Lessons Learned the Hard Way About Food Storage, by The Northern Prep

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This is our fourth year of prepping, and we are planning to make a full-time move to our retreat location by spring. We believe the Lord is compelling us to move now, and we are working diligently to get there as soon as possible. By the way, if you have been paying attention, the world looks really bad. This weekend was a significant eye-opener, as we cleaned and inventoried our pantry for the move. I would like to share the experience. However, before we do so, you need to have a bit of our background for a full understanding, so please have a little patience.

In early 2010, we purchased an old farm for recreational purposes. It would be hard to find a couple with more predisposition to be preppers than my wife and I. Both of us have a healthy concern for the government; we home school our children; we tend to cook for ourselves when we can; we enjoy the outdoors (hunting, fishing and gardening); and I could go on about how it was a very natural fit. However, both of us did not really have a clue, until I stumbled upon JWR’s book Patriots, which opened our eyes and encouraged several positive life changes. I will also add that it is a major plus to have both of us– my wife and I– engaged in this endeavor. We may not always agree, but we continually support and remind each other of our goals and have been making steady progress. Even with all this positive momentum, it is a difficult but rewarding journey.

In late 2010 when we started our food pantry, we took what I would call a “hodge-podge” approach. We read different articles and made lists of what we used and did not use but was recommended by the various publications. There is a tremendous amount of information, and this was a new endeavor for us. So our list would take the following into consideration: rotation of meals; caloric intake/nutritional value; pleasure value (is it something we enjoy i.e. pancakes vs. oatmeal); and last but not least, cost. Before we bought, we went to an Amish bulk store and Costco to look and compare prices versus what was available on the Internet. We have children, and when we started this endeavor we were a fairly typical suburban family. We tended to lean toward home cooked whole food meals. (My wife and I argued this point a bit as “home cooked meals” has come to mean something very different now.) We also favored organic, but we did not turn completely away from fast food and processed boxed meals. We had a small garden to grow vegetables and a small raspberry patch. Still, we also would eat out at restaurants, buy bleached flour, and buy convenience meals, such as frozen pizzas, boxed pasta, and canned sauce. Considering this background, we urgently started on our pantry as priority number one. We just discovered prepping and felt that we were completely unprepared.

We have been diligent about rotating our stock and using what we have, but we have also made some serious errors. As indicated, we are relocating to our retreat full-time, and this weekend we did a complete assessment of our pantry. It was very disappointing. We actually had to throw away food, which I feel is a great sin, and I hope I can prevent some of you from making the same painful mistakes.

The most profound realization that we had is that whatever you are planning for today, especially if you are just starting out, your habits will change. This is probably more so with food, as it is one of our primary concerns. In general, food has become extraordinarily distorted by society and corporations. To give you an idea of how much change occurs, I will share examples from my own family.

In 2010, we assumed we were doing well if we baked a loaf of homemade bread or other baked items. Typically, cookies were baked regularly (maybe once a month), and breads and cakes baked a bit less (once a quarter); all were a treat or dessert. Homemade bread in 2010 consisted of store bought flour (typically bleached) and white sugar. Fast forward to 2014. We now make 70 to 80 percent of our own bread, buns, tortillas, and so forth. Some of it is easy, but others are a true art form. Probably about 50% of the flour we use is our own home-ground from wheat berries or other grains. We continually try to improve, and, if we buy flour, it is stone-ground, whole wheat flour that is as close to wheat berries as possible. All of our grinding has been manual to date. We have been working to substitute honey for sugar, where possible, since honey is readily available. Our reasoning behind this is two-fold– to be better prepared so we do not feel a shock if things change and our belief that it is a much healthier lifestyle. While we have had very little grains go to waste, our understanding of wheat berries had gone from “what the heck are these?” to a household staple. Still, most of my extended family and friends give me a blank look when the term “wheat berries” enters a conversation. In 2010, when we purchased wheat berries, we did so because it was “on the list”, and we had a general understanding that they could be rendered to flour or mush. Now we use them regularly. In hindsight, more wheat berries (easy to move and long-term storage value) would have been a better bet, along with similar grains. However, in 2010, I would never have come to this conclusion.

