We may get a commission for purchases made through links in this post at no extra cost to you. This helps us maintain our blog and does not influence our recommendations.

MRE Meals Ready to Eat : Backpacking, Camping & Survival

us army field rations crate with military meals ready to eat inside

I have found that traveling in the wilderness and taking enough rations with me to eat for more than a few days can be difficult.  

I never seem to have enough space in my pack for enough food, water, and supplies for more than 72 hours, so as a solution, I began searching for lightweight options that would fulfill my needs. MRE packets seem to be a great option that will not take up a lot of space or need to be stored in a particular way.  

What Does MRE Stand For?

MRE is a term that is used to describe meals ready to eat. This is a self-contained meal that is designed to be eaten by a single individual.  

They are ideal for when you need nourishment in the wilderness or in a location where there are not many options to prepare your food. Individuals who are in the military often use these types of meals, but they are also an option that you can use in a survival situation as well.  

These meals may also be great options for anyone who is in a natural disaster to consider as a food source.  

What are Meals Ready to Eat?

These are meals that are designed to be used by anyone who does not have food facilities available to them. This means that the package is typically going to be dried food that you can easily add water to and eat while you are on the go.  

The idea of these MRE rations is that the person who is using them will have a meal that is designed to be eaten in 24 hours. The meal may consist of a main course, bread, a dessert, and some powdered drinks. They typically contain about 2000 calories, which is the recommended caloric intake for the average human.

This may vary based on gender, age, height and other factors such as body composition and how active you might be.  

History of Military Meals

As far as history dates back, our troops have needed sustainable food that they could eat while they were serving their country.  

Without proper nutrition and caloric intake from rations, there would not be many options available that could help boost morale during the war. Over the years, the rations that troops received has changed quite a bit, especially if you are considering what is available in different countries as well.

The first rations, which were available since the 1900s, were called garrison rations. They did not have very high standards when it came to taste or nutritional value, but they were great for sustaining an army. These military rations were only given out two times a day, and they consisted of only beef and bread.

Field rations were then created to make the food that troops took into combat with them and where much easier to carry in the field. These mainly consisted of canned fish and crackers or items that took little to no preparation.  

young woman marine finding her ration not to her liking while on a field exercise at camp pendleton

Iron rations were available from the time of World War I. They did not last much longer than the war, but they typically consisted of beefcakes, chocolate, and seasonings like salt and pepper.

During this time, trench rations were also popular. Because they mainly consisted of cans of salmon, sardines, tuna, and other meats, they did not last longer than the first four years that they were used. After that point, reserve rations were created to add some meat to the menu as well as bread, coffee, sugar, and more.  

After WWI ended, the rations were divided into four different categories so that they could standardize the meals that the troops received while in the field.  

The rations were as such:  

A Rations

These are the type of rations that are used when there are fresh meat options and produce available for the troops to enjoy. These are the rations that taste the best and are the healthiest for consumption.  

B Rations

This is the type of rations that does not require refrigeration. These meals are cooked in a kitchen before being sent out into the field.  

C Rations

These are meals that have been cooked and canned so that they can simply be eaten without being prepared. There is no shelf life with C rations, so there is no chance that it will expire before it is eaten.  

D Rations

This is a set of rations that can be used in an emergency. It is not a set of rations that is designed to be a full meal, but it will provide the essential ingredients to sustain a soldier in the field.  

vintage mre rations, mess kit and tools

Finally, military MREs came into the picture as a way to easily replace the rations that currently existed. These meals can be eaten as is or you can add water to the pre-packaged amount as well.

The first types of these rations were seen during the Vietnam War in 1966. Powdered drinks like lemonade or hot cocoa were added to the rations as well to provide the soldiers with something that they could mix with water to drink.  

Military MREs vs. Civilian MREs

If you’re survivalist, by now, you’ve definitely come across both military and civilian MREs, so what’s the difference?   Well, it’s important to state that military MREs are illegal to sell by military personnel, but inevitably, you can always find these out there on eBay and survivalist sites.  

In fact, these were very popular during several natural disasters – military personnel were even known to be turning a profit selling their MREs. So, what makes them so different? Well, in truth, there are only a few scant differences between the two types of rations, so let’s take a look at a few:  

Outside of these differences, the two types of MREs are very similar. So, which is better to purchase? Well, for many, civilian rations come out ahead. This is partially because military MREs aren’t designed for resale. When purchasing or acquiring these kinds of rations, you end up with a bit of a mixed bag – you never quite know where they originate.

Remember, these things don’t last forever, and if they were stored in a particularly hot or humid condition, then they may be past expiry. Do you know how long these aftermarket military MREs have been sitting, unused?  

In addition, military-grade MREs, as you might expect, could have been in military war zones, and as a result, they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals. Since there’s no system for getting military-grade MREs out into the survivalist community, you just don’t know what you’re getting.  

world war 2 era rations boxes on an armoured vehicle

On the other hand, when you’re working with civilian MREs, you’re also presented with a few additional options that you may not find when you’re working with military-grade products. For example, one of the better aspects of civilian MREs is the availability of additional food options.

These MREs are designed with civilians in mind, so you may find better menu options when working with these. Additionally, civilian products are better designed for the non-military market, so you’ll have easier to track expiration dates and labels more clearly specifying the contents.  

It’s essential that you know the source of any MREs you do end up purchasing. There’s quite a market out there for counterfeit rations that don’t have the shelf life or quality that you’d expect from most civilian or military sources. This can be a real issue when you go to eat your rations and find that the food has gone bad after a short period of time or the food isn’t as well-balanced when it comes to nutrition content as you need for survival .  

In many cases, it’s just better to go to reliable sources; remember, MREs need to be prepared and then boiled by the manufacturer so that any potential microorganisms are killed in the packaging process. This process is critical, so it’s just not a good idea to trust just anyone with the materials that you may need for survival.  

Who Should Use Meals Ready to Eat?

Traditionally, in military war zones, MREs aren’t used on a daily bases; in fact, even when military personnel are in forward operating bases, there’s usually a dining facility serving hot food.  

In these situations, MREs are used sparsely, but when on the front line, many soldiers are forced to rely on these meals for as long as years at a time. Typically, due to the variety of flavors presented even in military MREs, soldiers receive all of the nutrition they need to keep going without getting tired of the same flavor day after day.  

These MREs have a lot of value. Not only are they great when food is low, but they also provide you with about 1,300 calories per meals, which can help you generate the energy to stay active. For example, if you’re stranded underground due to an earthquake, two or even one MREs a day can help extend your life significantly so that you can be more prepared for rescue. These are perfect for sustaining yourself, so if you live in an area that’s prone to flooding, harsh weather, or earthquakes, you’d be doing yourself a favor by purchasing some MREs to keep you going.  

In addition to this use, it’s also worth noting that MREs are designed to be usable in a wide variety of temperatures. While it should be understood that particularly hot environments can cause them to go bad, in most other temperatures, a good MRE will last up to five years without refrigeration. For this reason, someone that wants to be prepared or wants to go off-grid can easily use these without worrying about having the means to keep them fresh. Also, since they are ready-to-eat, you don’t have to heat them in most situations.  

These rations are also very travel-friendly , so if a survival situation happens and you need to be on-the-go constantly , then you can easily stuff a week’s worth of MREs in a bug-out bag and get going . It’s not an ideal situation, but you’ll have food that you can eat, even as you move.  

mre food ration pouch on ground

Groups also tend to stockpile these. For example, it’s not uncommon for churches in some areas to keep MREs available so that their congregation can have a source of food when things go sour. With this type of rationing, the church members can be well-fed and able to go out into the larger community and help others in need who are also in the same survival circumstances.  

How are MREs Used?

In the military MREs are used to sustain troops on the front; soldiers don’t always have access to mess halls and restaurants off-base, so when they are in foxholes or stationed in inaccessible spaces, a good MRE is a great way to stay nourished.  

Since these pack in about 1,300 calories per MRE, they can easily keep someone going. In addition to this, most are designed to provide an adequate amount of nutrients so that those eating them can keep going.   For civilians, MREs are typically used as go-to survival food.Since they don’t require refrigeration in most cases and are packaged to keep them bacteria- and bug-free, they are very low-maintenance. As a result, those wanting to be prepared can simply place them in a bug-out pack or even store them in a basement for later use .  

Additionally, since many are rated to stay edible from three to five years, most people use them as a good backup food source. You may not always need your MREs in every situation, but having them there can add some peace of mind.  

MREs, both civilian and military, come with a main dish entrée, side dish, and an electrolyte-packed beverage mix that you can add to water. In addition to these edible and potable items, all also come with plastic silverware, condiments, and some form of wipe. Each of these items has utility outside of the initial meal, which is why some stockpile their MREs for future use.  

