MRE is an abbreviation for ‘Meal, Ready-to-Eat,’ which is basically a packaged meal. However, an MRE should not be confused with the ordinary ready-to-eat packaged foods that you can buy from Walmart. It serves an entirely different target market, which is the military personnel or the US Armed Forces to be specific.
These MREs came into being in 1981, while the actual idea was coined and adopted by the Department of Defense in 1975. The C-rations and K-rations that were developed during World War II were further polished with the advent of MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual) rations in the wars that followed. MREs came later and were deployed as the primary combat ration for the US military during the 1980s.
The US military has plenty of on-base dining options with its very own base kitchen and cooks, restaurants and camp kitchens. However, military officers that have been deployed on field missions do not have much time to prepare and serve food and clean up afterward. This is where the MRE comes in; it’s easy to serve, it requires no preparation and its disposal is simple.
The packaging of an MRE is such that it does not require pre-heating before it is served. This meal is nutritionally balanced, comes in a variety of flavors and has a reasonably long shelf life.
The packaging for Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) is commonly known as a tri-laminate retort pouch, which is made from aluminum foil and plastic material. This pouch packaging ensures food preservation and comes equipped with a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) which may be used to heat food immediately before consumption.
The MRE pouch is a sealable container which is better than canned food preservation technology in the following ways:
- The pouch is made from a lightweight material, making it easy to carry while on a mission.
- It is flexible and can handle rough conditions in the field.
- The pouch is flat which makes it easy to store within bags, unlike cans that take up a lot of space.
- Unlike cans, these pouches do not require refrigeration to keep the food fresh in terms of taste and texture.
- Canned foods have to be boiled to keep sterile, while MREs may be consumed without pre-heating.
As far as the sterilization part is concerned, the MRE pouch is filled, sealed and boiled while it is being processed in the factory. The pouch or bag that MRE is packaged in has been changing since its inception, but the color preference has somewhat remained static with a tan brownish tone.
The packaging has come across several changes in terms of font, graphics and labels and slight color variations within the brown tone. The latest design change was made in 2008 when new graphic designs were introduced for these MRE bags.
The MRE pouch contains a complete meal, and it may be served three times in a day. The military makes changes to the MRE menus each year, and menu listings are made available. An MRE has a total calorie count of 1250 with ample protein, fat, carbohydrate, mineral and vitamin requirements for the body. Each pouch consists of the following essential components:
- Entrée or main dish
- Side dish
- Cracker or bread
- Hot sauce or a choice of seasoning
- Miscellaneous accessories including spoons, matches, creamer, sugar, and salt
As previously mentioned, each pouch comes equipped with a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) too in case you want to heat up the main dish. Side dish options include corn, rice, fruit or mashed potatoes. The different types of spread comprise of peanut butter, jelly and cheese. Dessert includes cookies and cakes, and candy bars consist of M&Ms, Skittles or Tootsie Rolls. Beverage options include cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee or tea. All of this makes for quite a well-balanced meal, served three times daily.
The MRE menu has undergone several changes over the past few years, and there are now 24 menus and 4 vegetarian meals to choose from. The most recent menu MRE XXXVI (2016) has these 24 options.
Before 1996, these menu listings had only 12 menus with a few chickens, pork, ham and tuna options, but the variety has increased with time and so has the taste.
Shelf Life of an MRE
The shelf life of an MRE is dependent on two main factors: how long is it stored and at what temperature. At 49 degrees Celsius, you may store an MRE for at least 1 month, while these pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals can last up to 5 years at a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius.
The shelf life of an MRE is inversely related to temperature; at higher temperatures, the shelf life is low and vice versa. Thus, if you aim to keep the food edible for long periods, store an MRE in low temperatures, preferably 10 degrees Celsius.
Each MRE pouch comes with a time temperature indicator (TTI) indicating the freshness of the food. As long as the inner circle has a lighter tone than the outer circle on this indicator, the food is good to eat. When both circles merge into a single color, your food has gone bad and it must, therefore, not be consumed.
Having said all this, MREs have been manufactured to have a shelf life of 3 years with temperature requirement exceeding no more than 26.6 degrees Celsius. This is on an average basis because spreads tend to go bad sooner than ham and pork when kept in higher than moderate temperatures. This lifespan average applies to an entire MRE pouch.
Where to Buy MRE?
MREs are not sold to the general public. These ready-to-eat meals are prepared and packaged for military personnel only. Hence, these MREs are shipped with a label stating that these belong to the US government to prevent commercial resale.
However, there are several ways to get your hands on one of these pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals. You will have to choose from one of the following options to find an MRE:
- Contact an active military officer as these people have access to MREs during training and field missions.
- Expensive MREs are sold in army surplus stores for as much as $8 for one MRE pouch.
- Local gun shows sell MREs too for a reasonable price.
- eBay sells a huge range of MREs for a reasonable price.
If you are looking for military MREs, avoid paying a hefty price for fake MREs that are usually sold under the military manufactured labels. Civilian MREs are different from military MREs.
Following the destruction caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the demand for MREs surged, and civilian MREs became prevalent and are available to the general public. There are 3 major brand names that manufacture civilian MREs. These are:
Civilian MREs cost more than what a military MRE costs on eBay. A civilian MRE can be purchased for about $75, while a military package is available for about $55 (on average) per case. The difference in price may be attributed to the following two factors:
- Civilian MREs ensure premium quality in taste, texture and consistency. This is not true for military MREs that may have been transported all the way from high-temperature areas or could have survived harsh weather conditions on their way.
- A military MRE has to be purchased illegally through the different options mentioned above. However, civilian MRE comes from reliable manufacturers that may be contacted if something goes wrong with the package and its contents. With civilian MRE, you are not putting your money at risk, unlike in the case of military MREs.
Thus, these are two reasons why you might end up paying a few dollars extra to get your hands on a civilian MRE from one of these trusted brands.
Now that you know what an MRE is and other essential information about it, you can choose to try either military or civilian MRE and explore the taste, texture and different options available in this ready-to-eat packaged all-in-one meal. It’s things like MRE that have made life on battlefields and military training easy, healthy and fun. Food is probably the most fundamental motivation one has when they are a thousand kilometers away from home.