In 2010, our children were smaller, and fruit is an important part of the diet. Although fresh fruit is what we all prefer, it would not be readily available in the winter in a TEOTWAWKI situation since we live in the Midwest. We purchased canned fruit and fruit in plastic cups with a peel off lid. The children would eat these now and again as a treat, and so we stocked up. As indicated, we purchased a small farm. It has maybe ten apple trees, a good row of grapes, and wild blackberry bushes. This year we canned (a skill we learned over the last three years) enough applesauce to last a year and grape jelly for a good portion of the year. We also purchased peach preserves from a neighborhood co-op. Annually we are putting out more trees and learning as we go. Our children (and nephews) prefer the home-canned fruit to store bought canned fruit. It is good for eating directly, baking, and gifts. We also purchased blueberries from a local farm and froze them into smaller packages. We now have two freezers in addition to the typical one you have in your kitchen. The freezer is filled with frozen green beans (after being quickly blanched), tomato sauce (instead of canned), venison, and pork (which we bought directly from a farmer). Aside from what we grow, we visit local farmers and farmer markets to supplement and set away, so we can understand and learn how much we need. This weekend, I found two packages of expired fruit cups. These are clear plastic, and while some canned items can go past their expiration date, the fruit that was once colorful and eye-appealing was just varying shades of brown. This we had to discard. We also had a good chunk of canned fruit that we had purchased in our initial splurge. These had expiration dates from late 2013 to over the next six to eighteen months. We took those that had expired and we made definite plans to use them, first checking each carefully when opened. Those with future dates are going to food pantries, which I will discuss further.

In 2010, we had at most a month worth of food on hand, and we were suddenly enlightened. We were always thrifty and tried to buy in bulk. With a limited budget, we made purchases from a fear and affordability perspective (i.e. tactical), rather than a strategic perspective. For example, our local store had a sale on canned soup. We purchased four flats of various types– chicken noodle, tomato, cream of mushroom, and cream of chicken. We did the same with chicken stock, buying six cases. You can always use chicken stock. As the dates are expiring or expired, we found that we used up most of the chicken noodle and tomato, but have almost all of the cream soups still sitting in our pantry. We have a lot of chicken stock left. Why? We based our purchases on actual meals, but our meals changed. In 2010, we would use a cream soup as a base with rice and meat to make a cheap and easy meal. Now we cook from scratch using real cream. We have always turned our chicken bones into stock and broth, we just did not take it into consideration when we purchased the other broth, and now we have quite a bit remaining.

We also purchased food in bulk. As members of the local Costco and with a family of four, there are cost-saving opportunities to buy in bulk. Peanut butter, packaged with two jars in a unit, at a discount price is very beneficial, but we also bought impulse emergency items, like a large five-gallon container of soy oil. Oil does not have a long shelf life, and while we used oil, we never made the effort to break this five-gallon container into more accessible containers because it was deemed “for an emergency.” This weekend we found that it was over two years past its expiration and will have to be discarded.

So, what are the lessons learned:

