[This story has been updated to correct previous inaccuracies in differentiating between dehydrated and freeze-dried food. Good To-Go uses dehydrated ingredients, not freeze-dried.–Ed]
MSRP: $6.50 to $12.50
My dad took me on my first overnight backpack trip when I was 7 years old. He cooked top-notch meals on an old Svea stove–basically a Bunsen burner–that puttered so loud that as soon as dinner was ready and the flame was shut off, the sound of the silent woods shocked my ears. The old stove was temperamental and smelled of gas. It was a challenge to control the heat well enough to prevent food from burning to the bottom of the aluminum pots, yet even then, my palate for freeze-dried recipes was spoiled in favor of “home” cooking. Sure, we used dehydrated ingredients, such as potato spuds, and powdered milk or eggs, etc., but my dad showed me that personal touches will generally always surpass the prepackaged backcountry meals you find in the camping stores. For the packaged meals, what was gained in convenience was sacrificed in fulfillment. Because of that, I’ve only tried the occasional packaged meal from the usual, widespread brands such as Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry–perhaps once every few years–and each time, my opinion was confirmed: I can do better. Until now.
The five Good To-Go meals my wife and I recently sampled have us reconsidering what dehydrated recipes can offer. The taste I normally associate with dehydrated dinners is that of either sweet or salty goop, or maybe some generic cayenne spice. The Good To-Go servings Mandi and I tried actually had a spectrum of flavors that resembled what you would expect from the following titles: Oatmeal (with quinoa, chia and hemp seed hearts, and cinnamon, turmeric and cardamom), Smoked Three-Bean Chili, Mexican Quinoa Bowl, Thai Curry and Indian Vegetable Korma.
These are all meals we cook at home, and we have made similar concoctions on our camping stove, so we were very curious to compare the prepackaged versions created by Chef Jennifer Scism.
Scism launched the company in 2014 with her husband from a house renovated with a commercial kitchen. According to her biography, Scism graduated from the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, worked at three- and four-star restaurants (New York Times ratings), and opened one of her own with a partner after visiting over 20 countries to sample the different foods. She then competed on the first all-female team on Food Network’s “Iron Chef” competition, which was also “the first team to win against Mario Batali.”
“All of our meals are created by Chef Jennifer Scism,” said Good To-Go’s publicist Kate Ketschek. “…Each meal is created with ingredients you probably have in your kitchen. No preservatives or weird things that don’t belong. She creates the meals with backcountry travel in mind (calories, not crazy on sodium, spices for recovery, etc.).”
Mandi and I agreed that Scism’s culinary background is evident in the recipes we tried. Mandi herself is a seasoned hand in the kitchen after growing up with an older brother who went on to become a successful chef in the Caribbean. She is also a vegetarian who avoids dairy, yet she makes food that I enjoy even though I am an avid carnivore (I never thought vegan mac and “cheese” could be so good). The point is, between the two of us, we’re pretty good at cooking precisely what we like to eat, wherever that may be. We found the Good To-Go meals to be flavorful, nutritious and satisfying, and the only way I can think to improve on them would be to use fresh ingredients, but that would defeat the point.
Cooking the meals entails boiling water, pouring the hot water into the package, which seals with a ziplock, and waiting for a specified amount of time, usually around 20 minutes. It is extremely convenient, and there are almost zero dishes to clean–this has always been one of the main appeals for dehydrated recipes, as well as the lighter weight (although this also means there is disposable packaging to throw out). But as I said before, the difference comes down to flavor and fulfillment.
The flavor was all there–my taste buds enjoyed everything I tried–and we felt replenished by the meals after days of hiking, climbing and kayaking. But the texture of the food and our gassiness made it obvious that we were still eating dehydrated food. Not every ingredient hydrates perfectly for a variety of reasons. Water doesn’t boil as hot at 10,000 feet, for one thing. Then there are user errors, such as pouring too much or too little water when working by headlamp. This will always be the challenge with dehydrated food, so, for what it is, I think Good To-Go has these meals about as refined as they can get, making them worth the slightly higher expense ($6.50 to $12.50) compared to the other brands mentioned earlier ($5 to $10).
I should note that for serving sizes–assuming you’ll be tired and hungry when you arrive back at camp–most adults will probably want to budget one package per person even though most of the packages are said to contain “two” servings.
I will certainly consider Good To-Go meals as a viable option in the future when I want to prioritize weight and simplicity in addition to taste and nutrition.
Derek Franz kept his father’s Svea stove in working order until he was 25 years old and could no longer ignore the advantages of modern stoves. He is the digital editor for Alpinist.
Easy to cook
Mostly natural ingredients (the company is looking to attain a Non-GMO certification in the near future)
Good spectrum of flavors
Many vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free options are available and packages are clearly labeled
Slightly more expensive than other brands
Meals still have some of the inherent drawbacks of dehydrated food, such as texture, and digestion is more prone to gassiness
Disposable packaging results in more landfill waste, as opposed to packing your own meals in reusable containers