Food Network Staffer Diary: I Ate Like an Astronaut for 3 Days

By: Margaret Wong
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182413519

Photo by: A-S-L

A-S-L

Day 1: To Infinity and Beyond

The reality of (and even need for) space travel for average folks like us doesn’t seem so far-fetched lately. With the rise of climate change, space tourism, the potential human colonization of Mars and the beginnings of space commercialization, the black night sky no longer feels so untouchable.

Not to mention that we have, especially in recent years, seen a sizeable trove of movies about surviving against impossible odds in the vast, open unknown. That is why, dear friends, in anticipation of the event that any of us get launched into space for whatever reason, I have subjected myself to the astronaut’s diet here on our great Earth. Read on to see what to expect if you find yourself trying to chow down in microgravity.

How do astronauts eat?

NASA compares eating in space to “going camping for more than a week with several of your close friends.” To break down what that means: “You would make sure you have plenty of food and the gear to cook and eat it with. The food would have to be stored properly and be nonperishable to avoid spoilage. After finishing your meal, or at the end of your camping trip, you would then stow all your gear and dispose of your trash properly just before the ride home. Astronauts basically do the same thing when they go to space,” NASA notes.

While some foods can be eaten as is, like brownies or fruit (but only within the first couple days of launch), a large portion of an astronaut’s diet consists of freeze-dried food, aka food that can sit in a container pretty much forever. To eat, all they have to do is add water.

Freezing and removing water from foods that are ready to eat not only grants them an incredibly long shelf life, but it also keeps meals lightweight. It makes freeze-dried foods perfect for travel and in minimizing storage weight, which are priorities when you are trying to launch a space shuttle.

While I couldn’t get the exact food they eat aboard the International Space Station (ISS), I did acquire a whole lot of freeze-dried camping food. After all, I am pretty much camping. In space. On Earth.

Day 1

Like any well-prepared astronaut, I slept assured that I would have enough food for the next three days. No need to think about what I had to buy from the grocery store, or even what I wanted to eat for dinner later, because, hey, all my meals are pre-planned and ready to eat. There’s almost no prep work involved and better yet, no thinking. I love not thinking.

8:24 a.m.:

I wake, a woman invigorated by the thought of all the additional free time I will now have in my day. Because, you know, deciding what to eat takes forever.

10:03 a.m.: Breakfast

For breakfast, I decide to start out easy and grab a pouch of freeze-dried Granola with Milk and Blueberries. It doesn’t sound like too weird of a meal to freeze dry. Powdered milk does exist.

I take a look at the “Best By” date and heave a sigh of relief. I am so glad I finally managed to get around to eating this before October 2046.

I open the bag to a mix of beige-colored powder, shriveled up blueberries, and granola. It smells a bit like grandma's. The directions seem simple enough: rip open the pouch, add some cold water, stir and enjoy — breakfast in a bag.

I take a bite and it’s ... actually not disgusting. Promise! In fact, it tastes good. The texture of each ingredient is as it should be: the granola is crunchy; the milk is a nice hue of purple from the berries; and the berries aren’t mushy, though they aren’t, of course, as firm as fresh blueberries. It’s as close as you can get to fresh, not-fresh food.

11:53 a.m.:

Despite a quality freeze-dried breakfast, my stomach-shaped heart is already longing for regular food. What can I say? I’m weak.

2:10 p.m.:

Here at Food Network, food from various projects and productions pops up regularly but unpredictably around the office, and it’s all free for the taking. So, of course, I unsuspectingly walk into our little kitchen to get some water and find a freshly made tray of I-don’t-even-know-what-exactly-but-it-looks-good. Otherwise known as: temptation. Gosh darn it.

I spend a little too much time staring. My hand hovers toward it, but I walk away, knowing I made the right choice.

2:19 p.m.: Lunch

Next on the menu is a pouch of freeze-dried Chicken & Dumplings. The instructions for what would be a more complex dish than granola, milk and blueberries are hardly more complicated than those of its predecessor.

