Military Meals Throughout History

Written by Brandon Garrett

Throughout our nation’s history, our troops have had many different kinds of meals. From the large bulky rations during the civil war to the new Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), the food has evolved.

To honor our veterans, we take a look back at the foods that our troops have eaten to keep themselves ready to protect our freedom.

Civil War

Food and rations during the Civil War varied by location, quality and quantity. A typical ration would include:

• 20 oz. of Salted Pork or Beef
• 12 oz of Hardtack (bread)
• 1 oz. of a compressed cube of mixed vegetables

Every 100 rations a soldier would receive:

• 8 qts of Beans or Peas
• 10 lbs of Rice
• 10 lbs of Coffee Beans
• 10 lbs of Sugar
• 2 qts of Salt
• 1 gallon of Vinegar

Civil War Rations

WWI

During World War I, food was a precious resource and the government wanted to make sure that no food was wasted. The Army’s Division of Food and Nutrition of the Medical Department conducted a survey showing that they were actually giving too much food to troops. They subsequently created smaller ration sizes that were easier to pack around and more efficient for the troops.

WWII

Between 1941 and 1946, the military conducted more than 30 surveys to assess military health and nutrition. The military introduced different rations including K-rations (breakfast), D-rations (chocolate) and C-rations (lunches and dinners). These meals were pre-cooked and were easy to eat on the go. However, they were also bulky and loud.

WWII Rations

1950s

The military introduced the MCI – Military Combat Individual during the 1950s. Despite the new name – they were still popularly referred to as C-rations because they resembled them in most respects. They introduced a wider variety of items and encouraged a better daily nutrition. The military eventually phased them out for the MRE.

1980s

MREs – Meals Ready to Eat – replaced the C ration in order to create a lightweight, easily transportable meal. Instead of the bulky cans, they come in metalized bags and are ready to eat in a moments notice – no heating required.

The Invention of MRE

2000s

MREs continue to be the meal that fills our troop’s bellies but they’ve improved. There has been advancements in nutrition and taste. The suppliers have also created MRE meals that are more friendly to campers and hikers called HeaterMeals. These heater meals have improved taste and larger portion sizes.

Modern Day Military Food Technology

Updated November 10, 2012

11 Comments

  1. gena wrote:

    My father went in to enlist in the Army on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack and was initially turned down due to having one leg considerably shorter than the other. Like most men during WWII, he refused to accept not being allowed to serve and used influence to get accepted into the army. He came out a Captain, but was not allowed to do combat duty but spent most of his time in the military at the Nutrition labs in Chicago where the foods that ended up sent to our military were developed. I have seen the “Guinea Pig” certificates jokingly given out to him and my mother, as the people who worked there were the ones who tested the food products before they were approved to go to the troops, and according to both of them, a lot of stuff that they tested was found not to be of quality to go on to troop use.
    Daddy was always very embarrassed he had not been allowed to serve in combat, but he really did do a service to those in combat, I wish I could still find their guinea pig certificates. I used to, as a kid, really get a kick hearing about some of the food they ate that did not meet muster.

    November 11th, 2012 at 10:19 am
  2. Eric wrote:

    I joined the Army in 1983. C rations were still around and highly prized since they didn’t bind you up like the MREs did. They also tasted better. I haven’t had the pleasure of the “new” MREs but the selection seems to be much better. I understand they include Tobasco these days. I used to get laughed at for bringing film canisters full of garlic, italian spice mix, ground hot peppers and my own bottle of Tobasco.

    November 11th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
  3. Mike wrote:

    Very good article. I actually caught a show a couple days ago on history channel that referenced ‘survival rations’ during the revolutionary war that was nothing more than a couple handfuls of hard corn. Very dense, nutrient rich. The average soldier was expected to be able to last for up to 2 weeks on just that corn.

    November 11th, 2012 at 8:39 pm
  4. StoneyFF wrote:

    in 1967, while in Marine Corps Infantry Training Regiment (ITR, every Marine is a Rifleman, just that those with a Grunt MOS get two extra weeks of ITR) right after Boot Camp, we waked an average of 20 miles per day and got to eat C-Rations that were dated back to 1943, said so on the cans. Not bad food (albeit heavy), but the reason I tell this story is for all Dr. Suess fans out there. Seems that someone thought that a good meal would be a can of Ham and Eggs… and, of course, being Wartime (in 1943 when these were made), it was made with powered eggs. Now, it didn’t taste bad, but most of the guys couldn’t get past the color… yep, you got it… The eggs turned green from being in the can. Now I didn’t mind the color, and being hungry all the time with all that marching and training… I’d always take the Green Eggs and Ham off the guy who didn’t want to eat them, and since there was one in every case of 12, I frequently got to eat two meals, whatever I got, and someone else’s GREEN EGGS AND HAM. That was when I became a Dr. Suess Fan .

