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Disaster preparedness kits: Build or buy?

Posted on Sep. 20, 2016 ( comments)
Disaster Preparedness Day of Food

September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, and some studies suggest that half of U.S. households, or more, are not prepared for a disaster. My family definitely falls into the "unprepared" category, so this month we’ve been working on putting together a disaster preparedness kit for our three-person-plus-cat household.

In the simplest terms, a disaster preparedness kit is a collection of basic items you and your family might need in an emergency. The Red Cross, FEMA and other organizations recommend that you keep 72 hours worth of food and water on hand for each person in your household in case of a natural disaster or other emergency, as well as supplies for pets and other personal items you may need.

There are numerous websites available with checklists and other resources that can help your family put together a kit. There are also dozens of sites that sell pre-packaged kits.

During our family discussions, we wondered which was the better — and more cost effective — approach: building your own kit from the ground up, or buying a premade kit? So we conducted a little experiment, and this is what we found out.

2,000 calories is a LOT

The U.S. Coast Guard, which has done studies on the minimum levels of water and food people need in survival conditions, recommends a minimum of 800 calories of food per day per person in an emergency or survival situation. Using that recommendation, many 72-hour kits that include calorie-dense emergency food ration bars include only one 2,400-calorie bar per person.

For our purposes, however, we determined that we would want closer to 2,000 calories per person per day, under the assumption that we’d need energy to shovel snow, clear debris from a storm or — worst-case scenario — leave our home on foot and relocate.

We also didn’t want to just load up on ramen noodles or other empty carbs, but rather try and strike a balance with meals that included plenty of protein, and even fruits and vegetables.

The photo above represents approximately 2,000 calories worth of food. So, one day’s worth of food for one person. It's fairly healthy and balanced. But, compared to two or three dehydrated backpacking meals per person per day, it’s a lot of food to store for an emergency situation.

2,000 calories is hard to come by

The main reason it took so much food to make up a full day’s worth of calories is that trying to create a healthy-ish, balanced day of eating just from canned and prepackaged food means that you end up with a lot of low-calorie, low-fat foods. Most of the individual items pictured above clock in at less than 200 calories. What’s more, we discovered that creating any kind of variety from day to day would be difficult.

Things expire surprisingly quickly

We decided that we wouldn’t put any food in the disaster kit that wouldn’t last at least a year, so that we didn’t have to remember to swap items out of our kit multiple times a year. (Note: We cheated a bit with the peanut butter for purposes of the photo. Those particular items expire in 9-10 months. You can find pouches of peanut butter online that last longer, but they didn’t arrive in time.)

Expiration dates also became a limitation in putting together a day of food, as many items I assumed had an extended shelf life (for example, dried fruit, the aforementioned peanut butter, some kinds of trail mix and jerky) actually expired in just a few months. In contrast, dehydrated meals and other pre-packaged disaster kit food typically has a shelf life of five, 10 or even 20 years, if stored properly.

Cans are heavy

Unsurprisingly, the food items you can buy at the grocery store that last the longest are ones that have been canned. The canned goods we selected typically had a two- to three-year shelf life.

Also unsurprisingly, canned goods take up a lot of space and weigh a lot. Not necessarily a problem if you are waiting out an extended power outage at home, but could be an issue if relocation becomes necessary for any reason, or even if you just have limited space for storage.

Building a better kit by blending

From a cost perspective, the food we put together for our build-it-yourself project was about $11 per person per day. The pre-made kits we found online varied in cost from $5 to $20 in food costs per person per day, so we were in the mid-range on price. Although if you factor in the time we expended shopping, checking expiration dates and so on, we probably didn't save much money.

So, at the end of our experiment, our conclusion was that — at least for us — it seemed to make the most sense to invest in some actual emergency food rations in the form of dehydrated meals commonly used by backpackers, and combine those with some added “fresher” foods like trail mix, peanut butter and canned/pouched fruits and veggies to maximize nutrition, calories, taste and variety.

And remember, whether you buy a kit or make your own, make sure you add any necessary items, such as prescription medicines, pet food, a can opener and so on, that you may need ready access to.

Learn more about putting together an emergency preparedness kit at

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This story was originally published in September 2015 and updated in September 2016.

About The Author

maura hallam Maura Hallam
Maura is an experienced writer and editor who writes extensively about health and wellness topics, from fitness and nutrition to medical insurance. 
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