Food Grade Buckets & Why You Need Them

Five-gallon food grade buckets are a staple in many food storage pantries. When my family first began storing food, those buckets were a little intimidating! My wife complained they were difficult to open — buying Gamma Seal lids solved that problem — but the buckets were also very heavy.

Another issue with plastic buckets is whether or not they are actually food grade and that’s what I’d like to focus on here. It’s a topic that concerns me because not all plastic buckets are made from a material that is actually safe for storing food, and there is a lot of misinformation being spread on this subject.

One widespread rumor is that having the recycling number 2 in the small triangle on the bucket means it is food grade. This does not mean that it is food grade. It just refers to how the bucket needs to be recycled.

Another question I get on a regular basis has to do with lining buckets with mylar bags as a safe alternative in case the plastic isn’t officially food safe. To the best of my knowledge, this is correct, because the food only touches the mylar bag, which is made from safe material.

What is a food-grade bucket?

food grade buckets
Some buckets are labeled food grade.

The difference between food grade and non-food grade is the types of dyes used for coloring and the type of chemicals used to release the buckets from the molds. It has nothing to do with the sanitary conditions under which they are made.

The problem I have with non-food grade buckets is that in the future you have no idea what that bucket will be used for. Once you’ve used up the stored food inside, someone may decide to use it for storing fresh produce, brining, processing olives, or carrying water and may not think as to whether or not the container is safe for those purposes.

I don’t know what affect the chemicals and dyes might have on my family or me. For instance, the salt in brining may leach the chemicals out. I just prefer not to take the chance.

Where to find food grade buckets

Food grade buckets are easy to find and often can be obtained for free. Check with your local bakeries and supermarkets first. They often will save them and give them to you for nothing. The buckets often are not marked as food grade, but it’s almost certain they have been used for that purpose.

When we obtained about 20 buckets from a grocery store bakery in Phoenix, they had been used to store pastry fillings and frosting for cakes. (They smelled really good!)

Both the nearest Sam’s Clubs and Costco have been good sources for buckets. Go back to their cake baking areas.  Ask and they will often give you a bucket or two.  When I was in need of free five-buckets, I used to ask whenever I went to the supermarket.  

The bakery and deli departments are the best places to get them.  Not every store would give them to us, some recycle their buckets, but it was surprising how many would give them to you. Sometimes the buckets would be in various sizes running from about one gallon up to six gallons.

Here is a list of locations in which we found free five-gallon buckets.

  • Bakeries
  • Delis
  • Construction sites
  • Supermarkets
  • Coffee Shops
  • Farm Stores
  • Restaurants
  • School Cafeterias
  • Car Washes
  • Buffets

We had our best luck at deli’s and bakeries.  Once people found out we wanted them they often saved them for us.  If you have friends that work in any of the above listed businesses, they are often good sources.  You can think of an excuse for needing them to protect your operational security.

The one thing we always do with our buckets is mark them to show whether or not they are food grade.  Most of the time it is pretty easy to tell when you first get the free five-gallon buckets, the ones from the stores that held food normally need to be cleaned out.

If you’re purchasing buckets, the store you purchase them from should tell you if there are food-grade or if they contained food products. Most food-grade buckets I’ve purchased and have gotten for free are white. 

If you have any doubt, you may be able to locate the name of the manufacturer on the bucket itself and give them a call. When I did this, they were very helpful and provided me with the information I needed.

I’ve also found food grade buckets at Walmart, and you’ll also find them on Amazon.

How to seal food in 5-gallon food-grade buckets

For detailed steps on sealing food in a 5-gallon food grade bucket, see this post.

The other day I had to seal some popcorn and millet in Mylar bags and five-gallon buckets. It is quite an easy process. First, open the Mylar bag and put it in the bucket. Fill the Mylar bag with your product to about two inches from the top of the bucket.

You will notice that the bag is a lot taller than the bucket, rather than cut off the excess I seal it right on the edge. If I open, the bucket to rotate the food this leaves me plenty of material to reseal the bag.

I use an old two-foot metal hand level and an electric iron to seal the bags. The level is just the right length and thickness to make a good seal. I do not use my wife’s good iron since some mylar bags leave residue on the iron. I got the cheapest iron they had at Walmart. This keeps me out of trouble.

After putting in the oxygen absorbers, I set the level across the top of the bucket and lay the Mylar bag against it. I then iron it to make the seal. Leave a small opening in one corner. This permits you to squeeze out the excess air. You then make a diagonal seal across the corner.

Since I get my oxygen absorbers from the LDS cannery and they are the 300CC type, I always put in 5 absorbers. This article contains details about how to choose oxygen absorbers for different sizes of food storage containers.  Fold the mylar bag into the bucket. Put the lid on the bucket, label it, and you are done.

How do you store your food-grade buckets?

Because filled buckets can be very, very heavy, try to not stack them directly on each other. Over time, and depending on where they are stored, this will cause the plastic to crack and introduce moisture, pests, and light into your stored food. All of these will cause your food to deteriorate more quickly.

If you must stack them, do not stack buckets more than 2 to 3 high. More than that, weight becomes a problem and the lids can break collapsing inward.

