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Prep to Live, Not Just Survive

Avatar for Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: July 1, 2019
Prep to Live, Not Just Survive

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I had an interesting conversation the other day on the idea of survival and emergency food. The words “good enough for survival use” and “if you are hungry enough, you don’t care what it tastes like” were tossed around, and got me thinking.

Why on earth would you settle for things you would never normally eat for emergency use? I’ve heard similar ideas expressed for tools and survival gear. “Oh, it’s good enough for survival” gets applied to more than just food, and frankly, that whole idea terrifies me.

Now you might be going “Oh, you are just a pansy” or “Quit whining, and buck it up, back in my day I walked uphill three miles both ways in the snow to go to school, and had to fight off dinosaurs with a stick along the way.”  On the other hand, you might be nodding quietly and sipping tea while the rest of the world burns around you.

Well, I prefer to fight off dinosaurs with a high powered rifle, and I dislike a lunch made out of misery and sadness, and frankly, nobody should have to live that way, even in an emergency.

Now don’t get me wrong. There might be a time when all you have is that stick, and the misery flavored sadness, but when you are planning for an emergency and preparing for disaster, you shouldn’t be deliberately storing sticks and sadness.

Your Emergency Food Is Bad, And You Should Feel Bad

Well, you will feel bad after eating it. Let’s back it up a bit here. We live in a world full of high quality long lasting foods of all sorts. Canned food can last for years, freeze-dried food lasts decades, and we have ready access to the means to store all manner of foods for years.

There is no better time in history to put aside healthy, nourishing, tasty and varied foods for an emergency.

So why in the name of Nicolas Appert do we tolerate substandard emergency food?

I think part of it is that sometimes it is too easy to compromise while also thinking you won’t really need to make use of your preps. If you don’t accept that you’ll actually have to eat what you are putting aside, then it’s easy to think “well, it’s ok to store this gross tasting stuff, I’ll never eat it anyway.”

In other words, you gain all the satisfaction of being prepared for something, while also believing you’ll never need to use it.

Another trap is that of rugged romanticism. Accepting subpar survival food becomes a bragging right. “I can eat anything in an emergency” or a way to create the idea of noble suffering “if you are hungry, anything is good.” It is also easy to underestimate your capacity for eating stuff you wouldn’t normally eat.

I’ve fallen into all those traps myself. I’ve shopped for emergency food, and bought stuff I wouldn’t want to eat normally by justifying it as “just for emergencies” or stockpiled food I justified as “well, in a pinch it will be fine.”

But you know what? It isn’t fine, and if you don’t get physically ill from marginal preps, your mental well being will suffer.

Is It Really Good Enough?

Imagine if you will that some sort of disaster has struck. Perhaps there was an earthquake or a hurricane, or maybe you just fell on hard times and you have to turn to your emergency supplies. Now at this point, you are under a lot of stress. You might be living in a tent or makeshift shelter, and it’s dinner time.

Think about it, tired, cold, uncomfortable and now you are faced with a can of beans you hate, canned goods of questionable age, or simply some sort of off-brand freeze-dried concoction that has a bad flavor, and misrepresented how many “meals” are in a bucket.

In other words, your meal is nasty, unpleasant and at best barely palatable. Wouldn’t a nice tasty meal be better? Right now, all your “good enough for survival” is making you miserable and wearing you down even further.

Survival does not have to mean controlled privation. When you are prepping for disaster, your goal is to survive, but survival means more than just the bare minimum.

Survive, Or Thrive?

Many survival foods are compact and provide a bare minimum of calories for the short term. They are often designed for storage where there are limited space and a high chance of quick rescue. In other words, aircraft and lifeboat rations are made for people who can reasonably be expected to get out of a survival situation in short order. Home prepping is none of that.

You are not trying to store food in a limited place where size and weight is an important consideration, and you reasonably have to expect to see to your own needs for an unknown length of time. Compressed food bars, survival tablets, and meal kits that offer small portions and a restricted calorie diet won’t cut it.

