Food Storage Containers: Choosing the Ones That Best Fit Your Needs

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Finding food storage containers that will fit your needs, your space, and your wallet can be a challenge.

Maybe you’re just starting to think about storing extra food or maybe a recent move has upended your storage system and you need to rethink everything.  Regardless, there are a lot of options from which to choose.

To help you find the best fit for you, I have critiqued many of the traditional and some not-so-traditional food storage containers. Almost everything on this list is available second-hand so don’t let cost deter you initially.

Also, we are in a period of inflation so hopefully, some of the costs will come down shortly. 

image: food storage containers, bucket, vacuum sealer, mason jars, #10 cans

Assessing Your Food Storage Container Needs

The primary enemies of food storage are oxygen, light, heat, humidity, and pests, so before you make choices about food storage containers you should evaluate:

  • WHAT kind of climate do you live in? Hot, cold, humid, dry, or mild? All of the above?
  • WHERE will you be storing your food? In a temperature-controlled pantry or closet? A basement or a garage? Is it susceptible to critters or is it stored within your living space where you can keep an eye on things?
  • HOW LONG do you plan to store a particular food? The length of time you need or hope to have your food viable will dictate how you store it. Obviously, the longer you plan to store a food, the more carefully you will want to choose the container to store it in.
  • HOW MUCH do you want to spend on food storage containers? There are lots of ways to frugally store food, however, if a food is critical to your long-term food supply, you will want to protect it as best you can.

Click here for a FREE printable with this information in an easy-to-read chart. 

To avoid rookie mistakes, I highly recommend learning about food storage myths and the top ten foods to store. This will help you zero in on the most vital foods to stock up on at first and mistakes to avoid.

Physics and Food Storage Containers

When choosing the best food storage containers for your needs, the laws of physics must be acknowledged.

For example, ALL plastic is permeable to gas and leaks oxygen over time. The thicker the plastic, the slower this happens. Although plastic keeps out water and humidity, it cannot keep out oxygen forever.

Similarly, most plastic is slightly porous and can both absorb odors and chemicals and also leach odors and chemicals into your food. Therefore, used food-grade plastic containers that have been used to only store edibles is always going to be safest for storing food since it was never used to store anything else.

While you can get creative with containers, you must still follow food safety practices. Clean and sanitize containers or use mylar or other bags as liners if you aren’t sure you can get them clean. This particular bag holds 5 gallons, so this is what you’ll want when using 5-gallon buckets to store your food.

Finally, few containers protect against temperature extremes. The location of your food storage plays into this far more than any individual container.

Long-Term Prepper Food Storage Containers

5 Gallon Buckets

5-gallon buckets have been the go-to for long-term food storage for many years. There is a good reason for this.

These heavy plastic buckets with gasket lids are air and watertight, block most light, and are thick and sturdy so they can be stacked 3 high.

They also keep out most critters, other than large or determined rodents with some time on their hands. Furthermore, their large capacity allows for the storing of large quantities of grains or other heavy-use foods to ensure you will have enough on hand. For example, a 5-gallon can hold 35 lbs of sugar or 37 lbs of wheat. It’s super easy to simply dump large quantities of dry goods into a bucket, possibly drop in an oxygen absorber or two, pound on a lid, and be done with it. 

On the other hand, the large capacity of the 5-gallon buckets can make them too heavy to handle easily. It’s also a lot of food to go through, which can be challenging if you don’t have a large family.

Finally, although beautifully heavy-duty, these buckets are made of plastic, and over time oxygen creeps in and deteriorates your food. It happens slowly, but it does happen. Using a mylar bag as a liner adds double protection.

Five-gallon buckets from home improvement stores are not food grade, food safe, and their lids do not have gaskets, which help to keep out air and pests. If you’ll be using these buckets, you must use mylar bag liners, which are food safe and can be sealed using a flat iron or an iron.

Protection: Excellent 

Effort: Low

Average Cost:  Moderate to High

3.5 Gallon Bucket

I actually prefer this size for heavy grains like wheat, corn, and even rice. Their smaller size makes them easy to lift and you can rotate through the contents much faster. If you have a smaller family or physical limitations, then you may prefer this to the 5-gallon bucket. 

Protection: Excellent

Effort: Low

Average Cost: Medium

Mylar Bags 

Mylar bags are sturdy, aluminum-coated plastic. If sealed properly, these bags are water and airtight. In addition, the aluminum coating prevents light degradation.

They come in varying thicknesses from 3.5 mil to 7.5 mil. Ideally, 5 mil to 7 mil is used for long-term food storage.

Because they are impermeable to gas, they keep out oxygen for longer shelf life. Combined with an oxygen absorber, mylar bags are unbeatable for maintaining a low oxygen environment for dry foods.

