4 Important Food Storage Lessons Learned While Living Overseas

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I’ve seen the idea come up in conversations from time to time that acquiring food for long-term storage is pointless when you know you’re not going to live in any one place for very long. It’s a pain to lug it from house to house, and if you end up giving all that food away, you probably won’t have it long enough to need it, anyway. My perspective is a little different and comes from my experience with food storage overseas.

I see the logic in these arguments, of course, but I feel that food storage is one of those things that everyone should have, no matter the circumstances. The “I don’t think I’ll need it, anyway,” is not the best mindset to adopt, because the truth is that you never know when you will need your food storage.

image: black woman in pink top holding globe

My Experience with Food Storage Overseas

My family arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1984 when I was the only child and still a baby. When we left shortly before Desert Storm in 1990, I had a little brother and a baby sister. Six years is not a terribly long time, especially in food storage years. While we lived in the same town (Dhahran) in Saudi Arabia for the duration of our stay, we changed houses several times.

When local food is minimal

It probably was a pain to move all our stuff – including the food storage – so many times in such a short time. But Saudi Arabia did not have a significant agricultural economy at the time. Most food had to be imported from other countries – specifically, Holland.

Additionally, the war between Iran and Iraq had ended only a few short years before. My parents saw the wisdom in keeping some extra food on hand, and we ended up using it.

A forward-thinking pregnant woman prepares

The only milk available for purchase during our years in Saudi Arabia was boxed milk from Europe. This was specially heat treated so it could be stored for extended periods in liquid form at room temperature. Unfortunately, the treatment process gave the milk a slightly “off” taste, similar to what you get with reconstituted powdered milk. I hated the stuff. In fact, to this day it is the reason why I have difficulty choking down any kind of milk that is not flavored with chocolate or strawberries. This was, however, the only milk money could buy.

In the spring of 1986, my mom was pregnant with my brother and we were preparing for a trip to visit relatives in the United States. This was known as “repatriation,” or “repat,” for short. We were going to be gone for several weeks. My mom knew that the last thing she wanted to do after a 36-hour-long intercontinental journey was haul her pregnant self to the grocery store. She planned ahead and bought lots of extra milk so she wouldn’t have to bother with groceries when we returned to our home.

Thinking, as we all do when it comes to food storage, that “more is more,” she bought three cases, with sixteen liters per case.

And then Chernobyl…

While we were in the United States, Chernobyl happened. It devastated the area immediately surrounding the nuclear power plant. The radiation, though, contaminated a large portion of the food supply through much of Europe. This included the milk that was being shipped to Saudi Arabia. All our neighbors, many of whom had small children like our family, had to endure several weeks without milk. Needless to say, they found the experience challenging. When everyone else would get together to lament the milk-less state of things, my mom quietly didn’t mention her stash of milk. Her three cases lasted the family until Europe resumed shipments of milk to the Middle East.

The shelf-stable milk may not have been the tastiest, but my mom was smart. She thought about her circumstances, planed ahead, and then took steps to make sure we had what we needed.

As a point of interest, some years after this episode Saudi Arabia moved to develop its own dairy industry. This involved high-tech air-conditioned barns in which to house the cows, lest they perish from the intense desert heat.

When cookies help save (a corner of) the world

White sugar is exceedingly shelf-stable and you can keep it stored in your house for decades. White flour is a different story. It has a tendency to go rancid. Therefore, it’s not usually recommended that you store more white flour than you can reasonably consume in an 18-month period. That said, there are a few times when having more flour than you can possibly use is the very best outcome.

In the summer of 1990, mother traveled with the kids to attend a summer class at a university located near some extended family. My dad didn’t have a lot of paid time off, so he stayed in Dhahran to work and then planned to join us later in the summer. This was June/ July of 1990. If you remember recent history from that time frame, I bet you can see where this is going.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and the subsequent Operation Desert Storm put quite a wrench in our summer plans. And food shipments to the Middle East, once again, were disrupted.

At this same time, American soldiers stayed in the homes of the American expatriates. As is the True American Way, everyone wanted to give homemade cookies to the soldiers, but not everyone had ingredients with which to bake them. With no little kids running around to eat it up, there were plenty of ingredients at my house. Most of those supplies went to neighbors who used them to bake treats for military personnel.

Lessons Learned from Food Storage Overseas

I learned a lot about storing food while living overseas. Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned from food storage overseas.

1. Emergencies, natural disasters, and economic strife can’t be predicted.

My mom stocked up on milk for convenience, not in anticipation of any specific disaster. In the face of shortages, however, her forethought proved invaluable.

