Food Storage: The Prepper’s Three Layer Plan

(Psst: The FTC wants me to remind you that this website contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it decrease the awesomeness of the item. ~ Daisy)

Author of The Prepper’s Pantry and creator of the course Build a Better Pantry on a Budget

Three is the luckiest number when it comes to prepping. There’s the old saying, “One is none, two is one, three is better.” There’s the Survival Rule of Three which is that you can hang on for “3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food.” And then there’s the approach that in all things survival, you need a layer of three, including food storage.

For example, Selco wrote an article a while back about layers when it came to bugging out. Basically, you need a layer close to you (as in on your person), a layer for more intense situations within easy reach, and another one someplace in your bag.

The Same is True With Food

Every prepared family should have multiple layers in their food storage. Let’s take a look at the three layers of food storage. (Don’t forget to take your family’s dietary restrictions into account when building your supply.)

  • Layer 1: Stuff with a shorter expiration date that you’d use if you can’t get to the store for a few weeks
  • Layer 2: Stuff that will last a year or so that you’ll use during power outages or longer-term emergencies
  • Layer 3: Stuff for all-out, apocalyptic long-term events in which there’s no such thing as grocery stores

(Note: Some of the links in these lists are affiliate links. If you buy them, I make a little money at no cost to you. If you don’t want to buy them, no problem at all – you can still take a peek to see the products that I use and recommend.)

My book, Prepper’s Pantry, goes into tons more detail but this is a great starting point. If you want even more information, check out my course, Build a Better Pantry on a Budget. And don’t forget, you can’t survive on just food alone. You’ll need to store water as well.

Here’s where you can get a printable copy of this article.

The First Layer of Food Storage

This is the easy layer. This is the stuff you turn to when something goes a wrong and maybe you can’t get to the store right away. These foods may or may not have an extremely long shelf life and generally require power to store or prepare.

They are the basics that you keep in your freezer, in canisters, and in the kitchen pantry.

A few examples are:

These are the items you’d substitute for fresh foods that make up a big part of your diet right now. You can easily throw together a great meal if you have an assortment of the foods above. *Try to mirror the foods your family normally consumes.

Chances are you have these foods in your kitchen right now that you already intersperse into your menus daily. I like to have at least – at least – a one month’s supply of these first layer foods. Having a supply that will see your family through at least a month means a short-term emergency will hardly be noticeable to your family. Also, this will help ensure they experience very little difference in the way they normally eat.

A bunch of us did the Stockpile Challenge in January. During this challenge lots of folks found they had enough first level foods on hand and their families didn’t realize they hadn’t been to the store for an entire month.

The Second Layer of Food Storage

The second layer is made up of two parts. The items included are generally shelf-stable for at least 6 months. And, will most likely be a bit different from what you normally eat.

a) scratch cooking ingredients: these ingredients are the items used to bake bread, make pies, thicken sauces, and sweeten food. Here’s a list of essential scratch cooking ingredients.

b) the things that will see you through a totally different type of emergency: this is the stuff you crack into when the power goes out for an extended period of time. These are what you eat when you’ve gone through all your first layer supplies and things aren’t looking up. You’ll go through these foods first in an all-out epic disaster that changes the way you live.

A few examples of b items:

  • Boxed pasta or rice side dishes
  • *Canned beans
  • *Canned chili
  • *Canned fruits
  • *Canned meat and fish
  • Canned pasta and ravioli
  • *Canned soup
  • *Canned vegetables
  • Cooking oil
  • Crackers
  • Dry Milk
  • Granola bars
  • *Jams and Jellies
  • Jarred or Canned Sauces
  • Oats
  • Pasta
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn
  • Potato flakes
* indicates that the food could be either store-bought or home-canned.

Obviously, you’ll also want to have a can opener on hand.

The thing that most folks these days will find a bit different is the need to eat preserved fruits, vegetables, and meat instead of fresh. Frozen, like in level 1, is pretty similar to how we normally eat, so this could be a challenge for finicky family members.