  1. Invest in the long term, strategic storage not tactical. Anything that you purchase for long-term use with a good shelf life can always be consumed as needed. Short-term items will expire, so only stock up on what you plan on actually using. If you are not sure about buying something, save your money. Spend it when you are confident.
  2. Have a strong rotational system. This is very simple, but it is key and is necessary for both your long-term strategic reserves and your day-to-day items. Without a good rotation system, you will definitely have waste.
  3. Keep a two-tiered pantry system. Keep long-term (strategic) items separate from short term (tactical) items, and you will be less likely to misplace items or overbuy on regular day-to-day goods. With the prepper mindset, we have a tendency to think “more is better”. It is not. Quality and long-term durability is ideal for setting up a solid prepper pantry. I believe that keeping the longer term strategic items aside simplifies the situation. Of course, we have wheat berries and rice in our short-term, but we refill the stock from the long-term storage. My view is that the long-term strategic stores require us to be more thoughtful and considerate. How much do you want on hand should there be problems? A year, three years, or five years? Whatever is in the short-term pantry is an additional buffer. The short-term tactical stores are a common pantry that we refresh routinely. Both need to be minded, but they have differing purposes.
  4. Keep a side area for items that are recently purchased and need to be rotated in. Designate this area, so it is not used. People can be lazy, and there is not always time to rotate stores. Having a designated area prevents you from accidentally taking something and using it when it needed to go to the back of the storage rotation.
  5. Buy items that are multipurpose versus single purpose. Take wheat berries for example. They can be eaten by being cooked soft, used as a base for a dish, or ground into flour. Flour equals bread, pasta, pastries, and more. Why store flour and pasta? Wheat berries and a grinder are much more flexible.
  6. Consider new skills and life changes, such as gardening, canning, hunting, fishing, and so forth. This is a more difficult endeavor, as we often over- or under-estimate our capabilities and potential for change. My 2010 self would be very surprised at all the new skills and abilities that our family accomplished in such a short period. It is also important to realize that as you seek these skills, they change your mind set. We prefer home baked, home ground bread versus store bought. It has a very different taste, and as a result our eating habits have changed. It is also more rewarding, and you think about your food instead of simply ingesting. In 2014 we plan on expanding our garden and getting our first animals (chickens most likely). We will be educated on canning other produce, thus changing our pantry once again. Also, we had purchased several number 10 cans of freeze-dried eggs, as it was a concern. The concern will be minimized with our own egg production. Still, I am unsure how the expanded garden and chickens will ultimately impact our eating habits and needs in a year or so. Last but not least, gardening can vary dramatically year-to-year. Last year, the drought really impacted every harvest, and we had less canned items. This year the harvest was much better. These are good life lessons should we need to depend upon this food.
  7. Eat what you buy. As part of our panicked buying, we purchased some MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). When we go camping or exploring, we will plan these for a meal one night. Some of them are good, and the children enjoy the novelty. On a rare occasion, they become our quick meal instead of fast food. While it doesn’t fully fit our philosophy of what we are working toward with food, it is like an insurance policy that you hope you never need to use. So, we still buy some occasionally, and we are now more educated consumers.
  8. Buy what you eat. It may sound the same, but it is very different. My kids like broccoli, green beans, and corn. These are our go-to vegetables. We are always adding a bag of frozen vegetables in our cart when we shop, and it is easy to lose track of how much your family consumes. If we are cooking dinner and we ask them what they would like for vegetables, this is what they ask for. The green beans we froze have disappeared by Christmas. So next year we will grow and buy more, as room permits. Frozen peas, spinach, and brussel sprouts are eaten when it is specifically planned or when there is nothing else. While we want our children and ourselves to have a variety, it is perfectly acceptable to have multiiple times more broccoli or green beans than peas. The only exception is when we find that something grows better in our garden than others, but gardening is not buying.