The only difference is that I add boiling water (since it is a dish that is normally served hot), then stir, zip up the pouch, and wait for four minutes so it traps the heat and has time to “cook.” It’s a lot like Cup Noodles.

My co-worker and friend Julia watches as I take my first bite. She is thoroughly entertained.

I don’t love looking at it, but I conclude that it tastes very good. It’s seasoned well, and there’s just the right amount of gooeyness. It isn’t mushy, it’s gooey, and I can really bite into each of the dumpling and chicken pieces. Despite our skepticism, the freeze-dried meal is not disgusting at all. Plus, it’s so easy to eat.

As I eat the entire pouch, my faith in my space survival abilities is restored. Plus, cleanup is easier than ever. I look forward to my next few meals of not thinking, not cooking and not cleaning. Astronaut life is turning out to be OK.

6:27 p.m.:

By the time I get home, my stomach isn’t feeling swell and I’m bloated. To be fair, my lunch pouch was technically two servings. But it was good. No regrets.

7:06 p.m.:

I make myself a cup of tea, because they have that in space.

8:18 p.m.:

It’s about time for dinner and again, despite having had two solid meals, I am just not up for having another bag of freeze-dried food. I see my bucket of leftover Halloween candy. (Yes, Halloween was four months ago and I still have leftover candy.) All I want is candy. I miss candy. At this point, I don’t just miss fresh food. I miss any food that isn’t freeze-dried.

And then I realize that leftover Halloween candy lasts for months (even a couple years — I’d still eat that) and could potentially stay good for a while on board a space station. Desperate, I Google whether candy has ever been eaten in space. And, yes, it has. With the exception of Nerds (they’re too messy in microgravity and can get clogged in ducts), some of our favorite candies have all made it to and been eaten in space. 

I take this handy bit of information as license to eat as many pieces of candy as I want. It is glorious.

8:27 p.m.: Dinner

Believe it or not, I do try to be a responsible young adult sometimes, so I force myself to eat something more than candy for dinner. I grab a pouch of what feels like a lighter option: Pasta Primavera. (Plus, I love pasta primavera.)

The instructions for most of the hot entrees are pretty much the same: Add boiling water, stir, zip, wait and enjoy.

8:35 p.m.:

Even though I wasn’t looking forward to having more of this pouch food (It’s been making me gassy all day), I take one bite and all my sadness goes away.

The meal is flavored well. The pasta is al dente. The sauce is perfectly creamy. Everything you could ask for in a freeze-dried meal is right there. It’s a lot like having a microwave cup of macaroni and cheese. Actually, this is probably even better.

9:25 p.m.: Dessert

Astronauts get to have dessert, so I finally get to try out the pouch I’ve been itching to try. I love apples. And I love crisp.

Important note: All these freeze-dried meals are based on meals that already exist. Real food. They pretty much are those meals, but they’ve been processed one step further. It hasn’t always been that way; astronauts used to eat “semiliquids stuffed in aluminum tubes,” NASA notes, but it wasn’t long before the food in those tubes was deemed “unappetizing.”

This dessert is designed a little differently than the entrees; each set of instructions is tailored to what the meal is. But all I have to do is add hot water to the fruit. I zip and wait, and when it’s done cooking, I sprinkle a separate bag (included) of dry granola crisp over the gooey apple mixture, and stir to my liking.

Predictably, it’s good. It’s really good for what it is. My dessert craving is satisfied. And with that, I go to bed a happy space camper.

Day 2: The Adventure Continues

11:25 a.m.:

I wake up craving candy. Day one was alright, but just the thought of day two feels like a lot. I begin to realize that no matter how good the freeze-dried meals are, all I want is regular Earth food.

12:28 p.m.: Breakfast

I get around to eating, and it’s a Breakfast Skillet that includes scrambled eggs. This is slightly disturbing as everything I’ve eaten thus far is meant to be a dish with liquid. And the idea of scrambled eggs lasting for decades doesn’t feel OK — but it is.

