I'm pretty sure the cashier at REI may have been wondering if I was prepping for an unforeseen disaster when I placed several packets of just-add-water rations on the counter.
As a huge proponent of eating something fresh at every meal, I'd spent a lot longer than most people in the prepared camping food aisle, carefully reading and re-reading labels. It was hard to wrap my head around a meal made in a pouch, just by adding boiling water. I was going to need some strong persuasion to change my mind.
I was looking for pre-packaged options that were also considered "healthy" – that is, containing ingredients that I could actually pronounce and that didn't contain words like "modified" or "other flavors." But what I soon discovered is that this type of food has come a long way, and the choices are pretty robust.
My interest in easy-to-pack, just-add-water dehydrated meals was sparked recently when I learned the story behind Patagonia Provisions – a line of organic, simple to make grains and soups, as well as humanely harvested jerky and salmon pouches, which require no refrigeration until opened. I was impressed with the amount of thought and care that went into the sourcing of each ingredient.
Today, more and more people are looking for the healthiest, most sustainable options when it comes to what they eat, both at home and on the road.
So, with that in mind (and a narrowed lens to find the healthiest labels in existence) I taste-tested some of the options out there – while also inadvertently dialing in my pantry for “dooms day” – er, my next camping trip, that is.
Although the product is not yet found at major retailers, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some savory grains from Patagonia Provisions.
Simplistic packaging and instructions were the perfect exterior to what is found inside. I tried the mushroom and kamut khorasan wheat, which had a super clean, healthy flavor – there was nothing too overpowering in the mix, and it tasted like a side dish that I would cook up any night of the week.
In terms of heartiness, this dish is a bit lighter than the others we taste tested. One serving (or one pouch) contained 2.5 grams of fat, 380 calories and 15 grams of protein – the highest amount of protein per serving of any the choices we tasted. One serving was more than enough for two people to share as a side dish.
The other meal pouches all contained at least two servings per pouch, and were actually enough for multiple small meals for two people, but had similar calorie and protein counts per serving.
The fact that the grains are organic, vegan and gluten free were also an added bonus. One drawback is that you can’t make this meal inside the pouch, so you’ll have to settle for using camp bowls and plates.
I loved that Backpackers Pantry had such a diverse offering of meals that were vegan and gluten free. Upon first taste of the Chana Masala, I was shocked this meal came from a pouch. It was savory and spicy, and a bowl of this satisfied my hunger. Plus, it’s a great price for the amount of food you get ($7.50 per packet).
The instructions called for adding 2 1/2 cups of boiling water, resealing the package and letting it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. I opened the bag at 15 minutes to check to see if it was cooked all the way, and I definitely should have waited until 20 minutes had passed.
Although I resealed the bag and waited it out for another 5 to 10 minutes, the rice was slightly underdone due to user error. Regardless, this meal still ranked as one of my favorites in flavor.
Taster’s tip: In addition to letting it steam longer (resist opening that bag, no matter how hungry you are), make sure to give the contents a really good stir inside the packet to the get all the spices mixed well.
On the nutrition side, I liked the fact that all the ingredients were common foods I knew and loved, like long grain rice, garbanzo beans, turmeric, ginger and crushed red chili pepper. One serving of the Chana Masala contained 410 calories, 3 grams of fat and 14 grams of protein. The sodium content is higher than others, at 1420 milligrams.
This taste test dug into theHimalayan lentils from AlpineAire.
This is a sweet and savory vegetarian dish, and I liked that the ingredients, in addition to rice, lentils and black beans, included diced apples and freeze-dried mango. It’s also reasonably priced at $6.50 per packet for a generous amount that will easily feed two people.
Unfortunately, it went a bit beyond my tolerance for sweetness levels, especially for dinner, as I am often craving something more savory.
One serving contains 310 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 11 grams of protein. It comes in on the low end for sodium, as well, at 180 milligrams per serving. An added bonus to this packet is that it had an extra long shelf life, good to use through January 2023 (although I couldn’t find an exact shelf life for this product).
On the downside, it did contain a couple of extra filler ingredients not present in the others, such as maltodextrin, a thickener starch that is often used to extend shelf life.
Good To-Go’s simplistic aesthetic and packaging was an immediate bonus – I loved that a quick scan informed me this meal was vegan and gluten-free. Upon further review of the label, I was really impressed at the types of ingredients this dehydrated meal included, such as mole poblano sauce.
“Dehydrated gourmet” is what Good To-Go has labeled their creations, which are dreamed up by former New York City restaurant owner and chef Jennifer Scism. And I have to agree with that statement.
This is one of those dishes that gets better as you continue eating it. More of the complex flavors were revealed on my subsequent spoonfuls, like hints of the diced cilantro, scallion and Mexican oregano. By the time I finished I was satisfied – and also talking myself into having just a little bit more.
There are two servings per 6.7 ounce packet. One serving contains 350 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 13 grams of protein. Sodium weighs in at 390 milligrams per serving and it has a two-year shelf life – not bad, considering we couldn’t pick out one single “filler” ingredient.
While it is a bit more of an investment, at $12.50, if you are someone who is health-conscious and has somewhat of a refined palette, this is a great choice.
Taking ingredients, taste and overall hunger-quenching into consideration, I would rank Good To-Go as the number one option. Patagonia Provisions is a very close second, with the only draw back being that it’s more of a side dish than an overall meal. However, a full meal could easily be put together using items from the rest of the Provisions line.
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