I have held my hungry child in my arms as I stared at a nearly empty pantry. What no one ever tells you is the mix of emotions you feel: how it shreds your heart with self-disappointment, knots your stomach with guilt, and seizes your chest with a sense of panic—all at the same time. I’d like to share my story about why I now maintain a supply of stored food and why you should too.

I Learned the Hard Way

It was Friday September 19, 2008. Hurricane Ike had ransacked Houston six days earlier, shattering windows, flooding local businesses, and bringing life to a momentary standstill. Our natural gas and electricity were still out and would be for an additional five more days. Around seven in the morning, my 18-month-old son woke up hungry. I placed him on my hip, walked into the kitchen, and opened the pantry. I remember raking my eyes desperately over the white enamel painted shelves where I could see one or two faint rust rings left by cans that were unloaded during a downpour and carelessly put away damp. The usual, familiar smell of dried grains, pasta, crackers, and cookies were absent because our food was nearly gone. 

Whose Responsibility Was It to Warn Me?

I had been completely unprepared for my first hurricane. Unbeknownst to me, grocery stores were emptied within hours of a storm being forecasted to make landfall days before it actually happened. I did not know that stores were unlikely to be restocked until delivery trucks could safely enter the city, long after a storm had passed. It never occurred to me that if the grocery stores suffered water damage from 100 mile-per-hour rain forced through broken windows (like our local stores had) they would remain closed for almost a week until repairs could be made. No one told me I should have had at least a week’s worth of easy-to-prepare food and that two week’s worth would have been even better. It was the first time I had ever lived through a natural disaster, and I was painfully naïve.

Minimalism Gone Wrong

As a young mother, I used to enjoy my tidy pantry with ample space between the food items so you could clearly see everything. The airy organization had a pleasant, minimalist feel, and it was easy to maintain by simply shopping every three days. I never kept extra food on hand; I would rather spend my money on décor or clothes. Indeed, my house was charmingly decorated as I stood holding my hungry child. 

What Will We Eat?

On my nearly bare pantry shelves was a box of dog biscuits, one-quarter of a bag of old and very sticky roasting marshmallows, a container of bread crumbs, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a bottle of vinegar, a bottle of olive oil, a can of baked beans, a box of orange Jell-O, an unopened bottle of mustard, and an almost empty bag of brown sugar. We had eaten the last of the white rice mixed with Campbell’s broccoli and cheese soup the night before. 

I remember feeling a deep sense of personal failure. How had I let this happen? It was not other people’s responsibility to tell me what to do if a hurricane came. I should have had enough common sense to realize living within thirty miles of an ocean brought such risks. Bemoaning my lack of wisdom, I gingerly took the can of baked beans from the shelf and went outside to heat them on the propane grill since the natural gas to our kitchen stove was out. Rumor had it that our repaired grocery store would be reopening today around 8 am, which I was grateful for. As I served my toddler a bowl of baked beans for breakfast, I vowed that I would never let my family face a disaster unprepared again. 

I Kept the Promise to Myself

We were living in the same house when Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston nine years later. Floodwaters trapped us in our neighborhood, surrounding us like an island and isolating us from nearby grocery stores. This time, my pantry was stocked with ample food, and I had even learned to bake bread from scratch. When neighbor children showed up five days after the storm, quietly confessing their own pantries were almost bare, I happily fed them lunch and snacks, understanding how scary that felt. My son, who remembered nothing from Hurricane Ike but still likes eating baked beans for breakfast, was free from the fear and food insecurity his neighborhood playmates experienced. 

A Well-Stocked and Rotated Pantry

When I set out to create an emergency-ready pantry, I recruited my best friend to join me. Together, we learned the value of using airtight storage containers to keep foods fresh longer and rotated our supplies from front to back, just like how grocery stores restock their shelves. We stored only the foods our families ate, which included boxed dinners and sides, pasta, mac and cheese, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, chips, popcorn and cookies. We used whatever was in the front, and when I got home from the store, the row of food was scooted forward and the new item I had just purchased was placed in the back. It was a great way to keep everything fresh. 

Can You Put a Price on Peace?

One afternoon out of the blue, I got a call from my friend in tears. Her husband’s company had been bought out, and he had been unexpectedly laid off. Once the shock and heartbreak subsided, pragmatism set in. Ready and waiting to support their family was her well-stocked pantry. By the time the severance was spent and the stored food eaten, the first paycheck at a new job was on the way. Her advance planning allowed her to successfully navigate the family’s personal emergency. 

