How Long Will Your Canned Food Last?

Canned food often takes the spotlight in stories about the world after a major disaster, and there’s a good reason why. It stays fresh for a long time, holds up well even if it gets banged around a bit, and is kept safe from harmful bacteria.

But here’s the real question: how long can you really rely on your canned goods?

It’s not just a matter of picking up some cans from the store or even canning your own without knowing exactly how long they’ll stay good. Knowing this could be critical, potentially a matter of life and death. When facing the worst-case scenario, the last thing you need is to worry about whether your food will sustain you. Canned food serves as an excellent addition to your other long-lasting food supplies.

Canned food tips and recommendations

Rotating your food supply is key to ensuring you use up the oldest items first. This practice, known as FIFO (first in, first out), means putting the oldest products at the front of your storage shelves and the newest ones at the back. It’s like why the milk with the furthest expiry date is always tucked away at the rear of the fridge.

When you’re stocking your own pantry, keep an eye on expiry dates and make sure those nearing expiration are front and center so they get used first. This tip isn’t just for preppers or those planning for doomsday scenarios; it’s handy for anyone wanting to minimize food waste.

Consider investing in a labeling machine for better organization. It’s not only helpful for various projects but can also be a lifesaver for labeling canned goods with their expiry dates. With many expiry dates hidden on the bottom of cans, it’s easy to lose track, especially when you have a lot of canned items.

Since most labels aren’t white, they’ll stand out nicely against the cans, ensuring the dates are easy to read. And keeping track of expiration dates will help you stay on top of your food storage game.

Group similar items together in your pantry or storage area. This simple step makes it easier to see what you have and avoid buying duplicates.

Efficient meal planning

efficient meal planning

Sometimes, it’s tough to take a good, impartial look at our preps and figure out what we did wrong, but it’s important to make sure we’re making the most of our food and finances.

Nothing’s worse than tossing out food because it went bad. It could happen because our tastes changed, the kids got pickier, we got tempted by sales, or simply because we forgot about it.

Facing reality and crafting a meal plan is a solid way to avoid wasting food and money in the future. Figure out what you and your family actually enjoy eating, keeping in mind that tastes can evolve over time.

Also, be cautious about sales. While saving money is great, it’s crucial to stay practical and realistic. If you only resort to eating carrots when there’s nothing else left, buying a huge stash just because they’re on sale might not be wise. Even though they’re a bargain, they’ll likely end up sitting in the pantry untouched, which means you’re throwing away both money and food.

How about canning your own food?

You have the option to preserve your own food through canning. While this might sound appealing, especially for those who prefer a hands-on approach, it’s important to note that the USDA, the government agency responsible for food safety, suggests a maximum shelf life of one year for all homemade canned goods.

Although there are anecdotes of people consuming decade-old peaches and sharing their experiences on survivalist forums, is it wise to rely on such stories in a worst-case scenario? Safety should always come first. It’s crucial to heed the USDA’s recommendations because they’re not making them arbitrarily; they’re doing it to protect your well-being.

Does this mean you shouldn’t consider canning your own food?

Certainly not. However, it’s vital to prioritize safety by employing FIFO (first in, first out) and labeling methods. These practices help safeguard your life and the lives of your loved ones from risks like botulism, salmonella, or E. coli contamination.

Store-bought canned food

Because the USDA lacks authority over home food preservation practices, they offer a general recommendation for the shelf life of home-canned goods, whether it’s for better or worse. However, this differs for commercial facilities, where specific recommendations are provided for store-bought canned goods.

The USDA classifies foods into two categories when determining shelf life: high-acidic and low-acidic. High-acidic foods contain ingredients like citric acid, vinegar, or are tomato-based, and typically have a shelf life of 12-18 months due to the acid content, which accelerates the breakdown of food even in sealed packaging.

Conversely, low-acidic foods, such as poultry, soups, meats, and various vegetables like squash, corn, green beans, peas, and okra, have an extended shelf life of up to five years. This makes them ideal for long-term storage, especially when combined with a food planning and rotation system, along with a method for tracking expiration dates. It’s essential to note that these foods are commercially canned, not home-canned.

For home canning, opting for commercially canned high-acidic foods is a practical choice, as they offer similar shelf lives. This approach can simplify managing expiration dates and implementing a rotation system.

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How to properly store canned foods

Simply rotating and labeling your canned goods won’t suffice. No matter how meticulously you prepare, it’s all for naught if you neglect proper storage practices.

Storage often falls by the wayside when people stock up on provisions, but overlooking it can have dire consequences in emergencies.

The golden rule of food storage can be summed up in a few words: heat reduces shelf life. Optimal storage for canned food entails selecting a cool, dry location with relatively consistent temperatures and minimal exposure to sunlight.

