What are MREs? A Look Inside Military MRE Meals

If you know anyone who has served in the military, in any branch, you have probably heard them gripe about the food before particularly when they were in the field.

an MRE next to a bug out bag
an MRE next to a bug-out bag

This is because, more often than not, a traditional cooked meal was out of the question, and instead they were forced to eat portable rations.

These rations, known as MREs, are infamous among soldiers for their taste and seeming indestructibility.

But, among preppers, MREs are appreciated for their long storage life and ease of transport. to say that opinions about them are divisive is an understatement. So just what are MREs?

An MRE, or “meal, ready to eat”, is a complete meal ration that is self-contained and requires no cooking prior to consumption.

Usually issued as combat or field rations to military personnel, they have found use and acceptance by people who require highly portable shelf-stable food.

Love them or hate them, there is no denying the convenience and utility of MREs, particularly when it comes to survival purposes or any other situation where the logistics of supporting the transportation and preparation of real food is too much of a burden.

We’ll be talking more about the pros and cons of MREs in this article, and examining the contents of these portable meals. Keep reading to learn more.

History of MREs

Early military rations were often little more than hardtack biscuits, salt-dried meat, and later on questionable tinned meats and other preserved food.

Although these were useful for keeping soldiers “fueled” on the battlefield, they were universally panned and lacked the variety that you’d expect from a meal.

As technology advanced rapidly in the years after World War II, so did military rations – enter the Meal Ready to Eat (MRE).

The MRE was developed in response to the U.S. Army’s need for something more substantial, palatable and nutritious than just hardtack and canned “C-rats” and “K-rats” of World War II and the Korean War.

This better ration contained a variety of items including a main menu item or entree, crackers or bread, cheese spread, fruit, coffee or beverage mix, and even some desserts!

The packaging was designed with convenience and portability in mind: each complete MRE could fit easily into a cargo pocket or pack, and the food was pre-cooked so didn’t require heating or special preparation.

Officially adopted in 1975, the MRE has been with us ever since in one form or another.

Today’s modern MREs are even more varied in their menu contents, and offer accessories and convenience things like high-efficiency stick-on flameless heaters for warming food in the field and cutlery. They also have even better shelf life overall.

But MREs still come in convenient sizes that are easy to carry and all are rugged enough to stand up to hard travel in the field, making them perfect for military personnel, campers, and hikers alike.

Just What is in an MRE?

The MRE, or meal ready to eat, is exactly what the name on the package describes: a complete meal in a pouch, consisting of an entree, side dishes, snacks, and more that is edible as soon as you open the pouch.

No heat, and no prep, just pop open the wrapped spoon and dig in cold if you need to.

The actual contents of an MRE vary somewhat depending on whether you have an actual US military-issued version or a commercial civilian equivalent.

In any case, all modern MREs are largely the same in that regard and contain a variety of foods and other things to make meal time more enjoyable, easier or tastier.

What's Inside an MRE, and how to prepare it.

The entree, or main dish, can be anything from vegetarian chili to some sort of pasta with meat sauce or even meat patties. This is followed by a side dish that runs the gamut from corn or fruit to rice, potatoes, and more.

This is accompanied by some type of bread, be it hard crackers or a compressed bread slice, and usually a spread or dip for enjoying with the bread or the entree.

The spread can be peanut butter, cheese topping, or something similar. Dessert is also included and consists of some type of shelf-stable cake, pastry, cookie, or the like.

Also included are various odds and ends like beverage mix, which could be instant coffee or tea, hot chocolate, electrolyte drink powder, and so forth.

Candy is also a popular inclusion and is usually from a major manufacturer for morale purposes. M&Ms are quite popular.

Lastly, you have the accessories, consisting of a spoon or spork, a flameless ration heater designed to heat up the entree to a piping hot or at least lukewarm temperature, some kind of hot sauce or seasoning packet, and then little conveniences like matches, sugar, salt, gum, toilet paper, moist towelettes and the like.

open beef and black beans MRE
open beef and black beans MRE

What Are These Meals Made From?

MREs are made from, what else, food. Contrary to rumor and popular opinion, memories are indeed real food and highly nutritious. However, this food is also highly processed and packed with preservatives.

Say whatever you want about the intermediate and long-term health effects of processing and preservative ingredients but it does keep food intact, edible, and safe, far larger considerations than eating “clean” and organic when flying bullets are an occupational hazard.

Each component of a MRE, from the main dish to the candy and drink mix, is also individually packaged in its own ruggedized packet, hermetically sealed against moisture infiltration and the outside air for maximum longevity and also to help prevent the meal from attracting attention from animals or nearby enemies.

In short, MREs are food, but food that has been designed and modified to go the distance both when it comes to storage life and when it comes to being carried as cargo.

How Long Do MREs Last?

The question of how long MREs last, or MRE shelf life, is one that is surrounded by wild speculation, falsehood, and lots of rumor.

The most popular, and also the most flagrantly incorrect, is that MREs actually never expire because they aren’t real food and so will last forever.

I can assure you, this is not true: MREs do have a definite shelf life, but typically a very long one.

When it comes down to brass tacks, MREs have two shelf lives: one that is indicated by the manufacturer, or rather by the Department of Defense, and then they have one that is informed by practical use and testing.

