Food With A Long Shelf Life

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There are a lot of things in this world that we take for granted. We can go to the store and buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. We never have to worry about where our next meal is going to come from or whether it will be safe to eat.

But what if something unexpected happens? What if you’re stuck in an area where there’s no food? Or what if you can’t leave your home because of a natural disaster or some other emergency?

In today’s society, people don’t really think about how quickly they could run out of food—especially if they live in an urban area with restaurants and grocery stores on every corner. It’s easy to believe that there will always be someone who has food nearby and that you’ll always be able to get to them when you need something edible. But what happens when life isn’t normal anymore? What happens when your food supply lines are cut off and you can’t get more supplies no matter how much money you have or how hard you try?

If this sounds like a situation that could happen any day now, then you need to read on! I’m going to talk about some ways that YOU can ensure that YOU have enough food for yourself, your family members,

Food With A Long Shelf Life

Some foods have naturally long shelf lives, and if stored properly, will keep for months or years. Other foods spoil quickly, usually due to a high oil and/or moisture content, and will last a long time only if they’re dried, canned or otherwise preserved. There are numerous foods that spoil faster than you’d think.

There is great interest in long-lived foods among so-called preppers or survivalists, who anticipate having to live off the grid when widespread calamity strikes. Embracing the idea of lengthy self-sufficiency, they exchange tips on stockpiling particularly long-lasting foods.

You don’t have to be worried about doomsday, however, to see the advantages of stocking a pantry with things that will be good to eat for long periods of time. Unexpected guests, power failures and simply the kind of inertia that makes a trip to the market or going out to eat just too much of a project – these are all instances when anyone would be glad to have shelves stocked with the makings of a meal.

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Many kinds of food, including both fresh and dried produce, are known for their longevity. 24/7 Tempo has assembled a representative list of examples in many categories, including some that will last for weeks, and some that are virtually immortal.

In all cases, the estimated shelf life is for foods stored at room temperature or slightly cooler – not in the refrigerator or freezer, both of which will extend the lifespan of most items substantially. Evolving technology has brought many more options to the grocery store freezer, and there are a number of foods you couldn’t buy frozen 35 years ago.

Note that moisture and high temperatures will shorten the lives of most foods, and that foods tend to change over time in color, texture, and/or flavor – so while they may last months or years, they may be at their prime somewhat earlier.

1. Potatoes. Shelf life: 2 to 5 weeks

1. Potatoes

• Shelf life: 2 to 5 weeks

If stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Yukon Gold, red, and fingerling potatoes will last from two to three weeks. Larger white or russet potatoes can last for three to five weeks. Sweet potatoes have about the same shelf life. Don’t store them next to onions, however: The two might go together well in cooking, but raw, each gives off gases and moisture that might cause the other to spoil faster.

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2. Onions

• Shelf life: 1 to 2 months

As with potatoes, store these in a cool, dry, dark place for maximum longevity. And, as above, don’t store them with potatoes; both will spoil faster.

3. Peanuts

• Shelf life: 1 to 2 months

Peanuts in their shell, especially when kept cool and dry, are perfectly happy in the pantry for as long as two months.

4. Winter squash

• Shelf life: 1 to 3 months

The various kinds of thick-skinned winter squash – including butternut, spaghetti, acorn, kabocha, and hubbard, among others – are among the most durable of fresh vegetables.

5. Apples. Shelf life: 5 days to 6 months

5. Apples

• Shelf life: 5 days to 6 months

Apples kept in a fruit bowl at room temperature will generally last five to seven days. When stored in a humid place at a temperature of 30º to 40º F, however, they can stay crisp and fresh for as long as six months.

6. Tea

• Shelf life: 6 to 12 months past “best by” date

Dried tea leaves, whether loose (in a sealed container) or in teabags (in an unopened box) can easily last a year or more if they’re not subjected to moisture or humidity. The tea does tend to lose flavor over time, though.

7. Powdered milk

• Shelf life: 1 to 1½ years

The color, texture, or flavor of powdered milk might change as it ages, but it will still be perfectly usable and safe for at least 18 months.

8. Beef jerky

• Shelf life: 1 to 2 years

Beef jerky and its predecessors in various parts of the world were invented to last a long time as sustenance in the wilderness and on long journeys. It’s lean, dry, and salted – all qualities that add to its ability to stay edible for a long time.

9. Canned fruits and vegetables

• Shelf life: 1 to 2 years past “best by” date

Canning is an extremely efficient means of preserving food. Generally speaking, if canned foods aren’t subjected to intense heat, their contents should stay good for two years or more. Beware, however, of dented cans or those with swollen tops, which may indicate the presence of bacteria inside.

