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Which Just Add Hot Water Meals Are Right For Your Family?

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What could be easier than adding hot water to a pouch of freeze-dried or dehydrated foods, waiting a few minutes, and then having a hot meal ready to eat? These types of just-add-water meals have been popular with hikers, campers, and preppers for years. But what brands should you look for, and what should you consider regarding the healthiest options? Read on for more info!

Imagine tossing a few lightweight foil meal pouches in your backpack, car, or emergency kit. These lifesavers weigh just a few ounces each and turn into a satisfying hot meal with just hot water. Perfect for when the power’s out and you’re heating water on the camp stove or for grabbing on the fly during an evacuation, these pouches are a great addition to your emergency preparedness plan. They’re especially helpful for 72-hour kits, where you want quick, easy, and filling meals for your family. Here’s what you need to know to wisely incorporate this option into your short and long term food storage plans.

What are Just-Add-Hot-Water Meals

Just-add-water meals are pre-cooked or dehydrated meals that only require hot water for preparation. They are typically lightweight, non-perishable, and come in a variety of flavors and options.

Many people pack a few granola bars and some jerky and call it good, but this is generally not a very good strategy. Granola bars and jerky are great snacks but aren’t satiating. There also comes a point when you’ll be utterly and completely sick of snack foods and want something more substantial, a real, hot meal.

Enter freeze-dried instant meals. These foil meal pouches weigh just a few ounces each, which makes them super portable, easy to toss in a backpack or keep in your vehicle emergency kit. Add boiling water and you have a satisfying meal. It’s a simple concept, and usually, the only drawbacks are the cost of the meal and questions about the ingredients.

Otherwise, these are ideal to have on hand for power outages when all you can do is heat water in a tea kettle using a generator or other power supply. They’re also perfect for emergency evacuations when you keep a mini-cache of them stored in a bin or bucket, ready to grab and run.

Choosing the Best Brands and Varieties

Read on for an in-depth on why I rate each company’s products as I do, but in brief:

  • Mountain House: Inconsistent
  • Thrive Life: My Favorite
  • Legacy Food Storage: Honorable Mention
  • ReadyWise: Absolute Worst
  • Harmony House: Thumbs Up

Mountain House

When it comes to the just-add-hot-water meals, you’ll find everything from “so delicious I could eat the whole thing” to “OMG! Give it to the dog!”

I’ve tried meals that fall into both categories and everything in between! I’ve found that one brand, say the popular Mountain House, can have a few fantastic meals that everyone loves and then some really terrible ones. Several years ago, I purchased this Mountain House bucket of meals. I noticed that the pouches began disappearing, and I wondered who was eating them. Turns out, our son was helping himself and eating entire pouches in a single sitting. Teenage boys are always hungry!

With Mountain House, some of our favorite meals were Chicken Fried Rice, Beef Stroganoff, and Beef Lasagna. Their granola mixes are quite good with dried milk powder in the mix, so when you add cold water, you end up with a granola cereal ready to eat.

Mountain House has the biggest variety of meals, which almost guarantees you’ll find something for everyone in the family. A few meals that caught my eye but I haven’t tried yet are Pad Thai with Chicken and Buffalo-Syle Chicken Mac and Cheese.

Not all Mountain House meals are good, however. On a family camping trip in Ireland, I thought I would outwit the expensive European grocery prices and pack a few freeze-dried meals in my luggage. One evening, we started a little campfire, got our water boiling, waited 15 minutes for our beef stew to rehydrate, and yuck! I poured my bowl of stew into the trash! Oddly, everyone else in the family liked it!

Price-wise, Mountain House is inexpensive, coming in at $5-6 per serving for a 2-serving pouch. These pouches are all fairly small, but if space is an issue, look for Mountain House Pro meals, which are vacuum-sealed.

Checking out the ingredients of beef stew (since it’s a meal similar to Thrive Life’s Pot Roast) I see: Potatoes (potatoes, sodium acid pyrophosphate), Beef (beef, salt), Vegetable Oil (high oleic sunflower oil and/or canola oil with rosemary extract and/or corn oil with rosemary extract), Green Peas , Corn Starch, Carrots, Beef Broth (beef stock, natural flavor, salt, yeast extract, sugar, beef fat), Onion, Celery, Sea Salt, Cane Sugar, Garlic Powder, Basil, Oregano, White Pepper, Bay Leaves, Celery Seed

Thrive Life

Thrive Life, my favorite freeze-dried food company (I explain more here), has a smaller variety of pouch meals than Mountain House, but the quality is better overall. They aren’t quite as mass-produced as Mountain House — you could say they are more “small batch.”

