Two Letters Re: Canned Food


In response to a recent article on expired food, I just want to say that not all foods are the same. Recently I decided to take an expired case of Chef Boyardee Meat Ravioli on a extended road trip. The case expired in 2012, which was about 2.5 years past its “use by” date. I’ve eaten these plenty of times, so the food was as palatable as could be expected. However within two hours of eating one can I developed a headache. Headaches are very rare for me, so I didn’t pay any attention. The next day after eating another can, the same thing occurred– a mild headache. I took note and decided to experiment. On the third day, I didn’t eat any of the cans, and I had no headaches. On the fourth day, both I and my wife ate a can, and both of us got mild headaches. I did some research once I got home and discovered that the lining of the metal can may deteriorate after a while, so my unscientific assumption is that the headaches can be blamed on that fact. It’s something to keep in mind. On the other hand, last week I tried baking bread using a Costco-bought 2-lb package of yeast that expired in November of 2012, and it worked very well. – B.

o o o

Good morning, Hugh,

In today’s blog there was a post titled “Canned Food Alternatives” from “JM”. It’s a good piece, and I’d like to add to it, if I may.

I, too, use multiple food storage practices. For canned food, I never return from the supermarket without some extra cans, and I prefer units of 24 cans if the budget (and market shelf supplies) permit, and I always buy brand names on sale. In my area, most supermarket chains start their sales on Wednesday, and their ads are online.

Approximately 500 individual cans are in the pantry to meet daily needs, along with what’s in the freezer. For “pantry overflow”, I use what I term “food units” as the base: eight 15.5 ounce cans of protein (chili, with and without beans; hash, corned beef, roast beef, sausage; tuna; and so forth), eight 15.5 ounce cans of vegetables (corn, green beans, lima beans, baked beans, beets, and so on), eight 15.5 ounce cans of fruit (fruit cocktail, pears, peaches, mandarin oranges, pineapple, and so forth). Since 15.5 ounce cans are 4.5 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter, 24 cans fit perfectly in a box 12″L X 9″W X 9″ high. (Tuna cans are a different size and have to “squeeze” in on the edge.) The box weighs about 27 pounds. A 25-pack of these cardboard boxes can be had for about $20 on a “ship to store free” basis at Staples, the last time I bought some. Pro tip on canned food: buy what your family likes and will eat, not necessarily what a nutritionist might recommend they eat. The goal in times of high stress will be calories and especially, calories from protein, which frequently comes with some fat.

If all components of a “food unit” aren’t on sale, I’ll buy what is and set it aside for a couple weeks to wait for sales on the rest. A local chain recently advertised a sale on Del Monte fruit at 10 cans for $8. I came home with 100 cans. I always check the manufacturer’s date on each can; I’m currently buying all three types of canned food with mid- to late-2017 “sell by” dates, but I’ve seen lots of shorter dates and a number of expired dates. I’m confident that brand name canned food will still be good 2-3 years past the “sell by” date if properly stored, but I’ve never had any stored much past a couple months beyond the date; it usually gets eaten long before its expiration in the “first in, first consumed” rotation scheme. I also write the purchase month and year on the top of each can with a permanent marker when I bring it home. It’s a bit OCD, perhaps, but there’s no confusion that way as to what on the shelf is oldest.

Each box is sealed with shipping tape, top and bottom, and before the box is sealed four can openers are included. I buy P38 and P51 military openers in quantities of 100 and tape two of each to the underside of the top. I also insert several plastic spoons, forks, and knives in between the cans. (A local restaurant supply house has them available in boxes of 1000 each; the total cost for a thousand of each type of utensil was about $38. Split among a few families, it’s cheap.) The box is then marked on both ends with the purchase date; “54”, for example, indicates that everything in the box was purchased in May 2014. The box is also marked with what it contains– “FU” (a food unit with eight cans each of protein, vegetables, and fruit), “V” indicating 24 cans of all types of vegetables, or “F” indicating 24 cans of all types of fruit. A large black dot indicates that the box also has openers and utensils. So a box might be marked FU54(dot), V103(dot), or F93(dot). It’s not a secret code, but it’s not necessarily obvious as to contents either.

This configuration allows “grab and go” of food, with the knowledge that the food is both accessible (openers), usable (utensils), and current (purchase date), and there is easy rotation from the storage closet to the pantry shelf as pantry supplies are consumed. I can also confidently share or barter these boxes if necessary (although I consider sharing or bartering with food a very hazardous undertaking unless it’s within the circle of those whom one knows personally and can trust; public knowledge of surplus food availabilty can easily generate very unpleasant consequences if not conducted under well-controlled circumstances. For that reason, should I share, I will do it as anonymously as possible through local churches.) Giving someone a box of canned food is useless unless they also have the means to open the cans and consume the contents. Canned food is cooked before canning, so unpalatable as cold hash may be, it’s still completely edible and nutritious. The 15.5 ounce can size allows for breakfast and dinner of protein, vegetable, and fruit for two people. While refrigeration, or at least some form of cooling or temperature control, is certainly desirable, an open can in a well-insulated container (small cooler) unaccessible to insects or vermin should keep for 6-10 hours without refrigeration, assuming moderate temperatures, if necessity dictates, to allow for two meals. When camping, we’ve used the evaporative cooling effect of wet canvas or burlap to lower storage temperatures several degrees.

The other side of the food equation is, as JM pointed out, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods. I have a substantial quantity of each and add to that stock monthly as budget (and Internet deals) permit. I concentrate on protein, as I believe that type of food will be the most difficult to obtain and be the most needed, should social and economic conditions deteriorate substantially. I try to purchase a couple # 2 1/2 size cans for trial, to see what tastes good. Then I buy cases of larger #10 cans for economy. Just as with canned food, I tape several P38 and P52 openers to the underside of the box lid of each case. As with canned goods, don’t buy what your family doesn’t like. I also have a few Mountain House “72 hour packs”, which I have modified into “96 hour packs” by putting the contents of five boxes into three boxes. To each box is added utensils, a cheap metal cup, a sandwich bag of fire tinder, a P38 opener, an inexpensive knife, matches in a waterproof pill bottle, a pill bottle containing Vaseline-impregnated cotton balls, and a cheap flashlight. (Home Depot had 6-packs of cheap LED flashlights for $9; I got three.) Pro tip: don’t put the batteries in the flashlight; put the batteries, including spares, in a separate plastic bag with painter’s tape over each end to prevent shorting. Replace batteries annually, and reserve the expensive, good flashlights (Surefire, Streamlight, and the like) for daily on-body carry. I am never without a tube of Dark Repellant in my pocket.

I also have a couple of 12X9X9 “accessory boxes” with toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, vitamins, bar soap, shampoo, a couple rolls of toilet paper, an inexpensive headlamp, more utensils and can openers, a few spare batteries, and more, including the usual civil necessities my camping experience has shown necessary and valuable. I don’t intend to “run for the hills” when stress rises, but conditions may dictate a change in plans, and it pays to stay flexible. As the Marines say, “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” It’s a good motto.

Water is always a concern, and a 36″W X 14″D X 84″H wire rack shelving unit from the restaurant supply house currently holds fifteen 5-gallon jugs of drinking water, along with several FU boxes. Jugs are dated, of course, and used and replaced in rotation, with preference given to jugs with built-in side handles to allow carrying two at once. The plan is for “utility water”, should it be required (toilets, bathing) to come from a neighbor’s pool, but I’m looking into other storage options. Your correspondent, N.K.