    Stoney – SSGT USMC ’67-’75 And a belated Happy Birthday to all my brother Marines out there.

    November 11th, 2012 at 10:43 pm
  5. Old Tanker 75 wrote:

    I enlisted in 1975, and most of the NCO’s in my outfit were Vietnam Vets. They told us new “crute’s” some fascinating stories. God bless them all! C-Rations were our staple out in the field. My favorite was “Turkey Loaf”. The “fruit cake” was used in front of a HEP round at range time. The heaters on the tanks were perfect for heating the “C’s” except if you left them too long in front of the exhaust (exploded). Of course we had to suplement our rations with sardines, Deviled Ham, and Spredables. It’s amazing what fit into the storage compartments when we were on maneuvers. Many of bottles of hooch and TP went down range at Graf and Hohenfels too. God bless America!

    November 12th, 2012 at 8:28 am
  6. Susan wrote:

    I just watched the videos…gross – worms. But, the little cans of food (rations), my dad was in the service before I was born for a few years. Then re-enlisted at a SeaBee – Reserve, and made Chief. He put over 20 something years in, to get a pension, but a couple of times when he went away for 2 weeks at a time, he came home with those little cans. I was probably 11 or so, and looked at them and thought “yuk”. But, my brother and I found blueberry pound cake, opened it and it was pretty good. Since then, I have bought Food Storage in #10 cans and some MRE’s from The Ready Store – weird thing, never tried the MRE’s. After watching these videos, think I will open one and have a tasting competition to see if I should continue to purchase more.

    Susan

    November 13th, 2012 at 11:19 am
  7. Mark wrote:

    I was still in grade school at the time, but I believe that in the late ’60′s the precursor to the MRE was introduced. It was called the LRRP (pronounced “Lurp”) from Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol and was issued to Marin Recon troops and perhaps others. Like the MRE, it was issued in a sealed poly bag and had an entree, a breakfast/snack (like peanut butter and crackers), a “treat” (dehydrated strawberries or chocolate bar, etc.), instant coffee, cocoa powder, gum, toilet paper, and perhaps other items as well. I remember a friend giving me several my freshman year in college and I thought it was such a treat. Of course, I had other options and didn’t have to eat them for every meal like the troops did.

    I also remember about the same time buying some C-rat components from a military surplus store. Mixing the grape jelly (in its small can) with the ham slices was very good and I remember there was some kind of chocolate cake that had been in its can for so long it had a bit of a metallic taste. I think these were some twenty years old when I bought them. Besides the weight of the C-rats, another hassle was having to open each can with the little “John Wayne” folding can opener.

    November 15th, 2012 at 1:42 pm
  8. Irish-7 wrote:

    I joined the Army in 1980 and retired in 2010. When I enlisted, we were still eating C Rations. I think that the newest batches were from the 1960′s. The MREs came out around 1983. Initially, we enjoyed the change of meals. I was in the Airborne Infantry and we carried everything on our backs. So, MRE pouches were much lighter and less noisy than C Ration cans. We did get LRRPs once in a while. They were dehydrated and had to be reconstituted in boiling water to consume. Over the years, the MREs really evolved. Some of the initial meals were dehydrated and if you ate it on the go (as we frequently did), the meal would suck the moisture right out of you. I handled thousands of MREs later in my career, as Supply Sergeant then First Sergeant. It never occurred to me to take a few home for emergencies. I was too honest. Now, as a “Prepper”, I am buying them for 100 bucks a case. But, I can still look myself in the eye to shave every day.

    November 17th, 2012 at 12:07 am
  9. Old TXARNGer Paul wrote:

    Class A, Class B, Class C rats!!

    A=Hot meals in mess halls
    B= Hot meal in field
    C= C-Rations meals in abox !

    Entered service 1971 , so got ot experience all of these!

    Any old grunts will recall when the C-Rat case was issued, it was turned over so no one could see the labels and you ate what you drew!
    Green Eggs and ham ! c”chicken or Turkey” mystery meats!!!

    I even recall the early ones that had cigs (5 to box), great trading material!!!

    December 2nd, 2012 at 8:42 am
  10. Phil Cravens wrote:

    I was in Viet Nam in 1969, we ate mostly c-rats. Then we began getting lrrp rations, they were a treat because they tasted better except the chili con carne. No matter how hot the water and how long they they sat, the beans ere like little rocks.

    June 26th, 2013 at 12:53 pm
  11. Thomas Crowley wrote:

    I remember eating c-rations all through the training cycles and also at my regular unit during manuvers. The cans were so heavy that some people just threw them away, which I promptly picked up and carried as barter when those guys got hungry. In Viet Nam they just went into my pack as is. At the time I smoked unfiltered Camels and some of them had been packed in the 40′s and the paper had turned browned. Most of the troops saved them for me or traded with me for their favorite if I had them, especially the brothers with their menthol cravings.

    June 26th, 2013 at 1:21 pm

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