  9. Make an annual inventory at a minimum. Inventories can be varied by long-term strategic storage and short-term tactical storage. The long-term inventory should only vary mildly as you utilize and replace. The short-term will alter every time you go to the grocery store. Again, with a prepper mindset, it is easy to purchase something on sale or on a whim or get extra of something you use regularly. I know I bought several cans of Spam, thinking that if we did not have meat it would be nice for variety and keep us alive. An annual inventory does two things. It allows you to understand what you have, and it prevents you from making more tactical purchases. It also allows you to see what you have used and what needs to be used before the expiration date. If you have not historically used an item, figure out how to, or give it away to someone who will. I am going to suggest to my wife that we do it around the Thanksgiving holiday period, as there are food pantries always in need at that time. It also reminds me of how thankful that I am to have a deep larder.
  10. Buy in bulk. It is more cost-effective. If possible, when replacing your long-term storage, try to buy additional at that time. The long-term storage rotation is in five-gallon buckets and other large storage objects. It is easier to do the rotation all at once.
  11. Check expiration dates when you buy an item. This was something we were really good at initially, and it has paid off. While we may have waited a bit too long to use them, it does help extend the life of the food that you buy.
  12. Storage practices are important. Rodents and insects are drawn to stored food, no matter where you live. We have cats and traps, and we still find the occasional mouse. Food that was left in cardboard boxes or plastic bags and left for any amount of time was compromised. We like to store items, like a bag of sugar or flour, in larger plastic totes with locking lids. This provided adequate protection as far as we could tell. Vacuum sealers are also wonderful inventions and have helped greatly with our storage abilities. Ultimately, I would prefer a metal container with the vacuumed packed good inside it.
  13. A second note on storage practices. One of our decisions was to keep items of like-kind in boxes for easier storage, but as we were not at our retreat location, we needed the ability for easy removal in an emergency (should there be time to take extra food). While this helped in storage, it made the rotation a bit more difficult. Keeping items in plain sight does help usage and rotation and allows you to quickly see what you have and what you do not. If you still plan on keeping items stored in boxes, use large labels or even labels off the item itself to help mentally remind you.
  14. We have also had some philosophical changes. We are much more aware of our food and simply distrust the corporations and governments that tell us everything is healthy and fine. While I would say we were always mindful, we have become increasing alarmed at the penetration of GMO’s, products made in China, seafood from the Pacific near Japan or Gulf of Mexico, foods grown with chemicals (non-organics), anything provided by Monsanto; and highly processed foods. Most of you may not realize that Subway (a place I think of as somewhat healthy) just removed a plastic stabilizer from their bread recipe. Items we purchased in 2010 with no concern are not as appealing to us now, and we realize we will not eat these items unless there are no other choices.
  15. Focus. We have learned to focus on our long-term goals but also keep it immediate. This means we are looking to ensure we have enough for our immediate family. While it is nice to consider others, there is no doubt if this is really needed, they will show at the door. It is impractical to plan for this scenario. Instead of planning for friends and family members who have ignored your warnings and show up with their hat in hand, plan additional years for your family. Plan for you. Early on we got caught up in “what if so and so arrives”? What about this other person? The best advice I can give is if they are important to you, tell them to be prepared. Otherwise, you may purchase items not intended for you and your family.
  16. Balance pantry purchases with food tools. Items that should be considered are home grain grinders (powered or manual), canning equipment, storage equipment, et cetera. Again, there are tons of information on the Internet, but if you plan to hunt game, investigate getting a sausage press (average cost of $150) versus having a butcher do it for you. It is more work, but once you find a recipe you like, the sausage is much tastier. Plus, you know exactly what meat and ingredients are contained within. Being economical, I have bought a lot of items second hand at garage and estate sales. Some of it is better than modern day; other times, as we learn and get better, we purchase something that fits our needs more appropriately. Appropriate equipment allows you to get greater variety out of basic foods.

