled bag (like a sports bag or large backpack) that you can grab immediately. In an impending emergency, grocery shopping should not be on your list of things to do!

For more information, check out the websites for the American Red Cross ( and the American Dietetics Association ( Both feature excellent articles on emergency planning and additional items you can consider having available.
Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant