Military Meals Throughout History

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

MRE Nicknames
Some of the early MRE main courses were not very palatable, earning them the nicknames "Mr. E" (mystery), "Meals Rejected by Everyone", "Meals, Rarely Edible", "Meals Rejected by the Enemy", "Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated", "Meal, Ready to Excrete", "Materials Resembling Edibles", and even "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians". Some meals got their own nicknames. For example, the frankfurters, which came sealed in pouches of four, were referred to as "the four fingers of death".

Although quality has improved over the years, many of the nicknames have stuck. MREs were often called "Three Lies for the Price of One" - it's not a Meal, it's not Ready and you can't Eat it.

Their low dietary fiber content could cause constipation in some so they were also known as "Meals Refusing to Exit", "Meals Refusing to Excrete",or "Massive Rectal Expulsions". While the myth that the gum found in MREs contains a laxative is false, the crackers in the ration pack do contain a higher than normal vegetable content to facilitate egestion. In December 2006 comedian Al Franken (on his 8th USO tour at the time) joked to troops in Iraq that he'd had his fifth MRE so far and "none of them had an exit strategy".

My how far we've come! The MRE's of today are some of the most tasty and nutritionally balanced meals you can eat. The number of entrées expanded to 16 by 1996 (including vegetarian options), 20 entrées by 1997 and 24 entrées by 1998. Today, service members can choose from up to 24 entrées, and more than 150 additional items.

When the free market got involved with MRE's the quality and taste really jumped up to par. The MRE's we sell at Ready Store are not only healthy, lightweight, and nutrional, but they also taste great! They make your body feel great too!

21 thoughts on “Military Meals Throughout History”

  • gena

    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.

    • Japheaux

      Don't minimize his importance to the war effort. If you are/were in the military you know the saying that the [Army/Air Force/Marines/Navy's] needs come first. He was available to be sent anywhere and do anything whether he liked it or not. Like thousands of others, he served his country proudly and made contributions! That in itself can be your peace of mind. It wasn't until I ended up in the desert that I dwelled on the huge sacrifices my own father made in WWII.

      It would be very cool to see those certificates, however. You father had a hand in history!

  • Eric

    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.

  • Mike

    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.

  • StoneyFF

    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.

  • Old Tanker 75

    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!

  • Susan

    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.


  • Mark

    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.

  • Irish-7

    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.

  • Old TXARNGer Paul
    Old TXARNGer Paul December 2, 2012 at 1:42 am

    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!!!

    • Doug Rodrigues
      Doug Rodrigues July 10, 2015 at 4:33 am

      I must be showing my age (71). The ham & eggs I ate weren't green. Loved 'em. Hated the lima beans and ham. I gave the cigarettes away because I didn't smoke.

  • Phil Cravens

    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.

  • Thomas Crowley
    Thomas Crowley June 26, 2013 at 7:21 am

    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.

  • Allen

    In Vietnam, 82nd, and then with 1st air cav, we ate C rations and LRRP. We would cook the C rations with chunks of C4. (little chunks). You dent the can, place it on the C4,light the C4. When the dent popped out, you rolled it off. opened it, all cooked. Didnt care for the ham and lima beans, but loved the beans and franks. LRRP's were great. But it was all good.

  • Bill Reid

    Active duty 7/72-7/75, Frankfurt, Gerrmany. Loved the c-rats. Would buy them by the case at the Commissary. When my wife didn't want to cook dinner, we'd just grabb a couple of them and heat them up in a pot of hot water.

  • James W Jones

    I came into the service in 1984. MREs were pretty new at the time. Dear God they were awful. Dehydrated pork patty and beef patty were the worst. You could boil that mess for a eek and it would still snap a tooth off. Let's not forget the dehydrated ketchup. Much easier later on in was in the 82nd and we spent a lot of time in the field. By this time the MREs were much improved. I remember we would come back with cases upon cases of opened MREs. We were told to get rid for them. Instead of throwing them away I would collect them. Once I filled a spare bedroom with them I started giving them toensure dad. He loved them and used them for hunting and camping trips.

  • Bruce

    I too started with C's. When the first MRE's came out they weren't very good. Luchily McIlhenny would send you a MRE cookbook and a free bottle of Tabasco and a carrier for your belt by sending a copy of your ID card. Later MRE's came with a very small bottle of Tabasco.

  • George King, Sgt. USMC - 1950's

    Hey - Way back - I had just gotten to Korea after Chosen. I was bunked with some of the survivors - and they had a great joy in introducing me to the C-rations.. I especially liked the corned
    beef hash. I ate 3 cans that night - and you know what happened. (The C-rations were from the left overs from the Pacific campaigns. -7 or 8 years old.) - I had the runny-grunts for three days.
    From then on - when I opened the C-ration boxes - I threw the corned beef over to the Chinese. I hope they enjoyed them.
    There were three kinds of cigarettes ( 4 per carton) Remember Chesterfield and Lucky Strike, Pal Mal , Camels - ?

    Great for trading for the coco wafer - which on the lines - with water heated in your helment - using the can of Sterno for heat -
    Such were the 13 months in combat. Semper Fi. - and happy 241st Birthday guys - -

  • 57Chevy

    Why did No One comment about SOS that we had to eat EVERY Monday morning for breakfast in Boot Camp????

  • 57Chevy

    Semper Fi George! Wonder WHY no one on this site had the nerve to mention SOS every Monday AM at MCRD????

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