Emergency foods: what to buy when fresh produce is not available

Real shortages of basic and essential foods do happen after extreme weather events.

This article gives you information on what to buy to feed your family when fresh produce is not available.

Fresh produce is often hardest hit with crops of fruit, vegetables, wheat and other grains wiped out.

Loss of power means food goes off in fridges and freezers. Butchers can't keep the meats fresh and safe. Power loss also stops farmers milking their cows or keeping the milk fresh.

Power outages also stop food manufacturers making fresh foods such as bread.

Roads, railway lines and airports may get damaged so that could mean long delays and long detours for truck drivers to deliver food from interstate.

What this may mean for you is that temporarily only supplies of shelf-stable long-life foods will be available. Essentially emergency foods. Foods and drinks that are stored without refrigeration until opened. Choice is already out the door for many communities and you may not even have the 'luxury' of getting shelf-stable foods, but when you do, you'll know that you are getting a nourishing feed.

But if your house was untouched by the weather dramas and your pantry is safe, then you will be surprised what is buried in the depths of your personal supermarket that is your kitchen. Get creative. Put together flavours, foods and combinations that don’t fit a recipe or ‘tradition’. Use up all of your own pantry contents before you go out and deplete supermarket shelves of food that others who have lost everything need more desperately. Share your clean water and created foods with neighbours and friends who can’t cook at the moment.

Having food is up there with shelter as a basic survival need, so it’s hard to hold back and not panic buy, but holding pack is the best thing for everyone to do. That way, everyone can get something to eat.

What are some of your 'choices' when fresh produce is not available?


  • Powdered milk. This is the best option if you have no power, ice or fridge. Only make up enough to suit your immediate needs. Mix 1 measure of powder with 3 measures of water to make ‘milk’. When you add powdered milk straight into tea and coffee you’ll find that the drink stays hotter for longer because your are not adding cold milk.
  • Evaporated milk. Once the can is opened it should be kept in the fridge or on ice and used within a couple of days, so it’s best to reserve evaporated milk for times when lots of milk is needed, for example on breakfast cereal or for kids drinks. Mix equal parts water and evaporated milk to make ‘milk’ or use it straight from the can.
  • Long-life UHT milk. Once the carton is open, the long shelf life is lost and you need to keep it in the fridge or on ice. Once open and in the fridge, the best-before date no longer applies. Use it up within 7 days of opening. Soy, rice, oat ‘milks’ may be the last UHT milks left on the shelves. Don’t be shy; give them a try and you may discover a flavour that works for you on cereal and in cooking.
  • Long-life custard. A delicious dessert served with canned fruit. You may not want to go back to the fridge version! Unless you like room temperature custard, you may want to heat this up if your stove is in action or you’ve got a camp stove. Once opened, the carton needs to be kept cold and used within 7 days or as directed on the carton.
  • Cheese. Cheese supplies seem to be steady but fresh cheese needs to be kept cold. If you have no fridge or supplies of fresh are short, look for long-life processed cheese (boxes, foil wrapped triangles, and cheese sticks) on the ordinary shelves.
  • Condensed milk. This is sweetened concentrated milk. If you usually have sugar with milk in your drinks or on cereal, then this will suit your tastes. Once opened, the can needs to be put on ice and used within 5 days. The tubes seem to keep a bit better off ice but the manufacturer does not recommend this.


  • Canned vegetables. Most canned vegetables are already salted so don’t go adding extra salt. They only need reheating rather than cooking as they are pre-cooked. They can be eaten straight from the can without heating. The variety usually available is big and ranges from potatoes, corn, peas and green beans to bamboo shoots, mushrooms and beetroot. But you may not have much choice so buy what you can. Just remember not to overcook them or they’ll turn to mush.
  • Dehydrated vegetables. Bring on the powdered spuds, dehydrated peas and dried mushrooms! The kids will think it’s wonderful. Look in the dried herb section for dried onion flakes and dried greens (parsley, coriander, chives).
  • Long-life Indian meals. Look in the Indian food section at the supermarket to see if any long-life packet meals remain. These are often packed with spinach, legumes, and potatoes. Reheat in the bag in a pan of boiling water or microwave if you have power.
  • Long-life vegetable juices. With cans, cartons and plastic bottles to choose from, once opened, these need to be put on ice or in the fridge.
  • Long-life bottles sauces and preserves. Think tomato-based pasta sauces and Mexican tomato salsa, Italian influenced olives, chargrilled capsicum, mushrooms and artichoke, tomato concentrates – pastes and purees.


  • Dried fruits. These last the distance even out of the fridge once opened. This is not the time to be choosey – buy what you can and you may find that your kids discover that they like a naturally sweet food.
  • Plastic pack and canned fruit. Once opened, these need to go on ice or in the fridge so plan to eat the lot or share it around.
  • Long-life fruit juice. If you have a choice get 100% pure but if there’s no choice, you’ve got a safe (uncontaminated) drinking source that may have some added vitamin C.


