The Difference Between Short-Term and Long-Term Food Storage

Food storage can be a little bit complicated until you understand it. Then you wonder what you were ever so confused about. At the request of one of our viewers, I would like to take just a few minutes and explain the difference between short-term food storage and long-term food storage.

What is the difference between short-term food storage and long-term food storage? Short-term food storage is comprised of foods that you eat every day that have a relatively short shelf life of 3 to 5 years. These foods are purchased at your local grocery store. Long-term storage is made up of dry basic staples packaged to last many years. These survival foods can be edible and highly nutritious for 20 to 30 years.

In this post, we will review the difference between short-term and long-term food storage, explore specific foods in each category, and provide you with a few great resources to help you build your family food storage program.

What is Short-Term Food Storage?

Short-term food storage is comprised of the foods that your family eats every day. Your kitchen pantry is a great way to think about short-term food storage. These are foods that you eat and rotate through on a regular basis.

Short-term food storage is intended to help see you through a short-term crisis. A well-stocked pantry with 3 months’ worth of food can see your family through a short-term illness, job loss, reduction in income, unexpected financial challenges, food shortages, natural disasters, and power outages without significantly changing your eating habits.

The foods in your short-term food storage generally have a short shelf life of 3 to 5 years. Some foods, like cold cereal, may only have a one year shelf life, while some low acid canned goods may be edible for 8 years or more.

Canned Goods in Short-Term Storage

Canned goods generally have a shelf-life of 3-5 years. However, when stored correctly, they can be safe to eat for much longer. Our local food bank accepts low acid canned foods for up to 5 years past the best-if-used-by date on the can.

Canned tomatoes are an example of a high acid food that will not store for a long time. It is best to rotate through these in 3-5 years. Learn more about the shelf life of foods in our post, Food Storage: How Old is Too Old?

These are examples of some canned goods that you may want to consider stocking in your short-term food storage.

  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Canned soups, chili, and beans
  • Canned meats
  • Pasta sauce, salsa, condiments
  • Peanut butter
  • Jams and jellies
  • Cooking oil

Packaged Foods in Short-Term Storage

Stock up on non-perishable packaged foods that you eat on a regular basis. Every diet is different. Only fill your pantry with foods that you include in your regular diet.

  • Ready-to-eat cereal, instant hot cereal
  • Chips, crackers, cookies, granola bars, trail mix, fruit snacks
  • Dried fruits and nuts
  • Dried or smoked meats such as beef jerky
  • Baking mixes (pancake mix, cake mix, brownie mix, muffin mix, bread mix, etc.)
  • Basic staples (flour, sugar, pasta, rice, salt, spices, etc.)
  • Boxed dinners (dry soup mixes, macaroni and cheese, slow cooker mixes, pasta mixes, ramen noodles)
  • Packaged mixes (gravy mix, pasta mix, dressing mix)

Beverages in Short-Term Storage

Do not underestimate the importance of beverages as part of your short-term food storage. Do you have an addiction that you cannot be without for any length of time? Coffee? Tea? Diet Coke? Kombucha? Then stock up and rotate or run the risk of dealing with your addiction cold turkey.

These are some beverages that may be nice to have.

  • Hot drinks: hot chocolate, coffee, herbal teas, and tea
  • Milk and milk substitutes: powdered milk, shelf-stable milk, shelf-stable rice milk, shelf-stable almond milk, shelf-stable flavored milk drink boxes, and canned milk
  • Sports drinks, fruit juice, and soda
  • Powdered drink mixes
  • Protein drink mix
  • Bottled water

Bulk Foods in Short-Term Storage

Short-term foods are usually stored in the original packaging. I purchase a lot of our food in bulk and repackage these foods into containers that are easy to store and rotate. You can purchase each of these in smaller containers that would be perfect to sit on your pantry shelf in the original container.

Chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, unsweetened shredded coconut and coconut sugar are examples of foods that I purchase in bulk and then store in glass jars or plastic containers in my pantry. I have containers of these foods in my pantry that I use regularly, along with a few backups in our cool basement storage room.

Special Needs Foods in Short-Term Storage

When designing your plan, always consider the individuals you are storing for, and your unique circumstances. Special diets, infant formulations, and unique preferences are all worth considering. As for me, I NEED chocolate.

  • Chocolate chips, candy bars, and trail mix
  • Baby formula, baby cereal, baby food
  • Ensure nutrition drinks, meal replacement drinks
  • Sugar-free treats

Pet Food in Short-term Storage

Remember your furry friends in your short-term food storage planning.

