Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, have long been the standard food supply for outdoor enthusiasts, emergency responders, and military personnel.
These convenient meal packs offer a shelf-stable, nutrient-dense source of sustenance designed to weather rough conditions and keep individuals satiated during strenuous activities or in survival situations. While commercial MREs are readily available, creating your own DIY MREs allows for customization, potentially healthier options, and often a more cost-effective solution.
This article provides a thorough, detailed overview of how to make your own MREs, including everything from the required supplies to delicious, healthy recipe ideas.
Supplies You’ll Need for DIY MRE
Creating your own MREs requires a few key tools and supplies. At the core, you’ll need:
- Food Dehydrator or Freeze Dryer: These tools are used to remove moisture from foods, allowing them to be stored safely for extended periods.
- Vacuum Sealer: This equipment is used to package your MREs, creating an airtight seal that enhances their shelf life.
- Mylar Bags or Vacuum-Sealable Bags: These specialized bags protect your food from air, light, and moisture after packaging.
- Oxygen Absorbers: These are used inside the bags to eliminate any residual oxygen, further extending the shelf life of your MREs.
- Quality Ingredients: Opt for fresh, high-quality foods to ensure your MREs are nutritious and tasty.
Dehydrating vs Freeze-Drying
Dehydration and freeze-drying are two methods of food preservation that significantly extend the shelf life of foods, making them ideal for use in Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).
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Both methods achieve this by removing the majority of the water content from food, as water is necessary for the growth of bacteria and mold that cause spoilage. However, the processes, costs, and end results of each method vary considerably.
Food dehydration has been a common preservation method for centuries. Modern electric dehydrators circulate warm air around food to evaporate its water content. The temperature is controlled to be high enough to remove moisture but low enough to preserve as much nutritional content as possible.
Dehydrators are relatively affordable, making this method accessible for most households. The process is straightforward: simply arrange slices of your chosen food on the dehydrator trays and leave the machine to do its job, typically for 6-12 hours depending on the type of food.
However, while dehydrating is an efficient method of preservation, it does have a few downsides. The process can slightly degrade the nutritional value of the food, with losses in certain vitamins like vitamin C and thiamine that are sensitive to heat. Also, the texture of dehydrated food is altered, often resulting in a chewier consistency.
Freeze-drying, also known as lyophilization, is a more complex process. It starts by freezing the food to solidify the water content. The food is then placed in a strong vacuum, which causes the frozen water to sublimate directly from ice to vapor, skipping the liquid phase. This process, though more energy-intensive, better preserves the nutritional content, flavor, color, and original texture of the food.
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Freeze-dried foods rehydrate more quickly and retain their original shape better than dehydrated foods. The process also preserves the nutritional content more effectively, particularly the heat-sensitive vitamins that are often lost during dehydration.
However, freeze-drying equipment is significantly more expensive than a dehydrator, which makes this method less accessible for home use. The freeze-drying process is also more time-consuming, often taking 24-48 hours.
Deciding Between Freeze-Drying and Dehydrating
In choosing between dehydrating and freeze-drying for your DIY MREs, you’ll want to consider your budget, the time you’re willing to spend, the foods you intend to preserve, and the importance of nutrient retention to you. While freeze-drying offers superior results in terms of nutrient preservation and food quality, dehydrating is a more affordable and quicker process that still produces very acceptable results for most types of foods.
Top Foods for Dehydrating
Dehydrating is an accessible and effective way of preserving many types of foods. Here are some of the best choices for your homemade MREs:
- Fruits: Fruits are high in fiber and provide essential vitamins and minerals. They also add a welcome touch of sweetness to your MREs. Apples, bananas, strawberries, and peaches all dehydrate well. Just remember to slice them thinly and evenly to ensure they dry out completely. A bonus tip: dipping apple and banana slices in lemon juice before dehydrating can help to prevent browning.
- Vegetables: Vegetables are also rich in fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, green beans, and carrots are excellent choices for dehydrating. Again, slicing them evenly will yield the best results.
- Lean Meats: Lean meats like chicken, turkey, or lean cuts of beef can be cooked and dehydrated to provide a good source of protein for your MREs. The meat should be cooked thoroughly before dehydrating, and fat should be trimmed off as it does not dehydrate well and can go rancid.
- Beans and Legumes: Beans and legumes are another great source of protein and can also provide a good amount of carbohydrates. They should be fully cooked before dehydrating.
- Rice and Pasta: Both rice and pasta can be cooked, dehydrated, and then easily rehydrated with hot water to provide an energy-dense base for your meals.
- Herbs and Spices: While not meals themselves, dehydrating fresh herbs and spices can allow you to add flavor to your MREs without adding much bulk or weight.
When choosing foods to dehydrate, consider their nutritional value, how well they dehydrate and rehydrate, and how they will contribute to the overall balance of your MREs.
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Also, remember that the quality of your ingredients matters – choose fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables, and lean, high-quality meats for the best results.
Foods You Can’t Dehydrate
While dehydrating is a versatile method of food preservation, not all foods are suitable for this process. Some foods do not dehydrate well or could present food safety issues if dehydrated. Here are some examples:
- High-Fat Foods: Foods that have high fat content do not dehydrate well. This includes fatty cuts of meat and avocados. The reason for this is that fat doesn’t evaporate like water, and so it remains in the food. Over time, this fat can go rancid and spoil the food.
- Dairy Products: Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products also don’t respond well to dehydration. These foods have high protein and fat content that, when dehydrated, can develop harmful bacteria. Additionally, dairy products often develop off-flavors when dehydrated.
- Eggs: While scrambled eggs can be freeze-dried successfully, they do not dehydrate well due to their fat and protein content. Dehydrated eggs can spoil and also develop a rubbery texture.
