Dinner: Main Courses
As noted before, it's usually a good idea to make the food you eat during the day (snacks and lunch) the major contributor to the total calories consumed in a 24-hour period. Combined with a decent breakfast, this means that you won't need a huge calorie intake in your evening meal. Given that you will quite likely be going to sleep not too long after dinner, a large evening meal would not be a good idea anyway.
So, what is the purpose of an evening meal? Well, it does provide important nutrients of course, but for me it's about warmth, the pleasure of good-tasting food, and a pleasantly satisfied feeling. As far as I'm concerned, life is always better after dinner! I know some folk don't prepare hot food at all, not even a hot drink, thereby saving the weight of a stove, fuel and pans, but I'm afraid that having tried this approach I've concluded that a hot meal is essential for me!
What types of main course are available? Broadly:
- Do-it-yourself with supermarket ingredients. Although a cheap and easy option, my experience is that it can all too easily lead to a meal that is not that nice to eat. Couscous, instant mashed potato and noodles are popular choices (though remember that noodles are very low in any useful nutrients!). Non-instant foods (eg rice, pasta) will need cooking for up to 20 minutes, which uses up precious fuel.
- Do-it-yourself dehydrated meals. At home, you cook up your meals, then using a special dehydrator you remove the water. Generally you need to develop special recipes (eg avoiding fats and oils which can go rancid) and the dried meals will not keep for as long as commercial dried food. To reconstitute, you add water and cook the meal in a pan. Some folk are very keen on this approach, but it's really best for the enthusiastic cook with plenty of spare time (it can take quite a while to produce the food needed for a 2 week trip)!
- Ready to eat or boil-in-the-bag meals. These can be eaten cold in an emergency, can be very tasty and for some uses are ideal. On an overnight trip where weight may not be an issue, they can be a good solution.
- Dried cook in the pan meals. These are lighter than ready to eat meals, but need to be mixed with water and simmered for up to 20 minutes, using up precious fuel. Some meals of this type are really quite unpalatable, so choose with care.
- Dried cook in the pouch meals. To cook these, simply boil water, add the water to the foil pouch containing the meal, mix and wait from 5 to 15 minutes. These are light in weight, low in fuel usage and if you choose the right brands are really good to eat. Unsurprisingly, I think this is the best overall solution, which is why this type of meal is what we sell!
OK, so what about the meals themselves: what works, what doesn't, what's good to eat, what's nutritious? In general terms, things with plenty of flavour are what you need to look for: bland food goes down like a lead balloon when you're tired and cold and hungry. At higher altitudes, your sense of taste will also be dulled, so flavour is even more important.
The type of carbohydrate on which the meal is based is a useful differentiating factor:
- Pasta is versatile, has a bit of flavour of its own (especially egg pasta) and provides lots of calories for the weight.
- Rice has very little intrinsic flavour, so it needs strong flavours in the sauce or accompaniment: curry or chilli works especially well. It has less calories per gramme than pasta.
- Potato usually comes in the form of mash (though not always: there are some meals with potato pieces) and provides good flavour. Although a mashed potato meal might not look very wonderful, I find they are the ones I particularly look forward to. Spuds are fairly good in terms of calorie content.
On a longer trip, I try to make sure I take a good variety of meals: even favourites can become boring when you have them every other day!
The protein base of a meal is fairly restricted: chicken and beef are common, fish less so (mainly because of cost) but worth looking out for variety of taste, and of course there are vegetarian options too.
It's worth remembering that you can always jazz up your meal by adding extra ingredients at "cooking time" (when adding the boiling water to the pouch)! Pine nuts are great for taste (especially when toasted) and calories, pieces of beef jerky or biltong are another option, along with salami. Extra freeze-dried herbs or spices can add a useful lift as well. I'd certainly suggest a bit of experimenting to see what works for you!