Like Mountain House, Thrive Life meals only need hot water (or cold water for granola) and a few minutes to rehydrate. Each pouch contains three servings, similar to Mountain House. There might be some sticker shock when it comes to the price, so be sure to read the section below, “Ways to Make These Meals Stretch Farther,” for my suggestions for getting more servings from each pouch.

Looking at the ingredients of Thrive Life meals, I find them appealing because I see few additives. Most of the ingredients are those I would personally include in something like a beef pot roast dish.

From their website for Beef Pot Roast — INGREDIENTS: Pot roast sauce (tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, butter [pasteurized cream, salt], canola oil, beef bouillon [salt, maltodextrin, yeast extract, mushroom powder, onion powder, garlic powder, celery powder, carrot powder, caramel color, ground black pepper, dried oregano, dried thyme, paprika], garlic, black pepper, parsley, thyme, rosemary), potatoes, fully cooked seasoned diced beef (beef, salt). Contains: Milk. 

We don’t use canola oil in our kitchen, and “caramel color” is a little vague, but other than that, I use the same seasonings, veggie combinations, and beef.

Thrive Life meals are slightly more expensive. Depending on the meal, servings will run around $6 each.

Legacy Food Storage

It’s been a hot minute since I sampled meals from Legacy, but of the three entrees they sent to me as samples, they were all very good. For that reason, I want to give them an Honorable Mention. Unfortunately, they do not sell meals individually, only in large quantities.


ReadyWise is Wise Foods rebranded, and being completely honest here, Wise Foods was the absolute worst of all the freeze-dried foods I’ve ever tried. I’m a damn good cook. I can “doctor up” just about anything — except Wise Food meals. I noticed their entree meals now have creative names, like “Old Country Pasta Alfredo with Chicken” and “Backcountry Wild Rice & Risotto.” I appreciate the creativity but will continue to steer clear of their food based on my past experience and ingredients like this for their “Desert High Chili Mac”:

Harmony House

Finally, I want to mention Harmony House. I’ve purchased their dehydrated foods and soup mixes before and give them a thumbs up for the quality and purity of ingredients. In particular, I recommend their Backpacking Soup & Chili Kit. This kit includes 12 ready-to-cook blends for meals like Black Bean Chili Mix, Navy Bean Soup Mix, and Italian Vegetable Soup Mix. These entrees are non-GMO, kosher, gluten-free, and take a look at the ingredients:

You’ll notice “textured soy flour” in the vegetarian “beefish” and “chickenish” soup mixes. You’ve probably eaten this product, sometimes called Textured Vegetable Protein, or TVP. It has a similar texture to beef or chicken. I don’t have a problem with it, as it would be the only soy-based product in my kitchen! If there are any soy allergies or sensitivities in your family, you could just give these soup mixes away.

You’ll find several different kits from Harmony House, including the one I bought, “Gourmet Soup and Chili Blend Sampler, which is an amazing bargain. Each package makes five cups of soup or chili and requires the same cooking time as all other brands I’ve reviewed here.

Tips for Just-Add-Hot-Water Meals

Before buying any just-add-water meal in bulk, try a single pouch first. If you’ll be stocking up to feed everyone in the family, everyone should have at least a taste. These meals can be expensive, but if they are tasteless and just plain yucky, you need to know that before relying on them in an emergency.

Try the same entrée from different food storage companies. For example, if your family likes spaghetti in meat sauce, but the one you tried was gross, give it a try from another brand. Just as I disliked Mountain House’s Beef Stew, the same entrée from a different company might be delicious.

Food fatigue is a real thing. Buy a variety of meals, and remember that you don’t have to be loyal to just one brand! Sample from many companies, select your favorites, and then, and only then, stock up for emergencies, camping trips, or a power-out emergency meal.

Add a tablespoon or two of any fat to the hot meal for extra calories, fat, and satiation. This could be butter, bacon grease, coconut oil, ghee, or olive oil. Go for a healthy oil, though. Here are more tips for storing oil, which typically quickly becomes rancid.

Things To Watch Out For

In a word: ingredients. The flavor of these meals is important, but you want to make sure you aren’t relying on something with ingredients you don’t want to eat or serve your family.

In particular, pay attention to sodium amounts, allergen alerts, and the amount of protein. Calories count all the time but especially in an emergency when meal times might be sporadic at best. If you have big eaters in the family, factor in that expense. You might need two or three pouches in order to keep everyone fed, full, and happy.

