The time of the month where I leave the office for a few days and head to drill with the Illinois Army National Guard. This month we will be sleeping in the field for a 4 day drill, meaning food selection will boil down to maybe one "hot meal," and 2-3 MRE's per day.
I loathe MRE's. They are awful. To make matters worse, the "hot meal" we are usually fed 1-2 times per day is basically the same thing as MRE food that gets cooked in a plastic bag that was immersed in boiling water. Sound appetizing?
Yes, they are pretty nasty, but I will say this, when we are at an extended training rotation and in the field for a considerable amount of time working hard I'll eat anything.....including MRE's. For four days in the field this coming weekend, I'll improvise.
You see, next month my cousin and I will be doing a 20+ mile trail run in the grand canyon. I am training for this run and watching what I eat. A four day drill will obviously bring complications to my training schedule. That's ok, I can adapt the training schedule to fit the week and make up for the four days I lose. However, when it comes to eating right, I won't make an exception. I guess I'm one of those crazy people who anecdotally believes that what I eat has a direct impact on my performance and recovery. Crazy, right?
At this point you may be thinking, what does this have to do with me? I'm not in the Army, why would I need to worry about packing food for a field training exercise?
Maybe you aren't in the Army, but chances are you have gone hiking, or camping, or something else out doors? The problems with army food carry over into a lot of outdoors products as well. High sugar, high salt, high glycemic foods are not only pervasive in Department of Defense MRE's, but they also stock the shelves of your local outdoors store and running stores. I have a couple issues with MRE's, Army food, and commercially available backpacking products. The first deals with the high levels of salt used in food preservation. MRE's have a shelf life of up to 12 (maybe more) years. This salt content can wreak havoc on your digestive system. It leads to a game that I like to refer to as "chances are I won't need it, but where are the porta-potties, and in case I need it in a huge hurry, how quickly can I get to them?" Use your imagination to figure out how that game is played, in the meantime, I'll spare you the details.
The second problem is performance. Yes, in the field we are generally busy in the army, much like a backpacker is quite active and covers a great distance. Calories are important when you are that active. However, the type of calorie is important too. Think of your body as a steam powered locomotive. Generally speaking, the steam locomotive is going to use coal to stoke the fire to produce long lasting slow burning energy to supply steam (in the case of the body, we're talking about healthy dietary fats and stored fats). If the conductor all of the sudden started utilizing paper and small pieces of dry kindling wood in place of coal, the fire would start to burn incredibly hot but burn itself out in a short amount of time (in this case, that paper and kindling wood would be high glycemic carbohydrates like granola, crackers, and other sugary products). Think of a five year old that just broke into the halloween candy stash. Picture the sugar high followed by the sugar crash that this child will experience (and the parents will have to deal with) and you'll begin to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
Most of what we do in the Army and what backpackers and outdoors people do is aerobic, meaning it is a lower intensity and will primarily utilize fat as the necessary energy source. Next month, when we run the Grand Canyon, we will be dipping into more anaerobic energy systems which will require carbohydrates as well as fats. In that case, I will make a more conscious efforts to intelligently replace carbohydrate stores during the approximately 6 hour run. But this weekend I will primarily be walking around and moving at a slower pace. It is with this in mind that I plan four days worth of eating primarily around healthier fats and proteins. You may be wondering why MRE's and backpacking go-tos are so high in carbs. Short answer, because carb's are cheap. Go for a drive down I-80 and what do you see for miles and miles? Avocado fields? Nope. Almond fields? Nope. Coconut fields? Nope. Corn, Wheat, and soy. These are abundant crops that are subsidized. I won't go too deep into food politics, but I think I've painted a pretty clear picture.
For all you label reading, health junkies out there, keep in mind that when it comes to planning this type of eating, I have to keep space and weight in mind which limits my options to what I consider to be the best of the worst. Sure, there are some options here that aren't exactly super healthy options, but they get the job done in this context. From here on out, refer to the picture above.
"Wait a sec, didn't you just say you didn't want carbs?" I don't want ONLY carbs. I want a variety. At home, I don't eat oatmeal. In the field I do, because they are a quick source of calories, and the particular kind in the above picture don't affect my blood sugar too much to cause a sugar crash.
This is simple. Calories per dollar spent. The packets of Justin's Almond Butter in the picture above cost about $1 and pack 180 calories. And they taste fantastic. I always have these on me and will have them in the canyon as well.
Bag of Trail Mix
Cashews, almonds, macadamia nuts, and more. I buy these individually and pour them all into one bag to give me a simple snack that packs a high amount of fat, protein, and good low glycemic carbs.
Starkist Chicken Creations
I love these and they are a nice break from tuna. Lots of flavors available and only run about $2 per pack. Good source of protein, but a drawback is some trans fats I would normally avoid. Oh well, still better than MRE's.
Yellow fin tuna in extra virgin olive oil. That's it. That's all thats in there. Good fats and good proteins that are satiating and taste great.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Quest Bar
I'm not one of those quest bar zealots who believes that quest bars are the healthiest thing in the world. These merely quench my sweet tooth and are better than candy. At 190-200 calories per bar they're a great quick calorie source without the pitfalls of hydrogenated oils and corn syrup.
Last but not least, starbucks instant coffee.
Let me explain.
I LOVE coffee. I hate instant coffee. I also hate Starbucks coffee. For some weird reason, I enjoy starbucks instant coffee, and the convenience can't be matched. I strike up my jet boil in the morning, boil some water in less than two minutes, and add instant coffee in my canteen cup and voila, my coffee is ready before the good idea ferry shows up. Who is the good idea fairy? The good idea fairy is well known to anyone who has ever served in the military. This fairy is the mysterious entity that shows up and ruins plans. For example, if wake up time is 0500 and breakfast is at 0600, the good idea fairy generally shows up at around 0545 to suddenly change plans to have everyone hurry up and wait for further instructions. If I have had coffee prior to the arrival of the good idea fairy, I'm usually pretty well able to handle the nonsense. If I haven't had coffee, the good idea fairy and myself will likely butt heads together.
So there it is, my shopping list for the field and other outdoor adventures. I buy enough of these things to last me 4-5 days, the total weight usually comes out to only around 5 extra pounds in my ruck sack or back pack, and the cost is usually only around $50-$60. Enjoy!