Master Sgt. Kevin Cartino, 1st Combat Camera Squadron first sergeant, shows off the MRE he was given during an information operations scenario during exercise Scorpion Lens, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Feb. 25, 2020. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sean Campbell.
Most American military veterans can remember their first MRE. For some, it might be a fond memory. For others, it may evoke feelings of nausea or outright disgust. Though beloved by certain survivalist types, meals ready to eat are not a cuisine that most normal people would enjoy.
But, of course, soldiers don’t go to war to eat delicious food — they go to fight. And for that purpose, there is no better grub than the quasi-edible contents of an MRE.
In 1775, the Continental Congress mandated that the United States Army supply each of its enlisted men with a set quantity of certain food provisions. The rations comprised a mix of meat or fish, flour or bread, peas or beans, spruce beer or cider, and a little molasses.
A recruit of Echo Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, eats an MRE on Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Aaron Bolser.
Over time, as methods for processing, preserving, and cooking food improved, and the health and fitness of individual soldiers became a greater priority for Uncle Sam, the menu evolved to include more nutritious (but not necessarily more delicious) items.
During World War II, the US Army innovated the K-Ration. The K-Ration was a nonperishable, ready-to-eat feast sealed in a package small enough to fit in a soldier’s pocket. It consisted of three separate complete meals — breakfast, dinner, and supper — which all together packed a total of approximately 2,830 calories and 79 grams of protein.
In 1958, the K-Ration was replaced by the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI). Instead of being compartmentalized into three complete meals, the food contained in the MCI was packaged according to type — meat, bread, dessert, etc. MCIs were phased out in 1981, and troops have been eating MREs ever since.
Related: The Charlie Ration Cookbook: How Tabasco Hot Sauce Became a US Military Staple
MREs rest on a table during an MRE open-package inspection, April 6, 2018, at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Airmen from Public Health examine the MREs for defects and overall quality and determine whether they’ll be utilized here, sent to other bases, or condemned. Public Health monitors more than 8,400 MREs yearly to ensure they are safe and fit for consumption. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erick Requadt.
To this day, MREs remain the primary calorie source for American service members in the field. Because of their light weight and streamlined packaging, they are easily stowed and carried by troops on the march. They are also extremely durable. An unopened MRE can withstand a parachute drop from 1,250 feet and a freefall from as high as 100 feet, so that even soldiers deposited by plane in remote places can still enjoy a warm bowl of chili and macaroni or a cracker plastered with jalapeño cheese.
For the past 20 years, the Defense Logistics Agency has made routine modifications to the MRE to increase its nutritional value. Since 2015, the DLA has tailored the menu in accord with an average standard of 1,250 calories — 13% protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbohydrates — per meal bag. The 2023 menu, MRE XLIII, offers service members 24 unique options, including Beef Taco Filling, Mexican Style Chicken Stew, and Pepperoni Pizza Slice. Each MRE also contains an accessory pack, which typically includes chewing gum, wet wipes, safety matches, coffee, salt, and sugar.
In research for this article, two Coffee or Die employees who are military veterans and have strong opinions about MREs said Chili and Macaroni (or Chili Mac) and Meatballs in Marinara Sauce are the best menu items. They also agreed that Pork Patty and the Cheese and Veggie Omelet are “fucking gross.”
Related: More Whiskey and Beer, Less Ice Cream: Chesty Puller’s War Against ‘Sissy Food’
US Army Sgt. Jess Flores from Charlie Company, 725th Brigade Support Battalion (Airborne), 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, eats a soft taco MRE in between grading soldiers who were participating in a “best medic” competition, July 26, 2018, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Photo by Jamal Wilson.
Although MREs can be consumed without a heat source, troops are like normal people in that they generally prefer warm meals over a cold gelatinous mass of heavily processed food. For that reason, in the 1990s, MREs started coming equipped with built-in, flameless magnesium iron heaters. When doused with water, the magnesium iron undergoes a chemical reaction that produces enough heat to warm packaged food in approximately 10 minutes.
Related: How Philippine Food Scientist Maria Orosa Saved Thousands of POWs During World War II
Spc. Ahsaki Wilson of Company A, 106th Support Battalion, Mississippi Army National Guard, carries a box of MREs before the unit moves to a new location June 5, 2017, at the National Training Center. Photo by Staff Sgt. Veronica McNabb, 102d Public Affairs Detachment.
If learning about MREs is making you hungry for congealed pork patties and Grade F beef chili, well, you’re in luck, because MREs are not exclusive to military personnel. Civilians can enjoy them, too. In fact, they can be easily purchased online! Here are some options currently available on Amazon:
If and when your MREs arrive in the mail, we recommend that you resist the temptation to immediately devour all of them. Why? Because stockpiling MREs is a good way to increase your chances of survival in the upcoming zombie apocalypse.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, an MRE can remain safely edible for upwards of seven years if stored at room temperature. However, if stored in a hot environment, like the desert, where temperatures often hover around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the MRE’s shelf life is reduced to about a month.
Read Next: Stayin’ Frosty: A Commando’s Unlikely Journey From SEAL Team to Ice Cream
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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