  • Canned legumes/lentils. Great to make Mexican feasts or eat as salad. Chickpeas, kidney beans, mixed beans, cannellini – the range remaining will vary, but these are all pre-cooked so you can either eat them rinsed straight from the can or reheated in a meal. Baked beans make a good meal as do cans of chilli beans
  • Eggs. Fantastic if you can get hold of them.
  • Dried beans and legumes. You need a lot more time, clean water and a cooking source to take advantage of dried beans and legumes but they go a long, long way if you have a hoard of hungry mouths to feed.
  • Canned fish and seafood. Salmon, sardines, tuna, prawns, crab, herrings … you might be surprised to see what is left on the shelves to experiment with. Combine with instant spuds and rehydrated onion and mushrooms for a great patty. Toss through pasta with tomato paste and UHT cream or evaporated milk.
  • Canned chicken. A relatively newcomer on supermarket shelves, but canned chicken is versatile if you can get it. Use as a sandwich filler, pizza topper or noodle-tosser.
  • Canned meats. These tend to be much saltier and fattier but sometimes there is no choice. They come in larger can sizes. Unless you have a lot of people to feed and can use the can up straight away, these need to be kept on ice or in the fridge once opened.
  • Nuts and seeds, and peanut paste/butter. An excellent option that keeps without refrigeration.
  • Tofu. long-life shelf stable versions may remain in the Asian section of the supermarket.


  • Breads. The supermarket shelves may be bare but some bakers may still be pumping out bread. If that’s not the case in your area, try these ideas.
  • Long-life packs of international bread. Scout the shelves to find packs of Indian naan and roti, Mexican wraps/tortilla, Italian pizza bases.
  • Crisp crackers and savoury biscuits. A convenient no-fridge option instead of bread.
  • Noodles, pasta and grains. Cous cous takes minimal effort and time to prepare and serves as an easy base for meals, as are vermicelli rice noodles and soft noodles in long-life pouches. Rice paper wrappers are a kid-friendly and gluten-free substitute when bread is not available. If water safety is a concern, then see if you can get pouches of pre-cooked rice that are easy to reheat – just be sure to wipe down the outside of the hot pouch before opening. Or use cartons of liquid stock/juice to re-hydrate cous cous and cook dry rice.
  • Breakfast cereals. If milk supply is a problem, try cereal topped with juice or canned fruits instead.
  • Porridge. Cook up old fashioned oats with water and powdered milk if fresh milk supply is a problem. If instant oats are available, you don’t need to add anything more than water.
  • Flour. Yes, rediscover what you can create with flour. Simple fodder like scones, damper, dumplings and roti fill hungry bellies. Or get some yeast and find out how to make bread from scratch, without a bread maker, once the clean-up has finished and you have some spare time.


  • Infant formula powder. Work out how much formula your bub goes through and always keep at least an extra week's supply to hand during storm and fire season.
  • Bottled water to make up the formula. Just incase your town supply is cut off or made un-safe + spare pre-washed bottles and teats in case you can't safely clean the ones you have.
  • Bottles or long-life pouches of baby food. You may not be able to safely puree baby's food ad your freezer stocks may be un-safe if power goes off.
  • Baby cereal.

Industry bodies work as quickly as they can to re-supply the basics from inter-state suppliers but there can be no guarantee as to how long the supply chain will stay strong and unbroken. In the long haul, food supply and availability may prove to be tight during extreme weather events – the range and variety you are used to will dwindle temporarily but you can take advantage of that to keep your body into shape.

Take comfort in newfound friends and neighbours rather than in food. Treat your kids and others to cuddles and hugs of care rather than feel the anguish of trying to supply more food, fancy foods and fast foods. Fussy eaters will be a thing of the past of there’s nothing else available to eat to cure their hunger. This is one harsh reality of surviving extreme events.

Food shortages put the role of food in our lives into perspective. We have a daily need for a good, old-fashioned safe food and energy supply. Communities in far-flung Qld, NT and WA experience these shortages all through the year. Those in poverty see it as well. Now many of us mirror their experiences and respect the hardships that others endure, without choice, everyday.

You may also want to visit The Pantry List which details other items essential to consider for a household during an emergency - baby goods (infant formula, nappies), health and hygiene goods (bandages), prescription medicines, power alternatives (batteries, generators) for torches, radio and other communication.

Prepared by Trudy Williams, Accredited Practising Dietitian with https://www.FoodTalk.com.au

You are more than welcome to share this material with others providing you acknowledge the source by retaining a link to my authorship and website.

I have no affiliation with the products shown in the image. These are examples of 'emergency' foods kept to hand for when my access to shops is cut or power is short. We get flooded in. Grass fires break access on our roads. At my previous home, power outages were also all too common and foods spoiled in the fridge. Access off our mountain address after storms was often blocked by fallen trees for days.