The most important consideration, in any case, is what temperature the MREs are stored in. The bottom line is that hot temps shorten MRE shelf life while cool temps will extend MRE shelf life.

But not too cool: Freezing can damage MREs and also shorten shelf life and quality.

If you keep your MREs cool, say between 45° and 50°F, you can easily get a 5-year shelf life out of them. Kept in broiling hot conditions of well over 100°F they might last as little as a month before spoiling.

The Department of Defense officially says that MREs should last for about 3 years on the shelf at a constant temperature of around 80°F.

Most MREs of modern manufacturer have a special indicator disc on the package called a Time-Temperature Indicator (TTI) that can help people inspect it to determine if they are likely still good or not at a glance.

But, when it comes to practical experience, a quick search on the internet or YouTube will show countless reports of people eating MREs that are five or 10 years old, or even older, and surprisingly very few ill effects are ever reported.

It seems that so long as the packages are intact and not showing any obvious signs of swelling, puffing or other degradation then the contents of the MRE are still nutritious and likely to still taste good.

Trying Korean, Russian, and American MREs

There are some exceptions, however. Certain menu items in most MREs, things like fresh fruit or applesauce and cheese spread tend to genuinely go bad, or at least degrade much quicker than the rest of the MRE contents.

Also, some entrees like the infamous ham and egg omelet are said to turn downright ghastly when they get too old.

My advice? Be very, very cautious with any “vintage” case of MREs, but if they look good and smell good they are probably still safely edible.

Are MREs Healthy?

Another tricky question to answer is whether or not MREs are healthy. MREs are healthy in the sense that they will provide hardworking bodies with lots of calories and well-rounded nutrition in the form of vitamins and minerals.

For long-term health, they are generally a bad idea because they contain way too many calories for the average person on an average day, tons of salt and preservatives, and tend to be high in fat.

MREs are ideal for relatively short-term consumption of a couple of weeks or less, but the Department of Defense claims you can eat them every day, for three meals a day, for up to a month.

How Many MREs Can You Eat?

You can, technically, eat as many MREs as you want. However, there will eventually be consequences. No, this is not conjecture.

As mentioned above, the Department of Defense has promised that an average soldier, sailor, or marine will be just fine eating MREs for three meals a day, for a month at a time. The reality, for those who have done it, tends to be far different.

As a rule, living on nothing but MREs will quickly cause gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea, upset stomach, serious constipation, and other problems.

Does this beat starving? Certainly, but like all highly processed and preservative-packed foods there is generally a price to pay if you try to subsist on them.

Now, your individual mileage may vary. You might be completely fine eating that many MREs for that long with no ill effects.

You might be just fine if you eat two MREs a day instead of three. Individual constitution matters here. All bodies are different in this regard.

My advice to you is to actually try it before the chips are down and see how your body reacts to it.

It would be a terrible thing to be in the middle of a survival situation and also dealing with crippling diarrhea because your body is starting to reject MRE food.

Does Eating MREs Cause Other Side Effects?

Aside from the aforementioned stomach problems, MREs do not cause any other known side effects except, sometimes, thirst thanks to the salt content.

This further assumes that the MRE is still good and unspoiled. If you eat a spoiled MRE, you could come down with all manner of nasty illnesses and food poisoning is highly likely.

Remember: if it looks or smells off, don’t eat it! And if you notice any strange swelling, puffiness, or tautness in the individual packaging of any MRE component know that it has probably gone bad.

Pros and Cons of MREs for Preppers

MREs, like all shelf-stable food, have advantages and disadvantages for preppers. Whatever your feelings on them they probably have a place in your own survival plan, even if only in a limited capacity.

Consider the following:

Pros

  • Extremely durable. Unlikely to break or rupture even when crammed into a pack or a vehicle.
  • Convenient. Easy to carry and requires zero preparation and no fire or boiling water thanks to the included ration heater.
  • Calorie dense. A single MRE provides around 1,300 calories. Most of a normal day’s requirement, and plenty to sustain high activity levels.

Cons

  • Expensive. A single MRE will cost you around $15, not a great calorie-to-cost ratio.
  • Limited menus. You get what you get in an MRE, and opening the outer pouch to mix and match contents makes the individual items more vulnerable to spoilage over time.
  • May cause tummy trouble. MREs are notorious for causing digestive problems over time when eaten regularly.

If you have the money, MREs can be an ideal meal option for relatively short-duration outings and can greatly streamline your meal plan.

However, they are definitely the wrong option if you just want to stock up on tons of food for a very long-term bug-in situation since they are quite expensive and can eventually cause problems nutritionally and digestively.

FAQs

What does an average MRE weigh?

Although actual weight varies slightly depending on the contents, a typical US military MRE weighs about 1.5 pounds (680 grams).

What does MRE stand for?

MRE stands for “meal, ready to eat”.

What do MREs taste like?

The taste of an MRE varies depending on what the actual item is, but most people who have tried them compare them to other highly processed foods. Common comparators are high school cafeteria food, cheap TV dinners, and similar offerings.

How long do MREs last when frozen?

Freezing an MRE will dramatically shorten its shelf life. Frozen MREs are more vulnerable to damage when roughly handled and certain components might burst due to expansion. 

How many MREs come in a case?

For military issue MREs they come 12 to a case. Some civilian market MREs are offered in 10 unit or six-unit cases.

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