There are as many opinions of Meals, Ready to Eat, Individual — the U.S. military’s longtime individual combat rations — as there are people in uniform.
Anyone who has been to the field has a favorite MRE. Most also have one they wouldn’t take if it was the last one in the box. They also know what each entrée, side dish, spread or candy can fetch when the trading begins.
Such was the discussion when some members of the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 198th Military Police Battalion broke for lunch here last month during a weekend drill.
“Some of them are really good, some of them are not that great,” said Staff Sgt. Michael McCulloch. “The newer ones are just horrible — none of us eat them. Like that egg vegetarian combo. Nope.”
Others agreed that they didn’t like the vegetarian options, but it was hardly unanimous. Spc. Alixis Russell, who became a vegetarian after she joined the Army, said she prefers the vegetarian MREs even to the hot meals sometimes brought out to the field. The MREs, she said, offer her more sustenance.
Plus, “the vegetarian ones tend to have the best snacks because they need more calories. I really like the protein bars that they have,” Russell added.
Taste drove the entrée choice for most other soldiers, like Pfc. Kali Napier. “I decided on the chicken burrito bowl,” she said. “One, I’ve never had it and a burrito sounds really good right now.”
Trading began as soon as the soldiers opened their MREs. Napier and Russell swapped condiments, with Napier getting the peanut butter from Russell’s vegetarian menu and Russell taking Napier’s cheese spread. A routine exchange, according to Russell.
“People get savage with trading,” Russell said. “At basic [train-ing], people would trade their whole MRE for someone else’s pack of Skittles.”
McCulloch said bartering overseas often goes beyond food. He said U.S. soldiers in Iraq would trade dipping tobacco or take an extra guard shift just to get an MRE they wanted.
PRE-PACKAGED individual combat meals have been around since the Civil War. World War I brought the Reserve Ration, which featured canned meat, bread, coffee, sugar and salt.
C-Rations and K-Rations were the stuff of lore from World War II. They included cigarettes, which was often the most popular item. Troops in Korea and Vietnam ate the MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual). Like its predecessors, it was a box of canned goods, which could be cumbersome to carry in the field.
MREs entered the field in 1983 after several years of development. The plastic pouches of vacuum-dried contents boosted portability, which was one intention. They were also more nutritious, but the taste and texture did not make them any more popular. The troops quickly dubbed them Meals Rejected by the Enemy and Meals Rarely Edible.
But it took until the first major deployment of MREs, the 1991 Gulf War, for military leaders to realize the monotonous, largely brown ra-tions could become a morale problem. After the war, Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summoned the head of the Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts and gave him a two-word order: “Fix it.”
The Natick team responded by scrapping its top-down system of developing rations. It sent food scientists to the field, not just to ask the troops what they liked and disliked, but to dig through the trash to see what they actually ate.
The least popular items, including freeze-dried fruit and a package of beef frankfurters that troops called “the four fingers of death,” soon got the ax. So did the rainbow packs of Charms candies in some menus. Many Marines considered them bad luck and refused to eat them.
Meanwhile, Natick gradually increased the number of menu choices from the original 12 to 24, which change from year to year. Even the nonedible parts of MREs received attention. In 1994, images were added to make the packaging more appealing and user-friendly.
The effort remains a constant challenge. Food scientists have to create tasty meals that pass tough baseline requirements: Each MRE has to be shelf-stable for three years, meet the Surgeon General’s nutrition requirements for operational rations and survive airdrops from cargo planes.
Yet satisfying troop tastes may be the toughest requirement. After all, if the troops won’t eat their MREs, they miss out on some of the 4,000 calories a day they need in the field, says Julie Smith, a food technologist with the Combat Feeding Directorate.
That makes consumption the key metric. It’s also why the current MRE menus bear little resemblance to the original 12. A generation of soldiers who grew up with convenience and fast food want spicy burritos and ramen, not a pork patty or Chicken à la King.
THE BIG NEWS at Natick is that pizza is now on the menu. It’s a pepperoni pizza, with a cheese pizza in the works to be another vegetarian option, Smith says.
Pizza has topped the troop request list for some time. The Natick team’s first attempt at delivery was a slice of bread with a side packet of sauce and some cheese, similar to a kid’s Lunchable. It was shelf-stable, but it bombed in field-testing. Soldiers did not want to make their pizza.
The food scientists went back to the lab and came up with a slice of pizza that could still be appetizing three years after baking. This required developing technologies that control moisture, pH and oxygen levels. The result scored well in field tests.
When the pizza MRE reaches certain units will depend upon how soon existing stocks are exhausted.
Natick has also developed technology to shrink rations into tiny food bars. The Close Combat Assault Ration prototype, which contains three times the nutrition of a normal MRE at one-third its size, could feed small, isolated units that may go up to a week without resupply.
Other MRE news comes from a recent study reported by the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. Scientists found that people who ate nothing but MREs for 21 days have fewer bowel movements than those who ate “regular food” over the same period.
Smith says most gastrointestinal changes that soldiers experience are not due to the MREs, but changes the body goes through in the field.
Either way, the study is not news to anyone who has ever eaten MREs in the field for several days.
Original 12 MREs (1983)
Ham & Chicken Loaf
Beef Slices in BBQ Sauce
Frankfurters with Beans
Turkey Diced with Gravy
Beef Diced with Gravy
Chicken à la King
Meatballs & BBQ Sauce
Beef Ground with Spiced Sauce
2019 MRE Menu
Chili with Beans
Shredded Beef in Barbecue Sauce
Chicken, Egg Noodles & Vegetables, in Sauce
Spaghetti with Beef and Sauce
Beef Strips in a Savory Tomato Based Sauce
Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
Chili and Macaroni
Vegetable Crumbles with Pasta in Taco Sauce
Elbow Macaroni in Tomato Sauce
Cheese Tortellini in Tomato Sauce
Creamy Spinach Fettuccine
Mexican Style Chicken Stew
Chicken Burrito Bowl
Maple Pork Sausage Patty
Beef Ravioli in Meat Sauce
Beef Patty, Grilled, Jalapeno Pepper Jack
Hash Brown Potatoes with Bacon, Peppers and Onions
Lemon Pepper Tuna
Pepperoni Pizza Slice
Southwest Beef & Black Beans with Sauce