What Is An MRE (Meal Ready To Eat)?


MREs (Meals Ready To Eat) may seem complicated, but they aren’t. The main entree is processed similarly to the way grandma used to can vegetables from the garden; the packaging is just different.

What Is An MRE?

An MRE (Meal Ready To Eat) is the U.S. Military’s current combat ration, a shelf-stable, self-contained, pre-cooked meal with accessories that do not require refrigeration. MREs are used to feed forward-deployed troops if cooked food is unavailable. Each MRE contains approximately 1,250 calories. 

MRE; The Modern Military Ration

Compared to the “C-rations” my grandfather ate in World War II, MREs are an A+, premium-grade combat ration. I was in the service when the first MREs, wrapped in brown packaging came out. I remember how lousy the pork patty was. The MRE menus have improved substantially from the early pork patty days.

MREs Contain: an entree, side-dish, crackers or bread, one spread (like peanut butter), candy, beverage mix, dessert, hot sauce, condiments, an accessory-packet, a flameless ration heater, and a spoon.

  • The contents of MREs change regularly.

There are currently 24 different menus for the military-grade MRE and the menus are, and can be, changed. The following list will give you an idea of what is in an MRE.

Items Content Of Military MREs
1 Entree
(24 Menus)
Asian Style Beef Strips, Beef Patty, Beef Ravioli, Beef and BBQ Sauce, Beef Stew, Beef Taco, Brisket, Cheese Tortellini, Chicken Egg Noodles, Chicken Burrito Bowl, Chicken Chunks, Chili Macaroni, Chili With Beans, Spinach Fettuccine, Chicken Pesto Pasta, Meatballs in Marinara Sauce, Mexican Style Chicken Stew, Pork Sausage Patty, Southwest Style Beef, Spaghetti with Beef Sauce, Hashbrown Potatoes With Bacon, Vegetables With Pasta, Macaroni in Tomato Sauce, or Tuna
Side DishCorn, Fruit, Mashed Potatoes, or Rice
Cracker or BreadBread, Cracker, Tortilla, Toasted Corn Kernels, Pretzels, or Nuts
SpreadCheese spread, Peanut Butter or Jelly
CandyM&Ms, Skittles, or Tootsie Rolls
Beverage MixSports Drink Powder, Cocoa, Dairy Shakes, Cappuccino, Coffee, or Tea
Accessory PacketMatches, Creamer, Sugar, Salt, Chewing Gum, and Toilet Paper
DessertCookie, Pound Cake, Brownie, Cobbler, Fruit, Granola With Milk And Blueberries, Muffin Top, Pudding, First Strike Energy Bar, or Toaster Pastries
Hot Sauce Hot Sauce in some meals
CondimentsMayonnaise, Ketchup, Mustard, and/or Chipotle
1 SpoonEating Utensil
FRH
(Flameless Ration Heater)
Chemical heater (heats entree when a small amount of water is added)
Paperboard SleeveHeat sleeve used to heat entree with the FRH and water
Paperboard Insert CardContains Food Product Information
Technical Data Package Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE)
  • MREs must be capable of withstanding parachute drops from 1,250 feet, and non-parachute drops of 100 feet.
  • MRE packaging is required to maintain a minimum shelf life of 3.5 Years at 80° F, or 9 months at 100° F.

How Many MREs Should I Eat?

There are a lot of calories in MREs. I remember eating the crackers and spreads more than anything on the menu. You would have to be burning some serious calories to build up a big enough appetite for 3 full MRes in a day.

Eat 3 MREs per day to obtain the U.S. military recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals and 3750 kcal. The suggested daily calorie intake for civilians is 2000 to 2500 kcal. One MRE contains 1/3 the daily military ration or approximately 1250 kcal (13% protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbs.)

How long can you eat MREs? 

MREs don’t contain the fiber and bacteria necessary for proper digestion; they are not intended or designed for long-term consumption. Eat them too long, without fresh food supplements, and you can get constipated or the other end of the spectrum.

The U.S. military suggests eating MREs a maximum of 21 Consecutive days. 

Military units supplement MREs with bread, fresh fruit, and milk when available.

What Does The Average MRE Weigh?

MREs are bulky because they are a wet ration containing water and a lot of packaging. Fresh water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon. That’s heavy. If backpacking or walking out of an emergency, MREs may not be the best choice. A three-day supply of MREs (9 MREs) for one person weighs in at over 14lbs.

# of MREsWeight
1 MRE1.125 lbs to 1.625 lbs
3 MREs 3.375 to 4.875 lbs
1 Case of MREs/12 MealsApproximately 21 lbs
  • If weight is a concern when choosing emergency rations, consider freeze-dried food; it is much lighter and less bulky

What Is The Difference Between MREs And Freeze-Dried Food?

If you are choosing between MREs and freeze-dried food, consider things like: shelf-life, water requirements, weight, and nutritional value.

