Meal, Ready-to-Eat


The Meal, Ready-to-Eat — commonly known as the MRE — is a self-contained, individual field ration in lightweight packaging bought by the United States military for its service members for use in combat or other field conditions where organized food facilities are not available.

General contents may include: entree, side dish, dessert or snack (often commercial candy, fortified pastry, or HOOAH! Bar), crackers or bread, spread of cheese, peanut butter, or jelly, powdered beverage mix (fruit flavored drink, cocoa, instant coffee or tea, sport drink, or dairy shake), utensils (usually just a plastic spoon), flameless ration heater, deverage mixing bag, sugarless chewing gum, water-resistant matchbook, napkin and moist towelette, and seasonings (salt, pepper, sugar, creamer, and/or Tabasco sauce).

The first soldier ration established by a Congressional Resolution during the Revolutionary War consisted of enough food to feed a man for one day, mostly beef, peas, and rice. During the Civil War, the military moved toward canned goods. Later, self-contained kits were issued as a whole ration, and contained canned meat, pork, bread, coffee, sugar and salt. During the First World War, canned meats were replaced with lightweight preserved meats (salted or dried), to save weight and allow more rations to be carried by soldiers carrying their supplies on foot. At the beginning of World War II, a number of new field rations were introduced, including the Mountain ration and the Jungle ration. The use of canned wet rations continued through the Vietnam War, with the improved MCI field ration.

After repeated experiences dating from before World War II, Pentagon officials ultimately realized that simply providing a nutritionally balanced meal in the field was not adequate. Servicemembers in various geographic regions and combat situations often required different subsets of ingredients for food to be considered palatable over long periods. Moreover, catering to individual tastes and preferences would encourage servicemembers to actually consume the whole ration and its nutrition. Most importantly, the use of specialized forces in extreme environments and the necessity of carrying increasingly heavy field loads while on foot during extended missions required significantly lighter alternatives to standard canned wet rations.

In 1963, the Department of Defense began developing the ‘Meal, Ready to Eat,’ a ration that would rely on modern food preparation and packaging technology to create a lighter replacement for the canned meals. This led in 1966 to the Long Range Patrol or LRP ration, a dehydrated meal stored in a waterproof canvas pouch. However, just as with the Jungle ration, its expense compared to canned wet rations, as well as the costs of stocking and storing a specialized field ration, led to its limited usage and repeated attempts at discontinuance. In 1975, work began on a dehydrated meal stored in a plastic retort pouch, a type of food packaging created by aseptic processing, made from multiple layers of flexible laminate. It went into special issue starting in 1981 and standard issue in 1986, using a limited menu of 12 entrees.

The MRE has been in continual development since 1993. In an array of field tests and surveys, servicemembers requested more entree options and larger serving sizes. By 1994, commercial-like graphics were added to make the packets more user-friendly, while biodegradable materials were introduced for nonedible components, such as spoons and napkins.

The number of entrées expanded to 16 by 1996 (including vegetarian options), 20 entrées by 1997 and 24 entrées by 1998. The variety allowed servicemembers from various cultures and geographical regions to find something palatable. In 1992, a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), a water-activated exothermic reaction product that emits heat, allowed a servicemember in the field to enjoy a hot meal.

In 2006, ‘Beverage Bags’ were introduced to the MRE, as servicemembers have begun to depend more on hydration packs than on canteens, thus denying them the use of the metal canteen cups (shaped to fit in a canteen pouch with the canteen) for mixing powdered beverages. In addition to having measuring marks to indicate levels of liquid for precise measurement, they can be sealed and placed inside the flameless heater.

Most recently, MREs have been developed using the Dietary Reference Intake, created by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM indicated servicemembers (who were classified as highly active men between the ages of 18 and 30) typically burn about 4,200 Calories a day, but tended to only consume about 2,400 Calories a day during combat, entering a negative energy balance. This imbalance occurs when servicemembers fail to consume full portions of their rations, often trading and discarding portions.