It Can Never Happen to Me

This is the most dangerous thought a person can entertain. I once assumed the same thing before a hurricane taught me otherwise. While hard experience is a good teacher, heeding another’s warning before you must face a challenge is always the best route. Learn from my mistake! If you stock your pantry with delicious foods your family enjoys eating, the worst thing that can happen is you eat it all! It is there if you ever need it. It’s even there if you throw an impromptu get-together and need to feed a crowd. What a convenience preparedness can be!

Your Pantry As Insurance

Our cars carry a spare tire, just in case we ever get a flat. Our homes have smoke detectors, just in case there is ever a fire. Our families have insurance coverage, just in case we break a bone or need stitches. Our cars use fuel to haul the weight of that spare; we pay to power the smoke detectors with electricity or batteries and agree to insurance deductions from our paychecks, willingly trading a bit of money for peace of mind. Why not invest in a little pantry peace of mind as well?

Everything Is Fine Until It’s Not

Perhaps your area of the country is free from hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, wildfires, blizzards, ice storms, flooded roads, and downed power lines. The trouble is that most farming states are not and neither are all the roads between the food producers and your local grocer. Our just-in-time food delivery systems have worked out all right. This fact doesn’t really cross our minds because trucks bring food to the stores every day, which are restocked in the wee hours of the morning while we sleep, so the aisles always appear full and plentiful. Sadly, this is a façade that has become so familiar we forget reality until something out of the ordinary wipes the shelves clean in mere hours. 

Where Do I Begin?

My advice is to start by simply preparing space in your pantry or cabinets where you want to store food and maybe a few supplies, like dish soap. Once space is open, begin slowly adding various foods you regularly eat in a first-in-first-out type of system where you eat the oldest food first. (None of your food should pass the best by dates if you use this method.) It is better to store one or two of something you are sure to use than ten of something that was on sale which may end up going to waste. Products that may quickly go stale (like chips) or rancid (like peanut butter) should be stored in smaller quantities. Canned foods, grains, rice, pasta, and baking supplies can be stored in greater amounts for longer term. If you don’t eat it, don’t buy it just because you think you might eat it during an emergency. You won’t. In an emergency, you’ll want your favorite, most comforting, and easiest-to-prepare foods. 

Invest in Airtight Storage Containers

Spending a little extra upfront to buy sturdy, airtight storage containers will save you money in the long run as it keeps the food you have purchased fresher longer. The secret is that they must be airtight. I’ve kept Rice Krispies brand cereal crisp for six months this way. Yes, it may add to the cost of your pantry project, but in the long run, this is the best investment. Plus, airtight storage containers let you take advantage of buying items in bulk or splitting a large package of something with a friend or family member. My container of choice was gallon-sized grip jars from Uline.com with white metal airtight lids. They have held up beautifully for over a decade of daily abuse!  

Know Which Foods Last Longest

Most people know that honey does not go bad; it just crystallizes. But did you know that molasses is similar and keeps for years, especially if stored in a glass jar? Sugar, vinegar, and salt are all preservatives themselves so they don’t expire if kept closed and are not contaminated with foreign substances. These products can be a good place to begin your food storage journey. Dish soap, bar soap, and laundry detergent all have long shelf lives, too. Paper products, including most feminine items, do not expire. 

How Much Do I Store?

Start by having three days worth of food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Build up a small supply of toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, hand soap, and shampoo. If space allows and you enjoy the feeling of being prepared, consider maintaining a two to four week supply of regularly rotated food. 

How Do I Rotate All This? 

The best free rotation system I have come up with involves creating a single row of items I want to store. Whether the shelf holds three or eight, I neatly store only one row of that item. I grab and use whatever is in the front then make a note on my shopping list to buy another when I’m at the store next and go about my day as usual. When I get home from the store, I scoot the entire row of items forward and place the newly purchased item in the back. This keeps your inventory fresh and the products are used well in advance of their best by dates with no waste. 

What If I’m Just Not Ready to Do This? 

That’s okay! A great first step can be using the notes app on your phone to make a thoughtful shopping list of what you would need to buy if you had advance warning before a natural disaster. Such a list can keep you clear-headed when the grocery store is full of hurried people frantically trying to stock up just like you are. Arranging the list in the same aisle order of your favorite store will help ensure nothing is forgotten. Adding some needed preparedness items to your list such as batteries, a flashlight, a grill lighter, a propane tank refill, paper towels, disposable bowls, and cutlery and rehydration drinks can help you overcome the mental blanking-out that happens when we must think quickly during an emergency. Once your list is made, you could later use it to slowly build up a supply of favorite foods you always want to have on hand. This simple task can be a perfect start to preparing yourself and your family no matter where you live!

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Tay Silver is a writer, graphic designer, avid gardener, chicken keeper, and experienced hurricane survivor. She and her husband live outside of Houston, Texas.