Welcome to another installment of Hungry Hikers, an occasional series pairing Seattle Times outdoors reporter Megan Burbank and Neighborhood Eats writer Jackie Varriano for an outdoorsy adventure somewhere in the Greater Seattle area followed by some choice eats nearby. Check out our first adventure (snowshoeing followed by burgers) here.
Megan: Consider this the novel coronavirus edition: We stayed home.
Jackie: We decided it probably wasn’t a good time for us to call out any specific hike given public health officials’ social distancing recommendations — but we still want you to get outside! Pick your favorite hike or look to lists from the Washington Trails Association or the Mountaineers to find recommendations on anything from trail running and hikes within 30 minutes of Seattle to more intensive backpacking.
When it comes to food, we thought we’d take one for the team and sample from the many options available in the freeze-dried realm. Admittedly, I haven’t had to purchase a freeze-dried meal in a while, as the shelf life on most is decades-long and I feel like we’re still eating through our last bulk buy from 2015 or so?
Because of that, I was blown away by the choices at REI. There are multiple serving sizes, vegetarian, vegan and even paleo options. You’ll find the usual suspects; beef stroganoff and chili mac, but there’s also bibimbap, pad thai and quinoa stews. I quizzed no fewer than four staffers on their favorites and amassed a pile so large someone offered me a mesh bag.
Here are the nine meals we tried:
- Mountain House Chicken and Mashed Potatoes: $11
- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles: $9.50
- Mountain House Lasagna with Meat: $9.50
- Mountain House Spicy Southwest-style Skillet: $10 (gluten-free, vegetarian)
- Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai: $9.95: (gluten-free, vegan)
- Backpacker’s Pantry Three Sisters Stew: $8.95 (gluten-free, vegan)
- Backpacker’s Pantry Beef and Mushroom Stroganoff: $9.50
- MaryJanesFarm Shepherd’s Meat Pie: $13.25
- OMEALS Vegetarian Chili: $8 (vegetarian)
Megan: I thought it was amazing that the staffers you talked to told you they eat these things recreationally — as in, at home, within cell range, when they’re too tired to cook. That is QUITE AN ENDORSEMENT, and a fact that really challenged my bias against freeze-dried meals, which I’m sure I could trace back to my horrifying experience reading Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” in elementary (middle?) school. I’ve always thought of freeze-dried food as a kind of a sad, flavorless shrunken ghost of anything you would actually want to eat. It’s a meal of last resort … or is it?
Jackie: HA! On that note I’m glad I grabbed some freeze-dried ice cream on my way out. Of course, we started with it.
It’s called Cosmik and it comes in strawberry or mint-chocolate-chip flavors. It’s about the size of an ice-cream bar and you just open it and eat it — no rehydration necessary. Looks like Styrofoam but tastes actually pretty good. I definitely finished the strawberry after you left, Megan.
Megan: I thought the ice cream was great, actually! Kind of a turning point for me. Like a bigger version of the little dehydrated marshmallows you get in Lucky Charms, with that weirdly satisfying crunchy texture. I would probably eat these on my own time. It’s possible something is wrong with me.
Jackie: When it came to the actual meals, I ended up buying four different brands: Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, MaryJanesFarm and OMEALS. Prices ranged from $8.95 to just under 14 bucks.
The Mountain House ones were the ones I was most familiar with and seemed to be the most established brand. The Backpacker’s Pantry ones were the ones that definitely felt more “upscale” if that could be a thing?
MaryJanesFarm I chose at the recommendation of a staffer who claimed their Shephard’s Meat Pie was his favorite meal. This package was the only one you could burn in a fire pit (the rest are recyclable, though!) and it had the most intricate backstory.
OMEALS was also an outlier in that it wasn’t a freeze-dried meal, rather it’s one that gets reheated through a chemical reaction where you can pour any liquid into the bag to reheat the meal. I chose vegetarian chili.
Megan: Before we go any further, I think we should warn everyone: Many of these meals are heavily salted. This is probably fine (even preferable!) if you’re an exhausted backpacker, but if you’re following along at home, drink plenty of water with your packaged meal. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry. We know from experience now!
Jackie: Agreed. I find myself still chugging water a day later. But when it comes to what we ate and what I would be excited about on the trail, I’m going to come right out and say the Mountain House stroganoff was my favorite. We also had a Backpacker’s Pantry stroganoff, so it was the only flavor we were able to really taste “head to head,” but the Mountain House meals as a whole spoke to me on a very basic, childhood level. I don’t know if this is necessarily an endorsement or not, but if you ever ate (enjoyed?) any processed food as a kid — from Hamburger Helper to Chef Boyardee — Mountain House scratches that nostalgic itch in a way I didn’t know I ever wanted.
It’s not that the Backpacker’s Pantry stroganoff was bad, either. It had more pieces of mushrooms and perhaps a richer, more meaty sauce, but it was a case where more wasn’t necessarily better.
Megan: The Mountain House stroganoff was my favorite, too. I’d happily stock it in my earthquake kit or eat it for dinner in a (desperate) pinch. For the most part, I thought Mountain House’s Chef Boyardee-esque line was the most successful of the brands we tried; the lasagna tasted just like the beloved canned ravioli, and I didn’t even mind the chicken and potatoes — although the salt quotient was kind of out of control.
Jackie: I think making the chicken and potatoes was the strangest in that it was two whole dried chicken breasts (complete with grill marks) that you rehydrate alone in boiling water, then take them out and pour the potatoes into the hot chicken water. I’m fairly certain this was the meal the woman at REI said she eats at home when she’s feeling especially lazy. There was nothing to hide behind with this one; it’s chicken and mashed potatoes.
