MREs, or “Meals Ready to Eat” are a staple of nutrition in militaries across the world. When a trip to the mess hall isn’t possible or practical, MREs serve as a one-stop solution for the nutritional needs of a soldier.
MREs are designed with many parameters in mind. First, they are designed to be long-lasting and durable. Second, they must represent complete nutrition. If a soldier is subsisting on MREs, that is likely the only food they can access. Thus, an MRE must contain everything from the morning coffee to the late-night dessert. Finally, MREs have to be self-contained. An MRE will contain everything a soldier needs to survive other than water. Many even heat themselves.
As you would expect, this versatility and convenience have a lot of advantages for survival situations outside of the military as well as for outdoor pursuits such as camping.
But is that a good idea? How long do MREs last? Here’s what you need to know.
However, please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only and you should conduct independent research if you are unsure about the safety or shelf life of any food.
- 1 MREs During Emergencies Situations
- 2 How long do MREs Last?
- 3 MRE Storage Matters
- 4 How Can MREs Last So Long?
- 5 MRE Inspection Expiration Date
- 6 How to Read MRE Date Codes
- 7 Nutrition on the Go – Are MREs Healthy?
- 8 Pros and Cons of MREs
- 9 Can you Consume An MRE Every Day?
- 10 MREs: FAQ
- 11 Conclusion
MREs During Emergencies Situations
MREs are a popular choice for many survivalists and campers alike. Although they are designed for military use, they are readily available to civilians through online retailers or army surplus suppliers. There are a lot of reasons why an MRE makes sense for an emergency situation. Their durability and shelf-life are chief among these qualities.
MREs are incredibly shelf-stable. However, they are also rugged. An MRE is designed to withstand the abuse of the battlefield, and the packaging is suitably tough. Thus, unlike a lot of camping food or canned goods, MREs won’t be damaged by being thrown around. They can even be completely submerged with no fear of damage. For natural disasters, bunkers, or even fallout shelters, they are an excellent way of maintaining a store of food without fear of contamination.
Further, they are a simple solution to a complete nutritional repertoire. Rather than assemble the necessary components in a piecemeal fashion, MREs allow a compact and self-contained solution that provides multiple meals, snacks, a heat source, and even beverages. You may even get a pack of Skittles if you’re lucky!
How long do MREs Last?
So, how long does an MRE last? Beyond their convenience, the sheer staying power of an MRE is a paramount reason why they are so popular for disaster preparation. But how long do they last? Well, the answer is, unfortunately “it depends.” The shelf life of each component can vary, so the expiration date is more akin to an MRE shelf life chart.
A typical MRE has a myriad of different components that fall into a few distinct categories. Some components are freeze-dried, some are vacuum sealed, and others are simply repackaged consumer products. The repurposed retail items are the easiest to identify.
It is common for a pack of Chiclets or M&M’s in its original packaging to be placed in an MRE. As such, these items will retain their original manufacturer’s “best by” date. Because these products will be double-sealed within the MRE packaging itself, you may be able to extend this date somewhat. However, if you want to err on the side of caution, simply follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.
Freeze-dried products are made by removing all moisture from the food and then sealing it tightly in an air-proof container. Because of the sterile environment and lack of moisture, freeze-dried components will typically last around 8-10 years from the manufacturing date of the MRE. Freeze-dried components can be easily identified by their almost brick-like texture whilst in their packaging.
In contrast, many MREs also contain components that are simply pasteurized and vacuum-sealed. These items aren’t dried. Instead, they are placed in a pouch and then heated to 220 degrees to kill any bacteria. This is the same process as canning or preserving but in a pouch rather than a jar or tin. Because this food still contains moisture, it does not last quite as long. However, they can still be expected to be safely eaten for at least 5 years following the date of manufacturing.
MRE Storage Matters
Another reason why it can be difficult to determine how long an MRE will last is that the shelf-life of an MRE can be significantly impacted by the environment in which it is stored. Temperature is the major variable. Higher temperatures encourage bacteria growth and organic decomposition. Thus, an MRE stored in a warm or hot environment will have its useful life shortened notably.
In contrast, cold storage can greatly enhance the duration that an MRE remains edible. If an MRE can be stored below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it is generally safe to add about 20% to the expected shelf-life of any given component.
How Can MREs Last So Long?
The long lifespan of an MRE comes down to a variety of techniques and technologies. Some of these are newer innovations, but the majority of the preservation techniques are centuries old. Understanding how to preserve food requires understanding what causes food to spoil. In short, it is bacteria and oxygen.
Bacteria is the primary cause of food spoilage. Bacteria thrive on nutrients just like us, so they tend to like the same type of food we do. Bacteria is the main reason why ingesting spoiled food is so dangerous. Certain forms of bacteria can cause extreme illness or even death. However, bacteria cannot survive above a certain temperature. At 162° Fahrenheit, all bacteria are killed. The process of sealing a vessel of food and heating it to this magic temperature, i.e. pasteurization, is nothing new. This is the precise method used to preserve most of the food in MREs.
