MREs (Meal Ready-to-Eat)

Updated: March 23, 2021
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    Ah yes, the MRE. Also known as a Meal Ready-to-Eat, MREs are nothing new to service members, whether it be marines, soldiers, sailors, or even airmen. These meals ready to eat often have a reputation for being dreaded – but believe it or not, many veterans miss them and often look for them as civilians. MREs can be purchased or obtained once you’re out of the service, and are a great thing to have on hand for emergencies, camping, and even as a quick meal in a pinch. Here’s almost everything you need to know about MREs.

    How MRE’s Were Born

    MREs - Meals Ready To Eat

    Photo by Sgt. Arturo Guzman

    The Meal’s Ready-to-Eat idea was a concept that had been around for years. Then in the 1980’s, the Department of Defense declared them the official ration of the United states. However, these instant meals have been around for nearly a century, dating all the way back to the C-Ration in World War II, which also contained approximately 3 cans of meat, a vegetable item, crackers, sugar, coffee, and supplied much needed vitamins and minerals to soldiers.

    What Are MREs?

    MREs are food, much of which has been canned and heavily processed, some even freeze dried. They are made with the intention of maintaining an extremely long shelf life so they can be used as combat rations for the military.

    Every MRE is packed into a self-contained pouch with a variety of items. You get an entrée with meat, veggies, carbs, a fruit source, a dessert source, often an electrolyte or energy drink mix, a coffee or additional beverage (or drink mix in older MREs). Some MRE menus include chili with beans, spaghetti, chicken and noodles, rice and beans, chicken burrito bowls, spinach fettucine, and hash browns with bacon and potatoes.

    All MREs come with a heating source and can be heated using a little bit of water (the instructions are on each heating element) and the flameless ration heater package which contains a few basic ingredients – magnesium, iron, and plain sodium chloride. When water is added, it creates an electrostatic charge which heats food quickly to 100 degrees. Some people compare this to the same way that Hot Hands® hand warmers work.


    The Right Nutrients in MREs

    Despite what you might think, MREs are actually a very good source of nutrition and calories. This doesn’t mean that they should take the place of regular freshly prepared meals, but in terms of having a good meal replacement designed for sustainability, MREs are well-suited for the task. For soldiers in combat, Military MREs are optimized to have essential vitamins and nutrients needed for survival plus sufficient calories. Having MREs on hand in your emergency kit, will provide you with the sustenance you need should your access to fresh food and supplies be limited during a natural disaster.


    How Can You Find MREs?

    MREs are not that hard to get. There are two types of MREs – military MREs and civilian MREs. Civilian MREs are essentially the same thing as their military counterparts and are often made by the same companies. The key differences are in the packaging and the contents. A military MRE contains all the elements of a civilian MRE PLUS Tabasco, chewing gum, and toilet paper. The difference in the packaging includes a disclaimer that states that the items are official military supplies and not for resale. It is important to note that it is actually illegal to purchase or sell official military MREs. However, there are still ways that veterans and service members can acquire them. Here are some ways to get “real” MREs:

    Ask Your Battle Buddy

    Believe it or not, there are a lot of supply guys. And many of them can get their hands on a good case of MREs (often when they’re overstocked or getting wasted – since the government has strict codes on pitching them). Your battle buddy or Guardsman can even get MREs for you when they get them on field exercise weekends.

    Army Surplus Stores

    You’d be surprised at how easy these are to get at Army Surplus stores. These can be found both online and off-post. Do keep an eye out on cost though. Many of these sites will often slam you with hefty prices. Sometimes a case can cost near a hundred dollars or more. You’re better off getting them from someone around a military base, because these prices are going to be generally lower.

    Online Selling or Auction Sites (Warning Attached!)

    Many times, you can find the exact manufactured year MREs on surplus store websites (some specifically say a 2017 case, 2016 case, etc). Do keep in mind that they’re selling expired MREs because it is past the three-year mark in which the Army can disperse these to troops.

    Another important note of caution. Almost all of the MREs you can buy online, especially on sites like eBay and Amazon have disclaimers stating that the actual package date may vary. Technically, you’re going to get expired MREs, and they are non-refundable since they were purchased by “illegal” means according to the fact that genuine MREs are government property. With that being said, you also need to be careful what you buy online from unknown sources because they also might ship you something that is really the civilian MRE instead of the government issued ones that they have on their seller photos.


    How Long Do MRE’s Last?

    The average shelf life as mentioned earlier is approximately 3 years, and civilian MREs are built to last longer than military MREs depending on the temperature and the moisture they’re stored in. In general, the hotter it is, the shorter the shelf life. There are some MREs out in the field that are continuously eaten well past the Julian date (more than 5 years), although buying these is not recommended. And even though soldiers don’t always get the chance to, always cook your food before you eat it, even if it’s with the flameless heating pouch included in the MRE kit.

    There is a good chance that if you were a service member, you know that these expiration dates are determined by the candy in MREs (which you’re not supposed to be eating anyway!), but in general, the civilian ones do have a longer shelf life based on the environment in which they are stored.

    Some soldiers can recall eating MR’s that are over 10 years old once in a while, because these truly have no expiration date. Note that the recommended storage temperature is 70 degrees. At varying temps, the expiration table can be deducted as such (all degrees are in Fahrenheit):

    Civilian MREs

    • 100 degrees = A year and a half
    • 90 degrees = 2 and a half years
    • 80 degrees = 4 years
    • 70 degrees = 5 and a half years

    Military MREs (based on Civilian Labels)

    • 100 degrees = 9 months
    • 90 degrees = 2 years
    • 80 degrees = 3 and a half years
    • 70 degrees = 5 and a half years

    These estimates are provided by the U.S. Army’s website.

    The Final Draw

    While it is definitely true that MREs are a great food, it is important to note that if you’re storing them in your greenhouse or a car in warm weather, you may want to eat them within the month. It is not recommended to eat nothing but MREs three times a day, 7 days a week for months on end, but they can definitely help in a pinch. And there are actually some veterans seek because they liked them. So when you want that awesome freeze-dried and dehydrated treat you had when training, go ahead and get some quick nutrition packs yourself!

    Looking for MREs but don’t need the military version? Many suppliers that make them for the military offer civilian MREs as well. Here are a few companies that offer military-style MREs for civilians:

    About The AuthorJustin Williams is a certified Microsoft Specialist and U.S. Army Veteran. Serving in 2008, he was a Multichannel Transmission Systems Operator with the 15th Signal Brigade. After an Honorable Discharge, he struggled to get access to military benefits for service-related injuries. Justin has committed to helping other veterans navigate the system and get the most out of their hard-earned veteran status.

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