Freeze Dried Meal Options
To learn about the advantages and disadvantages of freeze dried food for longer term emergency storage.
Of all the brands that we have tried, the two that stand out for tasting the best and having the widest appeal are Mountain House and Valley Food Storage. Mountain House is our pick for short term or “build as you go” plans, as you can buy individual pouches, buckets of pouches and #10 cans, depending on your budget and needs. Valley Food Storage has more of a focus on longer term supplies, such as One Month Kits and Three Month Kits.
Everywhere you look, freeze dried or dehydrated meals are touted as being the quick, easy and tasty way to set up an emergency food supply for you and your family. The marketing line seems to always be some variation on: “Just add hot water and in minutes your family will be enjoying an amazingly delicious, hot, nutritious meal. All of this in an easy to use pouch with an amazing shelf life!” Are these incredible, instant meals something that you and your kids would actually look forward to eating in an emergency? This type of food really is not anything new. The technology to freeze dry things is a product of World War II and dehydrating with the sun was popular with many ancient cultures, including the Romans. Hikers and backpackers have been either enjoying or choking down these kinds of meals for the last three decades, so the technology is well established.
Dehydrating and freeze drying are not the same process. Dehydrating usually uses hot air to evaporate the water out of food. It works on everything from fruit chunks to beef jerky. With a little practice, you can do this at home. Freeze drying uses huge pieces of equipment to freeze the food and then evaporate out the water. Freeze drying is a more expensive process that cannot be easily duplicated in your kitchen. But, some ingredients that do not dehydrate well can be more easily freeze dried. Also, in general, food that is freeze dried tends to rehydrate more quickly. It is not uncommon to see manufacturers use a mix of freeze dried and dehydrated ingredients to save money.
These meals are able to claim ease of use and an impressive shelf life, in a large part, due to their packaging. The better multilayer pouches function as a “soft can” to keep light, oxygen and moisture away from the food, so it will not degrade or spoil. Many manufacturers will also either nitrogen flush their bags before adding food or, preferably, put an oxygen absorber in the pouch to remove any remaining oxygen after it has been sealed. This extends the storage life by preventing food oxidation. The other big contributor to lifespan is storage temperature. In general, the cooler you store any of these products, the longer they will last.
Advertising claiming “delicious” or “gourmet” should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Before stocking up, you should have the members of your family taste each dish you plan to buy, as we found a lot of individual variation in what the testers liked enough to eat without complaining. Sticking with one company is not an easy fix, as in our testing the Wise Co. Alfredo was popular with all of the kids, but some of them literally spit the Wise Co. Stroganoff into the trash. All things considered, we have had the best luck with Mountain House and Valley Food Storage.
However, the biggest issue, irregardless of brand, is in the calorie content of the food. The meals are often advertised and sold according to servings. However, these servings are severely limited in calories. In general, it is recommended that women eat 2000 calories a day and men consume 2500 calories. A breakfast, lunch and dinner of some of these freeze dried meals will only provide in the range of 900 to 1200 calories a day, total, for all three servings. By comparison, a McDonald’s Big Mac with a medium Coke and fries is just over 1100 calories for the one meal. If you bought the “one year’s supply” of food advertised by some these companies and tried to live off of it at the advertised levels, you would slowly starve to death.
When you figure that you would need to double or triple the amount of “servings” needed to reach the advertised levels of preparedness, then these meals get expensive. The biggest benefits are really convenience and shelf life. The less expensive meals are not designed to be cooked in the pouch, so a pot, a method of cleaning it and disposing of the wastewater will have to be available to cook these meals. This is not all that convenient, so the “cook in the pouch” meals are the clear winner here. As for shelf life, it is standard practice to advertise the best case scenario in these calculations. Food stored in a cool basement is going to fare much better than the same type of meals stored in a garage with seasonal temperature variations.
In the past, I have eaten these kinds of meals for up to a week at a time. But, this is with consuming a more realistic two or three “servings” of food per meal and supplementing the meals with nuts, dried fruit and other sources of vitamins. It is not realistic to make any kind of long term plan based on these meals without either at least doubling up on servings or supplementing with other food of some kind.
Where meals from a pouch makes the most sense is as a piece of a larger food plan. They would be good in a bug out bag for quick meals on the road, if you had to leave town in a hurry to escape a tropical storm. It also might make sense to keep a few pouches in the trunk of a car or a week or two’s supply in the corner of the pantry for emergencies. However, investing heavily into stacks of buckets filled with “servings” of these meals could ultimately prove to be expensive and disappointing, without some planning and taste testing.
How much food do you have around for emergencies? If you couldn’t get to the store for a week or two, could you just stay home and ride things out? If not, then adding some freeze dried meals to your panty could be the quick fix to this planning oversight. Although these pouches are not the cheapest way to keep some reserves on hand, they do have the advantage of being forgotten about and still perfectly usable at least one or two presidential elections later. Pouch based meals also require the least planning, preparation and cleanup. Adding freeze dried options is an excellent way to start building a larger plan.