Preparedness blog

What is an MRE?

By Jeff and Amy Davis
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What comes to mind when you think of food storage? For most people, they think of grains, bulky barrels, dried good and more. Today we want to talk to you about a type of food storage that defies these stereotypes—the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs as they are more commonly known.

MREs are individual rations, self-contained in lightweight packaging that can be warmed without a fire or stove, originally designed for the United States Military to consume during combat or similar field conditions without food facilities. Each meal contained in an MRE is packed with calories - 1,250 calories on average - and designed to provide whoever eats it with the proper minerals, vitamins and energy they need to cope with their surroundings.

Brief History of MREs
These meal packets were designed to address the growing need for quick and easy meals in military situations. The MREs are the most recent in a long line of ways the U.S. Military has fed its soldiers in the field, replacing the more recent MCIs (Meal, Combat, Individual rations) and the LRPs (Long Range Patrol ration).

Long before the MREs became the meal of choice for the U.S. Military, canned wet rations were the longtime favorite and only real option the military had. In the ‘60s and ‘70s as dehydrated food become more readily available and the military looked to replace the bulky and heavy canned food system it had relied on for so long. After a long period of testing and surveying, the MREs became standard issue in 1986. Read more about the military history of MREs in our article, “The History of MREs, or Meals, Ready-to-Eat.”

For a long time this type of meal, and food storage, was only available to the military. For a brief period around the year 2000 they became available to civilians (though not through the military, but through commercial companies) largely in response to Y2K anxiety.

There wasn’t much commercial interest for MRES again until 2005, when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved that such a food resource would be in demand by civilians. Since then MREs have become widely available and sought for by civilians. And as a result of this increased demand the overall quality of MREs have only improved.

How MREs Work
Keeping food meal-ready at a moment’s notice for up to five years is a difficult feat to accomplish, so how does it work? How do MREs provide warm meals without stoves or fires at a moment’s notice?

The two keys to this equation are the flameless heater pouches and the advanced food technology that keeps the food edible and nutrient-rich for long periods of time. The flameless heater pouches, or MRE heater, contains a simple water-activated system that quickly heats meals and is environmentally friendly. The shelf life and flavor of the food have been perfected over years of hard work and advances in food storage technology—and there is no sign of those advances slowing down any time soon.

MRE Heater in action

For a more in-depth look at how MREs work, consult our articles “The Science Behind MREs” (which contains an exclusive interview with the Director of the Department of Defenses’ Combat Feeding Program).

Different Types of MREs
There are currently a wide variety of MRE meals and entrees available. Over the years the menus behind MREs have greatly expanded to an existing selection to more than two dozen meals, currently including Mediterranean chicken, spicy penne pasta, and vegetable lasagna.

When you’re looking at MREs for your food storage, 72-hour kits, auto breakdown bag or camping trip; you have a few options:

Individual Entrées – At the centerpiece of every MRE is an entrée of some kind, usually meat and grain based (though in recent years vegetarian MREs have become available). Popular variations of MRE entrees include sandwiches, pastas, and stews. These individual entrees can be purchased individually (usually somewhere between $2.50-$5.50 an entrée) or in bulk.

Snacks and Drinks – Sometimes all you really need (or want) is something sweet or salty. The MRE snacks and drinks were provided to meet this need with a variety of cookies, turnovers, pound cakes and brownies. Nut and raisin mixes (with and without M&Ms) are also popular, along with baked snack crackers, dried fruit and filled pretzels. The drinks in MREs are typically small powder packs to be mixed in with water to create fruit drinks with nutritive sweeteners or carbohydrate electrolytes. Pricing for a single MRE snack ranges from $2-$4, depending on the complexity of the snack. Again, they can be purchased individually or in bulk.

Full Meal – The military makes small changes and alterations year-to-year with what they include in MREs, but typically a full MRE contains the following: The entre, a side dish (rice, fruit or corn), hot sauce or seasoning, crackers or bread along with a spread (jelly, cheese or peanut butter), candy, beverage mix, dessert, flameless ration heater, and additional accessories (spoon, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.). The nutritional value of a single MRE is equal to a third of the military recommend daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, with each containing a careful balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Individual meals can be purchased, but they are most often purchased in cases of 12 or 24 full meals.

So, whether you are looking for a new meal to bring with you on your hiking trip, or want lightweight meals to include in your bug out bag, or want to experience the diet of our nation’s troops—look to MREs as your ready-to-eat solution.

We’re interested. Have you used MREs before? What did you think of them? Would you continue to use them? Comment below and tell us your thoughts.

8 years ago
8 years ago at 10:58 AM
I forgot to add, those MRE flameless ration heaters can be used with any food in a heat-proof retort pouch. It might make sense to purchase a few of those for your bugout bag; just use them to reheat better tasting and better-for-you foods than MREs.
Mike B.
8 years ago at 5:38 AM
MRE's are good when there is nothing else to eat. From my experience, the entree usually taste pretty bland. The vacuum packed cookies & snacks are pretty good tasting. We received several cases of MREs after hurricane Katrina.
8 years ago at 3:37 PM
when MRE's came out we joked that, war wasn't hell enough ,they had to add MRE's . We were used to C-Rations and actually had come to like them. (LOL)
8 years ago at 5:37 AM
I use MRE's while hunting. They taste great. I think they are better tasting now than they were back in the 1980's. There are also more entree variety now. My young son and nephew also enjoy MRE's while hunting. They think its cool to have a full meal without having to walk back home. I also take them along on day trips of fishing and hiking.