Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: it’s the night before a multi-day hunting trip and you’re at the stage where you’re considering what food to take. Do you go full-on weight-saver mode and opt for all freeze-dried and muesli bars? Or add in some salami and cheese … maybe a bit of bacon for breakfast, tortillas or wraps, chocolate bars, homemade jerky and trail mix, etc? You know … those treat foods we all like when we’re out on the hill. Usually, it’s a balancing act, especially on the big walk-in trips; most times, it comes down to weight vs nourishment and flavour.
I’m not what you’d call a ‘foodie’, but I do enjoy a well-cooked meal that’s packed with flavour. And over the years, I’ve learnt how to throw together a pretty good dish or two. I don’t like using ready-made, packet-mix sauces and the like – instead, I prefer to make my own using things like butter and herbs and spices for flavour; you know, real food! So, I find it’s always a tough call to compromise.
That said, I love my day hunts, and being a spur-of-the-moment planner, I keep a selection of freeze-dried options to quickly throw in the pack for those times where I have minimal prep time and just want to pack ’n’ go!
Let’s revisit the scenario I mentioned at the start … for me, what usually happens is this: I pack some of those luxury food items, but then on the second or third repack, they get removed as the weight of my pack increases – except for the chocolate of course! So, often it’s freeze-dried fare on my walk-in trips.
Luckily, for us hunters that choose to go the lightweight route, there’s plenty of choice on the market for freeze-dried meals. One such option I’d not tried before was Real Meals. I was approached by Nathan Fa’avae (one of the co-owners) who was keen to see if we could do a review to see what their offering was like.
Many of you may already know Real Meals, but possibly as ‘Absolute Wilderness’. I’d heard about Absolute Wilderness, and a hunting mate raved about their Bacon Mash, but I’d never tried one of their meals myself. In September last year, a rebrand occurred to reflect the company’s premise more – which is making the most natural, ‘real’, chef-made, freeze-dried meals – and ‘Real Meals’ came into existence.
Real Meals are 100% NZ owned, and the three company owners are outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers themselves: Nathan Fa’avae, a six-time Adventure Racing World Champion; Cameron Lawes, an ultra runner and mountaineer; and Gilbert Robertson, hunter and fisherman. Now, you’d expect they would have an idea as to what nutritional needs are required to navigate NZ’s wild places – and I’m sure you’d be right. But do any kind of research on Real Meals, and you’ll soon learn that flavour and meal enjoyment are also high priorities for them.
They’re proud to state: “The Real Meals process involves having our qualified, internationally experienced chef cook the meals in a production kitchen with care and craftsmanship. The entire meal is then put through the freeze-drying process. The product you get in each package is a homestyle, chef-prepared meal with all the flavour infused to make for a great tasting experience.”
After my research, I was starting to look forward to this review and to see if these meals really were flavour packed.
Over the course of a few months, I trialled a number of options from the Real Meal range. These included dinner/lunch and breakfast options taken on various outings from day hunts to multiday trips, with a late-season duck hunt thrown in as well.
When Nathan asked me what meals I’d liked to try, I jumped on their website and checked out the offerings. The range is fair to moderate with 10 stand-alone dinner meals with options that will appeal to most tastes. These include Wilderness Stew (beef), Moroccan Tagine and Sri Lankan Curry as well as classics such as Beef Stroganoff and Mac ’n’ Cheese. There are more meal choices planned for the future.
What is smart is the addition of ‘bulk’ and ‘side/snack’ options such as Basmati Rice (160g) which essentially equals 1 cup of dried rice. Others sides/snacks include Couscous Salad 125g, Baby Beetroot and Fruit Trio. These are rounded off by two smoothie/drink options of a Berry Smoothie and one of my favourites – their Mango Lassi.
If you’re like me, on most overnight or multi-day hunting trips, I end up arriving back at camp in the dark tired and famished and just eat asap straight out of the packet. However, I do occasionally try to slow things down, especially when I have the kids with me. The options of Basmati Rice or Couscous Salad with either the Tom Kha Gai, Sri Lankan Curry or Moroccan Tagine are great combos making each meal go that bit further. (Don’t worry if you’re not a huge spice fan – the spice levels are all mild.) It’s also a great psychological boost to sit down and eat from a bowl or camp plate with other people – I personally find it adds to the enjoyment factor.