Now is not the time to be a tough guy justifying low-grade food supplies, or to needlessly consume barely edible food. Survival manuals always emphasize the importance of a positive frame of mind, and the need to maintain good mental health.

“Good enough” meals will wear you down over time, and contribute to poor mental outlook. In other words, poor food means reduced survival outlooks.

What To Store

Remember, there is a radical difference between short term emergency survival where your space for supplies is limited, and prepping at home. The prepper needs quality food that is nutritious, varied and offers a realistic amount of calories. We can take a quick lesson from history that might help understand this better.

During WWII, the US Army introduced the K-Ration, which was designed for short term use away from field kitchens. While innovative for the time, it had several fatal flaws that quickly became apparent.

It failed to provide sufficient calories for men engaged in combat and strenuous exercise. Soldiers who had to eat K-Rations for an extended period of time actually lost weight. Malnourishment and even scurvy were recorded among men consuming the K-Ration.

Because components of the K-Ration were sometimes unappealing or even inedible, they would be uneaten, which reduced the food value of the ration. Limited menu choice reduced morale, and further reduced the overall value of the ration.

Let this sink in for a minute. The Greatest Generation grew to despise their rations in the middle of combat and would at times refuse to eat parts of them. Tell me again why settling for cut-rate food storage is ok for prepping?

We can learn a valuable lesson from this though, and it is the same one the US Army has slowly learned and implemented. Provide enough food that people want to eat in quantities that will sustain health, and in a variety to prevent what is called menu fatigue.

What you consider acceptable variety, calorie count and worth eating are up to you, but we can learn a few things by looking at a modern military ration.

Comfort Matters

Grab a fairly modern MRE if can. I’m not saying you should stockpile MRE’s, but I am saying an MRE is the culmination of two centuries of military ration technology and understanding, and those lessons matter here and can be used as a foundation to develop your own prepping food storage strategy.

The MRE you just opened up will have a few different things like;

  • The main course
  • Side dish
  • Snack or dessert
  • Crackers, bread or tortillas
  • Spread like peanut butter or cheese
  • One or more powdered drinks like a protein shake or sports drink
  • Seasonings
  • Coffee

There will also be various sundry items like a spoon, matches, toilet paper and the like. Now looking at the contents of this one meal, we can extrapolate a valuable prepper lesson and strategies.

If you get right down to it, for survival you don’t need the comforts of seasonings, snacks, or desserts. But survival isn’t about forcing yourself to live a miserable life until the emergency is over. It’s about maintaining your life and preserving some level of the quality of life you are used to.

Instead of cans of meat you’d never normally eat, and other “well if I have to I’ll eat it” in your preps, what are you doing to make sure each of your emergency meals offers the same variety and range of items as a common MRE? Having been there and done that, I can assure you sitting down to an emergency meal that offers food I want to eat means a lot more than forcing myself to eat.

A cold can of chili has calories sure, but warmed up, served with some crackers, hot sauce, some fruit, a nice cup of tea, and a piece of chocolate means a lot more in a survival situation, and isn’t that hard to pull off.

Other Gear

Haven’t spent 1500 words riffing on the futility of tolerating low-grade food for prepping, itis important to address the other half of that issue, and look at why putting up with crap gear is also bad.

By now the point should have been made – an emergency is no place for substandard survival supplies. If you wouldn’t rely on something under normal circumstances, why should you trust it under abnormal circumstances?

Again, I’ve been there, done that, had the cold, miserable nights. When you are homeless, you learn a lot about what kind of survival gear does and does not and how it doesn’t. Most anything that goes into a shiny prepackaged kit is marginal at best. Those mylar “space blankets”? They’ll mostly work in a pinch, but sleeping a night in them is awful. Plus they don’t breath, so you wake up damp. No thanks. They have their use, but not as a primary emergency blanket.

The same goes with knives, stoves, cookware, foul weather clothing, tools, sleeping bags, boots, and anything else you put aside for emergency use.

Again, why settle for marginal performance and quality?

I know it can be tempting to buy cheaper examples of gear against the chance that you’ll rarely if ever have to use it, and treat it as a basically disposable product, but that is a false economy that could get you killed in an emergency.

