There are many pre-packaged foods that are quite suitable for long-term food storage plans. Some of these are family and kid-favorite meals, like macaroni and cheese, Rice-Roni, Hamburger Helper, cake mixes, corn bread mixes … and so forth.
But the problem with all of these are that they have a limited shelf-life due to their packaging. The good news is that you can very often find these packaged foods on sale and you can easily re-package them for long-term food storage.
The important principles for long-term food storage success are, protection from oxygen, humidity/moisture, pests, heat and light. These are the enemies of food in any situation, especially when considering long-term storage.
How to mitigate the threats to long-term food storage:
- Oxygen: use of sealed packaging utilizing an oxygen absorber
- Moisture: removal of all moisture in the food (dry food, freeze dried & dehydrated) and packaged in water-proof packaging
- Pests: packaged inside tight/sealed plastic containers such as buckets, tubs, bins, etc. Where appropriate freeze contents prior to packaging, but package at room temperature.
- Heat: stored in conditions at room-temperature or lower (ideal = 45-55 degrees)
- Light: use of light blocking packaging such as mylar bags
Repackaging into moisture-proof barrier bags, and insuring an oxygen-free environment using a combination of vacuum-sealed bag and an oxygen absorber packet, addresses the combined threats of oxygen and moisture. Some find it advisable to include a packet of silica gel desiccant inside the bag, especially if the repackaging allows separation of the bag contents (in other words you don’t want the silica gel packet to break open and its contents to mix with the food).
- Vacuum packing machine: The Food Saver machine is perhaps the best known brand, but my personal favorite is the Vacmaster unit, followed by the Cabela professional model. However, any machine that can pull a vacuum in a bag and has a heat-seal bar will work. Having said that, the process of actually pulling a vacuum on a bag is less important than using an oxygen absorber and having a good heat seal. Even a flat-iron (used for hair) will work!
- Oxygen absorber: Oxygen absorbers are necessary for long-term food storage. ALWAYS use O2 absorbers! Use a 100 cc size for pint and quart-size bags, and a 300 cc packet for gallon-size bags.
- Silica gel desiccant packet (optional). The best type are those packaged in Tyvek® material (as opposed to cotton packaging) I advise against using them if the bag contents are not separated with individual plastic bags (like a fold-top sandwich bag). You don’t want the desiccant pouch to break open and combine with fine loose contents in the bag. However, they are useful in bags where the contents are larger size food items (such as dehydrated apple slices) and could be separated if the desiccant pouch were to break open inside the bag.
- Mylar bag: Mylar bags provide for protection against light and oxygen. If double-bagged (i.e. putting the plastic vacuum-seal bag inside of a Mylar bag) it provides an extra layer of protection from puncture of the bag. Placing plastic vacuum-sealed bags inside a gallon-size Mylar bag, or inside a 5-gallon-size bag which in turn fits inside a 5 gallon bucket, is a great way to assure long-term survival of food.
- Vacuum seal bags: These are plastic bags that when heat sealed provide a barrier against moisture and oxygen. They may be good for up to 2 or 3 years, according to most accounts – but for longer-term shelf-life, these need to be double-bagged inside a Mylar bag. If double bagging, there is no need for a second O2 absorber in the outer Mylar bag itself. (Note: Vacuum-seal bags have at least one surface or side that is either completely or partially made up of a channeled or grooved surface and a smooth side. The channels are what allows the oxygen to be removed out of the bag during the process of vacuum sealing.)
Re-packaging using Mason jars:
Some items are suitable for long-term storage in glass jars. Most vacuum sealing machines have an accessory port that allows for a jar-sealing option using a mason jar and metal canning lid. Foods that are easily crushed or which have sharp edges may be more suitable for storage in glass jars than plastic bags. Crackers, cookies and similar food products may be better stored in rigid glass jars than in plastic bags. Downsides for glass jar storage is that they are fragile, do not block light, and the vacuum seal can release. Many people find that the lid-seal with vacuum-sealed mason jars can release and leak after a period of time.
If using plastic vacuum seal bags for these items or for items that have sharp edges that could puncture the bag, DO NOT remove all (or any) of the air in the bag. Potato chips are packaged this way commercially – leaving air inflated in the bag to prevent crushing of bag contents. In this regard you do not even need a vacuum-sealing machine to evacuate air from the bag. Instead, use the heat seal feature to seal the bag. Or use a flat-iron. As always you must use an oxygen absorber packet to remove oxygen, regardless of your chosen method to seal the bag.
Note: Air is 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen. The purpose of the oxygen absorber is not to remove all the air; it is to remove the oxygen (leaving the nitrogen behind). Therefore, the purpose here is to remove the oxygen – not all the air – especially if there is risk of bag puncture from contents. Having said that, when the food product is smooth and safe it is okay to vacuum out as much of the air as possible (leaving less oxygen), then still using oxygen absorber for remaining oxygen left behind. In this regard it is virtually impossible to 100% remove ALL the air/oxygen from a vacuum-sealed bag, hence the need for an O2 absorber.
