Cyclists have a saying: Light. Strong. Cheap. Pick two. (You can’t have all three; all choices involve trade-offs.)
Prepper food has to shelf-stable. At least some of it needs to be easy to cook with minimal resources. There’s a lot of other things we’d like it to be too, but we can’t have it all at once. So what’s most important? It’s often not the stuff that is most promoted in the advertising, that’s for sure.
(By the way, I’m not a doctor or registered nutritionist, so these aren’t professional recommendations. I am a biologist with a professional interest in this field.)
Short term supplies
For short term supplies (such as a three-day bag), there’s not a big ‘critical’ list. Nobody’s going to get vitamin deficient inside of a week. So what Is really needed?
- Calories: Necessary but obvious; all I’ve got to add is that while lack of food won’t kill a person in short order, it will inhibit the ability to be very physically active (especially for those unused to such efforts) and make hypothermia much more likely if exposed to cold.
- Not too much salt: If you have hypertension, a big spike in sodium intake coupled with the stress that leads to living off of emergency supplies is a very bad combination. More on hypertensive crises in another post, but really; you don’t want one. The ‘add water and eat’ prepper meals are sometimes ridiculously rich in sodium.
- The right amount of sugar: Sugar and foods that quickly spike blood sugar, such as pasta. A lot of people can manage their own blood sugar quite well even with an unkind diet and don’t need to worry about this one. There are a whole lot of others who are either diabetic or otherwise bad at managing their own blood glucose who can’t afford to be so careless. If this is you or someone you care about:
Keeping fast sugar sources at hand can rescue a body from a blood sugar crash. Runners call these ‘hitting the wall’, cyclists call it ‘bonking’, nobody calls it fun. You get clumsy, stupid, unmotivated, nauseous, shaky, and may break into a cold sweat with a racing pulse. Finally, a good use for those ‘orange drink’ envelopes that are so prized by manufacturers of emergency foods (because they’re so cheap to produce.)
Except for when bonking, people who aren’t good at handling blood glucose save themselves trouble if they avoid eating a lot of sugar, pasta, crackers, rice, or similar ‘fast carb’ foods. The high blood sugar caused by these things can be dehydrating maybe cause worse problems, and make an episode of low blood glucose on the rebound more likely.
- Fiber: Many prepper foods have very little, especially the very compact emergency bars. Even a few days of this diet can stop you up like a cork. It may sound like a minor deal, but it can be way more serious than that. Stool softeners in the emergency kit can help. (They tend to melt in the heat though. Not that I’ve had my supply turn into a ziplock-shaped pancake of pills. … *cough*)
You’re not going to need to be carrying this around, and there’s more latitude on how easy it is to prepare, so some aspects are easier than for the short-term food. The flip side is you actually need more nutrition in it if you want to stay well. All of the elements mentioned under short term still apply, plus there are additional considerations:
- Protein: Most Americans get a lot more of this than is really necessary, so it’s not hard to get enough, but it is important. If one goes too cheap on the stored food, it can be too much ‘white foods’ such as pasta and white rice; and that food has very little protein. If your budget is tight, beans and powdered milk and eggs are both very cheap and have good protein.
- Micronutrients: This includes vitamins and minerals. You don’t need a lot of any of them, but having them is indispensible. Some of these are worth special attention:
- Vitamin C is in lots of foods, including ones easy to put in preps such as tomatoes and fruit, so it’s not hard. Don’t skimp though, scurvy isn’t anything to laugh about once it leaves the realm of pirate curses.
- If your preps are vegan (no meat, eggs, or dairy), Vit B12 can be a problem. If your ‘meat’ preps are textured vegetable protein (a good choice on many levels), make sure you’ve got B12 in eggs or fortified foods, or nutritional yeast.
- Vitamin D has turned out to be surprisingly important for the immune system, in addition to its better known role of helping you pick up calcium from your food. In addition, many people are Vit D deficient on any given day. We can make our own Vit D if we get good sun exposure, so this problem is a winter thing in colder climates. (I’ve even seen a hypothesis that Vit D deficiency is the Real reason flu and colds are mostly winter problems.) Vit D is rare in foods, so we fortify milk with it. If you’re buying milk powder, you might make sure it’s fortified. Many brands are.
- Potassium is a mineral that opposes sodium. Since so many prep founds are high in sodium, that makes getting enough potassium even more important (particularly for people with high blood pressure issues). Some fruits and vegetables are good sources.
Pro tip: Nutritional Yeast is not a food most of us grew up on, but you might consider trying some and maybe putting some in your short-term preps (it’s good for a couple of years, not forever). Its name is not a lie; it’s astoundingly nutritious, with lots of protein and an abundant supply of important nutrients. It serves a similar purpose as cheese, and can be sprinkled on lots of foods for to add savor.
Pro tip: The very best place to get many of the vitamins is fresh food, particularly greens. The pill versions just don’t serve as well in real diets. The good news is that some greens are very easy to grow, and wouldn’t take much space if that’s limiting.
Updated: When I copied this article over from where I wrote it in my word processor, some important headings disappeared. I’ve put them back.