2. You can’t always anticipate exactly how your food storage will be used.

My parents didn’t have in mind other people using their flour and sugar. Those supplies benefited many more people than just one family. Although, we didn’t barter for other supplies, there could be circumstances where that might occur.

3. Plan and prepare to share.

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that you should keep your food storage quiet. However, there are also times where it is good to share. Note that this is not all the time. (See above)

4. It is always worth it to have food storage.

It’s always worth it even if you don’t think you have room for it, even if you don’t think you’ll use it. “Food storage” doesn’t necessarily mean a year’s worth, or even 3 or 6 month’s worth of food. Depending on your circumstances, just having several extra pounds of sugar, flour, seasonings, salt, rice, and beans might be enough to see you through unpredictable events.

My time living overseas has taught me invaluable lessons about the importance of food storage.

Have there ever been experiences in your family where you have used food storage in a way you did not expect?

Originally published 7/13/2015; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom.

13 thoughts on “4 Important Food Storage Lessons Learned While Living Overseas”

  1. Pingback: Prepper News Watch for July 14, 2015 | The Preparedness Podcast

    1. I didn’t see this comment until today – sorry about that!

      Thanks so much, Karla! That really made my day.

  2. Great article!
    I stocked up on gasoline (8 five gallon containers) when the gas prices went down and my husband thought I was crazy for storing fuel. Less than two weeks later, a frantic woman and her soccer clad daughter came knocking on our front door as her car ran out of fuel in front of our home. My husband initially said he couldn’t help until I reminded him about our newest supply. The woman was more than greatful and I was left feeling great! You never know when or why you will need what 😉

    1. The Survival Mom

      Food storage experts claim that bay leaves do NOT keep food insect free. I’ve never relied on them, myself. Store corn meal in an airtight container, and it should be good for years. You can add a small, 100 cc oxygen absorber to help remove most/all of the oxygen.

  3. hillbilly girl

    Don’t store cornmeal. Store whole corn! Buy a hand grinder and grind it fresh. The flavor is incredible. Whole corn stores very well. I have mine in 6 g buckets.
    Very good article. I was blessed with a lot of strawberries & now peaches. Sure it is more than we will eat in 1 year. Next year there may not be any.
    When I was growing up in a small town, it was considered foolish to not store food. Even if you didn’t garden, you bought from farmers to store. And you always stored more than what you thought you might need.
    I had someone ask me ‘what on earth will you do with a #10 can of pinto beans?!’ My reply was ‘eat em.’ She probably would have had a heart attack if she knew I had a bucket of them!!

  4. Question can you find any kind of yeast that you can store for several years? Do you have a good survival white bread using powdered products and no yeast?
    Been getting ready for a while just found you and what a blessing, we also stored item food we can cook like we are use to no MRE’s only two weeks while we get up.
    Keep us informed.

  5. That is what i have been doing for quite a few months now want to learn to start caning so I can make some bing jam my hubby brought some home from work tryed it o my god that was so good so that is one thing that I would like to know

  6. There have been two times where our food storage came in handy.

    The first was Covid. We had enough food in the pantry to get through most of the food shortages.

    The second was the freak cold snap that hit Texas in 2021. We live in the southern tip of the state, where ice never lasts more than a day. Everyone lost power and no one could buy food or travel for days. The local grocery stores lost power too, and had to completely get rid of all of their refrigerated and frozen stock– think huge dumpsters labeled “bad food, do not take.” Our county had an emergency relief food handout — the line was literally two miles long. We got through the storm and the 2 weeks long aftermath without having to accept any aid.

    I’m not a hardcore food storage person. I don’t have a bunch of #10 cans or much freeze dried anything. But I’ve learned the value of keeping a full pantry and chest freezer and buying non perishables in bulk (it’s usually cheaper per ounce that way too).

  7. Really_Old_Guy

    Back when I was a kiddo, in the early 1950’s my Dad was first out of work with a broken ankle and by the time it healed all the workers at that company ‘went on strike.’ Dad was home for many months that summer and into the fall and winter. Mom made do with the little money they had saved and flour she had on hand, baking 8 loaves of bread every Saturday morning. I remember looking at the kitchen cupboards that were practically bare. Toward the end of that spell, we ate bread that was fried in fat and then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Mom went through the Depression and had learned how to ‘make do.’

    Dad “made” our Christmas tree that year from angled holes drilled into a green-painted wooden closet pole and the branches he used were scrounged from those stands where they sold cut Christmas trees. Dad later told us he had to wire those branches in place to keep them from flopping out of the drilled holes. We were really proud of our Dad, knowing he could make or fix ‘anything.’ And we bragged to our friends that “Our Dad MADE our Christmas tree!” Presents were scarce that year, but we were always a happy family growing up with plenty of love and care.

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