Food-grade buckets can be ideal for storing emergency food. Just be sure the plastic is actually “food grade”. If not, or if you aren’t sure, then use a mylar bag as a liner to provide double protection for your food. With oxygen absorbers and stored in a cool location, your food will be fresh 15-20 years from now.

See also  A Failure of The Shelf Life of Spam

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18 thoughts on “Food Grade Buckets & Why You Need Them”

  1. Thanks for this information.
    I find the food grade buckets from a local ag store actually cheaper than the five gallon buckets elsewhere.
    How do you close your buckets? The flat lids, or do you use something else?

    1. I normally seal them with the flat lids they come with. Since you are using Mylar bags it is just to protect the bags. Sometimes for convenience I will use the gamma lids.

  2. I never knew that the small triangle at the bottom of plastic buckets does not mean they are food grade packaging. We are preparing a large supply of food storage to go in our basement. Thanks for the tips on finding the right kind of bucket for storing food.

  3. I’m confused about a few things;

    1) What difference does it make if the plastic is ‘food grade’ if the food is in mylar? Shouldn’t any good plastic bucket that keeps out moisture and air do the trick? It isn’t in contact with any food, after all.

    2) For something like pasta or rice, is mylar even necessary, so long as you have a food grade bucket with oxygen absorbers and a seal on the bucket, what big benefit is there from having the mylar?

    Thanks for your thoughts

    1. If you’re using a mylar bag as a liner, the bucket can be any type of plastic. I’ve never heard of a non-food-grade plastic affecting food inside a mylar bag unless, perhaps, the mylar bag tears or a rodent chews through it, etc. Mylar does a better job than a plain plastic bucket in protecting food from oxygen and light. Both will deteriorate food. Having said that, we have wheat and beans stored in food-grade buckets without any mylar, just a few oxygen absorbers.

      1. Thanks! That seemed like the obvious answer to me in regards to some dried goods like beans, rice, wheat. Even pasta in it’s original packaging, I wager.

        1. I had the same question along with how I might be able to figure out if my containers were properly sealed up to allow the O2 absorbers to properly work (5 gal. buckets with Gamma lids). Here is a response I got elsewhere. Thoughts?

          “Heya, thanks for the question. 2 things…first, you’d normally use 7-8 of this sized absorber for a 5 gallon bag. However, these won’t work correctly in many buckets. If your bucket has a gasket to make it airtight, then the contraction caused by the absorber will likely cause the gasket to lose its seal and let air back in. If your bucket doesn’t have a gasket seal, then it is not airtight, and using absorbers won’t help. This is why most folks use Mylar bags in their buckets. The bucket is to protect the bag, and the bag protects the food. Thanks!”

          1. Blair, some of this is accurate and some I disagree with. I have had many buckets of 5-gallon food, some with the mylar bag/bucket combination and some without, and have never had an instance of the contraction mentioned here. The mylar bag/bucket is preferred for the the reasons given and is my best recommendation. However, if you use the proper size of oxygen absorbers, there shouldn’t be a problem with the bucket losing its seal.

            I don’t know what size of absorbers you have, but there’s more to this than just “x-number of oxygen absorbers”. A lot depends on the type of food you’re going to store. In the case of macaroni pasta vs. cornmeal, for example, there will be comparatively large gaps of air between the pieces of macaroni that don’t exist in cornmeal. So, you would need more or larger absorbers in the macaroni bucket. This chart will help you figure out more precisely your oxygen absorber needs per bucket,

            Put on your calendar a “bucket check” reminder so you can physically and visually check not only the seals but the condition of the buckets themselves for any sign of leaks, contraction, or expansion. Good luck!

  4. You may be able to get free or perhaps very cheap food-grade buckets from restaurants. I have gotten a few from a Char-Hut that held pickles. I heard this from other people who have gotten buckets from various places in their areas, including the bakery of a Walmart.

    1. Grocery stores with bakeries will often save their buckets for you if you call them in advance. They go through many icing buckets in a day.

  5. I started prepping a couple of months ago, and at the time we were only vacuuming sealing our rice, beans, etc. Like mylar bags, are they safe this way in non-food grade buckets? So much to learn. Thanks!

    1. Vacuum sealing is fine. It removes the oxygen and can keep your food fresh for years as long as it’s also protected from light and pests. I’ll have to write a post one of these days with details for storing food using a vacuum sealer!

  6. Can anyone tell me why my 5 gal buckets are contracting ? I recently put up dry goods in Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers. One by one over the last 2 weeks the buckets are collapsing in.

  7. “”Blair, some of this is accurate and some I disagree with. I have had many buckets of 5-gallon food, some with the mylar bag/bucket combination and some without, and have never had an instance of the contraction mentioned here.””

    If you put too many oxygen absorbers in a bucket I could see it causing issues with the seal, but given how much vacuum would be required to contract a 5 gallon bucket, it’s hard to believe that would occur and Id have to see it to believe it. However I have more concern about the absorbers impacting the bucket’s seal, disfiguring it, and then drawing air in as you would have no way of knowing a leak was occurring without using gauges to measure the vacuum.

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