Serving sizes tend to be on the light side. Personally, a single cup of beef stew wouldn’t keep me feeling full for very long. Look at and compare serving sizes and categories from one brand to the next.

It’s easy for a company to claim that their “emergency food bucket” has enough food for 30 days or whatever claim they might make. It’s you and your family who will be eating those meals, so be picky about what you choose to buy and do a lot of comparison shopping before investing money in large amounts of these meals.

Ways to Make These Meals Stretch Farther

Just-add-water meals are pricey, although that depends on the specific meal and how many servings each one includes. Extend the amount of food by adding a meal-stretcher or more protein.

A can of chili beans to a pouch of chili mac gives you two or three times the number of servings. Buy a few cans of Instant Brown Rice or Instant White Rice. They cook up in five minutes and you can add the rice to many different entrees. Do the same with cooked macaroni — cook the macaroni and dehydrate it in a food dehydrator!

You’ll find many other ideas for stretching these meals in this article.

How to Make Homemade Versions

When you make your own just-add-water meals, you know exactly what they contain.

Want to avoid sodium? You’re in control.

Allergies? No need for any ingredient that could trigger them.

Want to make meals you already know your family likes? You can do that by tweaking many recipes so they only contain freeze-dried or dehydrated foods.

One caveat is that the shelf life of meals bought from commercially packaged foods will be shorter. You’ll still have nutritious super-quick meals, and depending on how you decide to package them (mylar bags vs. canning jars, for example), they’ll be just as lightweight and compact as anything you might buy from the companies I’ve reviewed here. You can learn all the ins-and-outs of creating your own just-add-hot-water meals.

By the way, the one meal you can make on your own, super easy, is granola with milk powder! No need to spend money on such a simple combination.

All the Ways Foil Meal Pouches Come in Handy

Sourcing Hot Water In An Emergency

Hot water is a necessity unless you’re eating a pouch of granola. Heating some water to boiling may be the only “cooking” your circumstances allow. But unless you are one of those people who loves uncooked spaghetti, a just-add-water meal isn’t going to taste very good if you don’t have any hot water to prepare it.

Here are a few ways you can get around that when you are away from home:

  1. If you have room for it in your emergency kit, invest in a small cooking kit and a portable stove. Mess kits range from inexpensive aluminum models to fancy ones with anodized non-stick coating. This is what I have in my own emergency kit. I have had very good luck using the fuel cells to heat water this way. This post goes over a variety of off-grid cooking methods.
  2. If you are evacuating to a hotel, use the coffee maker. Every hotel has an in-room coffee maker. Turn it on, heat the water, and add it to your entrée. Easy-peasy. If there is not a coffee maker in the room, some motels have a hot water/ coffee station in the lobby.
  3. Most gas stations off major roads offer water (hot or cold) at no charge. I’ve seen many that also have microwaves available for public use.


What foods can you cook with hot water?

Hot water works well for rehydrating pre-cooked or dried foods, such as: instant staples like rice, noodles, oatmeal; dehydrated meals like soups, stews, pasta dishes; freeze-dried meals for a wider variety of textures and flavors; and dried fruits, vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, or refried beans for additions or quick snacks.

What are the benefits of just-add-hot water meals?

Convenience: Just add hot water and you have a meal in minutes.
Lightweight and portable: Perfect for camping, backpacking, and travel.
Non-perishable: Great for emergency preparedness kits.
Variety: Available in a wide range of flavors and dietary restrictions.
Quick and easy meals: Ideal for busy schedules.

Do just-add-water meals taste good?

They’ve come a long way in terms of taste and variety. While they may not be gourmet meals, they offer a convenient and satisfying way to eat when traditional cooking methods are unavailable. Always buy one to try before investing a lot of money in large quantities, and also try the same entrée from different companies.

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Final Thoughts

Just-add-water meals are available from many sources and include various cuisines. There are even natural, non-GMO options on the market. Like all food storage-type food, not all are of the same quality. Some people feel that some kinds are too high in sodium and thus taste too salty. Other kinds, however, taste absolutely amazing – you won’t want to wait for disaster to strike to eat these all the time. Or, alternately, you could keep them on hand for “every day” emergencies: sometimes the emergency has nothing to do with a hurricane or evacuation and everything to do with the fact that the family has to leave for Bobby’s soccer game in 20 minutes and his uniform is still in the washing machine.

Do you have a particular brand or meal entrée that you can recommend to my readers?

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