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Two MRE packets: beef teriyaki and meatloaf with gravy

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. The MRE replaced the canned MCI, or Meal, Combat, Individual rations, in 1981[1] and is the intended successor to the lighter LRP ration developed by the United States Army for Special Forces and Ranger patrol units in Vietnam.


MRE No. 23 – chicken breast filled with rib meat

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.[2] 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. However, cost-cutting measures by Quartermaster Command officials during the latter part of World War II and the Korean War again saw the predominance of heavy canned C rations issued to troops, regardless of operating environment or mission.[3] The use of canned wet rations continued through the Vietnam War, with the improved MCI field ration.


Flameless ration heater

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. Service members 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 service members 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 Meal, Combat, Individual ration. In 1966, this led 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 by Quartermaster Command officials.[3] In 1975, work began on a dehydrated meal stored in a plastic retort pouch. It went into special issue starting in 1981 and standard issue in 1986, using a limited menu of twelve entrees.

Vegetarian menu: bean and rice burrito

The MRE has been in continual development since 1993. In an array of field tests and surveys, service members 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 inedible components, such as spoons and napkins.

The number of entrees expanded to 16 by 1996 (including vegetarian options), 20 entrées by 1997 and 24 entrées by 1998. Today, service members can choose from up to 24 entrees, and more than 150 additional items.[4] The variety allowed service members 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 service member in the field to enjoy a hot meal. In 2006, "Beverage Bags" were introduced to the MRE, as service members 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 (kcal) 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.[5] Although manipulations to the food items and distribution of macronutrients to help boost the amount of kilocalories per MRE have been made, more studies are showing many servicemembers still do not meet today's standards of daily consumption, often trading and discarding portions of the ration.[6] Researchers continue to study the habits and eating preferences of servicemembers, making constant changes that encourage servicemembers to eat the entire meal and thus get full nutritional value.[6]

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.[7]

In July 2009, 6,300 dairy shake packets of varying flavors were recalled due to evidence of Salmonella contamination.[8]


Soldiers load Meals, Ready-to-Eat onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter

Each meal provides about 1,200 Calories (1,200 kcal or 5,000 kJ). They are intended to be eaten for a maximum of 21 days (the assumption is that logistics units can provide superior rations by then), and have a shelf life of three years (depending on storage conditions).[9]

Packaging requirements are strict. MREs must be able to withstand parachute drops from 380 metres (1,250 ft), and non-parachute drops of 30 metres (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 (−60 °F) to 49 °C (120 °F) must be sustainable. New forms of packaging are being considered to better meet these requirements including the use of zein to replace the foil, which can be easily punctured, conducts heat, and is reflective (which may give away a servicemember's position).[10]

Each MRE weighs 510 to 740 grams (18 to 26 oz), depending on the menu.[6] Since MREs contain water, they weigh more than freeze-dried meals providing equivalent calories.

Resale status

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.[11] Despite the disclaimer, there are no laws that forbid the resale of MREs, except by military personnel.[12] Although the government has attempted to discourage sellers from selling MREs,[13] 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. According to a spokesman for eBay, "until a law is passed saying you can't sell these things, we're not going to stop them from being sold on the site."[14] While MREs are not prima facie contraband, the procurement and sale of MREs by military personnel for personal profit is illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 108.[15]

An investigation done in 2006 for the US Government Accountability Office determined multiple incidences where sellers on eBay may have improperly obtained MREs and sold them to the public for private gain.[16] As military MREs are procured using taxpayer dollars, they are intended to be consumed by individuals from authorized organizations and activities. Consequently, "if military MREs are sold to the general public on eBay, then they are clearly not reaching their intended recipients and represent a waste of taxpayer dollars and possible criminal activity."[16] Further, MREs found on eBay are typically older and closer to their expiry date, having been sourced in "neighborhood yard sales" and "Marine base dumpsters."[16]

The recent growth of MREs listed on eBay (2005) has resulted in a government investigation of whether they were intended for Hurricane Katrina victims, and the news media nickname "Meals Ready for eBay."[17] Some cases are being sold from Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and other Gulf states affected by Katrina. 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.[17] That said, MREs can be purchased by civilians directly from the contractors who supply MREs to the United States Government. These MREs are very similar to genuine US Government MREs, differing only in minor details (i.e. design of case and bag or type of spoon).

