How to Store and Protect Food Long-Term

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Photo by Queren King-Orozco

With all the time and money you’ve put into having a food pantry, you’ll want to make every effort to protect it. Nothing is more disappointing than seeing your food investment ruined by natural elements or bugs. Knowing what your food’s worst enemies are, understanding how they can infiltrate and ruin your food, and then taking steps to prevent their havoc will help you preserve your food investment for the long term.

Everything from sunlight and moisture to bugs and bacteria can damage your food. If you’re planning to store long-term foodstuffs, such as rice, beans, dry milk, or sugar, you’ll want to consider repackaging those items. Companies package most of the dry goods we purchase for short-term use, meaning those goods likely won’t hold up during long-term storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also allows certain defects in our food sources, with mold, insects, and insect eggs on the list of approved defects.

Any of the following food-storage products will help your stores last longer than if you hadn’t repackaged them, but I recommend the multi-barrier approach that my family uses, detailed at the end of this article.

Food-grade 5-gallon buckets are popular among those who store bulk quantities of food, probably because they’re an excellent choice for food storage. Typically, a food-grade container has the number “2” stamped inside the recycling symbol or with the acronym “HDPE” stamped below it. Before you place any food inside the bucket, clean it with soapy water, and then rinse and dry it thoroughly.

Additionally, make sure the lid you purchase for your container is airtight and spill-proof. Lids with gaskets and gamma lids are both good choices because they don’t require a lid opener. They’re typically a little more expensive compared with traditional bucket lids, but they’re easier to open and close, and are worth every penny.

Food liners made from polyester film, such as Mylar bags, are another option for storing your dry goods for the long haul. In my book The Prepper’s Cookbook, I noted that research has shown that oxygen seeps slowly through the walls of plastic containers over time. Consequently, natural elements and even insects can find a way inside the container. Adding a polyester film liner will ensure there are multiple barriers to protect the food. The thickest grade (5 millimeters or more) is a worthwhile investment for your food-storage endeavors. The added benefit of using polyester bags is that they can last up to 20 years, and, because they’re so durable, you can reuse them.

Oxygen absorbers, which inhibit the growth of aerobic pathogens and molds, greatly prolong the shelf life of stored food. Oxygen absorbers begin working the moment they’re exposed to oxygen, so work as efficiently as possible after you open the package. One way to do this is to prepare all of your containers, noting how many oxygen absorbers you’ll need. Then, you can take out the oxygen absorbers from their sealed package and quickly seal the remaining oxygen absorbers using a food sealer. Oxygen absorbers come in assorted sizes, so you’ll want to pay attention to the proper size for each container (refer to the table “Oxygen Absorber Size Requirements”). Typically, you should expect to add 2,000 cubic centimeters (cc) of oxygen absorbers to one 5-gallon bucket. Oxygen absorbers aren’t edible, but they’re nontoxic and won’t affect the smell or taste of your stored food.

Desiccant packets moderate the moisture level within a container. However, they don’t absorb the moisture. Please note that desiccant is inedible, and if a packet somehow breaks open and spills onto your stored food, you’ll need to throw away the entire contents of the container. Desiccant shouldn’t be used with certain food items, such as flour, sugar, and salt. These items need a certain amount of moisture to stay edible; otherwise, they’ll turn into a hard brick.

Food-grade diatomaceous earth provides a more natural approach to food storage. Diatomaceous earth is comprised of the fossilized remains of diatoms. It’s organic and safe to use on food, and acts as insect repellent and desiccating agent combined. You can add 1 cup of diatomaceous earth to each 25 pounds of food. 

Seal Your Food Using a Multi-Barrier Process

While there are multiple ways to ensure food sources are properly stored, in my home, we use a multi-barrier approach. Keep in mind that this storage method is for dry foods you plan to store for a year or longer. Sealing food using a multi-barrier process isn’t difficult, but it does take some time. When my family is ready to seal food, we set aside a few hours to do a bulk store. Our food stays as fresh as the day we sealed it, and in 10 years of storing food, I’ve never had an issue with food spoiling or being ruined by bugs using this method. You’ll need the following items:

  • Food-grade 5-gallon bucket with lid
  • Polyester food storage bag (5 millimeters in thickness)
  • Oxygen absorbers and desiccant packets
  • Diatomaceous earth (optional)
  • Heat clamp, flat iron, or some other method for sealing the polyester bag 

The Sealing Process

  1. Place a properly sized polyester food liner in a clean, dry plastic container. For example, if you’re using a 5-gallon bucket, you’ll want to use an 18-by-28-inch or a 20-by-30-inch bag.
  2. Put an oxygen absorber in the bottom of the bag. (You’ll be adding an oxygen absorber to the top as well.) Add a desiccant packet to the bottom of the bag only if the food item calls for it.
  3. Begin pouring food into the polyester bag. When the bag is about half full, shake it to make sure the food gets into all the crevices of the bag.
  4. Continue adding food to the polyester bag until the bag is 3/4 full. Put another oxygen absorber on top of the contents.
  5. Begin folding the polyester bag down to release any trapped air.
  6. Using a heat clamp or a flat iron on its highest setting, create a seal across the bag in a straight line, leaving the last 2 or 3 inches unsealed.
  7. Push out the remaining trapped air, and then finish sealing the bag.
  8. If you wish, put another oxygen absorber on top of the sealed bag in the storage container, and secure the lid.
  9. Place your container of food in a dark storage area where temperature, moisture levels, and sunlight don’t fluctuate.

There you have it! This is one of the best ways to prolong the longevity of your food to ensure you have plenty for years to come. When I first began my food pantry, I never imagined that the food I stored in 2007 would still be feeding my family today!

Food is an investment into your future and your family’s livelihood. Therefore, you must do all you can to protect that investment. Using a multi-barrier system will ensure that the food is stored in optimal conditions and that the contents inside are protected for years to come.