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What is a survival food?

Survival food or emergency food is not something that you typically eat every day, but it is designed to be kept somewhere safe until your normal food supply runs out.  Most survival food is designed to be eaten after a disaster and before the arrival of humanitarian aid.  The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends having at least a 72 hour supply of food per person.   Survival food does not have to be specifically labeled “survival food” but could be any food that would be used to survive during an emergency.
Survival food comes in a variety of different forms; however, almost all food specifically labeled for emergencies is “shelf-stable” for at least 5 years.  Not all survival food needs to be labeled for survival.  Most survival food that people store is common ingredients for making normal food that we eat every day.  Some examples of survival food include:

  • nonperishable food
  • long term food storage
  • freeze-dried meals
  • MRE (Meals Ready to Eat)
  • high-calorie food bars
  • survival tabs

Nonperishable Food

The most common type of survival food is also the cheapest: nonperishable food.  Nonperishable food is simply buying and storing more food that you already eat like canned tuna, spaghetti, oatmeal, etc.  This type of survival food is the best for when you are just beginning a survival food supply, preparing for normal emergencies, and want to constantly use and rotate your survival food.

Try to have at least a 3 month supply of nonperishable food with stuff you already eat and enjoy.  Eating familiar food during an emergency can help you to avoid stress, waste, and morale.  Some people can spend less money on groceries by buying their food in bulk during case lot sales.  Others simply buy an extra bag of rice, a box of pasta, or can of food whenever they go shopping.  Do whatever works for you without breaking your budget.

Long Term Food Storage

The second most common type of survival food is long term food storage.  Long term food storage can last up to 30 years and is typically stored in pouches, #10 cans, and buckets.  Most long term food storage is simply less processed non-perishable foods that are sealed better.

This type of survival food can be bought in bulk too and should make up the majority of your year’s supply of food.  These foods are mostly dry ingredients that need to be prepared, combined with other ingredients, and cooked to make a meal worth eating.

Freeze-Dried Food


Freeze-dried food is the most marketed type of survival food.  While freeze-dried food requires boiling water to reconstitute and is more expensive than other survival foods, it has the ideal balance of weight, nutrition, and taste.  For this reason, it has become a staple in the backpacking and camping stores.  Many companies specialize in making freeze-dried food and offer survival kits including a three day’s supply of their brand of freeze-dried food.  I personally have a 3-day food supply of Mountain House’s freeze-dried meals in my disaster kit since they can be rehydrated with cold water, and I rotate them every time I go backpacking.

Freeze-dried food is a luxury in survival food, much like eating out or ordering pizza.  The ease of preparation, taste, and servings are especially appealing during stressful times.  If you can afford it and want to include it, then I would suggest buying freeze-dried food in #10 cans.  Some cans even have instructions on how to prepare the entire contents of the can at once for feeding a large group of people.  These cans can be rotated at family gatherings and camping trips.

Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)

Meals ready to eat, or MREs for short, are mostly used in the military; however, several MREs are available to civilians.  As their name suggests, this survival food can be eaten straight out of the pouch, but they can also be heated in boiling water or a special MRE warmer.  MREs do not last as long as freeze-dried food though, so they will need to be rotated every year or so.  Some people have MREs in their disaster kits since they don’t need boiling water, but many people prefer to use other survival food instead.

MREs are not a good survival food to store in bulk.  They can take up a lot of space, have excess packaging, and again do not last as long as other survival food.  Most people do not like the taste of MREs, so be sure to try one before you buy too many of them.

High-Calorie Food Bars

High-calorie food bars can maintain a 5-year life span even in extreme temperatures inside cars, boats, and RVs.  For this reason, they make a good addition to vehicle survival kits.  Some food bars are even “United States Coast Guard approved” due to their high nutritional value, shelf-life, and non-thirst provoking qualities.  I recommend only buying the US Coast Guard approved food bars because they are much higher quality in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition.  Cheaper food bars taste like ground-up graham crackers and have about the same consistency.

Food bars are very brittle and can be broken easily during transport and eating, so be careful if you have them in a backpack disaster kit.  It might be a good idea to put them inside of a mess kit or other container to keep the packaging from ripping or tearing.  Follow the instructions on the packaging to get the most out of them during an emergency.  You may want to include some gum or other food to snack on in between food bars.

Survival Tabs

Survival Tabs are the newest form of survival food.  According to their website, Survival Tabs are “the best possible nutrition in the smallest possible volume,” boasting a whopping “15 days’ food supply under 2 lbs.” Each survival tab, if taken as suggested, is supposedly 99% digested, providing your body with exactly what it needs with little waste (meaning excrement).  Many of their claims appear too good to be true, and it should be taken into account that they claim 240 calories as a full day’s supply of food.  In comparison, most nutritionists recommend a 1500 to 2000 calorie diet.

Some skeptics write survival tabs off saying that they simply do not provide enough calories for survival, but they appear to still have value as a food supplement or multivitamin.  Either way, they have the most nutritional value in the smallest volume, are easy to eat, and are decently priced.  They can be understandably thirst provoking, so make sure that you have drinking water on hand when eating.

Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom seeds are not technically a survival food, but the means to produce your survival food by growing your own.  Several companies market their survival seed vaults, but any heirloom seed will be able to reproduce indefinitely as long as you know how to preserve the seeds and do not create hybrids with other heirloom seeds.

I wouldn’t suggest buying heirloom seeds unless you already know how to garden and have the resources available to have one.  If you don’t know how to garden or would like to learn how to grow a more efficient garden, then I highly recommend reading Mel Bartholomew’s book “Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work.”

In this book, he breaks down how to plan out a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed garden system forming a 16 square foot grid where each 1-foot square can then be planted according to your needs.  He has several ideas that he shares throughout the book but here are some highlights:

  • He provides planting schedules for a continuous harvest of spring, summer, and fall crops.
  • He explains how to build vertical frames to maximize your growing space even further by growing upwards.
  • He teaches how to extend your harvest season by planting indoors earlier and protecting your plants from frost in the latter part of the season.

Which Survival Food Is Best?

Each survival food has it’s own advantages and disadvantages, so each one could be considered the best survival food is given a specific survival situation.

A year’s supply of food should consist of a 3 month supply of nonperishable food and a 9 month supply of long term food storage, freeze-dried food, and some heirloom seeds.  Meanwhile, an emergency survival kit could have any combination of freeze-dried food, MREs, food bars, and survival tabs.

All food needs to be rotated eventually, so a reliable way of keeping inventory and expiration dates is a must.  Most importantly, only stockpile survival food that you and your family are comfortable carrying, preparing, and eating.  If you want to read more about survival food supplies be sure to read my article about it.

Which survival food is your favorite?  Please let us know in the comments below.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,

Kenny Bradley 
Founder of Survive and Thrive with Permaculture

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