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Gear Review: Packaged Dinners

Take the hassle out of menu planning with these fast meals.
gear guide 2010 essentials dinner 445x260Cache Lake Mac 'n Cheese (Julia Vandenoever)
Meal Verdict Prep
Packit Gourmet Tuscan Beef Stew (left; $10; 7.5 oz) “The best meal I’ve ever had on the trail,” says one tester. “If I was served this at a restaurant, I would have complimented the chef.” Unlike so many camp stews, this one actually looks good—full of colorful vegetables like corn and carrots and tomatoes—and it’s served atop creamy polenta. With the protein punch of the beef, it’s also satisfyingly hearty after a long trail day. Serves 2, with bigger-than-average portions. Just boil a quart of water and make it in the pouch; ready in about 10 minutes.
Cache Lake Fryin’ Pan Breads
(left; $3.29; 4 oz.)
Testers were unanimous: Hot bread makes every meal better. “I ate five servings at a single sitting, and I don’t even like fry bread!” proclaims one staffer. They’re not greasy, and come in five flavors: Plain, Garlic, Onion, Dill, and Italian. We like Garlic best. Use a nonstick pan. Takes a minute to mix, five minutes to make. Thirty seconds to eat.
Packit Gourmet All-American Burger Wrap
($10; 7.6 oz.; )
Why wait until after the trip to get that burger you’re craving? “This actually tastes like it came off the grill,” says one tester. The meat is a little crumbly but not dry; wrap it in a tortilla (BYO) with ketchup, mayo, mustard, and relish (included in separate packets, so yes, you can have it your way). Testers also liked this company’s deli-style Roast Beef Wrap. The ground beef takes about 20 minutes to rehydrate (with hot or cold water). Use hot and insulate the pouch to have a warm burger.
Cache Lake Really Cheesy Mac ‘n Cheese ($5; 7 oz.) Put this classic back on the menu. Our kids voted this “almost as good as homemade,” and adults liked it, too. “It sets up well,” said one fan, “not soupy like so many brands.” And cheese actually tastes like… cheese. As easy as it sounds. Just needs hot water; add your own spices to taste.
Coleman Potato Leek Soup
(right; $5; 6 oz.)
The flavor isn’t strong, but it’s not bland, either. Testers liked the combination of mild leeks, creamy richness, and belly-warming heat. Have it as an appetizer, or pair it with Cache Lake Fry Bread for a light dinner. Almost instant. Make it in the pouch or in a pot, and just add boiling water.
Cache Lake Dried Peas
($3; 1 oz.)
Fresh-pea flavor on day six of a weeklong trek? That alone is worth packing an extra ounce or two. Add these crunchy veggies to almost any entrée, or enjoy them alone as a side dish. Eat them dry, or rehydrate alone or in pastas or soups.
Mary Jane’s Farm
Organic Buttery Herb Pasta
($8; 4.4 oz.)
Consider this a sophisticated mac ’n’ cheese, with more flavorful ingredients—sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, sage, rosemary, and thyme—than in standard-issue recipes. Testers loved that it’s “heavy on the butter,” which boosts tastes—and helps refuel on hard, cold hikes. Cooks in the pouch in 10 minutes. Cool option: You can also buy this pasta in bulk (3 pounds, $48) and measure your own servings.
Backpacker’s Pantry Shepherd’s Pie with Beef
(right; $10; 5.8 oz.)
“There’s a reason Shepherd’s Pie is standard fare in cold, rainy England,” notes one tester. “Very warm and filling!” Key ingredient: A red wine sauce, which sets this meal apart from other meat-and-potato stews. And testers liked the large portions for the low packaged weight. Prep Just add hot water.  
AlpineAire Chicken Gumbo
($7; 5.5 oz.)
“Spicy!” declares one tester. The Cajun flavor is authentic, and the okra-peppers-chicken-rice mélange is filling. “It’s plenty, with a dessert,” says another. Prep Add hot water to the pouch.  

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