Flameless Ration Heaters are prohibited on commercial airplanes unless sealed in the original MRE menu bag, because cooking with them releases flammable hydrogen gas.

MRE contents

An MRE contains a main course, side dish, bread, dessert, and flameless ration heater

General contents may include:

  • Main course (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 (FRH)
  • Beverage mixing bag
  • Accessory pack:
    • Xylitol chewing gum
    • Water-resistant matchbook
    • Napkin / toilet paper
    • Moist towelette
    • Seasonings, including salt, pepper, sugar, creamer, and/or Tabasco sauce

Many items are fortified with nutrients. In addition, DoD policy requires units to augment MREs with fresh food and A-rations whenever feasible, especially in training environments.

MRE menus by era

In an effort to make MREs more palatable to servicemembers and match ever-changing trends in popular tastes, the military is constantly seeking feedback to adjust MRE menus and ingredients. In the following list, only main entrees are listed.[18] Vegetarian menus are marked on their first appearance.[veg 1]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Vegetarian menu, only first appearance marked


Some of the early MRE main courses were not very palatable, earning them the nicknames "Mr. E" (mystery),[19] "Meals Rejected by Everyone",[20] "Meals, Rarely Edible",[21] "Meals Rejected by the Enemy", "Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated", "Mentally Retarded Edibles", "Meal Ready to Expel", "Meal, Ready to Excrete", "Materials Resembling Edibles", "Morale Reducing Elements", and even "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians" (in reference to the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia).[22] 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".[20] 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.[23]

Mardi Gras revellers dressed in coats made from MRE packaging

Their low dietary fiber content could cause constipation in some, so they were also known as "Meals Requiring Enemas","Meals Refusing to Exit",[24] "Meals Refusing to Excrete", or "Massive Rectal Expulsions". While the myth that the gum found in MREs contains a laxative is false (however, they are sweetened with xylitol, which has a mild laxative effect), 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".[25]

A superstition exists among troops about the Charms candies that come with some menus: they are considered bad luck, especially if actually eaten.[26] Some attribute this to a case of a dislike becoming a superstition (i.e. not eating them 'just in case' or because it might make one's comrades uneasy).

In March 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune invited three gourmet chefs to taste-test 18 MRE meals. None of the meals rated higher than a 5.7 average on a scale of 1-to-10, and the chicken fajita meal, in particular, was singled out for disdain, rating an average score of 1.3.[27][28]

The National Guard has provided MREs to the public during national disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Sandy. The large number of civilians exposed to MREs prompted several jokes during the recent New Orleans Mardi Gras, with revellers donning clothing made of MRE packets with phrases such as "MRE Antoinette" and "Man Ready to Eat".

The use of rations for noncombat environments has been questioned.[6] While the nutritional requirements are suitable for a combat environment where servicemembers will burn many calories and lose much sodium through sweat, it has been provided as emergency food or even as a standard meal. The high-fat (averaging about 52 grams of fat, 5 grams trans fats) and high-salt content are less than ideal for sedentary situations. The HDR and TOTM account for this nutritional need.

Variants and similar rations

Halal ration
Tailored Operational Training Meal
Aircrew Build to Order Meal Module

The MRE has led to the creation of several similar field rations.

Aircrew Build to Order Meal Module (ABOMM) are a special variant consisting of repacking existing MRE food elements into a form that provide military flight crews and tank operators with a meal designed to be eaten on the go or while operating their aircraft/ground vehicle without the use of utensils, and packaged for use in confined spaces.[29] 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.[30] There is also a special meal certified for Passover requirements.[31]

The Humanitarian daily ration is a self-contained Halal meal designed to be given to refugees and other displaced people. It is designed to feed a single person for a full day, and the menus were intended to be palatable to many religious and cultural tastes around the globe. It is created and packaged much like MREs.

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 caloric and fat content of the meals is also increased.[32] The MCW replaced the Ration, Cold Weather.[33]

The Meal, Long Range Patrol is essentially the same as the MCW, but with different accessory packs. The MLRP is designed for troops who may receive limited or no resupply, and weight of the ration is critical.[32] The similar First Strike Ration is along the same lines, but requires no preparation and may be eaten on the go.