Megan: The bougie-er meals had less to offer — maybe they set our expectations too high. The lime in the Backpacker’s Pantry pad thai was overpowering, and the quinoa in the Backpacker’s Pantry Three Sisters Stew did not taste fully cooked. Overall, though, I’d say my complaint with Backpacker’s Pantry is that the meals tasted too healthy. It’s harder to mess up the adult equivalent of Annie’s macaroni and cheese.
Jackie: The expectations were high because of all the add-ins I think. The pad thai had a little bag filled with peanut butter, powdered lime, peanuts and powdered sriracha. The Three Sisters Stew had a little pouch of olive oil. They seemed luxe! But in the end I wasn’t overly impressed with either one. I had heard the pad thai was one of the most popular meals, but for me it just made me want real pad thai.
Which leads me to MaryJanesFarm and the case of the sad shepherd’s meat pie. What was the website on the bag again? It was compelling enough to lead us to the company website, which spun quite the yarn about this woman, MaryJane Butters, and her kids living like feral animals sewing clothes, using an outhouse and roaming the wilds of Idaho. Her “about” page is five pages long. She’s been awarded the Cecil D. Andrus Leadership Award for Sustainability and Conservation and featured in National Geographic. She decries industrial packaged meals, but I’ve got to give it to the food scientists here. The downfall of this deconstructed shepherd’s pie is in the beef jerky-like meat (complete with natural smoke flavoring) that completely overpowers the potatoes and everything else in the meal. Say what you will about dehydrated bricks of chicken, but it rehydrated to taste almost exactly the same as regular chicken.
Megan: Yeah, the shepherd’s pie was really strange and synthetic-tasting — the smoky flavor was truly an issue. And maybe shepherd’s pie really shouldn’t be deconstructed? I’m not expecting any kind of plating from a freeze-dried meal, but suffice it to say I had not seen shepherd’s pie stripped down to its constituent components and blended before, and it’s a visual experience I don’t intend to replicate. Mary Jane’s story is delightful, and maybe her other meals are better? But this one left me longing for the reliable okayness of the Mountain House meals, performative grill marks and all.
Next up was the backpacking meal of the future: OMEALS, which basically applies the chemical reaction behind hand-warmer technology to a meal you make just by dumping some liquid into a pouch, which then magically puffs up to steam your vegetarian chili. Neat! And also totally bizarre. But if, like me, you have Raynaud’s syndrome (cold hands club!), it’s nice to have a meal that doubles as warm, warm insulation. Just don’t take it on airplanes!
Jackie: I loved that they called out a warning to not make on an airplane. I wonder if someone has tried with disastrous results, forcing the makers of OMEALS to add this disclaimer to packaging, much like the seemingly random rules you see listed in Airbnb rentals. When it comes to actually eating that vegetarian chili, I was into it. Everything had texture, similar to just eating canned chili (which, duh). But the real appeal would be for anyone who doesn’t own a pricey Jetboil or outdoor stove. Or anyone who needs to conserve the water they brought for drinking, as I believe you can use any liquid to activate the hand warmer, er — food heater.
Overall, I guess we learned it’s best to stick to the basics in the backcountry. Or even while at the ski hill? At a price point between $8.95 (the Backpacker’s Pantry Three Sisters Stew) and $13.95 (MaryJanesFarm Shepherd’s Meat Pie) these are all a budget-friendly option for a quick lunch while out and about, or even in your home. Performative grill marks and all.
Our critics’ overall ranking from favorite to least:
- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles: Pure comfort food, tasted like childhood
- Mountain House Spicy Southwest-style Skillet: I liked that this one didn’t have eggs because I find rehydrated eggs to be a texture I just can’t abide. Good level of spice!
- Mountain House Lasagna with Meat: Hello Chef Boyardee-esque lasagna, my old friend.
- Backpacker’s Pantry Beef and Mushroom Stroganoff: The fancier stroganoff. Not my favorite, but not bad.
- OMEALS Vegetarian Chili: I never make chili. Maybe now I never have to? Bonus points for the heating element.
- Mountain House Chicken and Mashed Potatoes: This also reminded me of the copious amounts of instant mashed potatoes I voluntarily ate as a child. My mother is probably horrified at this.
- Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai: I didn’t mind the lime, but all this did was make me really want real pad thai.
- Backpacker’s Pantry Three Sisters Stew: While I appreciated the healthful-feeling vegan option, there was nothing about this that I liked.
- MaryJanesFarm Shepherd’s Meat Pie: Great backstory, bad use of smoke flavor.
- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles: This one was really the best of the bunch — creamy and blandly satisfying in the way unimaginative beef stroganoff should be.
- Mountain House Chicken and Mashed Potatoes: I didn’t hate it! Caveat: I also don’t mind a powdered mashed potato situation, so your mileage may vary.
- Mountain House Lasagna with Meat: Totally solid — that boring spaghetti-and-meatball taste beloved by kids (and maladjusted adults).
- OMEALS Vegetarian Chili: I mean, for creative technology and ease-of-use alone, this one’s a winner. Plus! Just like regular canned chili.
- Mountain House Spicy Southwest-style Skillet: I liked this one — it would’ve been even better with an egg scrambled in.
- Backpacker’s Pantry Beef and Mushroom Stroganoff: Not as good as the more basic version above, but perfectly fine!
- Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai: Too complicated. Not that tasty. Not worth the extra trouble.
- Backpacker’s Pantry Three Sisters Stew: No one likes quinoa this much.
- MaryJanesFarm Shepherd’s Meat Pie: I agree with Jackie here — Mary Jane’s self-mythology is A+. But this didn’t taste good.