You can mitigate this to some degree by throwing some of these types of food into your everyday menus now. I know these things aren’t quite as healthy as the fresh foods we have the privilege to enjoy daily right now, but if you feel like you are truly going to need to rely on some of these items at some point, by sampling the foods, you can find your family’s favorites and stock up on those.

The Third Layer of Food Storage

There are sublayers to this, too.

a) Supplies/skills to produce and preserve your own food

b) The stuff that most folks think of when they think of preppers. It’s the longterm foods that will last, literally, for decades.

This layer is for a time when you’re in it for the long haul. Perhaps some world-changing event has occurred, there are no more grocery stores on the horizon, or you’re hunkering down for the foreseeable future.

One thing that lots of folks don’t consider is that no matter how many supplies you have, they’re not going to last forever – at some point, you’ll need to supplement your supplies with food you can grow or acquire. This means things like gardening, raising livestock, hunting, and foraging.   For this, section, not only do you need to stock up on seeds and gardening supplies, but you need to practice these skills right now when you have a grocery store as a backup.

For section b, we’re talking full-on bunker pantry with long-term food that has been carefully packaged and protected.

A few examples:

* Remember that freeze-dried foods are not the same things as the food you dry yourself in a dehydrator.  Home-dehydrated foods will not last for much more than a year, according to many accounts. Commercially freeze-dried food is your best option for long-term unless you have a high-quality freeze-drier like a Harvest Right.

You’ll need a high-quality manual grinder to turn the whole grains like wheat berries and dried corn into flour or meal that you can cook with. I have the Wondermill Junior.

It’s wise to pull a small amount of the long-term ingredients out before you stash them away for the long term so that you can learn to cook with them. Making bread from home-ground flour is a whole different animal than making it from commercial flour. Do some experimenting now so that you don’t waste food later.

Don’t Make This Common Mistake!

One mistake that I see a lot of new preppers making is that they go straight for the third layer without adding the items for layers one and two. The truth of the matter is, while it’s important to build a long-term stockpile, I believe the first two layers are actually more important.

That probably sounds outrageous on a preparedness blog, but there’s a method to my madness. We have to prepare for the things that are the most likely, not the apocalyptic scenarios that may or may not ever occur. I’ve often written that the number one thing we need to prepare for is personal financial hardship. I’ve experienced it myself and used layers 1 and 2 of my food storage extensively. I never even cracked into layer 3 during those difficult times.

If you’re new to prepping, start with layers 1 and 2 before you move on to prepare for a dystopian event. These items will serve you well during everyday events and if your money is limited, are far more practical.

For more information about building your stockpile, check out my book, Prepper’s Pantry or my course, Build a Better Pantry on a Budget.

What else would you add to the lists?

Obviously, these lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. Because of different budgets, dietary restrictions, and tastes, that would be impossible. What I hope is that this gives you something to think about when building your stockpile.

What other items would you add to the three layers of food storage?

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • We just opened a regular 6 lb. 9 oz. can of peaches with an expiration date of 2013 and we were amazed at how fresh they were. We bought the cans in 2012, so they lasted a good six years (at regular room temperature) and I am sure they could have gone a couple more with the shape they were in. Don’t sell regular canned goods short. They are a lot cheaper than freeze dried. They can be the poor prepper’s survival food. Some did spoil, can bloated, so occasionally check them, but spoiling will be obvious.

    • I bought cases of canned peaches when they were a $1 a can–the large 32 oz. can.
      That was when I first started stocking foods, so about 2008/2009.
      In 2015, I re-canned them in mason jars using a water bath canner.
      The taste deteriorated just a little, but I still am glad I didn’t lose any; taste still good.
      I do believe the can would have been affected after many more years.
      You’re right–don’t sell canned goods short..those I re-canned were in my house 6 years and one can only guess how long in the warehouse!!