ParticularsMRE (Meal Ready To Eat)Vacuum Packed Freeze-Dried Foods
Maximum Shelf-Life (in years)730
Storage TemperatureAdversely affected by high temperatures like a hot car trunkAdversely affected by high temperatures like a hot car trunk
Potable WaterNot RequiredRequired
Require Reconstitution with waterNoYes, some items like freeze- dried fruit or vegetables can be eaten without reconstituting
Pre-ProcessingPre-cooked and placed in retort packaging; a process similar to canning
Dehydrated in a low temp, low pressure environment;
can be precooked, but not necessary
Nutritional ValueLow in dietary fiber,
not intended for long term consumption,
high in sodium

Not significantly affected by the freeze-drying process.
Retains 93+% of nutritional value, and flavor
How to eatEntree is heated with Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), with boiling water, or in a pan on a campfire or cook-stoveTo re-hydrate freeze-dried meals add warm or boiling water and wait for 10 to 12 minutes (Use a pan on the stovetop or a bowl to re-hydrate individual ingredients)
Good For 72-Hour Emergency Food SupplyYes, if storage conditions have been maintainedYes, if you have access to clean, potable water
To read Scott’s comprehensive article, “What is Freeze Dried Food.” click here

How Long Do MREs Last?

How will you know if your military-grade MREs sat on a tarmac in 110° blazing sun or if they were in cold storage? You won’t. That’s why it’s difficult to give a clear answer. If you plan on using MREs for emergency rations, this is a significant drawback.

According to the Armed Forces Pest Management Board, MREs will last 7 years if stored under optimum conditions, stored in a cool, dark, location of 60° F or less.

Armed Forces Pest Management Board Storage Temperature & Shelf Life

Storage Temperature60°F70°F80°F90°F110°F
Approx. MRE Storage-Life7 Years5 Years4 Years30 Months5 Months
Protecting Meal, Ready-to-Eat Rations
(MREs) U.S.gov website, Department Of Defense PDF Document

Are MREs Still Good After The 3-Year Expiration Date?

The 3-year “expiration date” on an MRE is the date when you inspect the MRE packaging to ensure that it is still sound and protecting the food. The expiration date is the “best eaten by” date. The flavor and nutritional value of the food may start to decline after the expiration date.

“The shelf life of the MRE is three (3) years at 80 degrees F. However, the shelf life can be extended through the use of cold storage facilities prior to distribution.” Combat Logistics Support Agency

When purchasing Military-grade MREs you have no way of knowing how MREs have been stored.

6-Steps: How To Heat An MRE Entree With The Flameless Ration Heater (FRH?)

United States Army Natick
Research, Development and Engineering Center PDF

Is It Illegal To Sell Military MREs?  

Selling MRES by anyone other than those authorized to do so is unlawful according to the Department of Defense (DOD) regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (U.C.M.J. Art. 108.) 

Printed warning on MRE packaging: “U.S. Government Property, Commercial Resale Is Unlawful.”

An excerpt from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) PDF Document: GAO-06-410R MRE

“Although no statutes or regulations specifically prohibit the sale of military MREs…DOD regulations permit the sale of MREs to a limited number of organizations, including…, U.S. military organizations, and federally funded activities…Consequently, servicemembers, federal civilian personnel, and contractors selling stolen MREs could face criminal charges related to the theft of military property.” 

The Illegal Sale of Military MREs

  • In 2006, the GAO investigated military-grade MREs being sold on eBay. Some of these meals were diverted from the relief efforts for hurricanes Katrina and Rita.    
  • A member of the Georgia National Guard is being investigated for obtaining MREs through unauthorized or improper means and selling them for personal gain.

Non-Military MREs Made For Civilians

You can purchase civilian versions of MREs but there are some differences between the two products

ParticularsCivilian MREMilitary MRE
Previous StorageFactory DirectUnknown
Shelf-life5 Years From ManufactureDetermined by storage
Calories1200+1300+
FRH IncludedYesYes
Civilian MRE Information is from us.mealkitsupply.com
  • Civilian versions aren’t quite as robust as military-grade but you will know the origin and reliability of the meal you are getting. 
  • Civilian MREs can be a good choice for a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit (suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency), hunting, fishing, or RVing.  
  • Not a good choice for an emergency vehicle kit due to the high temperatures and temperature fluctuations.

Civilian MRE suppliers/manufacturers :

  • Sopakco
  • MRE-Star
  • Meal Kit Supply
  • Eversafe
  • Apack
  • XMRE

How Are MREs Made?

  1. Food is pre-cooked
  2. Food is injected into plastic retort pouches (Tri-laminate retort pouches (MRE pouches)  are layered plastic and aluminum foil that keeps oxygen and bacteria away from the food.) 
  3. Pouches are sealed and heated again to sterilize. 

Useful Links:

Special Operations Forces Nutrition Guide: This is a great nutritional resource that goes beyond MRE Nutrition (PDF Format) click here

Nutrient Intakes and Nutritional Status of Soldiers Consuming Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) During a 30-Day Field Training Exercise: US Army Research Institute, USgov website (PDF Format) click here

MREinfo.com, the best site on military rations click here

Defense Logistics Agency, US.gov, Shelf Life of MREs click here

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