Last Updated on November 18, 2020
Canning jars come in a wide variety of sizes, and two common lid sizes. It’s not a bad idea to go ahead and snag at least some of that variety, because it can give us a lot of versatility. Factoring in our uses, the composition of people we’re feeding, likely situations, and costs can help decide what spread of sizes is most efficient and effective.
Lid sizes can make or break canning jar costs
In some locations, the difference in price between regular and wide mouth canning jar lids isn’t significant, as little as $0.03-$0.05 USD per lid. Other times, though, inside the U.S. and around the world, wide mouth lids are as much as 2-3x a regular mouth lid.
Those lid costs can add up fast if we’re doing a lot of canning every year.
Bear in mind the total real costs of canning, including those lids, while contemplating canning jar investments.
The costs can influence some to dehydrate more foods – not only creating a more compact storage, but also one where it doesn’t matter if something won’t all be consumed quickly. It allows them to use larger jars and fewer lids.
Account for water availability if that’s the plan.
Other homesteaders skip half- and quarter-pint jars – and the extra lids required to can the same amounts of food using those smaller jars – sticking instead mostly to quarts and pints.
That’s fine now, when we have fridges and freezers that make leftovers easy and convenient. In a disaster, however, widespread or personal, our power sources or our appliances can go down. We need to consider if we have persistent snow cover and deep-cold periods, or double-backup power sources, and how many leftovers we’d be looking at dealing with without them.
Balancing the cost (and canning time) of preserving foods in reasonable, readily consumable portion sizes versus bigger jars takes a bit of experience, because “consumable” is situationally dependent. It’s not one size fits all.
Go big or go home
(Personally, I like my home. Just saying.)
It can be tempting to snag half-gallon and gallon jars sometimes, especially if we’re storing dry goods in our jars until we want them for “real” canning.
Resist that temptation. If you can’t resist, go only up to half-gallon jars, and don’t sink the bank into getting a lot of them.
The biggest size canning jars most of us need is quart
Exceptions would be if we’re getting bigger jars for free and it’s just another storage container, or if we’re already fermenting and producing significant juice/booze/vinegar.
Many home canners just don’t safely preserve foods in larger jars, especially denser foods. Some won’t even hold more than a quart’s height.
We also usually don’t need bigger jars, even if we’re feeding 12-20 people or more.
Too, they’re fairly expensive. It’s a long-term investment (usually) but “saving” the cost of buying 2-6 lids for pints and quarts to hold the same amount will take several years to pay off.
Another consideration: The more sizes of jars we have to account for, the more “funtastic” our storage area planning will be.
Shelving may not seem like a major factor, but remember: just canning two cups a day per person requires 180+ quarts.
Winging it may be an option for 30 cases of pints so we can eat or share only those two cups a day. Aiming to can two-each of fruits, veggies, and proteins per day – still no carbs, syrups/honey, etc. – bumps that to nearly 550 quarts.
That’s 46 flats of quarts or 92 flats of pints we’re accounting for on our shelves, per person.
And THAT makes the spacing involved with storing those jars something worth actual thought.
Pints, both “slims”, and quarts work well on the same shelving. If there’s room to wiggle quart jars past each other, there’s also usually room to stack half-pints or half- and quarter-pints, in flats or as “loose” jars.
Once shelving is accounting for half-gallons and gallons, too, your choices are to break away from modular shelving, be stacking a lot more combinations, or waste 4+ inches on every shelf that won’t quite fit another layer.
Preserving small portions in quarter-pints and mini/sample jars lets us open useable amounts of foods. That can both limit leftovers/scraps and let us dole out specialty items instead of having to consume them all at once. It increases total space used, though, and takes 2-8x the lids versus pints and quarts.
Even so, we might want at least some small jars for spreads, herbs, reduced stock bases, juice concentrates, sauces, and high-value “treats” like low-yielding berries or meats.
Depending on family composition and tastes, they’re also handy for consumable portions of spicing onions, pickled beets, or even regular ol’ salsa and chutney.
Picking Sizes by Situation
Remember: How we can (and cook) now may very well change if we’re removed from or limiting our power draws and refrigeration. Some of us have 3-6 months or more when we could pack old-school ice chests and buckets, sink a bucket/cooler in a cold spring, or let an outdoor cooler be our fridge. For some of us, though, that’s impossible or unreliable.
People anticipating infants/toddlers might stock more quarter-pints (4-5 oz.; 100-125-150 ml) and mini/sampler jars (1.5-3 oz.; 50-75 ml) so they can easily preserve baby food.
(Plan on ordering the teensy-tiny jars, and almost 100% the extra lids for them – they’re rarely in stores. Also, be sitting and try to avoid drinking/lollipops when you do the price check. It’s “eek” worthy.)
Singles and couples will probably lean more heavily on half-pints and pints, especially for meats and proteins, and use quarts mostly for canning heat-and-eat soups or stews, bulky items like potatoes, and some fruits.
For families and groups of 3-8, a mix of mostly quarts and pints is typically going to be most efficient, with some select half-pint jars for things like condiments and portable meals.
Larger families and groups in the 10-20+ person range would focus even more on quarts, although conditions might lend themselves to having some smaller jars available for individuals or pairs.
Make sure the size is convenient
Even with families and larger groups that can readily consume pints and quarts of each ingredient at a meal, we may want to snag a few flats of smaller jars. Those half-pints and quarter-pints can facilitate pack-able lunches and overnight-trip meals.
Remember: Modern humanity has been walking away from home and munching a midday meal for centuries, farm hands to loggers. We’ve been taking overnight trips – and eating prepared foods on them – for millennia.
Also remember: Not all disasters are equal.
We could very well have had life as we know it end within a family and be leaning on our food storage and preservation while the world continues around us. In Great Depression or Venezuela conditions, some work is available and we’ll still need to fuel that work.
Even being glass, canning jars are plenty tough enough for a rucksack or daily-carry bag.
They’re heavier than the MRE’s, tins, and pouches of just-add-water foods we commonly use now, but if we’re only carrying 1-2, it’s not an enormous weight suck, especially for “just” a daily lunch.
Right now, Ziploc-type bags and plastic storage containers are inexpensive and prevalent enough to make them more common for multi-day packers and daily lunches. That wasn’t always so, though, and canning jars do still see use for the latter.
In a personal or widespread disaster that limits our disposable income or disrupts normal supply chains either through pricing or availability, jars can easily return to being the more common container for daily and multi-day travel foods.
We can set them up a couple ways for our lunches and haversacks.
One, we can water-bath and pressure can small portions, providing a cup of soup, applesauce or fruit, a tub of fish or meat that can be consumed with some crackers or bread, or a bean dish to go with tortillas or bannock.
Two, we can set up simple mixes that we’ll add water to. That can be anything from bannock bread to instant potatoes, rice, couscous, or other small pastas.
Cooking options vary by what we packed and any given day. We can add water early and let them sit in the sun, use water we’re boiling fresh, or use a small pan or large mug as a double boiler to heat foods inside the jars.
Versatility Adds Resilience
Being able to adapt to situations increases our self-reliance. A variety of canning jar sizes can provide that in many ways.
Even so, start with the most economical and most common sizes. For many of us, that’s going to be pints and quarts, with only the odd smaller or larger jars mixed in.