Each year, dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of people are forced out of their homes and into hotels and shelters by natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods. When this happens to you, all of a sudden finding safe food becomes paramount.
While government agencies and organizations such as the American Red Cross do seem to manage to feed everyone successfully in these disaster situations, those of us with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to take extra steps beforehand to ensure we have safe, nourishing food to eat.
I can't say this forcefully enough: We can't depend on outside agencies and organizations to feed us in disasters — they are unlikely to have food that's safe for us.
In disasters, people in shelters often are served ready-to-eat meals, or MREs (meals-ready-to-eat). I took a look at these, and almost all of them rely on some form of wheat or oats as an ingredient. Even if you lucked out and got an MRE without obvious gluten-containing ingredients, it certainly won't be safe from gluten cross-contamination.
Nope, you'll be on your own — which means you'd better be prepared.
Okay, So What Will I Need To Do?
You'll need to create a kit with non-perishable food for everyone in your household who's gluten-free (in some households, that's a lot of food!).
"Standard" disaster prep calls for three days' worth of food, but I'd recommend stocking five or even seven days' worth of supplies. You might get lucky and not need all that food, but in my region, restoring power in the last major storm took two weeks.
Following is the list of potential supplies for your gluten-free disaster emergency kit, plus links to my individual rundowns of gluten-free options for these supplies:
1. Gluten-free cereals, crackers and other grain-based products. Gather a hefty supply of your everyday staples — they generally keep for quite a long time. Think in terms of three meals per day, plus snacks — you probably can't stock too many cookies and other treats, especially if you have children to feed.
- Gluten-Free Cereal Lists
- Gluten-Free Crackers
- Gluten-Free Potato Chips
- Gluten-Free Tortilla Chips
- Gluten-Free Multigrain Chips
- Best Gluten-Free Cookies
2. Shelf-stable milk. While you can eat your cereal without milk, you'll certainly prefer to have it the regular way. If you consume dairy, you can find shelf-stable cow's milk in most stores. If, on the other hand, you prefer soy milk, nut milk or rice milk, it's possible your usual selection already is shelf-stable. Get plenty.
3. Hard cheeses. Although cheese should be refrigerated under normal circumstances, hard cheeses — Swiss, cheddar and Gouda, for example — last for several days or longer without refrigeration. Hikers report they do just fine with cheese on days-long hikes in very warm conditions. If you can handle dairy, cheese could be a good source of safe calories for you in an emergency.
4. Canned or boxed gluten-free soups. We're fortunate that many soup manufacturers now make safe products for us to consume. Look for soups that are ready-to-eat (as opposed to those that need water added), since in a pinch you can eat them cold. Oh, and don't forget a clean can opener for your emergency kit.
5. Canned meat, chicken or fish. If you eat meat, these can provide some quick protein, even cold.
6. Dried fruit and nuts, plus chocolate. If you don't eat meat, nuts and nut butters can get you that needed protein, while dried fruit is a reasonably healthy snack that keeps for months. And of course chocolate is an essential food for any emergency.
7. Drinks. Bottled water is safe for you to drink, of course, and you should have plenty of it on hand. But you also can consider stocking your emergency kit with your favorites (gluten-free, of course) — that way, you have drinks you know are safe for you, and you won't have to try different brands.
8. Ready-to-eat gluten-free meals. The company GoPicnic makes nine prepackaged, shelf-stable gluten-free meals. They're not cheap (of course, nothing labeled "gluten-free" is cheap!), but these might make an easy alternative or a good supplement for your emergency kit. Thai Kitchen also makes several shelf-stable gluten-free entrees — but read your labels carefully, since not all Thai Kitchen products are gluten-free.
8. Utensils, plates and cups. If you're stuck in a motel or in an emergency shelter, you'll want to have your own dedicated gluten-free dishes and cutlery, so pick up a package of each (paper and plastic are fine) and keep them with your emergency stash. Oh, and if you have pets, don't forget pet food (we have a specific gluten-free brand we buy for our cats, and we definitely would need enough of that).
But What If I Don't Eat Processed Foods?
I'm particularly sensitive to trace gluten, and I can't eat some of the foods I list above. Therefore, my own emergency kit is a bit different: I rely more on foods I'll need to refrigerate and cook (and I include the means to refrigerate and cook them).
A high-quality cooler will keep food cool for up to six or seven days, even without a fresh infusion of ice, and a one-burner propane or butane stove will cook some excellent one-pot meals, perfectly safely. Therefore, my emergency kit includes both, plus a pot and lid.
If I know a hurricane might hit here, I freeze (or potentially cook and freeze) as much meat and vegetables as I can (if I'm really thinking ahead that year, I make up my own ready-to-eat meals in bags or containers and freeze those). I also turn the thermostat on the freezer to the coldest possible setting.
Then, I stock up on ice for the cooler (keeping it in the freezer for the time being), and I dig out the camp stove. Once the power goes off (which it almost always does around here), I switch the ice and frozen goods to the ice chest.
If I needed to evacuate, I could gather up everything and be gone quickly ... carrying my own safe kitchen and food supplies with me.
It Pays To Be Prepared, Especially If You Eat Gluten-Free
Natural disasters are scary things — I've always lived near the coast, and I'm constantly on edge during hurricane season. But with some careful advance planning, you'll be able to eat safely even if you're forced to evacuate.