Living on emergency food rations
Having a good supply of long-life food is essential for being self-sufficient in the event of a major natural disaster.
While having a couple of tins of beans down the back of the pantry will keep you going for a couple of days, to ensure you’re well fed in an emergency, you need enough food and water for each person in your household for at least three days. On top of that, you need to have an annual check-in to make sure food hasn’t expired or been damaged in the past 12 months.
To test alternatives to the spaghetti and beans diet, we sent out two staffers to live on some different solutions of emergency food for a week.
James – the ‘can’t someone else do it?’ approach
I’m a lazy millennial and couldn’t think of a worse task than having to manage emergency food. But I desperately need a solution because a quick check of my pantry revealed one tin of chickpeas and some tinned tomatoes – hardly enough to keep me and my wife happy for three days. A little research revealed that I’m not alone in wanting someone else to manage things, and there are plenty of suppliers out there selling food that’ll keep someone sustained for years. That sort of extended timeline is in the realms of Doomsday Preppers, so I decided to go for an emergency pack of dehydrated food that was sufficient for seven days.
The kit I went for is put together by Back Country Cuisine, a local brand operating out of Invercargill. If you’ve been into an outdoors store in New Zealand, you might’ve seen its dehydrated tramping food on the shelves. For $200, you get 21 meals – seven helpings of porridge, seven of honey soy chicken and seven of beef curry.
The best part about dehydrated food is that it lasts for ages. Mine had a best-before date of February 2026 – that eliminates the yearly check for the next four years! I like that sort of hands-off approach. What I don’t like, though, is feeling hungry.
When I finally managed to prise open the bucket, I saw that the meals were labelled “small” – uh-oh. Even more worrying for me was when I added up the energy on offer: 1094 calories (4577 kilojoules) a day. As a giant who lives in a gym, I’m used to feeding myself more than 3000 calories (12,550kJ). I panicked – this sounded like a starvation diet. I diarised the week in thinking future generations would read of my untimely demise, much like Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trip to the South Pole.
Day 1 (110.4kg)
These meals are simple. You rip off the top, add 250ml of boiling water, stir and leave for 10 minutes.
Breakfast: The porridge is delicious, with little bits of rehydrated fruit and a sachet of sugar to sprinkle on top. It just tastes so good and not at all stodgy. This week might be all right after all. I ate breakfast at 8.10am. Incredibly hungry by 9.30am. Ravenous by 12.
Lunch: Honey soy chicken tastes okay. Pleasant sweetness to it all, with bit of rice. Chicken like a dish sponge. Inhaled the lot in a couple of minutes before furiously scraping the insides of the packet with my spoon to hoover up the last of the nutrients.
Dinner: Beef curry smells nice – and tastes pretty good too. There’s a small amount of spice to make it mildly medium in terms of heat. There’s a minuscule amount of rice floating in the curry sauce. The beef rehydrates better than the chicken but it’s certainly not Wagyu. I’m hungry as anything.
Day 2 (109.6kg)
Breakfast didn’t touch the sides. Very low energy. Work performance dipping. Felt light-headed at the gym. For variety, I mix up my lunch and dinner to keep my tastebuds titillated.
Day 3 (108.6kg)
Body adapting. Feel low in energy but not as bad as yesterday. I enjoy not doing dishes, and dinner takes me 10 minutes to prepare. My wife cooked something delicious and now I’m sad.
Day 4 (107.9kg)
Working from home but I’d left my bucket of meals at work. Emergency trip in at 10am or I would’ve barbecued the cat.
Day 5 (108.1kg)
Woken up at 4am by hunger. How did I put on weight? Well only 200g. I actually love the porridge! I do not love the others. People are tiptoeing around me as I’m permanently ‘hangry’.
Day 6 (106.2kg)
Hunger a constant companion but doing fine. I went to the gym for five days straight and did my normal programme, albeit while getting pale and sweaty, and feeling like a fainting goat during my workouts.
