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Community Cooking Off the Grid

by Survival Dispatch Staff
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If you’ve never tried it before, it’s hard to explain the challenges of cooking a decent tasting group meal without electricity, gas, or running water. Even if you’ve devoted a great deal of time and money to your survival food storage the work isn’t complete yet. Your food prep isn’t complete until you gain the experience to cook for a large group without utilities.

I have routinely cooked elaborate meals during my survival classes without the benefit of any utilities for more than 20 years. These meals have typically fed groups of 15-20 people. Although on two occasions and with much help, I have fed groups of 70. You can cook good tasting food off the grid. It just takes practice, experience, planning, and a bit of luck.

Safety First

Dirty conditions and spoiled food can sicken everyone you’re trying to feed even in any home kitchen or restaurant today. You simply cannot afford this in an emergency. Since bad food and filth will be the norm during a crisis, food safety HAS TO BE the top concern for off-the-grid cooks. This safety first mentality has to be applied to every aspect of food storage, meal preparation, serving, clean-up, and kitchen location.

Store It Right. Food has to be stored in a place that’s secure from disease spreading pests like rodents and roaches. The environmental conditions should also be suitable for food storage. You can’t just throw a bunch of frozen pizzas in a cooler after a summertime disaster and hope they don’t spoil. Remember to store things cool, dry, and dark. You can also store things frozen if your emergency setting is in a cold climate or season.

Cook It Well. Everything touching the food should be as clean as possible during preparation. The food should be thoroughly cooked to destroy any pathogens. This is particularly important when cooking fresh meat or using water you’ve collected.

Serve It Safely. Paper plates and plastic spoons are great but you’ll eventually run out. Make sure every reusable cup, plate, bowl, serving utensil, and piece of cutlery is disinfected before food touches it. Hand washing should be mandatory before each person is served. All food should be served by a server. Buffet style dining isn’t smart in a disaster setting. Some people will take more than their share. Plus if the first guy in line has turd on his hands and he holds a serving spoon that everyone else will touch, every person behind him runs the risk of getting sick.

Sponge and Soap

Clean Up Thoroughly. Dish washing certainly doesn’t seem like a life or death issue but it could be. Dirty dishes can lead to diarrhea, which can become deadly dysentery without proper medical care. I also know of a young lady who contracted bacterial meningitis from dirty dishes during a primitive living experiment. Nobody enjoys doing the dishes but it has to be done. It’s best if the cook staff handles dishwashing with the same level of cleanliness as food prep. Make your diners do their own dishes if you’re short-handed. Place four buckets in a row to create a dish washing station . All four buckets should have a few gallons of disinfected water in them.

Scrape food scraps from plates and bowls for pets or livestock to eat. Chickens will eat ANYTHING. Then go to the first bucket that is simply hot water with a scrub brush to clean off major food residue. Bucket two is hot soapy water and a scrubber for serious cleaning. Bucket three is a hot water rinse to remove soap residue. The final bucket is cold water and a splash of bleach. This disinfects the dishes. Set your wet dishes on racks to dry, preferably in direct sunlight as UV rays kill many pathogens. Pull the racks from a few dishwashing machines for easy repurposed dish drying racks. Use fresh water in the buckets for dishwashing after each meal.

Location. Consider the kitchen location carefully if you’re forced to cook outdoors. Your kitchen site should be uphill, upwind, and far away from anywhere that harbors bacteria and draws flies like the latrine, butchering area, etc. The site should offer shade and protection from the wind. Use existing shelter or pitch a tarp for rain protection too. Consider security as well. Most methods of outdoor cooking produces good smells and these wafting aromas may draw attention that you don’t want. Starving people are well documented as having the sharpest sense of smell, so watch your menu and cooking methods in crisis zones. A simple pot of rice, meat, and vegetables cooked indoors on a camping stove will produce a lot less scent than a post-apocalyptic wood fired BBQ pit in your backyard.

Find Your Fuels

You can forget about cooking with your electric range in a grid down setting. You’ll need heat from other sources.

Chopped Firewood
  • Wood – Even in most deserts, there’s wood to burn for fuel. You may also have wood strewn about after a destructive disaster like a tornado or hurricane. Most home framing is softwood like pine that can be cut up for firewood. Shipping pallets are typically hardwoods and they can be used as well. Make sure you don’t burn pressure treated wood, like the greenish-yellow wood used for decks, as the fumes and smoke are toxic. You should also learn which local trees and woody plants produce nasty tasting or toxic smoke like poison sumac.
  • Gas – If you have LP gas servicing your home, it’s an option for cooking after certain disasters though you should shut it off for safety after an earthquake. Bottled propane is portable and easy to use. Your existing propane grill or turkey fryer burner may save the day for group cooking until the bottles run out. Camping stoves also run on propane or similar fuels, which are great while they last.
  • Sunlight – Solar ovens and similar cookers can be great for small groups in sunny areas. They typically lack the volume for large group cooking. They’re also painfully slow.