What is an FRH? (Flameless Ration Heater)

An FRH is a flameless ration heater that an individual can use to heat up their food rations. It does not heat as well as a stove or a microwave, but it is water activated, and it is designed to heat an eight-ounce meal so that troops can enjoy a warm meal in the field.      

These were developed during the year 1990, and they have been seen in most MRE rations since then. These heaters are designed to be used without fire so that they do not increase the risk of a hazard while you are in the wilderness. This makes these rations a great option when you’re in a location where the use of fire is strictly prohibited. This means that this food can be eaten anywhere, even in an emergency situation.  

These flameless ration heaters are designed to be very small; in fact, a heater that comes in an MRE is only about 5 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches. In addition, the heater is designed to be lightweight, so most do not weigh more than about 1 ½ ounces. In order to use them, all you need to do is place the food into the bag provided, add water, and place it next to the heater. Heating the food will only require about 12 minutes.

When the food is heated, be cautious because the water that you added will be hot and spilling it or the food could cause injury.  

Different Types Available Today

One of the best features of MREs is how varied they can be. Outside of the various menu choices, there are options on the market for those that can’t digest gluten, vegetarians, and for those with allergies. This makes it fairly easy for those that have special dietary requirements to stockpile rations for survival situations.  

Despite the fact that these MREs are slightly different than those you might find via standard means, they are just as effective. For example, in a vegetarian option like an MRE that contains a veggie burger, you will find that the food inside will provide a similar level of protein as you’d find in a traditional burger. This is usually accomplished by adding in textured vegetable protein (TVP) or beans.  

For those with gluten intolerance, there are MRE options, through both military and civilian sources, that have reduced gluten. These include MREs with peanut butter, fruit, and gluten-free bread. There are even examples of MREs out there that include things like gluten-free brownie mix so that individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can still enjoy a dessert with their ready-to-eat meal.  

Finally, there are two types of MREs that you can sometimes find called “full meal MREs” and “MRE entrees.” Here’s how they work:  

Full Meal MREs

With a full meal MRE, you’ll find that not only will you have a meat component, such as meatloaf, but you’ll also have a few additional items like crackers or cookies.  

In addition, these MREs also sometimes include a dessert that you can use to finish up your meal and get a little extra sugar-based energy. These tend to be very well-rounded and can be useful for those that want a variety of flavor in their MRE packs.  

MRE Entrees

With an MRE entrée, you’ll usually just have a single item. For example, a spaghetti and meat sauce MRE will just have the spaghetti and meat sauce, and you won’t have extra items like an electrolyte-infused drink mix to help wash the main course down.  

These are still fairly useful because the main entrée is usually packed with carbs and nutrients so that you can have the energy you need to go forward with your day.  

Examples of a Meal Ready to Eat

There are quite a bit of options when it comes to meal rations that you can choose from, and they all offer different types of food so that you can find one that appeals to you.  

In most meals, you will get a main entrée, a dessert, a snack, a drink, and an accessory packet that you will find useful.

Last update on 2022-01-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Here are some meal examples that you may find in an MRE:  

Meal Option 1

  • Shredded beef in a barbecue sauce
  • Seasoned black beans
  • Jalapeno cheese spread
  • Tortilla chips
  • An oatmeal cookie
  • Orange drink powder

Meal Option 2

  • Beef stew
  • Vanilla pound cake
  • Cheddar cheese spread
  • Multigrain bread or crackers
  • Skittles
  • Lemon-lime drink mix

Meal Option 3

  • Hash browns with bacon, onions, and peppers
  • Granola bars with blueberries
  • An apple turnover or another bakery item
  • Cheddar cheese spread
  • Crackers
  • Salted peanuts
  • Orange beverage mix

There are three types of accessory packets that can be added to an MRE pack, and they typically contain different drink options. One contains a beverage base, while the other two contain coffee, creamer, and a sugar option. They all include salt, chewing gum, and a towelette or tissue that you may need while you are in the field or out in nature.  

Can You Store MREs and For How Long?

When you are storing your MREs, you are going to be wondering the best way to store them and how long they can last without being refrigerated. Fortunately, these types of food rations are designed to be stored on a shelf for a period of at least three years at temperatures of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  

The temperature that the food is stored at will obviously vary based upon the time of the year and the weather outside, but when the food is stored at a higher temperature, it may not last as long.  