    • “can of peaches with an expiration date of 2013 and we were amazed at how fresh they were”

      acids can corrode the can and introduce metals into the food.

    • We are still eating on 6 year old peanut butter. It is stale tasting to eat plain but it makes GREAT peanut butter oatmeal cookies. I think I just finished the 2015 canned tuna, still good. We just bless our food before we eat it!

      • Old Country Women, thanks for information, I can’t stand smell of stale PB so usually toss it – but now I can make cookies!

  • I just used a commercial biscuit mix that said “best by 2014” The mix was packaged in a cellophane bag inside the box and was just fine. I also opened a can of potatoes just to see if they were still good. (I was rotating things in my pantry and have several cans of potatoes). They were fine. I know I have had them for years. I used them in a casserole and browned them in a little butter first. I also paired them with a jar of home canned sauerkraut from 2012 and it was delicious. If properly stored, I think some of this commercial stuff will last a good long while. Great article.

    • “If properly stored, I think some of this commercial stuff will last a good long while”

      most of it will. the expiration date is carefully calibrated to ensure that single-point failures will occur infrequently enough that the legal costs incurred remain below the anticipated operating costs of the business. so yeah, the “best by” dates are usually quite conservative, but the more you push past them the more likely you are to encounter a single-point failure.

  • I am with the others….your first two layers will last a lot longer than the date on the packaging. (Those dates are random numbers anyway) As I go through my layer 2 items I leave some, on purpose, to see how long I can store things for real. I have eaten 2 year past date crackers, 18 months past date cereal (regularly, seems I have a dry cereal fetish and way way to much in the house at all times to eat it all fresh. LOL) Canned goods of several types 2 and sometimes 3 years past the date. The ONLY thing I have had taste “off” where granola bars with nuts in them. I ate one anyway. I didn’t even get an upset stomach so I ate the rest too. They were 9 months past their date. I am currently eating Trail mix with nuts, raisins, dried cranberries and several types of candy chips that is almost 2 years past it’s date. It’s ok. It has not made me ill, but the slight “off” smell is off-putting. I don’t have to finish eating it, but I hate to waste food, so I will. (limits my snacking too. )

    I love your articles. Thank you for all the time you put into research and writing.

    • I’ve been eating canned and packaged foods off & on since we were forced to lock down last year, as we couldn’t get to the market frequently. Fortunately we had been trying to get a year’s worth of food stockpiled since moving to Colorado in 2006, and we’re prepared for the situation… It was fantastic practice, I must say! But I discovered that cert packaged foods just don’t last past the expiration date on it, especially the ones with milk products in them. I tried Mac& cheese, finding almost universally the cheese sauce was off, often inedible. The same with pre-packaged potatoes with butter or sour cream flavors. The takeaway we got from the experience is that we should just go toward home canning all of our stockpile and leave convenience foods for today’s meals.

  • The MOST important and #1 thing on this list should be water. Otherwise nothing else matters. We rquire H2o to survive, anything dehydrated or freeze dried requires Water. Growing food requires Water….I could go on. It should be the very first item this list. Well? Rain Water collection system?. I just recently found plastic bathtub containers that if you have an emergency, you can fill them up. They have a pump too!
    Thanks for this info though, it’s great!

    • That is one reason that I pressure can dry beans in water. It would take a LOT of water to cook beans. Any water put in canned food can be ingested. I don’t usually add salt when I can for that same reason.

      • Agree about the pressure canning beans. I try to have a variety of, and a couple months worth, of beans on the shelf – ready to go. Still, I have buckets full of a variety of dry beans for future use. In a serious situation when you cook the beans, don’t throw the water away. Think re-use. Use the soak water for doing dishes or watering the flowers, or washing hands. The cooking water can be used as vegetable broth in other dishes. In fact, I save the water from my home-canned, salt-less vegetables in an old, empty, clean sour cream container in my freezer to use as broth in other homemade recipes. You are right. Conserve the water.