    As an aside, since the weekend we went through our pantry, our Kitchen Aid mixer died. The comparable mixer model to my grandmother’s, which lasted forever, is the professional Kitchen Aid, which runs approximately $700. This is a clear example of inflation. The average models are good for cakes but not for bread, especially hand-ground flour, which is a bit tougher. We are looking at Bosch, Swedish DLX, or possibly a second hand floor model industrial Hobart. Our needs change as we do more ourselves, but in the meantime, my family is getting an additional workout kneading dough.

  17. While JWR does not like recommendations that you have not done, this one is not a life and death matter. I think it would be a good idea to keep a food log and track what we really eat, including what is wasted or discarded. However, with everything we have going on this is ultimately too time-consuming for us right now. However, if things settle down, tracking exactly what we eat would help us improve our pantry. Still, planning a strategic pantry requires you to consider years ahead. Neither of my children are teenagers yet, so I fully anticipate them to eat more and differently as they age. However, certain basics should be able to be identified. The longer a food log would be kept, the greater the understanding of eating habits and needs.

At the end of the day, we threw away about $100 dollars worth of food. We have $150 in food that we will not eat before expiration, which we have donated to charity. There is another $100 dollars that we are searching for a home; it is expired but still good. Many food pantries do not accepted canned goods that have expired and with good reason. While canned food should last past their expiration, the canning process is not the same as it once was. When we open the expired food, some of it has gone bad, and so we are very careful not to make ourselves ill at the expense of saving a few dollars. While I am comfortable with giving these canned goods away, I want a charity that understands that some of the dates have expired and not create extra work for them. At this point though, while I have read of charities on the Internet that accepted expired canned goods, I have not found one nearby.

This is really only a minor setback. If we were not planning to move, it could have become worse. Additionally, it aggravates me as I could have several more 5-gallon buckets of wheat berries or a decent ammo reloading station instead. Experience is a great teacher, which is why I am sharing with all of you.

One additional alternative that we cannot take advantage of is utilizing the expired food to supplement as animal feed. If we had pigs or chickens, we could supplement their food, with restrictions of course. While I prefer to give it to those who are needy, this is a potential use for those who have the opportunity. It prevents completely wasting it, if there are no nearby charities. If we were at our retreat, a good majority that had gone bad would have been composted.

Of the food that we are giving to charity, we are very careful about OPSEC. I do not want to arrive at a food bank with a trunk load of canned goods of varying types, from various stores, all about to expire in the next six months. To me that would announce that this is someone who takes great efforts to manage their pantry, which implies that it is well-stocked. To minimize our presence, we have broken the items down into local grocery store shopping bags (which are less obvious and more common than boxes). Our plan is to take a bag or two to our church pantry every weekend, not all at once. If we need to get rid of it quicker, due to our move, I would take them to different pantries since most churches do have a food pantry. If I had issues with a large bucket of wheat berries that I needed to give away, I would most likely drive a bit away to donate to ensure nobody recognizes me and make it difficult to identify my home location. A donation of wheat berries would be a key identifier as someone who has a deep pantry. As food scarcity increases, make plans on how to be charitable without being obvious.

The thought of having to experiment with canned food to determine if it is safe is unappealing. It makes me think of Mad Max eating dog food. There are many articles about how long food can last in cans, and I am not going to go into detail, since it is readily available on the Internet. However, the expiration dates are designed to protect the company, not you. After these dates, the company who produced the item is basically telling you to eat at your own risk in order to protect them from lawsuits, which have occurred. Otherwise, there would be no dates. Food poisoning is common, and every time we eat food with an expired date, we make a judgment call. This would be much harder in a TEOTWAWKI situation, when you have to make a choice to starve or possibly poison yourself, without any medical treatment available.

To close, I want to leave you with some last thoughts. To sum up the experience, the biggest mistake we made is trying to buy security. We are financially stable and spent our money in an attempt to secure our family and build a deep larder, dependent on the current food processing system. Everybody eats. A loaf of bread is a common staple. Prepping is more than just having extra flour on hand to make bread. Prepping is a lifestyle choice; it’s a philosophy of understanding how and practicing to take a wheat seed and cultivate a field, winnow, and mill into flour, and bake a loaf of bread, and share alike with family, friends, and strangers, and have enough left over to do it again next year. There is a great amount of satisfaction when the food on your table is wrought from your own hands. The food is tastier and healthier, and there is a whole lot less waste. Once you can accomplish this feat, you no longer worry what your children will eat. You no longer make panicked or spur of the moment purchases to stock your pantry. Your choices become simpler,and when you do buy food at the grocery store, you consider first what it would take to make it yourself and how, exactly, did it get here. Our family is not quite there yet, but we are getting closer. After looking back over the last four years, I am hopeful to see what we discover in the next four. Good luck and good prepping.

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