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By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)

Willow's HDR reviews

Feb. 22, 2024

What is an HDR?

Last month's winter storm in the Pacific Northwest was said to be one of the worst in recent history (although, the December 2009 snowstorm that shut down Portland for two weeks also comes to my mind). Many areas in the Greater Portland area served by Portland General Electric experienced a prolonged power outage that lasted for more than a week. Climate change seems to be creating events like this with an increased frequency (there was another big snowstorm in February 2021). With natural disasters like this, awareness of preparedness becomes a topic of popular conversation.

While I keep some reserve supplies of durable, nonperishable staples (a habit that I began around 2019, and has proven to be the right thing to do during the early days of the COVID panic circa March 2020), electric outages would make them not very useful. Hence I looked into purchasing some HDRs.

HDR stands for "humanitarian daily rations." It was developed by the United States Department of Defense in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts. HDR was also dropped extensively in Afghanistan during George W. Bush's "Operation Enduring Freedom" following 9/11.

This is how it looks

You may be familiar with MRE, which is a similarly packaged combat meal kit for soldiers (YouTube is full of MRE review videos, and there seems to be a niche for MRE collectors who are somehow able to obtain MREs from countries like China and Russia). Like MRE, HDRs are packaged in a durable, waterproof outer package that can be stored in most conditions and can be airdropped.

A case of HDRs contains 10 packages. Each package is a complete food supply (~ 2,200 kcal) for one whole day, including something for breakfast, and two entrees for lunch and dinner.

These HDRs are made by a few contractors (the two most common ones are SOPAKCO, Inc. and The Wornick Company) for the U.S. government. Since they are manufactured for military use, they are made available for purchase by the general public three years after the manufacturing date.

Each case of HDRs shows three things: a four-digit number, an inspection date, and a "Fresh Check" sticker. To untrained eyes, they can be confusing. In the picture above, you can see "0337" and "12/23." It does NOT mean this case of HDRs was made in December 2023. It was inspected in December 2023 to ensure that the HDRs haven't gone bad. The actual manufacturing date is shown as "0337": it means the 337th day of the year "0" -- which translates to Dec. 2, 2020. If stored at a room temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, an HDR has a minimum shelf life of 48 months. This means that if you buy HDRs that were recently inspected and released to public sales, they should be good for at least a year. The red "Fresh Check" is another indicator. If the sticker shows a solid dark circle instead of a dark ring, the case is no good; you should return it for a refund or exchange. It should also be noted that each component of the HDR is made even earlier than the manufacturing date shown on the case; their respective manufacturing dates are also shown on the components using the same number format. I noted that they were 3 to 4 weeks before Dec. 2, 2020.

You can purchase these on Amazon and eBay for about $40 per case (and usually free shipping), which makes it roughly $4 each for a day's breakfast, lunch, dinner, and some snacks included. You may be able to find them at outdoor stores, Army Navy surplus stores, and prepper stores, as well. HDRs are substantially cheaper than MREs, especially considering that each package of HDR is for a full day, whereas a package of MRE is just for one meal.

An outer package of HDR is 12 inches tall and 8.5 inches wide and weighs about 2 pounds. This compactness and weight also make HDRs ideal for hiking and bicycle camping. Inside, a lot of things are pressed together in an even smaller plastic wrapper.

What's in an HDR?

HDR is designed to appeal to the "broadest possible" variety of religious and ethnic groups, therefore contains no animal product (with some exceptions, as I note below) and all ingredients meet halal requirements (although they are not certified as such, the case bears a crescent symbol). Curiously, it does not bear kosher pareve certification symbols, but this probably has to do more with the fact that a kashrut certification requires food manufacturers to maintain completely separate facilities and equipment, and the same manufacturers also make MREs that are definitely treif. Nevertheless, as federal defense contractors, they are required to follow all food safety regulations which call for anti-cross contamination measures.

The entrees come in retort pouches, and they are designed to be eaten only with a spoon without the need for any other utensils. Retort pouches were invented by the U.S. military and have also been very popular in Asia, especially in Japan (indeed, Otsuka Foods' "Bon Curry" is the first civilian retort product in the world, sold since 1968). In the U.S., Tasty Bites is the best-known use of retort pouches in the general consumer market. This special packaging keeps food fresh for years without refrigeration. It can be heated by boiling in water (DO NOT microwave this), but it is also possible to simply eat it out of the bag without heating.

Menu 2B comes with vegetable barley stew and black-eyed peas in tomato sauce. There are five different menus in each case, so you won't get tired of eating the same things over and over.

It also comes with two cookies (or crackers in some menus), two wheat tortillas, and a genuine Pop-Tart.

I think this is a special military edition of Pop-Tart. It is not frosted like the ones sold in stores.

I don't remember when was the last time I ate a Pop-Tart. It was pressed tight inside the packaging so it looks kind of flat. I put it in a toaster but I had a hard time taking it out of the toaster because it began to fall apart the moment I tried to pull it out. I had to flip the toaster upside down. Otherwise, it was good.

According to the DOD specifications for HDR it is supposed to contain no animal product except for a minuscule amount of dairy. But as you see above, the cookies contain "less than 2% of" egg. Beware if you are allergic to eggs. These cookies are hard and dense and seem vitamin-fortified.

The black-eyed peas aren't too bad, though somewhat bland. A packet of red chili pepper flakes, as well as a ubiquitous salt-and-pepper packet, are provided. Now I understand why American G.I.'s loved Tabasco, though; this one goes very well with it! Too bad HDRs do not come with one of those mini-bottles of Tabasco, though. The wheat tortillas are sort of edible, but that's probably just me, I never liked wheat tortillas unless they are part of a burrito. Years ago I found that wheat tortillas taste better when they are fried.

Now that I see this picture, in retrospect, I could have made two little black-eyed pea burritos. The amount of peas provided might be perfect for the two small tortillas.

Later in the day, I ate the vegetable barley stew, unheated, straight out of the pouch. It was excellent. I liked it.

It does not look from appearance that it is a lot of food. But these entrees are dense. It is filling. In retrospect, the relative blandness of the entrees may be by design: If they taste too good you'd eat them very fast. You then would not feel as full, and by eating too fast, the food wouldn't be digested as well. After all, there is a lot of R&D that goes behind the development of these combat rations (there is a dedicated Army R&D lab in Natick, Massachusetts that develops all the menus).

For more information

HDR information from the Defense Logistics Agency (old)
Seemingly the current HDR menus
Menu 5 review by Nathans MRE (YouTube)
Why MREs are great for camping


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