Day 7 (106.9kg)
Another yoyo weigh-in. Must’ve been dehydrated yesterday. I am just going outside and may be some time.
It did what was advertised: I survived. However, I didn’t thrive and I wouldn’t want to go through that sort of thing again voluntarily. I’m OK with eating dehydrated food but not in horrendously small portions. It just doesn’t seem that generous for $200. Granted, I didn’t help myself by going to the gym still and that impacted my energy levels. I will consider making up my own dehydrated food pack in the future, just with more in it. Perhaps they can rebrand this bucket as a “miracle diet” and sell them in even greater volumes? After all, I lost 3kg in just one week.
Paul – the ‘fine emergency dining’ approach
I watched James open his plastic tub of dehydrated meals with undisguised amusement. There was no way I was living off the same menu every day for a week! So my challenge became how I could eat like a king (or at least create a palatable culinary experience) with food that would sit in an emergency box for a year, then be cooked on a camping stove.
It helps that I like creating spreadsheets, as I ended up with a monster one planning my week. The hardest part was uncovering best-before dates. The internet helped … who knew maple syrup keeps indefinitely? The internet does! But mostly I wandered supermarket aisles studying packages.
I created a menu, then shopped. Shopping changed the menu, as I found some products weren’t as long-lived as I expected (farewell instant ramen) and I uncovered hidden gems (hello Louisiana gumbo mix).
I overbought. It was likely a subconscious response to seeing the pitiful size of James’ meals, or perhaps my mum was right and my eyes really are bigger than my belly. This week wasn’t going to be a crash diet, for sure. I worked out I spent $211 and had plenty of open-jar leftovers at the end (the actual food I ate cost more like $120). I recorded all my food in the MyFitnessPal app.
Day 1 (7864kJ, 86.7kg)
Breakfast (2319kJ): I love breakfast, it’s the best meal of the day. But it turns out I don’t like oatmeal. And I had to ditch my morning coffee for green tea (I don’t like instant). This might be a long week.
Lunch (1963kJ): I tried to make my lunches really simple, mostly because I’d be making them at work. Today was instant miso soup with soba noodles. A dessert treat was 86% Ghana chocolate that was so good it would become a daily treat.
Dinner (3582kJ): MTR brand boil-in-the-bag mutter paneer and chana masala curries. Made in India and better than most takeaway curries. Two packets were probably a bit much, in hindsight.
Day 2 (6954kJ, 86.9kg)
Breakfast: I worked out that horrible oatmeal could become yummy bircher muesli (it’s a hot/cold thing). My long-life version was oats, coconut milk, water, dried apple, peanut butter, apple sauce, cinnamon, dried cranberries and goji berries. I couldn’t refrigerate it overnight, so I made it when I got up and ate it at work – which left the goji berries a bit chewy.
Lunch: Packet laksa soup and my daily chocolate treat.
Dinner: A bowl of Mexican beans, corn, dried shiitake mushrooms and extra-hot sauce. It didn’t feel like I was missing out.
Snacks: A few cashews and dried cranberries.
Day 3 (7532kJ, 86.7kg)
Breakfast: Bircher muesli and green tea.
Lunch: Sweet chilli tuna and macadamia oat crackers. Yes, I was surprised they had a 12-month best-before date too. Well, it was 10 months, but I’d risk they were fine after a year.
Dinner: Louisiana gumbo with chilli biltong sticks. And chocolate. I was drinking a lot of water and I had a headache. It could be caffeine withdrawal, but MyFitnessPal said I was eating a lot of salt.
Snacks: A handful of cashews.
Day 4 (6751kJ, 86.9kg)
Breakfast: Yes, bircher and green tea again. Not getting bored of it yet.
Lunch: Boil-in-the-bag dal makhani, followed by oat crackers and quince paste. I can feel James glaring at me. Quince paste!