In addition, the military has experimented with new assault ration prototypes, such as the First Strike Ration and the HOOAH! Bar, designed with elite or specialized forces in mind. Lighter than the typical MRE, they require no preparation and allow servicemembers to eat them on the go.

Each meal provides about 1,200 Calories. They are intended to be eaten for a maximum of 21 days (the assumption is that logistics units can provide superior rations by then). Packaging requirements are strict. MREs must be able to withstand parachute drops from 380 meters (1,250 ft), and non-parachute drops of 30 meters (98 ft). The packaging is required to maintain a minimum shelf life of three and a half years at 27 °C (81 °F), nine months at 38 °C (100 °F), and short durations from −51 °C  to 49 °C (−60 °F to 120 °F) must be sustainable. New forms of packaging are being considered to better meet these requirements including the use of zein (corn protein) to replace the foil, which can be easily punctured, conducts heat, and is reflective (which may give away a servicemember’s position).

As a result of earlier unauthorized sales to civilians, the Department of Defense requires that ‘U.S. Government Property, Commercial Resale is Unlawful’ be printed on each case of MREs. Despite the disclaimer, there are no laws that forbid the resale of MREs. Although the government has attempted to discourage sellers from selling MREs, auction sites such as eBay have continued to allow auctions of the MREs because the Department of Defense has been unable to show them any regulations or laws specifically outlawing the practice. The internal cost of a 12 pack case of MREs is $86.98 (approx. $7.25 a meal) to the government, much higher than what is actually paid to vendors.

Some of the early MRE main courses were not very palatable, earning them the nicknames ‘Mr. E’ (mystery), ‘Meals Rejected by Everyone,’ ‘Meals, Rarely Edible,’ ‘Meals Rejected by the Enemy,’ ‘Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated,’ ‘Mentally Retarded Edibles,’ ‘Meal, Ready to Excrete,’ ‘Materials Resembling Edibles,’ ‘Morale Reducing Elements,’ and even ‘Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.’ Some meals got their own nicknames. For example, the frankfurters, which came sealed in pouches of four, were referred to as ‘the four fingers of death.’ Although quality has improved over the years, many of the nicknames have stuck. MREs were sometimes called ‘Three Lies for the Price of One’: it’s not a Meal, it’s not Ready, and you can’t Eat it.

Their low dietary fiber content could cause constipation in some, so they were also known as ‘Meals Requiring Enemas,’ ‘Meals Refusing to Exit,’ or ‘Massive Rectal Expulsions.’ While the myth that the gum found in MREs contains a laxative is false, the crackers in the ration pack do contain a higher than normal vegetable content to facilitate digestion. In December 2006, comedian Al Franken (on his 8th USO tour at the time) joked to troops in Iraq that he had had his fifth MRE so far and ‘none of them had an exit strategy.’

A superstition exists among troops about the Charms candies that come with some menus: they are considered bad luck, especially if actually eaten. Some attribute this to a case of a joking dislike becoming a superstition (i.e. not eating them ‘just in case’ or because it might make one’s comrades uneasy).

For servicemembers with strict religious dietary requirements, the military offers the specialized Meal, Religious, Kosher/Halal. These are tailored to provide the same nutritional content, but will not contain offending ingredients. There is also a special meal certified for Passover requirements.

The Meal, Cold Weather provides a ration similar to the MRE designed for lower temperatures than the MRE can withstand. Clad in white packaging, it offers a freeze-dried entree designed to be eaten with heated water, the same side ingredients as the standard MRE, and additional drink mixes to encourage additional hydration. The Meal, Long Range Patrol is essentially the same as the MCW, but with different accessory packs. It is designed for troops who may receive limited or no resupply, and weight of the ration is critical. The similar First Strike Ration is along the same lines, but requires no preparation and may be eaten on the go.

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