However, despite their sturdiness, they aren’t puncture-proof. Sharp contents can puncture bags when vacuum sealed and mice can chew through a mylar bag with ease.

Also, filling the bags, adding O2 absorbers, and then sealing them with an iron or hair straightener is a bit of a pain. Once you figure out an assembly line for them it gets easier, but there is work involved. 

Protection: Good

Effort: High

Average Cost: Medium

*5 Gallon Bucket with Mylar Bags and Oxygen Absorbers

This is hands down the gold standard for serious long-term food storage. Dry foods can literally last for decades if stored this way!

If you believe you need some staple foods for the future, you want to store at least some basics in this way. However, it’s not easy. Buying or finding buckets with good lids, buying mylar bags and oxygen absorbers, and filling and then sealing the buckets can be a tiresome production.

Also, costs can add up fairly quickly for buckets, lids, Mylar bags, and oxygen absorbers. (However, some of the cost can be defrayed by scavenging buckets from delis and bakeries.)

Protection: Excellent+

Effort: High+

Average Cost: High

#10 Cans

These are metal cans the size of a traditional, large coffee can with metal lids and often include plastic lids for after they’re opened. They’re a convenient size to fill and store and a nice alternative to plastic containers if you have pests. You can recycle the cans used for freeze-dried foods (free) or buy new ones. However, if you’re recycling cans, use only cans that have held food previously.

In short, #10 cans can only hold a limited amount of food, but they offer the highest protection against pests, humidity, oxygen, and light. Throwing in an O2 absorber will extend the shelf life even more.

The downside to these is the machine required to seal them. It’s expensive. Give serious thought to the cost-benefit of this. Although the cans are relatively cheap, bulk purchases are the norm. Plus, the can sealer is definitely an investment purchase. A joint purchase with one or two other like-minded families could be a cost-saving solution.

Protection: Excellent

Effort:  Low

Average Cost: Very Very High

  • Cans are free if recycled, otherwise…
  • open top #10 cans, case of 44, ~$145.20 or $3.30 each
  • metal ends, case of 44, ~$31.50 or about $0.70 each
  • a can sealer runs hundreds of dollars

Quart and Gallon Glass Jars 

The beautiful thing about glass is that is impermeable. It can’t leach either chemicals or odors into your food because there is no interaction at all between your glass container and the food inside.

Furthermore, unlike plastic, glass doesn’t leak oxygen over time so it maintains a zero oxygen environment indefinitely.

Quart-size jars are used to preserve wet or dry foods for years using different canning methods.

In addition, some vacuum sealers have attachments that pull the oxygen out of jars and then seal them or you can use O2 absorbers. 

Perhaps the best quality of glass for a storage container, however, is that no pests can penetrate it. They are impervious to bugs and rodents.

One downside is they offer no protection against light, so unless they are in a dark space, the contents will degrade in a couple of years. Another is that they’re breakable. So if you live in earthquake country, consider well how you’ll store them.

Protection: Excellent

Effort: Low-High (Depending on whether you are canning or just storing food.)

Average Cost: Medium

Note: Jars are easy to find if you ask around to friends and family. They are also frequently found at thrift stores and garage sales for cheap. These prices are brand new jars bought online.

Vacuum Sealing

A vacuum sealer is a machine that sucks the air out of a bag and then heat seals the bag. You must use special bags—a ziplock or other type of plastic bag will not work, but vacuum sealing can extend the life of your food 3-5 times as long. It’s a great way to repackage meat before you freeze it or divide out smaller portions of other foods.

However, the bags are plastic and will leak oxygen over time. In addition, sharp edges can cause the plastic to be punctured as the machine pulls the air out.

Also, mice will have a field day with vacuum seal bags unless you place them in a plastic or metal container. You will need to invest in a vacuum sealer and bags, but the process of vacuum sealing is fairly easy once you get the hang of it.

If you want to try this strategy, you’ll need to select a vacuum sealing unit suited to your purposes.

Protection: Good 

Effort: Medium

Average Cost: High

1 Gallon Plastic Grip Jar (or similar)

These wide-mouth plastic containers can hold anything from flour to dry goods to dehydrated foods. They are a Survival Mom Recommended product.

They are easy to grab and pour or scoop out contents and the wide-mouth opening makes them very easy to fill. You can add an oxygen absorber for longer storage or use them for short-term storage for easy rotation of foods.

The clear plastic makes the type of food and the quantity inside easily visible, although it also makes the food more vulnerable to light degradation.

The size and shape of these containers make them especially useful for food with sharp edges or odd shapes of pasta.

