Before we get into how you can make DIY Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), let’s take a second to clarify what survival food is. It sure isn’t a bunch of non-perishables that you stockpile in your pantry!
Sure, you can live off canned peas for an indefinite time, but most non-perishables will go bad quickly after you open them, require lots of water to prepare, and have extensive cooking times. And good luck carrying canned food with you if you’ve got to bug out somewhere!
For a food to be considered a good survival food, it must be:
- Compact in size
- Have a very long shelf life
- Have a long shelf life after it is opened
- Be easy to prepare
- Require little or no cooking time
If you are new to survival foods, I recommend reading these articles:
Read on if you are ready to start making your own MRE survival food!
Dehydrating versus Freeze-Drying
Freeze-dried foods are great for survival. The process keeps the nutrients intact, and freeze-dried foods usually taste delicious. Their only issue is that freeze-dried foods don’t shrink, so they take up a bit of space.
Until recently, freeze-drying was an industrial process; now, however, you can freeze dry at home.
Dehydrating is your only option if you want to make your MREs out of fresh foods.
However, you can buy buckets of freeze-dried foods and combine them with other ingredients to make your own MREs.
Supplies for Making Your Own MREs:
- Dehydrator – See our guide to the best food dehydrator
- Mylar bags – See our guide to using Mylar bags
- Vacuum sealer
- Desiccant, such as Silica gel. Or you can use an oxygen absorber.
Which Foods Can You Dehydrate?
You’d be surprised at how many different types of food you can dehydrate. There are the obvious ones like fruit slices (I like dried banana best), tomatoes, and jerky, but here are some of the surprising foods you can dehydrate:
- Mashed potatoes
- Pasta sauce
- Dried beans
To dehydrate these foods, just dry them as you would fruit leather. See our guide to expert-level dehydrating.
Ensure they are pureed first (such as with pasta sauce or mashed potatoes). Then spread them out on parchment paper in your dehydrator.
The finished result varies.
Refried beans look a bit like cardboard when done. Yogurt becomes a crumbly paper.
Which Foods NOT to Dehydrate
You can dehydrate just about anything – but not all foods rehydrate very well.
I learned this on a backpacking trip where I made some vegetable soup to take with us. The tomatoes, kale, and onions rehydrated well – but the carrots and mushrooms remained tough little rocks, even after pre-soaking them and boiling them for a long time. We ate them anyway, but it would probably be harsh on our digestive system in a survival situation.
Here are foods you do NOT want to dehydrate:
- Avocado and high-fat foods: The fat can make them go rancid quickly, and it will destroy your entire MRE contents
- Fatty meats: for the same reason
- Cheese: You will be better off buying commercially dried cheese
- Eggs: They are weird when you try to rehydrate them and won’t work for baking or cooking needs; consider buying commercially dried eggs instead.
- Milk: This can be done, but only with low-fat milk because the fat can make it go rancid. You’d be better off buying commercially dried milk instead.
- Store-bought condiments: They have too many chemicals and additives in them that they will likely separate when you try to rehydrate
- Root vegetables: You CAN dehydrate these, but they will take a long time to rehydrate and thus aren’t suitable for use as survival foods.
*If you want to dehydrate root vegetables (beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips), you should BLEND THEM INTO A POWDER. This powder can then be put into the MREs for added nutrition or to make the base. For example, carrot powder can make a great carrot soup.
Read more about foods not to dehydrate.
More on edible wild roots.
Foods NOT to Include in Your MREs
Remember that survival food must be able to be cooked quickly and with little water. So, even though a lot of DIY MRE recipes include these foods, I am putting them on the “off-limits” list:
- Dry beans (though lentils work well because they cook so quickly)
- Dried root veggies (unless ground into a powder first)
Each Homemade MRE Should Have:
As a survival food, DIY Meals Ready to Eat are meant to deliver maximum nutrition while still tasting decent (compared to survival food bars or shop-bought MREs which are all about providing calories in as dense a package as possible to keep you alive).
To ensure your MREs keep you healthy, each MRE needs to contain: carbohydrates, protein, and fruits/vegetables. (Read, are MREs good for you?)
*It is also good to include fats in your emergency food.
Fats are necessary for nutrition because they are excellent energy sources and are essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.
However, since fatty foods go rancid quickly, be cautious about adding these to your DIY MREs. It is safest to buy commercially-made freeze-dried fats (such as freeze-dried cheese or freeze-dried milk) and carefully check the expiration date and storage methods before adding them to your MREs. Or keep these separate!
Read here if you want to know how long MREs last.
Carbohydrate = Energy
Examples include couscous, fast-cooking noodles (such as ramen, soup, or rice noodles), oats, and mashed potato flakes.
Protein = Strength
Examples include jerky, freeze-dried meats, lentils, dried bean paste
Vegetables and/or Fruits = Vitamins, Minerals, and Fiber (constipation, anyone?)
Examples include dehydrated or freeze-dried tomatoes, peppers, onions, spinach, kale, bananas, apples, raisins, and peaches.
As a general rule, try to aim for as much variety as possible, especially for fruits and veggies.
You don’t have to memorize each food’s nutritional qualities, but know that specific colors are associated with certain nutrients.
For example, bright red foods like tomatoes are rich in antioxidants which you will need to boost your immunity in survival situations.
Dark leafy greens have minerals like calcium and iron.
Example MRE Combinations:
- Dried apples and bananas
- Dried milk
Tomato and Chicken Soup MRE
- Dried tomatoes, carrots, and peppers — blended into powder
- Dried milk
- Soup noodles
- Herbs and spices
- Freeze-dried chicken bits
- Salt, pepper
Mashed Potatoes and Steak MRE
- Mashed potato flakes
- Dehydrated turnip or celery root powder
- Freeze-dried steak or dehydrated beef jerky
- Dehydrated spinach
- Salt, pepper
Couscous and Hummus MRE
*Couscous is like the Middle Eastern version of rice. It cooks in 2 minutes and without much water. Hummus is made from blended chickpeas and dehydrates well.
- Dehydrated hummus
- Dehydrated red peppers and tomatoes
- Dehydrated kale
- Parsley, cilantro, and sesame seeds
For inspiration, check out MREs for purchase and duplicate the flavors.
Have you ever made your own MREs? What combinations can you think of?