  • For many, those lists many be too much processed ingredients, sodium, industrial sugar and
    not enough complete nutrition.

    Almond butter and almonds levels 1 & 2. or peanut butter, but almond is nutritionally better.
    Honey, which we produce organically on our farm, crystallises after a while.
    A strong blender to make vegetable and fruit smoothies
    Aluminium foil, baggies, rubber bands, sponges, detergents, toilet bowl cleaner, Zippos, fluid and flints, machete, hatchet, tree saw, road flares, pepper spray, first aid kits, survival and repair manuals, back up mobile phone, rechargeable batteries in all sizes, rechargeable LED lamps, a variety of knives, steel, not alloy tools, spare glasses and contacts, cane/crutches, extra blankets, extra sunglasses, hard hats, extra boots/laces/socks.

  • The mention of coconut oil (that doesn’t require refrigeration) has new implications in this era of coronavirus threats:

    Study: Coconut oil contains molecules found to be effective against coronavirus, Monday, May 04, 2020 by: Ethan Huff


    Coconut oil’s history in destroying viruses including coronaviruses


    13 Evidence-Based Medicinal Properties of Coconut Oil, by Sayer Ji


    The neuroprotective benefits of coconut oil, March 29, 2019 by: Ralph Flores

    I didn’t know about the antivirus side when I switched to using coconut oil for making delicious scrambled eggs (per Fannie Farmer methodology) and for spreading on bread instead of butter.


    • Hi @Lewis,

      These articles were all excellent and also connected me to new websites I wasn’t aware of. Every morning, I do oil pulling with coconut oil for my oral health. I could certainly make my scrambled eggs with it. Do you have any experience with using it in your coffee? Do you take any by the tablespoon, like a medicine? The studies seem to suggest two to three tablespoons would be a good does to start with. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  • “What other items would you add to the three layers of food storage?”

    vitamins. alcohol. canned butter. dried bananas. whey.

  • I was glad to see that the dehydrated meal packs were not overly focused on. We can’t use any of the ones I’ve seen because of food allergies. We are focusing on from scratch cooking. Sure it takes up more room and doesn’t last as long but it does last

  • I love having food storage because I rarely have to go to the grocery store except for fresh items that I cannot grow or raise. I do restock what I have used occasionally of course, but just the freedom to be able to create so many things is awesome! Another idea to add to food prep are some good cookbooks that use everyday ingredients. I love the Taste of Home cookbooks for that reason and you can buy them used but in like new condition online ( I will let the readers guess where).

  • I really started taking this seriously last year. I’d always had baking goods and some condiments on hand, but this site has really helped me focus. We have layer 1 and layer 2 foods (BTW I use your list of “things to get every time you shop” when we have extra coin in the budget). We just finished laying in our gardens, and have many natural assets to pull ftom ( mint, onions, garlic, berries), and we have invested in more perennial berries for this year. A family member got us a grinder and 40lbs of wheat berries for Christmas! It was interesting to work with that flour, but it made excellent bread and homemade pasta. Plus, my hens are laying more than I can use right now, so trades to come. Thank you for never making this site about the nuke fallout buckets-it has its place, but skills and smarts are such better survival equity!

  • I think it’s also appropriate on this topic to discuss the various enemies of food storage. Some are well covered in print, but others not so much.

    One good article titled “Six enemies of food storage” is found here:

    which covers these:


    Other such enemies that list does not discuss are here:

    1. Occasional deceit by survival foods sellers on the quality of their products. A few years ago did an exposé about the ways in which that happens.

    Back in 2016, Mike Adams of ran an extensive forensic test on most of the major survival foods suppliers in this country, and found that most (not all) were secretly using GMO, MSG, hidden pesticides, etc, etc laden foods. The link he used to publish his results has since been written over, but I was able to find a snapshot of that page on the internet’s “eternal” memory at, here:

    2. The discussion of pests seems limited to animals or bugs, but does not cover the possibility of human predators or thieves.