Warning: do not put these into the dishwasher! They will melt and/or be more susceptible to leaching chemicals.

A recycled (free) version of this container would be the big plastic containers for pretzels or animal crackers that you get from the big box stores. Be aware, however, that the thinner the plastic container, the leakier they are to oxygen.

In general, these are better for short and mid-term food storage.

Protection: Very Good (for short to mid-term storage)

Effort: Low 

Average Cost: Medium

2-liter Plastic Bottles 

These are some of the cheapest containers you can find because you are recycling soda bottles.

Make sure they are clean and dry and then use a funnel to fill them with various dry goods. Their small size makes them an excellent storage option for living in small spaces because they can fit in odd places like under a couch.

And they are definitely watertight!

However, as with all thin plastic containers, they leak oxygen over time and provide little protection against light or rodents. These are handy for rice and other grains.

Protection: Good

Effort: Low

Average Cost: Low 

  • Approximately $2-4, on average
  • Free if you ask around

You Can Get Creative With Your Food Storage Containers…As Long As You Follow Safety Practices

There’s nothing wrong with getting creative about prepper food storage containers as long as you follow some basic rules.

Any plastic container used to store food must be food grade and have only been used to store edibles in the past. Plastic is slightly porous so it will absorb some of whatever it previously contained and then leach it back into your food. No matter how well you wash out a plastic bucket that has held laundry detergent or chemicals, it will eventually leach some of those odors, tastes, and chemicals into your food.

I know this is obvious, but it bears repeating: any container of any material–plastic, glass, or metal–must be cleaned and sanitized before you put food into it. It makes no sense to store food if you are going to risk contamination.

Some Prepper Food Storage Containers You Might Not Have Thought Of

I am including some odd choices for prepper food storage because you may already have some of these lying around for free or can find them at thrift stores and garage sales.

Also, these odd containers are excellent camouflage if you want to be discrete about your food storage.

Be wise, however. Odd containers may need mylar bags or vacuum-sealed bags inside of them to make them more appropriate for safe and clean food storage.

Popcorn Tin

Popcorn tins are a great way to recycle containers for inexpensive food storage. Because they are metal and often decorative, they are an effective way to hide food storage in plain sight. The wider circumference of the cans makes them super easy to fill so they are great for any foods that you want to scoop out.

The metal effectively shields food from light and mice, but these tins are less effective against humidity, oxygen, and even bugs. It really depends on the quality of the lid seal. A tighter seal makes for better protection, but it also makes it much harder to open the can. I find it easy to spill the contents while trying to jerk the lid open.

Metal File Boxes

Although not air or water tight, these boxes are excellent protection against light and pests. If you combine them with mylar or vacuum seal bags to eliminate oxygen exchange, they might make a darn good food vault.

Contractor Job Boxes

Again, the heavy-duty metal would be high protection against light and pests, but not oxygen or humidity. A unique feature of these boxes is the ability to lock them up. If this is an attractive feature, you might consider one.

Note, however, that these would be food storage containers are typically stored in garages and sheds, they would be more susceptible to temperature extremes.

Old Chest Freezer

This is one of the few containers that can offer some protection from temperature extremes. In fact, they are one of the few containers that combat all the things that shorten the lifespan of your foods!

Despite the excellent protection they offer, however, their size and weight are awkward so they may be best used as a cabinet for other, smaller food containers. If you can find one that no longer works, it will most likely be free.

Metal Garbage Can with Lid

If you have a particular problem with pests, a galvanized metal garbage can with a tight fitting lid can deter them. Mice can’t and rats generally won’t chew through the galvanized metal. Squirrels are a different story, but they are somewhat easier to keep out of buildings.

If you want to use this for storage, I recommend filling it with sealed mylar bags or other plastic containers containing your actual food. This will help protect against oxygen and humidity and keep the food clean from contaminants.

Ammunition Box

These aren’t very big and really, why would you store food in them if you can store ammo?

However, if you have a supply of these sitting around, they could be used for food. They are very portable, easy to clean and fill (use an extra bag if they have stored ammo), and a good deterrent against rodents.

Also, the plastic ammo boxes are fairly air and water tight and may be useful for some foods. 

This is great info, but how do I properly prepare and store food?

Great question! To properly prepare and store your food, you’ll also need to know:

Conclusion

There are many options for food storage containers. Begin by assessing your needs. Then learn how to properly prepare and store food for the longest shelf-life. Do this and you are well on your way to increasing your long-term food security.

What food storage containers do you prefer? Would you add any to this list?

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Valerie Whittle

Valerie Whittle. Over the years I have been an attorney and a homeschool mom--there is no question as to which is more fun. I now enjoy life with my husband of 29 years, assorted cats and dogs, and a garden.

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