  • Dry pet food
  • Canned pet food
  • Pet treats

Frozen Foods in Short-term Storage

I count the food that I have in my freezer as part of my short-term storage. Many of the challenges that we face will be greatly benefited from a full freezer. We stock up on meat when it goes on sale. During the recent pandemic, a full freezer has been a blessing to our family.

Power Outage Freezer Options

There is valid concern that the food stored in a freezer will spoil in the event of a power outage. It is important to plan for this contingency.

  • Consider a backup power supply that may be able to power your freezer for a few hours a day to prevent spoilage.
  • Be prepared with the knowledge, skills, and supplies to pressure can meats and vegetables before they spoil. Frozen fruits can be easily turned into delicious jams and syrups and bottled. If you are prepared, you can save most of the food in your freezer. Unfortunately, you will need to eat all that ice cream right away.

How to Build a Short-Term Food Supply

Building your short-term food supply is as simple as just stocking up on the shelf-stable foods that you normally purchase. Every time that you go to the grocery store, pick up an extra jar of peanut butter, package of pasta, or brownie mix.

Think of it this way. If you could only go to the store every 3 months, what would you need to stock in your pantry until your next trip to the grocery store?

We have some great ideas to help you build your short-term food supply in these posts.

What is Long-term Food Storage?

Long-term foods storage can be thought of as a rainy-day food supply. These are basic dry goods that you have carefully stored to protect you from unforeseen future challenges. This food can provide you with basic calories and nutrition in a survival scenario.

Long term food storage should supplement your short-term food storage during hard times. It is an investment that can see you safely through an extended crisis.

Long-term food storage is made up of dry goods that are low in moisture and oil and can store for 20 to 30 years if packaged and stored correctly. This is your hunger insurance policy.

Long-term food storage contains foods that would keep you alive and healthy if you had nothing else to eat. They tend to be high in calories and generally take time to prepare to make them edible. Many of the foods in your long-term storage foods might be considered basic staples.

Long-Term Storage Foods

Some long-term storage foods have a shelf life of only 10 years, such as powdered non-fat dry milk or powdered eggs. Others, including grains and dry beans, will store for 25-30 years.

Dry goods with the longest shelf life include foods that are low in moisture (10 percent or less) and low in oils and fats. Grains that have moisture levels above 13% are at risk of bacteria, mold, and fungus growth that can lead to spoilage.

USA Emergency Supply has a good article on moisture content and shows 3 different ways to determine the moisture level of grain.

Generally, these dry goods are ideal for long-term storage:

  • Grains: wheat, spelt, Kamut, rolled oats, steel-cut oats and white rice
  • Pasta: spaghetti and elbow macaroni
  • Legumes: dry beans, lentils, and peas
  • Dried corn: sweet yellow corn, flint corn, dent corn, freeze-dried corn and corn starch (Popcorn has a moisture content of 13%-15% and is not good for long-term storage. Great for short-term storage.)
  • Dried potatoes: potato flakes, potato dices and potato slices
  • Dried and freeze-dried vegetables
  • Dried and freeze-dried fruits
  • White sugar
  • Salt
  • Baking soda

These dry goods have a target shelf life around 10 years.

  • Powdered dairy
  • Powdered eggs

Rotate Long-term Storage Along with Short-Term Storage

The ideal home food storage program will rotate both long-term and short-term foods in with the regular diet. This is a great way to minimize potential waste and always keep a fresh supply of foods on hand.

How to Build a Long-Term Food Supply

Building your long-term food supply takes a little bit of effort to make sure to get it right. We have a few posts that will help walk you through what you need to know to get started.

You can totally do this yourself, but if you would like information on reputable suppliers check out our Food Storage and Shelving Recommendations page.

Storage Conditions Make a Difference

Food is quite sensitive to environmental conditions. The best way to extend the life and quality of your food storage is to store it in a cool, dry, dark location. Packaging dry foods correctly is critical to get the maximum shelf life possible. Check out these posts for more information.

Start Building Your Family Food Stores Today

The best way to build your family’s food security is by keeping your pantry well-stocked. You don’t have to rush out and do it all at once. Just pick up a few extra sale items every time you go to the grocery store.

The recent pandemic has taught us that our food system can be quite fragile. Having a storeroom filled with food will bring peace of mind and help your family be more self-reliant. It also makes you a good citizen. When others are competing for scarce resources, you can rely on your food stores. You will not be a drain on those resources but can be a blessing to others.

Get busy building your food supply today. You got this!

Thanks for being part of the solution!

Jonathan and Kylene Jones


Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.

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