As we all collectively panic about Covid-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus), dehydrated meals are selling out in stores and online.
As a reviewer on WIRED's Gear team, I've eaten a metric ton of dehydrated food on camping, hiking, climbing, backpacking, and occasionally paddling trips. They're great for drastically reducing the weight and volume of my meals when I'm carrying everything on my back for a week, but I strongly prefer real food when I have the choice. So will you.
There's nothing wrong with stocking up on a few non-perishables at a time like this, but despite what a lot of disaster-prep retail sites may tell you, you won't need a closet full of freeze-dried meals to survive the coronavirus. You should buy food you'll actually want to eat.
The Problem With Dehydrated Meals
Freeze-dried meals may seem like the right kind of food to stockpile, but they are expensive and unhealthy.
For a pouch that'll supply you with 300-600 calories, expect to pay around $8. For one that supplies around 800 calories, you're looking at $13 or so. That's per meal. You don't need a calculator to know that adds up fast.
Dehydrated food is also stuffed with salt. A single serving often has 30 to 40 percent of an entire day's recommended level of sodium. But one serving usually isn't enough to make a meal, so you'll inevitably eat both servings. In just one meal, you've almost hit your daily sodium target.
Salt is added by manufacturers to prolong shelf life and improve taste, but that much sodium in your diet, day after day, is going to raise your blood pressure and make you feel like junk.
I'll get anecdotal here, but quite a few people I've met also tell me the instant meals give them digestive problems. Theoretically, if you add the right amount of hot water and wait the right amount of time, you shouldn't have problems digesting rehydrated meals, especially near a sea-level altitude. But in practice, some people's stomachs are sensitive to it. You don't want to discover you're in that club if you have nothing else to eat.
Back Up. What Is This Stuff?
There are a few kinds of instant camping meals. All of these can be rough on certain people's stomaches, and I wouldn't classify any of them as particularly healthy. You won't need food that lasts three years, and certainly not 30, to stock your pantry right now.
- Freeze-dried foods are made by freezing the food and then putting it in a vacuum that eliminates the moisture. Expiration dates vary, but the Mountain House brand says its meals last 30 years without degrading in quality. That's just the range for taste; they'll be edible and safe to eat for at least five years longer than that. Freeze-dried food tends to be lighter and retain more nutrients than dehydrated, but certain foods, like apples or onions, taste better when dehydrated.
- Dehydrated meals, or dehy, are foods exposed to low levels of heat for a long time, which also drains the moisture out of them. Depending on the dish, they typically have a best-within date range of three to seven years, but like freeze-dried meals they're edible for years after that.
- Meal, Ready-to-Eat, known as MREs, were developed for the military, which is why you'll find them for sale in military surplus stores. They're neither freeze-dried nor dehydrated, and that makes them a notable improvement. The food is cooked inside the pouch and lasts for up to 10 years when stored somewhere cool. They have a historically bad reputation among service members, but in recent years some of the dishes have become pretty tasty.
Buy Better Food
When I spent eight years of my life on the coast in Hurricane Alley, the first things people would panic-buy before an approaching storm were bread, milk, and eggs. The joke was that the day after a hurricane hit, everyone was up making French toast. Those are fine choices, but if you want food that'll last longer than a week, or aren't a fan of French toast, you should mix in some less perishable items.
Now's a good time to also ditch the idea of bottled water. If water is a worry, get a water purifier (we like this one), if you haven't already. Your house should not lose water service because of the coronavirus, so all those plastic bottles will end up in a landfill or the ocean (our new landfill) for no good reason.
Since you should still have electricity to run microwaves, stovetops, and ovens, you don't need to dump hot water into pouches for every meal.
Most of the foods you'd buy at the supermarket will get you through this. Snacks, especially. Oreos, Kettle Chips, and trail mix will be fine. Oat milk, almond milk, soy milk—any of 2020's many milks—will last longer than the animal-based stuff, so you can keep eating cereal and oatmeal for breakfast. Just don't forget to include some canned fruit, frozen veggies, and dinners that don't rely on fresh meat.
Go nuts with the pasta and ramen (though some of it is also salty). At the risk of letting too many people in on a good thing, Shin Ramyun is the best instant ramen I've ever had. I've had the best luck finding it in Korean markets and Walmart. Make bread in a bread machine for sandwiches or buy a few store-made loaves and stick them in the freezer. Then slap on the peanut butter or lunch meat. The pre-packaged deli meats, such as Hillshire Farm aren't the healthiest, but they'll also last for a few weeks unopened.
Take a breath, center yourself, and then start listing some of your favorite snacks and some meals you can make at home. Hit the supermarket, the bodega, or Amazon Fresh and buy enough to see your household through for a few weeks. If you like to cook, keep cooking real meals.
You don't need to buy a 60-day supply of instant meals. Try to remember that Covid-19 cases will ease up at some point, and you're going to have to eat everything you buy today. Speaking as someone with experience, I sure as hell wouldn't want to eat dehydrated or freeze-dried food for 6 days, let alone 60.
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