Methods Matter

OK, the Mad Max BBQ pit I mentioned earlier does sound awesome. This may even make sense if you just shot a feral hog in the middle of nowhere. But you’ll probably need more practical options for day to day cooking.

Boil, Wait, Eat. Freeze dried meals are so easy and there are so many on the market. The long shelf life of up to 30 years is amazing. The drawback is that the price tag is prohibitive. Forget about serving suggestions. These are often ridiculously small portions. Look at calorie content instead.

It could be more than $20 a day per person unless you bought a cheap, and probably gross, freeze dried food assortment. Just for 2,000 calories of food per person! Unless you’re rich, that’s a tough way to feed a group. The plus side is that it’s so easy to cook the food. Boil some water. Remove the O2 absorber from the bag. Dump the water in the bag. Wait about 10 minutes. Eat out of the bag. Then you have just one dirty spoon to wash.


Stoves, Grills and Burners. As long as the fuel bottles last, your existing outdoor cooking equipment will be very useful. Camping stoves can cook for small groups. Those turkey fryer burners used for a big pot of soup will feed a larger group. Your propane hamburger grill is handy too. Grill meats and cook those frozen pizzas that are melting. You can efficiently boil and fry if the grill has a side burner for pots and pans. Once the propane is gone, shovel a little dirt into the bottom of the grill to keep the hot coals from melting the metal and burn a wood fire in your repurposed propane grill.

The Open Fire. This is how our ancestors cooked for millennia and it’s still a viable backup plan today. Build a hearth by stacking up a “C” shaped wall from bricks, cinder blocks, or stones to about 2 feet tall. Size it to fit available racks from burger grills or home ovens. Once you have a metal rack resting securely atop the fire-proof wall, test it for stability. If there’s no risk of your structure collapsing, start a fire under the rack and start cooking. You could also use a Dutch oven or similar cookpot with or without a tripod. Hang the pot by the tripod to boil over the fire. Place the lid on the pot and bury it in coals to bake or roast.

Pick A Smart Menu

It’s easy to dream about juicy, smoky roasted meats when you think about survival cooking techniques. However, a pot of soup makes a lot more sense. Survival is all about calorie acquisition and management. Wasting calories in an emergency would be like wasting water in the driest desert, it’s stupid.

So if you want to feed a group effectively, consider soups and stews as a staple food. That animal meat surrenders every calorie to the soup pot, including every precious drop of fat, when cut up and simmered until tender. This is much smarter than roasting meat over the fire and losing the fat that drips out. Just add some veggies and starches to the pot of broth and meat.

This will give you a filling meal that’s easy to cook, filling, and wholesome. Simmer meat for a few hours on the bone to get minerals that are needed for good health. Many Native American peoples, and so many of our other ancestors, lived off of soups, stews, broth, gruel, and porridge. We can too. Of the four main cooking methods, you’ll have the easiest time boiling.

Parting Tips

There is so much more we could address, but for now I’ll leave you with a few hard learned tips to make your off-grid cooking easier:

  • Plan Ahead – Don’t just buy random foods and ingredients based on long shelf life. Plan your food storage purchases around a rotating menu of simple meals.
  • Have A Top Chef – Extra kitchen helpers are great, but too many cooks spoil the broth. Someone needs to take the lead.
  • Set Up Work Areas – Grab or build some tables to create separate areas for the preparation of meat, preparation for food that will be served raw, and food serving.
  • Learn To Cook From Scratch – This is a whole skillset unto itself. Get some tips from your elders and practice! It’s harder than you might think.
  • Never Turn Your Back – The meal that gets ignored, gets burned. Never lose focus on your cooking tasks.
  • Keep It Moving – Thicker foods like stew, oatmeal, porridge, and rice are very easy to burn. Especially easy to burn over a fire and in large volumes. They need to be stirred often. Use a square tool like a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pot. Keep your flames low, not quite touching the bottom of the pot.
  • Don’t Be Scared Of Fat – This is the macronutrient that our hard working bodies crave. Plus it’s a prime vehicle for flavor and spice. Make sure you add a little bit of edible fat to your cooking. It will taste better and have more calories.
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