The Tailored Operational Training Meal provides a lower calorie count for less intensive training environments, such as classroom instruction.[34] The TOTM allows troops to become familiar with the MRE and its contents without providing an excessive amount of calories to troops who will not necessarily burn them.

The Unitized Group Ration is a ration much like the MRE, but expanded to feed large groups.

The Food Packet, Survival, General Purpose, Improved is given to pilots and other servicemembers that may require a small, extremely portable food ration for emergency situations. It contains food bars and a drink mix.[35] Similarly, the Food Packet, Survival, Abandon Ship and Food Packet, Survival, Aircraft, Life Raft are fitted into the storage areas on lifeboats.[36][37]

See also


  1. Mason, V.C., Meyer, A.V., and Klicka, M.V., Summary of Operational Rations, Natick, MA: U.S. Army Natick Research & Development Laboratory Technical Report TR-82/013 (June 1982): The MRE was officially type-classified for adoption in 1975 but due to budget cuts was not officially placed into production until 1981; stocks of the MCI continued to be issued until exhausted.
  2. Jones, Nicole. "The Evolution of the MRE". Whole Latte Love. Retrieved 2008-04-21. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kearny, Cresson H. (Major), Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute (1996), pp. 286-291
  4. "MRE Info". Retrieved 2008-04-20. 
  5. Institute of Medicine, Dietary Reference Intake
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Martin, Don (February 24, 2008). "Anatomy of an MRE". Neil Gunton. Retrieved 2009-10-06. 
  7. Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Optimization of Nutrient Composition of Military Rations for Short-Term, High-Stress Situations, Nutrient composition of rations for short-term, high-intensity combat operations pg.15-27
  8. Dairy shake recall notices
  9. Peggy Milhelich (2007-09-13). "Grub, chow, mystery meat – combat food 2.0". Retrieved 2007-09-14. 
  10. Food & Beverage Packaging – Market Insights to Packaging Solutions
  11. "Investigation: Military Meals, Ready-To-Eat Sold on eBay" (PDF). 2006-02-13. pp. 2–3. Retrieved 2007-03-01. 
  12. GAO-06-410R Investigation: Military Meals, Ready-To-Eat Sold on eBay
  13. MREInfo – US Govt. vs. eBay Auctions
  14. eBay sales of military rations scrutinized | Tech News on ZDNet
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jordan, Lara Jakes (2005-10-30). "U.S. investigates sale of MREs on eBay". USA Today. USA Today. Retrieved 2007-03-01. 
  18. "Meal, Ready-to-Eat Menu History". Sopakco. 2006. Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  19. "POGs, Chow and Leave". 2005-12-21. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30.,12,2005. Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Severson, Kim (2003-04-07). "A lot of cooks in the MRE kitchen". San Francisco Chronicle. pp. A–20. Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  21. McKenna, Tech. Sgt. Pat (1998-04-01). "Lean, Mean Fighting Cuisine". Airman Magazine. Air Force News Agency. Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  22. "Meal, Ready to Eat". 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  23. Bazelon, Emily; Phillip Carter, Dahlia Lithwick (2006-09-27). "What Is Torture? An interactive primer on American interrogation". Slate. pp. Taxonomy of Torture: Dietary Manipulation. Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  24. "Meal, ready to eat". Retrieved 2007-02-11. 
  25. Al Franken delivers message and entertainment for deployed troops
  26. Evan Wright (2004). Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the new face of American war. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 83. ISBN 0-399-15193-1. 
  27. Word of mouth on Ready-to-Eat (with video) – Salt Lake Tribune
  28. YouTube – Salt Lake chefs rate the MRE
  29. Foran, Alexandra (March 13, 2013). "'Fighting Fuel' for Military Aviators". US Army. Retrieved March 15, 2013. 
  30. Meal, Religious, Kosher/Halal factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  31. Meal, Religious, Kosher for Passover factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  32. 32.0 32.1 Meal, Cold Weather/Long Range Patrol factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  33. Ration, Cold Weather
  34. Tailored Operational Training Meal factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  35. Food Packet, Survival, General Purpose, Improved factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  36. Food Packet, Survival, Abandon Ship factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency
  37. Food Packet, Survival, Aircraft, Life Raft factsheet by the Defense Logistics Agency

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