I found the breakfast options to be really filling, and for those of you who want to go down the bacon and egg route, the Eggs, Cheese & Chives option would be a great choice – just add your own bacon! My personal breakfast favourite was the Banana Oat Porridge; this had excellent flavour and sustained me for a good couple of hours. The Honey Yoghurt combined with the Fruit Trio (snack) is another great choice.
A Word on Nutrition
An important consideration I make these days when I choose meals to take on my hunting trips is nutritional performance. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to pay more attention to this detail – to ensure I’ve at least taken care of that part of the equation when out in the field. I used to pack a couple of freeze-dried meals for each day and then rely on snack foods for lunch – not really worrying about what I ate and hardly taking notice of my performance. However, once I started to do some multi-day backcountry trips where plenty of endurance was required, I’d come home from a trip and would’ve lost a couple of kgs. Being naturally lean (6’4″ and 93kgs), I can’t really afford to lose a couple of kgs – or even worse, I’d end up ‘hangry’.
The necessity of having good nutrition to sustain performance is no secret – much of what we do as hunters is extremely energy consuming. The amount of time spent off trail in pursuit of game can see us travelling for long hours with heavy loads over rough wilderness terrain or pushing through energy-zapping dense bush. Add to this the energy required for mental acuity and concentration as we search for game, and this can really test our bodies to the limit.
I learnt through trial and plenty of error what my personal calorie intake needs are – there are also caloric intake calculators available online that give a fairly accurate result.
For me, when doing very active to moderately active exercise, I need to consume approx. 3200-3500 calories per day – that can be lot of food to carry on your back. Given the freeze-dried meals out there have on average anywhere from 500-900 calories per meal, it was no wonder that when I was only consuming two freeze-dried meals a day plus some snacks, I was losing weight!
Once I realised this, I upped my game, settling on the highest caloric energy options from the freeze-dried meals available. This way, consuming three meals per day – breakfast/lunch/dinner – plus a couple of high-energy snacks, I can get my caloric intake to its optimum level easier.
If you want to delve deeper into what Real Meals’ caloric/nutritional breakdown is, it’s reasonably easy to do. Just jump on their website – nutritional values are listed, plus you’ll find the same info on the back of each pack, as you’d expect.
Their meals range anywhere from 550 right up to 1228cal for the Tom Kha Gai, with the Sri Lankan Curry at 965cal per meal; these are some of the highest calorie options available for freeze-dried meals that I’ve been able to find.
For me, it’s about making smarter choices during trip planning. For those who have specific dietary requirements, Real Meals have vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options available.
Another bonus worth mentioning is the size of the packets; they’re compact and light and don’t take up a bunch of space. This is apparently due to Real Meals’ freeze-drying process where, once finished, they weigh only 20% of their original weight but still hold 99% of their nutritional value. Once rehydrated, you’re getting 360-400+ grams of rehydrated food in each meal. The largest water requirement with the dinners was 375ml. The rehydrating process was simple and effective, and I experienced no dry crispy bits at the bottom of my meal packs. What’s more, you can make the Real Meals with cold water in an emergency.
The zip-lock packaging is reusable, and the tear points worked well. A good tip I picked up off the Real Meals website was to wash out a meal pack and reuse it for storing/keeping dry gear items like phones, matches and fire-lighting gear! … or for storing your own favourite snack items.
Like all freeze-dried foods, the Real Meals are super convenient and easy to use. The selection of meal options is growing; there should be something for most tastes.
I found some definite favourites: the Sri Lankan Curry and Tom Kha Gai both tasted liked they’d come straight from a restaurant as a takeaway! And both were winning combos when combined with the Basmati Rice.
I only tried one dessert, and as I have a chocolate addiction, the Chocolate Cake Pudding was my choice. I can report it was excellent with a good ratio of big chunks of chocolate cake to sauce – and not too sweet either.
Overall, I was impressed with the flavours, and some of the meals did have that home-cooked taste – like the Mexi Nachos, although I’d like a few more corn chips for mine than what was provided … but I’m being picky there!
Choosing the high-calorie meal options like the Tom Kha Gai, Sri Lankan Curry and Beef Stroganoff, I could easily meet my daily calorie requirement when travelling through wilderness areas and involved in moderate- to high-intensity exercise.
One downside was the price. At $16.95 RRP, they’re at the top end of the price range for freeze-dried meals. But I will say that like a lot of things in life, you get what you pay for, and if you like flavour, then you won’t be disappointed.