10. Dried pasta. Shelf life: 1 to 2 years past "best by" date

10. Dried pasta

• Shelf life: 1 to 2 years past “best by” date

Made with just semolina flour and water, then thoroughly dried, this pasta is fairly indestructible. Its richer counterpart, fresh pasta, usually made with eggs, is much more perishable and should always be kept refrigerated.

11. Bouillon cubes

• Shelf life: 2 years

Oxygen and moisture are the enemies of these useful little blocks of instant soup or stock. Keep them dry and well sealed, and 24 months is probably the minimum they’ll last.

12. Peanut butter

• Shelf life: 2 years

An unopened jar of peanut butter should last longer than a couple of years at room temperature, but with time, the oil will separate, the peanut butter might dry out, and the flavor may fade. Two years is likely the maximum for the best quality.

13. Dark chocolate

• Shelf life: 2 to 5 years

Because milk chocolate contains dairy, it will go bad more quickly than chocolate with high cacao content and little or no milk. Warm temperatures are the enemy of dark chocolate, and while it should last for a couple of years at temperatures up to around 75º F, it will keep for as long as five years if the thermometer rests between 60º and 65º F. Chocolate exposed to high temperatures can develop white spots, but these are harmless and don’t affect the flavor.

14. Canned or vacuum-pouched tuna

• Shelf life: 3 to 5 years after “best by” date

Tuna is a hardy fish and one that takes well to canning (and in more recent times, to vacuum-packing in pouches). For optimum flavor and texture, don’t keep it longer than five years after the producer’s “best by” date.

15. Dried beans. Shelf life: Indefinite

15. Dried beans

• Shelf life: Indefinite

Dried beans are pretty much indestructible if they’re kept dry, though they begin to lose their moisture after a year or two. As they age, they will require longer pre-soaking and/or cooking times to become tender.

16. Honey

• Shelf life: Indefinite

Though honey is often sold with a “best by” date (usually somewhere between two and five years from the time it’s packaged), that’s because over time it may darken and form sugar crystals – perfectly harmless, but off-putting to some consumers. Pure 100% undiluted honey in an unopened jar (stored away from heat) will still be edible years, decades, probably generations down the road.

17. Liquor

• Shelf life: Indefinite

Everybody knows that wine can last a long time, sometimes greatly improving as it ages. But it can also go bad quickly through exposure to extreme heat or cold, oxidation through leaky corks, and just the natural evolution of its chemical constituents over time. Not so hard liquor. Unopened bottles of spirits are virtually unchanging. Their high alcohol content preserves them and they don’t age. The only exception is with some sweet liqueurs, from which, as the years pass, some of the sugar content will precipitate out, forming crystals and leaving the liqueur slightly less sweet.

18. White rice

• Shelf life: Indefinite

Brown rice might be healthier, but it has a high oil content and so can go bad in a few months’ time, while white rice – if you keep it dry – will last forever. The only possible problem, other than moisture, is the sudden appearance of tiny black bugs among the rice grains. These are rice weevils or flour bugs, and they’ve either found their way into the package through microscopic openings or their eggs were harvested along with the rice itself. Storing rice in thoroughly dried airtight containers will stop them from getting in; if they’re already there, though, the rice should be discarded

foods that last a long time without refrigeration

After a year of van life without a fridge, I’ve become a lot better at not wasting food. 

You can still eat healthy and keep grocery bills low if you follow some best practices (check out my three favorite van life meals for under twenty bucks).

So, what are some of the best non-perishable foods for van life? And what tricks have I learned for maximizing their shelf life?

van-life-food-items

1. Vegetables That Don’t Need Refrigeration

To know which vegetables don’t require refrigeration, simply walk through a grocery store and look for the ones in the non-refrigeration areas.

But, there are some veggies that can last without refrigeration even if they are refrigerated in a store. 

The trick is to store them in a way that minimizes bruising or extreme temperature changes. 

Onions. Eat them raw, grill or sautee them.

Tomatoes. Cherry, heirloom, on the vine or roma tomatoes can all be left at room temperature.

Carrots. While you can use baby carrots, they may dry out faster than fulls-size carrots because they’ve already been peeled and moistened. 

Potatoes. Potatoes keep for ages–this includes all kinds, such as sweet potato and golden potato.

Avocados. They can bruise easily but don’t need refrigeration. Try wrapping them in a fabric or paper towel to minimize bruising.

Bell peppers. Red, yellow or green bell peppers will all keep for at least 5-7 days without refrigeration.

Broccoli and asparagus can last 2-4 days without refrigeration. I recommend wrapping them in tin foil but leaving the ends open to help prevent bruising but release moisture (so they don’t rot).