Now a note about using oxygen absorbers … they are perishable in the presence of air. They will immediately begin to absorb oxygen and will begin to heat up as the chemical reaction with oxygen begins. Therefore, don’t open the sealed bags of oxygen absorbers ahead of time of use, or leave out in open air while you are busy packaging food. I find it easiest to take out the number to be used within the next several minutes and keeping the remainder in a glass mason jar which is vacuum (sealed with the vacuum sealer unit’s jar-sealer accessory attachment) or to re-vacuum-seal in a vacuum-seal bag again.
If using a mason jar to re-seal O2 absorbers, you may find that as the jar is opened and resealed and begin to warm up, that that there will be moisture begin to condense on the inside of the mason jar. (Think of the condensation on outside of a glass with ice water in it, only in reverse.) Watch for this and perhaps place a silica gel desiccant packet inside the jar as well to keep O2 packets dry(er).
Reusing PET food-grade plastic containers.
Plastic food-grade containers are ubiquitous around us. These are those empty food containers that we throw away all the time – empty liter soda bottles, mayonnaise containers, large fruit juice containers, etc. They can be useful for food storage IF you can re-seal the opening or lid on the container. One way to accomplish resealing these is to use a hot clothes iron and a cut down section of a Mylar bag. First place an oxygen absorber inside the container with the dry food product. Then place a piece of Mylar bag cut larger than the opening, onto the container’s plastic rim, with the Mylar’s plastic side against the clean plastic rim of the container. Next using a hot clothes iron melt or ‘weld’ the Mylar bag onto the container opening-rim with back and forth strokes. In suggesting this idea or ‘hack’, it should be noted that this is not a standard food-storage method and so the user accepts any/all risks for otherwise perishable foods using this technique. Having said this, for dry food products such as salt, flour, sugar, this could be a good storage method (don’t need O2 absorber for salt or sugar) if wanting to put up smaller quantities of dry bulk food. (Note: square-ish plastic containers such as Costco milk containers (washed out well and dried) allow for tight storage and stacking).
Now that I’ve discussed the basics let’s talk about the specifics of re-packaging.
Many pre-packaged foods are packaged inside a thin plastic-sealed bag and are inside a paper box or bag. Some are plastic-lined paper bags. In any event, the idea is to where possible and practical, keep the food contents inside the original packaging and place this original packaging inside an appropriately sized plastic vacuum-seal bag. It is helpful to cut the original outside box packaging apart – if it is separate from an inside food bag – so that you can insert the part with the food name, ingredients and preparation directions, so as to be readable through the vacuum seal bag on the clear side of the bag (not the channeled side).
If you are vacuum sealing the bag, avoid trapping loose food product, if any, between the vacuum bag itself and these inserted instructions. If this happens, and the bag is vacuumed tight, the food object, even a grain of rice for example, can puncture the vacuum bag now or later. It is helpful, as stated above, to leave the contents in the original factory provided bag and place that inside the vacuum-seal bag, thus helping to contain the food.
When enclosing the original packaged / bagged food inside a vacuum-seal bag, it is important to puncture the original bag with a pinhole or two (or clip the corner of the original packaging) – so that air can escape the inside original packaging when either vacuum-sealing the bag and/or using an oxygen absorber. For powdery/flour type products (i.e. cake mixes and the like) you can suck the bad down tight. But with food that has grains, sharp edges or corners, it works better to not vacuum the bag completely. It’s best to leave air inside so the bag won’t puncture. Again, always use an O2 absorber.
This point is the key point – repackaging is only advantageous if you can account for removing oxygen and protecting against moisture – and optimally all of this plus blocking light and assuring long-term oxygen protection by using a Mylar bag as the outer bag in a double-bag technique.
Mark the date packaged on the outside of the bag using a black permanent marker.
In summary – there are many commercially pre-packaged dry foods/meals that can easily be re-packaged for long-term food storage. Sealed using a storage technique that controls for oxygen elimination and moisture protection allows you to extend the shelf-life for many many years, especially if stored away from heat, light and pests.
Hint: Strongly recommend to freeze (dry) foods in freezer for 3-4 days either prior to or after re-packaging to kill microscopic insect eggs commonly found in grains and flour products. If freezing in deep-freeze prior to, always return to room temperature prior to re-packaging to control for moisture condensation in the processing.
Bulk dry foods can also be repackaged, although these foods don’t lend themselves to small quantities in smaller bags. For example, rice, beans, wheat and similar bulk dry foods are better packaged for long-term storage in metal #10 cans, or in sturdy food-grade plastic 5-gallon buckets lined and sealed with a large Mylar bag using 1500-2000 cc oxygen absorber.
Dry foods and mixes that come in their own factory packaging that can be re-packaged for extended shelf-life. Examples:
- Convenience mixes
- macaroni and cheese
- scalloped potato mixes
- Hamburger Helper
- Cake and brownie mixes
- Bread & cornbread mixes
- Seasoning mixes (spaghetti, stew, chili, etc.)
- Pancake mix
- Bread crumbs, croutons
- Tea bags
- Instant potatoes
- Instant milk
- Cookies / crackers
- Breakfast cereals
- Spices and herbs
Click this link for another article on the topic of re-packaging.