The other enemy to food’s durability is oxygen. Over time, exposure to oxygen causes food to degrade, oxidize, and eventually rot. Thus, by removing oxygen, you can greatly improve the staying power of almost any food. Of course, oxygen is a large component of water, meaning it isn’t enough to simply remove the air around food; you have to remove the water too. By freeze-drying and vacuum-sealing food, every available source of oxygen is removed. This eliminates the chance of the food oxidizing and decomposing due to oxygen exposure.
There are some chemical tricks at play as well. There are a wealth of chemical preservatives in modern food that can help maintain the stability of the product. This is not unique to MREs. You will struggle to find a single packaged product on your grocery store shelves that doesn’t include a dash of potassium benzoate. However, the quantity and prevalence of these preservatives are typically increased in MREs, further boosting their shelf life.
MRE Inspection Expiration Date
For consumers accustomed to standard “Best By” dates, MRE expiration dates can be somewhat confusing. Because of the variety of components within an MRE, and the fact that the storage environment can impact the lifespan significantly, it would be impractical for an MRE to have a simple expiration date. Thus, rather than expiration dates, they are labeled with an MRE inspection date that shows the date that the MRE was assembled and sealed. The date is the beginning of the timer, not the end.
How to Read MRE Date Codes
Much like the meaning of the dates, the method of writing expiration dates differs from the standard consumer format. Instead of indicating a month and date, MREs use a four-digit numeric code for the packaging date. It’s a simple system, but not the most intuitive. In fact, it has more to do with a tire date code than a food expiration date.
The last three digits of the number indicate the day of the year that the MRE was packaged. Thus, “001” indicates January 1st, and “365” would indicate December 31st. The first digit of the code indicates the final number of the year. In this format, “1” would refer to 2011, “2” would refer to 2012, etc. The whole code is 3122? May 2nd, 2013.
You may have noticed that displaying the year as a single number poses an inherent problem: “1” could mean 2021, but it could also mean 2011, 2001, 1991, or any other year on a ten-year cycle. This is known as the “decade problem”, and unfortunately there is not a specific solution other than to make a judgment based on the context. Many consumers choose to label the decade of their MREs with a marker to solve this problem in the future. Given the extent of an MRE shelf life, not knowing the decade can pose a real problem.
Nutrition on the Go – Are MREs Healthy?
Whether or not an MRE is healthy depends somewhat on what you consider “healthy” to be. MREs provide a very complete source of nutrition and are well-suited as a self-contained emergency food source. Further, MREs are typically designed with nutrition in mind, meaning that an MRE will contain a reasonable cross-section of all the vitamins and nutrients that you need to remain nourished.
However, MREs do not fit the traditional mold of healthy food. For one thing, MREs are designed to fuel soldiers engaging in extremely strenuous activity. Because of these energy demands, MREs are specifically engineered to be very calorie-dense. It is not uncommon for a single MRE to have over 3,000 calories, meaning that one packet has more calories than most individuals need in an entire day. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, depending on your activity level, it is important to moderate your intake to maintain a healthy calorie level.
Further, MREs have a lot of preservatives. In the short term, this is likely not significant, and eating MREs is certainly better than the alternative of not eating. However, the level of sodium and preservatives should be taken into account if you intend to subsist on MREs for an extended period.
Pros and Cons of MREs
- Easy to store
- Long shelf-life
- Nutritionally balanced
- Surprising amount of variety
- Complete package
- Fairly cost-effective
- Taste is often sub-par
- Very calorie dense
- Expiration date can be unclear
- Limited vegetarian options
Can you Consume An MRE Every Day?
You can likely consume an MRE every day without any immediate impact on your health. You might not want to, however. As mentioned above, MREs are extremely calorie-dense and full of sodium and preservatives, so it can be difficult to moderate your consumption properly. Further, the taste varies significantly. Any person who has ever served in the military will likely have at least a few hours of stories about their least favorite MRE varieties.
Ultimately, you can survive indefinitely on MREs in a survival situation, and they are fine for an occasional camping trip. However, they should likely not be your only source of nutrition if you have alternatives.
How Long do MREs Last?
At least 5 years. Certain components may last up to 10 years, and longer if stored in a cool environment.
What is the Shelf Life of MRE Meals at Room Temperature?
When does MRE expire at room temperature? 5-10 years, depending on the specific component.
How Long Are Military MREs Good for When Frozen?
Freezing or cool temperatures increase the shelf life of MREs, preserving them for up to 12 years.
How Long Are MREs Good for After Inspection Date?
The inspection date is the date when the MRE was packaged, and the components should last at least 5 years after this date.
Can You Eat Expired MREs?
In an emergency, it may be possible to eat expired MREs. However, do so at your own risk after carefully inspecting the food for any signs of rot or deterioration.
MREs are one of the most convenient one-step solutions for a complete nutrition package. If you are preparing an emergency preparedness kit, MREs can save you the hassle and expense of collecting the individual coffee, cutlery, food packets, and more.
They are easy to store and have incredible shelf lives. While they might not always be the best-tasting meal, they are one of the most reliable.