Dinner: A big bowl of miso ramen made with soba noodles, ramen powder robbed from an instant ramen packet, canned teriyaki chicken, corn and dried mushrooms. My daughter thought the chicken looked like cat food.
Day 5 (7544kJ, 87.3kg)
Breakfast: Bircher. Tea.
Lunch: Today was Stagg Dynamite Hot Chilli day. I’d been looking forward to it. Yum!
Dinner: Pasta, puttanesca sauce, olives and mushrooms, followed by chocolate. Feels like a regular evening meal.
Snacks: A few cashews and dried cranberries.
Day 6 (6330kJ, 86.9kg)
Breakfast: Yep, you guessed it.
Lunch: The meal that felt thrown together turns out to be the best of the week. Canned chicken, dried mushrooms, lentils and chipotle sauce. I’ll be making this for lunch regularly.
Dinner: A can of hearty beef, vegetable and barley soup. I bought creamed rice for dessert, but Iearned from my day one oatmeal experience and remembered I didn’t really like it, so stuck with chocolate – which I do like very much.
Snacks: Got to eat up those oat crackers and quince paste. It’s a hard life, this survival lark.
Day 7 (6989kJ, 86.1kg)
Breakfast: As much as I like bircher and green tea, I am going to enjoy a fresh green smoothie and several cups of coffee tomorrow morning.
Lunch: Lucky last … a pouch of tuna and rice, eaten cold, and the final two squares of chocolate.
Dinner: Pork katsu curry and rice is a family favourite, so I made it for all the family. I swapped fresh veges for canned corn and green beans and (much to my son’s disgust) didn’t make pork katsu.
I didn’t feel deprived, though a king would certainly be disappointed and by the end I was craving fresh fruit and veges. My weight stayed remarkably stable – and I learned that I tend to overeat and snack too much. Most of the pain was upfront, putting the menu together. I wouldn’t want to try to accommodate the picky teenagers in my family, though they would have helped demolish the sheer quantity of food I bought. Making the meals was a bit more involved than adding water to a packet, but not by much. Overall, a good experience. Now where’s that coffee ...
The expert take
While both of the experiments were a success in terms of survival, we drafted in an expert to lend advice and make sure our writers weren’t pickling themselves with all that salt.
Dr Nikki Renall, NZRD, MDiet – Postdoctoral Fellow at the Research Centre of Hauora and Health, Massey University:
"There will be many ways to create an emergency food supply and, just like our nutrition needs, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Both diets provided (and would provide) a source of nutrition. The best advice is to be prepared with enough food and water for your household for three days, ultimately ensuring a safe source of energy and nourishment throughout demanding times. Dehydrated meals, canned legumes, beans, vegetables, and fruit are things we may overlook day to day, but they are great sources of nutrients that are shelf stable and can add variety to any diet – including an emergency food supply."
Tips for your emergency feast
If you aren’t as keen as Paul and James to attempt a test run to iron out the kinks, then a few top tips would be the following.
- Aim to create a supply of food that can meet the needs of your whānau in your household for at least three days, especially those who may have special dietary requirements, such as allergies.
- Ideally the food included in your emergency supply will be shelf-stable for 12 months, easy to prepare (eg requires minimal cooking) and offer some variety across breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
- Keep a camp cooker and fuel for cooking with your food supply, as well as a spare can opener! This will ensure you will be able to heat your food and water.
- It is also important that you have a safe supply of clean water for drinking for at least three days.
Be kind to yourself
- An emergency is more than likely going to be stressful, and food will be used as a source of energy to help fuel you through some challenging times.
- A warm cuppa could be quite comforting during trying times.
- Fridges and freezers – if the power has been off and is expected to stay off for an extended period of time, there may be food that could be eaten prior to or combined with your emergency food supply (eg frozen vegetables could be added to meals).
- It goes without saying – having a stocked first aid kit, batteries and a light source may also be good to keep with your emergency food supply too (and pet food if you have a pet).
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