    3. Another enemy is a long term bugout — especially where you might never be able to return. The California wildfires would be a ghastly example. When you are limited in what you can take with you, and when you might never be able to return, there’s potentially a lot of food storage “gone with the wind.”

    4. A final enemy of food storage is potentially you (or yours) developing one (or many) medical condition(s) so that you can no longer eat or safely digest some types of foods that you have spent real money and much time acquiring.


  • Great post in a timely manner. Folks are a little too focused on guns n ammo right now but I really believe food is next.
    Do what you can with what you’ve got

  • I only have one comment to make and it’s regarding the “non-fat dry milk”. In the Zombie Apocalypse (lol), we need all the carbs and calories we can pack on. I’d highly recommend full-fat dry milk instead of non-fat. It’s readily available and stores exactly the same as non-fat.

    • I thought the fat content seriously shortened its shelf life? That is why they suggest the fat free kind.

      • I rotate ours because we use it for cooking. It could also be that where we live is cooler, so storage in the basement keeps our goods fresh longer than in a more heat-intensive location.

    • 1 gallon of non-fat dried milk plus a teaspoon of butter should give you regular milk. I’m not sure where i came across that and I haven’t tested it. But for those that can’t find regular milk it may be an option.

      I have whole milk that I bought about 2017 for a DIY hot chocolate experiement that was good past the expiration date. It was double sealed in ziplock bags.

  • Question-those food buckets list 4 servings per envelope. What do you do if there are only 2 people to feed? I have been to several sites and they all seem to sell the same quantities.

    • Get out your measuring cup and measure the entire contents of the envelope. Then fix exactly HALF of the contents for that meal, reserving the rest of a different meal. (Use half the water, etc) HOWEVER, I have “sampled” those meals that “Feed 4” and they really don’t. MIGHT feed 3. If we are in a truly horrible place in history, your body might need those extra calories, so nothing would go to waste, Just be sure to factor in the actual number of servings you find they make for your appetite into your prepping figures.

  • My health condition makes it so difficult to mentally process prepping. It’s good to see it broken down into steps. My extra challenge is prepping with food allergies: gluten and dairy.

  • “What other items would you add to the three layers of food storage?”

    Well, I live in Kentucky, so I’d have to add bourbon. 🙂

    The last year, with empty shelves at the grocery store, has taught me the importance of stocking up on food. Figured that out before I started reading your site. I’m at the point now where I could go a few months without the grocery store. Sure, I wouldn’t have everything I want, but I’d survive. And now I’m adding gardening to the mix – just got a garden plot from my apartment complex so it’s time to learn while the grocery stores are still open.

    And I’m with you on the coffee – can’t get through an apocalypse without it!

  • One thing to be aware of: while white rice may last longer than brown, it’s not as nutritious. White rice is mostly carbohydrate. All of the really good stuff is in the hull, which means brown rice. B vitamins most notably, are in the hull.

    • Brown rice goes bad crazy fast. So unless you can a special way to store it I would suggest against it. Look for way that will keep smaller packages safe as you don’t want a bucket of this stuff open. It will be useless before you can eat it all. I get that the nutritional value is way better than white rice but it will do you no good if it is rancid.

  • Use the practice of confit to preserve things.

    I took two pork chops from my own hogs, cooked them in fat which I rendered myself from the same hogs (someone mentioned in other article about how rendering fat smelled bad, when I do it, it smells like something is being roasted, not bad smelling at all). Let the fat cool and solidify. Then pour some warm fat on top to make sure the pork is covered. Cover with a lid, plastic wrap, etc. Place in a cool, dark place. I let it sit for three months. Reheated the pork and fat till just simmering, pulled the pork out and ate it. Was fantastic.