As usual, I open the pouch to an interesting mix of the dried meal to-be. And in this case, the instructions call for a bit less water than I would normally add.

The result is exactly as promised. It’s not a weird, watery mess, but rather a mixed dish with hash browns, peppers, onions and well-textured, moist scrambled eggs. I suppose the only thing missing is the skillet, but you can’t have everything.

For the fourth time, I am impressed. It tastes good. The flavors are strong and balanced. Since these meals are all homogenous dishes that are chopped up for eating convenience, they’re similar in effect to a rice bowl. All the parts of your meal are mixed in one place, instead of being enjoyed separately. No side dishes or garnishes. No taking a bite of a hash brown, followed by a bite of egg. No cutting through a sausage. Everything is mixed into one spoonful.

Weirdly enough, I begin to miss that too. There’s a lot about eating on Earth that you don’t notice until you hypothetically can’t.

3:38 p.m.:

I was hoping that my gassiness from the day before was just me. But 21 hours later, I am still super gassy. It must be the food.

3:51 p.m.:

I feel backed up and overly full, to the point where I don’t feel like eating more, even though we’re heading toward (super-late) lunch. I am not looking forward to eating another freeze-dried meal — not because they aren’t good, but because of the effect they’re starting to have on my body.

To be fair, the absence of fresh produce has something to do with it, too.

4:01 p.m.:

This might be TMI, but really it’s not TMI because I’m here to tell you the truth about what it feels like to eat in space. I'm officially constipated. Ugh.

4:14 p.m.

I still miss real food. Against better judgement, I continue to eat more candy.

4:28 p.m.

It turns out each of these meals can have as little as 1 gram of fiber per serving. Each bag has 2-3 servings. So 3 grams multiplied by three meals is 9 grams per day. Women between the ages of 18 and 50 should aim to have 25 grams of fiber per day.

Side note: Actual astronaut menus are vetted and approved by dieticians, so this sort of thing probably wouldn’t happen to them.

4:30 p.m.:

A girl can only endure so much. I take some fiber gummy vitamins to make my gastrointestinal system OK again.

4:57 p.m.: Lunch

I go for my second meal of the day — Chili Mac with Beef — and figure that this will be one of my favorite ones. It sounds hearty and any meals that include pasta or noodles are going to be extra good, since those foods usually come dried. And you’re supposed to cook them in boiling water anyway.

As I look at the dry mix, I realize I haven’t been weirded out by freeze-dried meat. Oh well. Jerky is dried, isn’t it? So I guess it’s not that weird.

As expected, it looks as it should, and it tastes good. The ground beef tastes fine, though it’s a little chewy. You can tell it isn’t fresh.

And that’s the thing about these freeze-dried foods — they can’t completely substitute a freshly cooked meal, as good as they are. None of them blow me out of the water, but then again, that’s not what they’re for. That’s why researchers in space are finding ways to cultivate fresh, sustainable foods beyond Earth. And they’ve been successful; lettuce has been grown and eaten in space, and beer has been brewed with yeast, though only in small amounts.

Regardless, freeze-dried foods serve their purpose well, but real food is almost always better.

8:07 p.m.

My wonderful roommate Annie decides to heat up a bag of microwaveable popcorn. I immediately check to see if there are microwaves in space shuttles. There are not. They eat pre-popped popcorn. I look at her with disdain.

8:16 p.m.

My sweet tooth is calling so I go for my other dessert option: Raspberry Crumble.

This bag is a little different since I have to open not one but two smaller pouches to make my crumble properly. I pour a two-toned pink powder mixture into the usual resealable pouch, add boiling water and wait. When it’s ready, I dump the other pouch of chocolate cookie crumbs and mix.

The crumble is gooey and decadent, and there are even raspberry seeds for some added texture.

10:41: p.m.: Dinner

I will myself to eat some actual food for dinner, so I grab the Chicken Fajita Bowl, which is a mixture of rice, chicken and vegetables. Per usual, I add hot water, mix and wait. It’s flavorful and well-textured. But I only take a few bites — I'm still bloated from the last three pouches.

