The History of MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat)

The concept of an MRE came after the C-rations and K-rations that were used by military personnel in field missions and training. This article will discuss how the system of rations was initiated during the 1900s and how the various rations developed into the now popular ready-to-eat packaged meal commonly known as the MRE.

World War I & Food Rationing

Specialized rations became prevalent during World War I, which led to tremendous developments in the production, distribution, and storage of food services for military campaigns. A few of the popular rations during this time comprised of the following:

Reserve Ration

This ration was made up of packaged food that military personnel or soldiers had to carry with them and consume during times when regular food was unavailable or there had been some shortage. This packaged food was equipped with a complete food supply for one individual to be consumed in a day’s time period. The main food components provided as part of the reserve ration consisted of corned beef, hard bread, sugar, ground coffee, and salt. This one-day meal contained a total of 3300 calories and was secured in cans.

Trench Ration

This particular ration was introduced for trench warfare conditions. Each unit ensured adequate canned food for as many as 25 men during the day. The food packaged in these cans had roast beef, corned beef, salmon, sardines and hard bread. Other than these, essentials such as coffee, salt, and sugar were also provided. The food had been packaged such that it could be safeguarded from poisonous gas. Despite allowing a wider diet than reserve ration, this food supply was low on nutrition and invited contamination due to the unsealed containers.

Iron Ration

This iron ration contained food which was to be consumed only during emergencies. These emergencies were mainly desperate times when no other food source was available to sustain life. The food in this ration included a beef and wheat mixture and chocolate bars. The cans were carried by soldiers in their pockets to be consumed only when necessary.

World War II & Operational Rations

Two special purpose rations were developed during World War II that came to be known as C-ration and D-ration.

The D-ration consisted of food items such as sugar, chocolate, dry milk, oat flour, cacao fat, and flavoring. A standard D-ration bar provided as much as 600 calories to any one soldier. This ration was widely misused and was later replaced with C- and K-ration, which have been discussed below.


Similar to the reserve ration of World War I, this ration consisted mostly of meat and bread components, all of which were missing in the D-ration introduced earlier. The meat provided as part of the C-ration of 1938 was problematic; the menu was monotonous as there were the same hash and meat combinations provided with different names. The lack of variety led to denunciation of this ration back in the day.

Other drawbacks of this type of food ration consisted of the hassle of carrying food and numerous production issues associated with it.


This ration was introduced as an easy-to-carry food unit during assault and combat missions. It was also prepared to ensure a fully nutritional meal for soldiers while they were out facing the enemy. The K-ration was a three-meal combination that featured canned veal loaf, malted milk tablets, and instant coffee for breakfast and dextrose tablets, ham spread and bouillon cubes for dinner. The lunch comprised of D-ration chocolate, sausage, lemon powder and sugar. This ration was prepared to keep the troops satisfied for a period of two to three days.

Despite its popularity, the K-ration lost value with other development in food rationings such as the mountain ration and its many successors.

The Meal, Combat, Individual Ration (MCI)

Another significant development before the MRE with regard to military food rations was MCI. After the failure of C-ration, ‘Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI)’ ration replaced it in 1958 as the military’s primary combat ration.

This ration was different from its previous counterparts in that it laid emphasis on ensuring nutritionally balanced meal for all soldiers. Rationing had been the secondary objective of MCI with a primary focus on providing fulfilling meals, enriched with sufficient nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. The MCI could be used as individual meals or in multiples of three as per one’s choice.

The MCI consisted of 12 menus, each one unique and combined with canned meat, canned fruit, bread and a dessert option. Moreover, cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream, sugar, salt, spoons and can openers were provided as miscellaneous items with each meal.

MCIs were extensively used in Vietnam during World War II and contained as many as 1200 calories in each meal. It was a replacement for C-ration with added variety and greater emphasis on nutrition than rationing.

MRE Takes Over!

This new concept was adopted by the Department of Defense in 1975, but it was not until 1981 that it started being delivered to the troops. During 1983, a field evaluation took place where the troops were provided MREs thrice a day. During this time, consumption remained low, but consumption and acceptance rates were improved over time.

MREs have focused mainly on portability and nutrition, the two attributes that led to the demise of all the previous food rations. The packaging of MRE makes it easy to use and lightweight to ensure portability. Additionally, the long shelf life of an MRE makes it suitable to carry around for long missions.

A military MRE is not available for commercial sale or use by the general public. The US Government has introduced unique labels to ensure this. However, there are some available on eBay in case you want to get your hands on one of these operational food rations.

Alternatively, civilian MREs have been manufactured by famous names such as AmeriQual, Sopakco, and Wornick. These MREs are available for consumption by the general public. If you are looking to purchase a premium quality MRE without undergoing scrutiny, choose from a civilian MRE meal and satiate your taste buds!

What Changed Over Time?

Based on the various evaluations and filed testing, changes have been made to traditional MREs. These changes include adding and deleting entrees, expanding the menus, adding commercial candy and coffee to the menu and widening the dessert options.

In 1992, the consumption of MREs was increased owing to the introduction of Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) that was provided with MREs to heat food prior to consumption. This made it all the more easy for soldiers to enjoy a hot meal on the field.

During Operation Desert Storm, MREs had to be consumed for longer than 10 days, so the shelf-stable bread was introduced in the meal. High-heat stable chocolate was also developed and introduced as part of the MRE meal.

Before 1996, the MRE menu had a total of 12 options only. These were expanded to 24 by the year 1998 to overcome monotony. This had been a gradual increase, not a straight jump from 12 to 24. With an increase in variety, vegetarian meals were also included as part of the MRE menu. You can now choose from 4 different vegetarian meals if you are not a fan of meat.

The MRE Pouch Undergoes Change

The MRE pouch has been designed with the help of aluminum foil and plastic material, which works better than the traditionally used canned food preservation technology in the following ways:

  • Lightweight
  • Flexible
  • Retains taste and texture of food
  • Does not require pre-heating
  • Easy to store and carry

This pouch design has also undergone significant changes over the years. A few of these major changes have been listed below:

  • In 1981, the original pouch was introduced.
  • In 1988, menu numbers were added to the sides on the MRE pouch.
  • In 1995, the pouch took on a dark brown color.
  • In 1996, bags were changed from dark brown to a tan color with different font styles and graphics.
  • In 2001, the US Government introduced labels claiming that military MREs were their sole property and commercial resale had been prohibited.
  • In 2003, a new label was added to these pouches regarding FRH’s use on commercial airlines.
  • In 2008, new graphics were introduced for these bags.

Final Thoughts

The MRE improvement process is still an ongoing phenomenon with changes being devised to menu, packaging, and storage. The Continuous Product Improvement (CPI) program works day in and day out to identify changes that are deemed necessary for these MREs based on field testing and evaluations.

The CPI works closely with soldiers, the actual target market to understand what’s missing and what’s redundant in the MRE package. This is precisely how major changes such as the introduction of FRH and powdered beverages have been made. A niche is identified, and CPI ensures that it is sufficiently tapped with each new batch of MRE.

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