    You can confit lemons too, but using salt.
    Cut the lemons into halves or quarters, put in a non-reactive container, and pour kosher salt over them. Add more lemons, more salt till the container is full.
    Let sit in a cool dark place for about a month or so. They will turn a brown color but they are fine. Rise and use in soups, brighten up pasta dishes and salads. They keep for months.

      • Likely because the iodine would react with the carbohydrate and it would turn unpleasant colors.

        Kosher salt is large flake and is used in meat to absorb blood faster out the the flesh- but in the case of fruit I’d guess sea salt without iodine would be fine. But that’s a guess.

  • The “Best By” date on canned goods is a marketing ruse to get you to discard perfectly good food items and replace them with new ones. Don’t fall for it.

  • I would add the ability and knowledge on how to purify water to food storage layers. Without potable water all the food in the world isn’t going to do you any good….you can’t prepare it and you won’t be alive longer than 3 – 4 days to eat it.

  • thanks for the article, and for all the comments.
    My third layer, will need to be started by 2022 . I don’t have the perfect controlled conditions required for it to last 20 -25 years, so I shaved a few years off the end dates. I figured, it will come in handy, as food prices continue to rise, and I will need to use $$ for taxes and insurance payments. I also try to focus on buying freeze dried, since veggies and fruits, and cheeses, can be eaten straight from the can, more like a snack. I think freeze dried cheese is better than potatoe chips and just as additive.
    To much emphais is put on “buy what you eat”, in layer 2. In my household we buy what we can afford, and use spices, sauces and such to make it more to our liking. If I buy something, that we just rather not eat, we can use it to barter for something special later, or donate to a food pantry. But, as my Mom use to say ” If you really are hungry, you will eat what is in front of you!”

  • I think it’s good to consider that if we hit the apocalyptic level of events, people will be on the move. You have to be able to walk away from what you have — or at least a good amount of it. That will be an enormous emotional feat right there for some people.
    Having some freeze-dried things that can be thrown in every open spot in your vehicle (along with shelter, clothes, container garden veggies (in season)) would be good.

  • Here are a couple of general rules I have come up with from my experience. 1. Dried foods last a lot longer than wet. Dry beans and whole grains last longer than canned beans for instance. Whole grains still have nature’s packaging which keeps them good longer. Flour doesn’t last much longer than a year but whole wheat is good for 20 or 30 years. We are still eating rice that we bought at the grocery store and put in glass jars 20 years ago. Popcorn will not pop after only a couple of years. My chickens will not eat the old beans even if I cook them. They don’t like the popcorn either. They love the rice, even when it has a strange smell from well over 20 years of storage. 2. The temperature of the storage area makes a big difference. We prepped a bug out bag with some canned beans, granola bars, crackers etc. and put it in the garage in the spring for hurricanes or whatever. At the end of hurricane season in October we decided to eat it. None of it was edible. The heat in the garage had destroyed it. I kept my stored food in an air conditioned room on the north side of the house after that. The only window was blocked off so it was always dark. That worked much better. If you store dry food packaged in mylar bags from the grocery store you should be aware they won’t keep bugs out. Put those items in plastic, or mylar bags and the stuff in boxes in a sealed bucket or similar to keep out bugs or rodents. There is a lot to learn. I have a Harvest Right freeze dryer. It works good but I’m not a cook. The freeze dried meals I have purchased taste a lot better. I saved some seeds from the garden last year. Only a few squash plants sprouted this spring. Gardening is not my forte. Thank you Daisy, your website is a great help.

  • First world problem, I am out of storage space. Living in Florida food products have to be kept air conditioned. All my pantry space and part of my bedroom is taken up. My wife has forbid me from buying any more then weekly use items.

    I could super insulate a detached room I have and put a small AC in it. Of course that would quickly spoil if no power was available. I would need my own power source. Another good augment for getting an off grid solar system. My wife hates the heat and a good sized system could power our home ac as well.

    Luckily I can afford that too. I live on a large acreage and have already cleared the land of trees on the south side of my home. Time to get busy.

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