Cucumber and zucchini can also last about 2-4 days without refrigeration. I recommend the same process as broccoli and asparagus.

Root vegetables are great because they can easily last a week or more without refrigeration. These include potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, kale, beets, radishes and onions. 

Canned vegetables are always available and will last just about forever. Personally, the only canned vegetables I like are beets. But if you’re looking to add some health perks to an otherwise bland meal of rice or pasta, throwing in a ca

2. Meat & Proteins That Don’t Need Refrigeration

I have found that meats are easiest to deal with if they’re pre-cooked, canned or in the form of cold cuts.

Canned chicken. It seems you get what you pay for with this product. Costco has some amazingly moist and delicious canned chicken. Sorry I said moist. But then I bought canned chicken from Smith’s grocery store and it was dry and flavorless. 

Cans or packets of tuna. I always have some of the Starkist tuna packets on hand. Canned tuna is cheaper but I can’t finish a whole can in one sitting and don’t want to waste or have smelly tuna cans in my van. Tuna is a power food–low in fat and high in protein.You can buy the flavored tuna packets as well, so they already have seasoning.

Beef jerky. Not everyone is a fan of beef jerky but it’s very low in fat and carbs, and high in protein. 

Tofu. Well, sort of – there are some types of tofu that you can buy unrefrigerated. But the catch is that once they’re opened, they need to be refrigerated. So you need to use it all up in one meal! Tofu is a great source of protein.

Nuts. Nuts are rich in protein and complex “healthy” fats. One of the healthiest (and least expensive) is the almond. I typically get mixed nuts though because I love cashews and walnuts. I recommend buying them raw (as opposed to roasted) because they lose a lot of their health benefits once roasted. 

3. Dairy (And Dairy Alternatives) That Don’t Need Refrigeration

Some hard block cheese don’t need refrigeration. But dairy without a fridge is really tough. Here are the options:

Parmesan or sharp cheddar block cheese. These cheeses are so dehydrated they can last fine without refrigeration.

Powdered milk. Yeah, not my first choice either. 

Condensed or evaporated milk. These have a thicker consistency than milk and are sweet, but can be added to dishes for cooking.

Personally, I just buy dairy products when I know I’ll use them all up right away. 

4. Fruit That Doesn’t Need Refrigeration

Fruit–nature’s dessert! Thankfully there are lots of fruits that don’t need refrigeration. 

Apples

Bananas

Peaches

Plums

Oranges

Grapefruit

Grapes (will last a few days)

Blueberries (will last 2-3 days)

Applesauce cups (no sugar added)

Fruit cups (will last but contain lots of sugar)

Dried fruit (long shelf life but contain lots of sugar)

Fruits that come with an outer skin as a protective layer naturally “package” themselves so they don’t need to be refrigerated. But keeping them cool will help increase shelf life.

5. Grains & Starches

Grains are the easiest to store in a van because none of them require refrigeration. The ones that I find the most versatile, healthy and/or tasty are:

Quinoa. Ha! Actually this is technically a seed–but it cooks like a grain and is insanely rich in protein and contains all nine essential amino acids. I like the crunch paired with the grainy texture.

Oats. Traditional (not instant) oats are rich in fiber and protein. Boil them in water for 15 minutes and add anything from fruit, peanut butter, protein powder, honey, sugar, maple syrup, or whatever your heart desires for a tasty and hearty breakfast. 

Rice. I prefer jasmine or brown rice because they’re a little richer in nutrients than just white rice–but a great “blank canvas” for meats and veggies.

Pasta. Pasta gets a bad rap for just being a “carb bomb”–but anything in moderation is fine. Especially if you opt for whole wheat or veggie pasta, they add a little more nutrients.

Wraps/bread. The shelf life of these items will reduce without refrigeration, but they’ll still be fine for a week or so. I find if I buy these items from Trader Joe’s or more health-conscious grocery stores, these items go bad quicker because they aren’t loaded with preservatives. But, I’m willing to deal with that if it means not filling my body with preservatives.

Staple Non-Refrigerated Food Items

At any given time, I’ll have these items in my van:

Peanut butter 

Raw almonds / mixed nuts

Canned baked beans

Canned chili

Canned soup

Tuna packets

Trail mix

Craisins or raisins

How do I maximize the shelf life of canned goods?

Avoid extreme temperatures and heat fluctuations

Rotate canned goods so I use the oldest first and the newest lastTry to use canned goods within a year of purchase

Eating is too much fun–just because you’re living budget van life fridge-less, doesn’t mean your palette has to suffer!

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