In many cases, your existing gear double as emergency supplies. I bought a good jacket that serves as an all-weather coat where I live, and I use it. In an emergency, guess which coat I grab in the appropriate season? Yup. Same with knives, sleeping bag, tent, firearms, or whatever.

There is no reason to maintain all your emergency gear in a redundant form. Buy your everyday stuff with an eye towards how it can serve you when the grid goes down, the zombies attack, or the FEMA death camps open up (that last one is sarcasm by the way. The death camps will be run by space aliens, I heard about it on youtube…)


The problem with an article like this is that it pokes at some deeply ingrained habits in parts of the prepper community. Romantic ideals of controlled discomfort, accepting needless hardship, and projection of a tough guy image all factor into accepting subpar preps. So do ideas of false economy, and ignoring the need to maintain morale in an emergency.

Again, an emergency is the worst time to be more miserable than you have to. Cheap gear is cheap and breaks, often leaving you worse off than you were before. Poor quality food wasn’t good enough for combat troops in WWII, why should it be good enough for you now?

Prep to survival comfortably. There is no honor in misery and no glory in suffering. There is victory in riding out an emergency in relative comfort and security though. I know which one I prefer because I’ve already suffered from cheap gear, marginal food, and lousy shelter.

Author’s Bio

Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.

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6 Responses to “Prep to Live, Not Just Survive”

  1. This is exactly why we try various long term foods before investing in large purchases. Get free samples when you can (you may have to pay S&H) before buying in bulk, or buy smaller packages before committing to a bulk purchase. The same can apply to ‘items’ as well, buy one, see how it works, then go back and buy more if it lived up to your expectations. Your family likes a certain brand of canned tuna/spagettios/etc, stock up on that, not the off brand you’ve never tasted. That allows you to rotate your stock efficiently, FIFO. We don’t eat a lot of rice, therefore I don’t store a whole lot of it (but do have some). We like some beans but not others, so I only store the ones we eat regularly. Honestly, it’s common sense, but we all need a reminder every now and then.

  2. Excellent article that brings light to a serious problem. Having worked with refugee populations I can say that many people simply stop eating when they have to eat the same thing every day, think rice and beans, or cabbage and potatoes. People get to the point they simply can’t eat another bite of the same old thing. Children and the elderly are most at risk and actually starve to death even though food is available. The same is true with food that is unfamiliar, especially when people are weak, sickly, or exhausted. Again this is magnified in children and the elderly.

    If you think a crisis situation could last so long that you are down to the last of your stored food. If you only have rice and beans left, then at least know 50 different ways to prepare it. Be able to mix up the smell, texture, and flavor. Have lots of different herbs and seasoning blends. Rice with sugar and cinnamon tastes a lot different than Spanish or Asian rice. One night a week our family tries a new rice and bean dish. Then we vote whether or not to keep that recipe in our survival cookbook. It helps kids feel empowered about their food choices. When everyone in the family gives it a thumbs down, we all celebrate that we won’t be forced to eat that– over and over and over again.

  3. Please post more of these articles since as an RV Prepper I rely on my prepping skills to survive daily.

  4. Great article. I could not agree more. I have lived through some tough times and I am preparing to not be in that situation again.

  5. Excellent post!

    My personal SHTF fear is contagion. Everyone sick, state borders closed, nothing going in and out, grid shuts down, etc.

    I’ve often thought, ‘I’ll be uncomfortable enough, – assuming I’m not sick/infected -, bathing outside with my solar shower, no TV/Stereo/Internet, building a fire to cook everything, etc., why would I skimp on food?’

    Our plan is to have our usual favorite meals and niceties available for at least 100 days, but longer if possible. After that it’ll be more oatmeal, less eggs/sausage/pancakes for breakfast, – unless we find abandoned chickens which around here is possible! -, more salads with beans, less chicken and beef dishes for lunch, etc. After about a year we’ll be down to canned soups and canned meats, which you can still make a decent meal out of.

    Comfort is important in stressful times!

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