- Cooked or Canned Tuna: Tuna and other oily fish do not dehydrate safely due to their oil content. The remaining oil can go rancid, leading to spoilage.
- Certain Vegetables: Some vegetables, such as lettuce, cucumbers, and radishes, contain high amounts of water and little else. These types of vegetables often lose their structure and flavor when dehydrated and are not worth the effort.
- Certain Fruits: Similar to the aforementioned vegetables, fruits with a high water content and minimal structure like watermelon and oranges don’t dehydrate well, becoming virtually non-existent after the water has been removed.
Keep in mind that just because a food can’t be dehydrated doesn’t mean it can’t be preserved in other ways. For instance, many high-fat or protein foods that can’t be dehydrated can instead be canned or freeze-dried.
Always make sure to choose the safest and most effective preservation method for each food you wish to include in your homemade MREs.
5 DIY MRE Recipes to Get You Started
Whether you’re planning for an outdoor adventure, preparing for potential emergencies, or just intrigued by the process, making your own MREs can be rewarding and beneficial. Here are five versatile MRE recipes that you can start with:
1. Chicken and Rice MRE
- Ingredients: Dehydrated cooked chicken, cooked rice, and mixed vegetables like peas and carrots.
- Instructions: Cook and dehydrate your chicken, rice, and vegetables separately. Once completely dehydrated, mix the components in your preferred ratio. You might also want to add a small packet of spices or bouillon for added flavor when rehydrating. Package in a vacuum-sealed bag for long-term storage.
2. Beef Stew MRE
- Ingredients: Dehydrated lean beef, potatoes, carrots, peas, onions, and a small packet of beef bouillon powder.
- Instructions: Fully cook and dehydrate each component separately. Combine them, adding a small packet of beef bouillon powder for a richer flavor upon rehydration. Seal the mix in a vacuum bag.
3. Chili MRE
- Ingredients: Dehydrated ground turkey, kidney beans, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and a spice mix.
- Instructions: Fully cook and dehydrate your ground turkey, beans, and vegetables. Mix them together, along with a spice packet of chili powder, cumin, and other preferred spices. Vacuum seal the mix for long-term storage.
4. Breakfast MRE
- Ingredients: Freeze-dried scrambled eggs, dehydrated low-fat sausage crumbles, hash browns, and small packets of salt and pepper.
- Instructions: Cook and freeze-dry your scrambled eggs. Also, cook and dehydrate your low-fat sausage and hash browns. Once done, combine these in a vacuum-sealable bag, adding small packets of salt and pepper for seasoning upon rehydration.
5. Pasta Primavera MRE
- Ingredients: Dehydrated cooked pasta, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, dehydrated chicken, and a packet of Italian seasoning.
- Instructions: Cook and dehydrate your pasta, chicken, and chosen vegetables separately. Once dehydrated, combine them, adding a packet of Italian seasoning for enhanced flavor. Vacuum seal the mix for long-term storage.
Remember, every MRE should be balanced and contain a variety of nutrients. Consider including a source of sweetness or dessert (like dehydrated fruit or an energy bar), a beverage component (like a sealed bag of powdered drink mix), and even a small utensil pack for convenience.
You’ll find these additions will make consuming your MREs a more satisfying experience, particularly when they’re being relied on in a survival or strenuous outdoor scenario.
Ensuring Your MREs are Healthy: What Your Home Made MRE Needs to Have
One of the key advantages of creating your own MREs is having complete control over their contents. This control extends to the nutritional value of your meals, enabling you to ensure your MREs are not only long-lasting but also supportive of your health and energy needs.
Here are some points to consider:
1. Macronutrient Balance
A balanced MRE should contain a good mix of all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
- Carbohydrates provide quick energy. Consider options like dehydrated or freeze-dried rice, pasta, or potatoes.
- Proteins are essential for muscle repair and maintenance. Incorporate sources like lean meats, beans, or legumes.
- Fats are energy-dense and should be included in moderation. Nuts and seeds are good options as they dehydrate well and add a pleasing crunch to meals.
Remember that different types of activities will require different amounts of these macronutrients, so adjust your MREs accordingly.
2. Fiber and Nutrient Density
Including a variety of fruits and vegetables in your MREs not only provides much-needed fiber but also ensures you’re getting a range of essential vitamins and minerals. Dehydrated bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, apples, and bananas are all excellent options.
3. Caloric Content
The caloric content of your MREs should reflect the energy expenditure of your planned activities. For strenuous outdoor activities or survival situations, a single MRE might need to provide anywhere from 600 to 1,200 calories. For less demanding scenarios, fewer calories may be required. Make sure to include energy-dense items like nuts, seeds, or even a small piece of dark chocolate to ensure sufficient caloric intake.
Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods require water to rehydrate. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure you have an adequate water supply or a reliable means of obtaining water in the situations in which you plan to use your MREs.
5. Dietary Requirements and Preferences
Another benefit of DIY MREs is the ability to cater to specific dietary requirements or preferences, such as allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets, gluten-free diets, and so on.
By keeping these points in mind and planning your MREs carefully, you can ensure your meals are not only convenient and long-lasting but also nutritionally balanced and supportive of your health and energy needs. Always remember, the ultimate goal is to have a meal that will provide you with enough energy and nutrients to keep you going in whatever situation you find yourself in.
Creating your own DIY MREs can be an empowering and cost-effective approach to ensuring you have long-lasting, nutritious food on hand for any situation.
By selecting quality ingredients, using the appropriate preservation method, and carefully considering the nutritional content, you can create MREs that not only stand the test of time but also support your health and energy needs.
So why wait?
Start your DIY MRE journey today!