What are Meals, Ready-to-Eat?

what's an mre

Have you ever wondered what servicemembers eat during military operations or active conflicts? Think about our men and women in uniform stationed in the middle of the desert or on the front lines of battle. There are often no mess halls, kitchens, or supermarkets around, but they do have to eat.

It’s during those times servicemembers rely on Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE).

An MRE is a self-contained single ration stored in a flexible meal bag. The outer pouch of the MRE is constructed of low-density polyethylene and tightly sealed to prevent moisture, light, and air from spoiling the contents.

They are lightweight and designed to fit into the pockets of servicemembers, so they are easy to carry. However, the packaging is also quite durable, able to withstand the impact of being dropped 100 feet without a parachute and 1,200 feet with a parachute.

Inside that outer MRE pouch are two other bags. There are retort bags, which hold food that’s been sterilized such as meat, vegetables, sauces, etc. Then there are non-retort bags, which hold foods that don’t require sterilization such as raisins, crackers, drink packets, hard candies, etc.

Each pouch is meant to be eaten within 21 days of receipt. However, MREs have a shelf life of three years if kept in temperatures lower than 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The shelf life of MREs decreases to six months if stored in temperatures above 90 degrees.

Do You Need to Cook MREs?

what's an mre

MREs do not need to be cooked, but they can be heated up. Each MRE comes with a small, built-in flameless heating device that warms the food in just a few minutes.

The heating “device” is actually just a small bag that holds magnesium. When a few ounces of water are added to the bag of magnesium, a chemical reaction creates enough heat to warm up the MRE pouch. The by-product of the chemical reaction is magnesium oxide. This is a non-toxic substance, which won’t have any harmful impact on the environment when disposed.

The bags can also be heated by submerging them in hot water for a few minutes. Sometimes, heating up the MRE isn’t an option, so the meals can be safely eaten cold as well. 

What’s on The MRE Menu? 

MREs are developed by the Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier, Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC). They do their best to provide a variety of options to suit the palate of today’s servicemembers.

The MRE menu changes each year, but here are some of the meals on the 2022 menu:

  • Shredded beef in barbeque sauce
  • Chicken and noodles with mixed vegetables
  • Beef stew
  • Meatballs in marinara sauce
  • Cheese tortellini

In addition to the main meals, the MRE typically includes desserts and snacks such as dried fruit, granola, protein bars, and nuts. Here’s what the complete 2022 menu looks like.

When Were MREs First Introduced?

what's an mre

MREs were first adopted by the Department of Defense in 1975. However, it wasn’t until 1981 when MREs replaced its canned predecessor Meal, Combat Individual rations (MCI), which was used from 1958 to 1980.

Acceptance of MREs among servicemembers was slow at first. In 1983, the 25th Infantry Division volunteered to be part of a field study where they ate MREs three times a day for seven straight weeks. It was estimated that slightly more than half of the calories provided were actually consumed.

The MREs continued to be tested throughout the 1980s and the Combat Feeding Directorate made improvements based on servicemember feedback. For example, the portion size of the meals increased from 5 ounces to 8 ounces. More varieties of candy were added MREs as well.

MREs were widely used for the first time in Operation Desert Storm. Feedback from those thousands of servicemembers who relied on MREs during the conflict was used to make further improvements.

For example, commercial freeze-dried coffee was included in each meal and wet-pack fruits replaced some of the dried fruits. In addition, the Combat Feeding Directorate developed bread that could stay fresh in a MRE pouch and chocolate that wouldn’t melt in the desert heat.

And, as it turns out, servicemembers of the 1990s were way ahead of the rest of us when it came to the hot sauce trend. They asked for and received hot sauce as part of their MREs.

The graphics on MRE packaging was updated in 1993 to look more like graphics found on the packaging on major food brands. MREs also became to be easier to open at that time. These two changes alone resulted in wider acceptance and improved satisfaction of MREs among servicemembers.

In 1994, there were 12 different MREs available to servicemembers. In order to provide more variety and prevent monotony, the number of MREs was eventually increased to 24 in 1998, where it remains today.

Are MREs Nutritious?

what's an mre

MREs are designed to sustain servicemembers in physically challenging conditions, so they are relatively nutritious. Each meal contains about 1200 to 1400 calories and provides adequate amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, which helps fuel heavy physical activities like running, marching, digging ditches, and shooting.

Each MRE also delivers one-third of the Military’s recommended daily allowance of key vitamins and minerals.

The major complaint among servicemembers is the constipating effect of MREs if eaten for days on end. This is due to the lack of fiber in many of the meals.

In response to this feedback, the Combat Feeding Directorate has been focused on developing technology to deliver more “fresh salad” to servicemembers in the field.

MRE Innovations Will Continue

MREs have come a long way since 1981, but the Combat Feeding Directorate won’t ever stop trying to improve MREs.

Currently, new sterilization techniques are being developed to enhance MRE shelf life while maintaining food flavor. Lighter, yet more durable packaging is on the way as well.

And, of course, the Combat Feeding Directorate constantly strives to create better tasting, more visually appealing meals for servicemembers. Meeting the nutritional requirements and taste preferences of our men and women in uniform is their top priority.  

Empire Resume Will Help You Transition into the Civilian Workforce

what's an mre

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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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