I eat several Reese’s cups in between bites.

11:13 p.m.

I want some zing, some acid from a fresh lemon that candy and a freeze-dried meal just can’t provide. But then I realize that there are no lemon wedges in space. I am denied even the simplest of pleasures.

Day 3: Are we there yet?

10:46 a.m.:

I grab my final breakfast pouch, and it’s Biscuits and Gravy. The online reviews say this is a good one.

I do the usual, and open the bag to this:

It looks a little unappetizing, not going to lie. But it’s my last day so I power through. My body needs sustenance.

Like many of the entrees I’ve tried on this journey, this one might look ugly, but it tastes good. It’s on the heavier side. Granted, it’s biscuits and gravy. I also notice that when I bite into the biscuit pieces, they’re nice and chewy, and dry and flaky on the inside.

I am impressed yet again. The gravy doesn’t soak through these biscuit bits and turn the meal into a mushy mess.

11:38 a.m.:

It isn’t long before the food starts to affect my stomach again. I feel full to the brim.

I remember that I have brunch plans on Sunday, and I realize I won’t be able to eat anything there. I try to change my plans, but my friends Julia and Lianna are the worst. Mostly Julia. But for the sake of our friendship, I take one for the team and agree to sit at brunch anyway. I am such a kind and generous soul.

1:05 p.m.:

At brunch, I drink only tea and water. While everyone else eats THIS. I look on with envy at their bountiful, lush brunch plates, but I look the longest at the crisp, airy, light piles of lettuce and scream internally.

5:59 p.m.: The Last Lupper

Breakfast kept me feeling full for most of the day, and I defer eating another entree until the evening and opt for linner.

The idea of freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff sounds the least appetizing, so of course I've saved it for last.

6:09 p.m.

I dive in after only a bit of coaxing. And, honestly? It’s creamy, it tastes good, the texture is good. Everything is good. I really can’t complain — but I did. Because what it was really about was what I couldn’t have, not what I could.

6:25 p.m.:

I watch TV and am still enjoying my meal. Annie walks by and looks at me. “What IS that?” Food, Annie. It’s food.

6:30 p.m.:

I still take bites of Reese’s cups in between.

7:09 p.m.:

I am full. Mission complete.

Conclusion

I ate like an astronaut for three whole days, but that was only a taste of what it must be like to eat in space. Still, that was about as much as I could handle.

As a serious lover of food, I don’t think I could ever really make it in space for an extended period of time. But this was not all in vain. Here are a few things I learned during my diet in pretend space.

1: Astronauts have plenty of things besides food to focus their attention on.

In real space, there is a whole other world — a whole universe — to discover, explore and unravel. So while astronauts do need to eat three meals a day, they just need to sustain themselves. They just need to survive. So their food cannot be gross things squeezed from a tube. It would be too mentally taxing. The food should be good, just like the freeze-dried meals I had. And I suspect that had I actually been launched into space for three days, I wouldn’t have missed regular food as much as I did. I would have been too busy taking in the experience of outer space to think about what I was eating.

2: That being said, astronauts are still human.

Astronauts train for years to have the physical and mental stamina to live and conduct research in space for years on end. They want to be there. They have willpower. They probably don’t think about pasta at 1 a.m. four days a week, like I do.

But they are still human and subject to cravings. They miss candy and pizza and liquor the same way I did. That’s why they request what they can in care packages sent from Earth.

3: It’s hard to survive in space, but it’s even harder to make a home of it.

Why ask for candy? Why did Pizza Hut invest the time, money and resources to develop a pizza that could sustain a 60-day delivery period? Why are so many space movies about finding ways to keep from going mad? Why are so many of them about finding a new planet to live on? Why are we trying to grow crops on Mars?

The answers to these questions encompass any number of reasons, but at the heart of it all is the ambition to live sustainably. Not just survive in space but to find a home beyond home.

One good place to find that is in food.

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