This is one of the key reasons why shelters are often built underground. Aside from shielding against radiation, severe weather, and fictional undead, they provide an ideal environment for preserving canned goods.

In tropical or consistently hot regions, canned goods must be specially engineered to withstand high temperatures without compromising their shelf life.

Temperature isn’t the sole concern for food storage. Unless you rely solely on home-canned goods (which, as discussed, isn’t advisable), the majority of your canned items will come in metal cans. However, metal rusts.

Ensure your storage area is devoid of moisture to prevent rust formation. Oxidation caused by rust weakens the metal at a molecular level, compromising the can’s integrity.

While discounted dented cans might seem like a steal, exercise caution. Minor dents are generally harmless, but deep dents, especially those touching the can’s seam, should be avoided. They can compromise the seal, allowing bacteria to infiltrate and potentially cause illness or worse.

It should be obvious, but refrain from freezing your canned goods. Freezing can expand the contents inside, potentially breaking the seal and rendering the food unsafe. Keep your frozen goods separate from properly stored canned items.

Botulism concerns

botulism concerns

One of the gravest dangers associated with canned goods is botulism. Though rare, botulism is a highly lethal form of food poisoning that can arise in improperly canned foods, particularly low-acidic varieties like vegetables, which may harbor the bacteria responsible for botulism from soil contamination.

Symptoms of botulism include double vision, difficulty swallowing, respiratory issues, and drooping eyelids, as the toxin targets the nervous system. These symptoms typically manifest within 12-48 hours of ingestion. Death occurs due to respiratory failure, as the nerves fail to stimulate breathing.

Although an antitoxin exists, it doesn’t guarantee full recovery. Permanent neurological damage is possible, and recovery is often slow and arduous.

Thanks to the USDA, FDA, and other organizations dedicated to education and food safety, the cases of botulism poisoning have drastically decreased, but illness and death still occur.

It’s scary to think a can of beans can kill you, but it’s true. Take precautions and act wisely when it comes to food safety, and you’ll reduce your chances of getting poisoned.

Avoid cans that are leaking, bulging, or badly dented – these could all be signs of botulism contamination. Don’t consume food that smells off if the liquid looks milky when it should look clear or if the container spurts liquid when you open it.

Make sure that suspect containers are disposed of properly so that other people or animals aren’t inadvertently exposed to the toxin. Double-bag the container, making sure they are tightly closed.

Do canned foods expire easily?

The expiration date is a bit of a misnomer. The dates printed on food are concerned with quality and safety and are not legally required.

Food can be safely consumed past the date printed on the package, but the quality might not be acceptable to most people. While there is no federal law concerning the dating of commercially available food, some states do require dating.

Most people use these dates as “expiration” dates because they don’t store food in preparation for an emergency event.

The shelf lives described earlier in this article are the ones recommended by the USDA for safety and should be used for foods falling within the categories given.

Buy the right canned food

survivalstockpilePreppers should consider stocking up on canned foods that have the longest shelf life and provide essential nutrients. Some of the most long-lasting canned foods include:

Low-acidic canned foods: These typically have a longer shelf life compared to high-acidic foods. Examples include canned meats (like chicken, beef, and tuna), soups, stews, and chili.

Vegetables: Certain vegetables have a longer shelf life when canned. These include carrots, potatoes, peas, green beans, corn, and squash. Opt for canned vegetables with minimal additives or preservatives.

Beans and legumes: Canned beans such as black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils are excellent sources of protein and fiber. They have a long shelf life and can be used in various dishes.

Canned fruits: While high-acidic, some canned fruits like peaches, pears, and pineapple can still have a relatively long shelf life. Look for fruits canned in water or juice rather than syrup for healthier options.

Tomato products: Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce are versatile ingredients with a decent shelf life. They can be used in a wide range of recipes, including soups, stews, sauces, and casseroles.


Effective food storage and preparation are vital aspects of emergency preparedness. Whether you’re considering canning your own foods or stocking up on canned goods, understanding proper storage techniques and heeding safety guidelines is essential.

From rotating your food supply to selecting the most long-lasting canned items, every step plays a crucial role in ensuring you’re well-prepared for unforeseen circumstances. Always prioritize safety, nutrition, and variety in your food storage plan so you can better safeguard yourself and your loved ones in times of need. Remember, preparation today can make all the difference tomorrow.

Suggested resources for preppers:

How to find Food in any Environment

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

1 thought on “How Long Will Your Canned Food Last?”

  1. In the late 1890s a barge carrying supplies to Fort Benton Montana sank in the Missouri River.
    The barge and part of its cargo were recovered in 1994.Canned fruits and vegetables were tested
    in a government and a university laboratory.No bacterial or microbial activity were found.The texture
    of the food was badly deteriorated as could be expected.
    When opening home canned food use the three sense’s test.When the seal is broken listen for a popping sound.How does it look?.How does smell.


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