The minimum amount of time, the rations will last for at least a period of one month, but that would be at temperatures that are above 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day for that period . If your food is going to be stored at a much lower temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, then the food could easily last for five years or longer.  

In about the year 1197, the rations began having a time and temperature indicator on the packaging so that they can easily be looked at and determined whether or not they are still edible. This test consists of two circles; the inside one is a lighter color, and the outer circle is much darker. As long as the inner circle remains lighter than the outer one, the food is going to be good to eat.  

Food Storage Recommendations

Ideally, the storage of this type of rations should be in an order with the food that has the earliest date in the front. When the food is stored, you will want to ensure that it is kept in conditions that will extend the shelf life.  

This means that it should ideally be stored in a location where the temperature is between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Always make sure to avoid storing the rations in temperatures that are above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help preserve the nutritional value of the MRE as well as the flavor.  

If you are storing the MREs in a room where there may be a temperature differential, you can easily make sure that the box that it is stored in is not on the floor or against a wall where it can retain moisture. Ideally, to keep the food fresh for a more extended period, you will want to make sure to keep the humidity level in the storage space under 15 percent.  

Ideal places to store MREs

An underground basement or root cellar is a cool place to store them. The temperature in these spaces is often consistent, but make sure that the humidity level in these locations is not an issue. A well-insulated pantry or closet can make a great location to store MREs, but make sure there is not a heat source in the closet.  

Under the stairs in your home could be an ideal location as well. A broom closet, under a bed, or a linen closet may work well in your home.   You can also keep your mre’s separate in a “battle box” container that can be easily picked up and taken with you in the event of an emergency.  

Bestseller No. 1
PLANO MOLDING 1719-00 Utility Trunk, 30 In.L x 14-1/4 In.W
  • Includes: removable reinforced lid, molded grooves for sturdy stacking
  • Trunk with lid capacity: 68 qts / Item: utility trunk / Outside width: 14.25"
  • Volume capacity: 3.22 cu ft / Inside length: 26" / Inside height: 11.25"
  • Latch: durable lockable / Color: black / Outside length: 30" / Outside height: 12.75"
  • Material: polypropylene / Finish: smooth / Inside width: 11.25"

Last update on 2022-01-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

How to Read the Manufacturers Date Code

With civilian MREs, some manufacturers make it relatively easy to figure out when the food will expire because most civilian manufacturers want survivalists to know how long they can keep their food safely.  

On the other hand, this can be much harder to figure out if you’re working with many civilian and military rations because there’s a whole system in place to track the inspection date, manufacture date, and expiry date. As a result, many MRE sources utilize a date code that’s stamped onto the actual inside of each MRE or on the box that the MREs are shipped in. For this reason, it can be tough to simply eyeball your MRE and tell whether it’s past its expiry or not.  

These codes entail four digits. The first digit typically represents the year based on 10-year systems, and since MREs aren’t designed to last more than a decade and should be thrown out past this point, you can assume that if you see a “9,” then that number represents the calendar year 2019. The remaining digits represent the day of the year, so if the MRE that you’ve purchased says 8033, this means that the ration was packed on the 33rd day of 2018, which would be the second of February.  

As a result of the fact that they are assuming that the MREs you own are less than 10 years old, there’s no real system for figuring out the manufacture date of MREs that fall outside of this date range.      

Julian Date Converter

For those that don’t want to do the precise math, there are Julian date converters online that can help you learn the precise packaging date of each of your MREs.  

To use these, you simply punch in the four-digit code that you find on the box or inner packaging of your MRE and click, “check code.” Usually, the code will instantly provide you with a precise manufacture date.  

Once you know when the product has been manufactured, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise to figure out if the MRE has reached its expiry since most MREs are only rated to last between three and five years.  

Of course, the temperature does affect the viability of an MRE, but in most cases, most will last for at least three years’ worth of storage time.  

How to Tell if They Have Expired

Well, to start, coloration is key to figuring out if your MREs are relatively fresh. If the packaging is dark brown in coloration, this means that this MRE predates the change in color that happened in 1995. After 1995, the military and civilian manufacturers shifted to a lighter tan color.  

Also, it’s essential to understand that, while an MRE may be past the expiry, some components may be safe to eat in a survival situation. For example, the lifespan of some items such as cookies, crackers, and peanut butter may be a bit longer than the main entrée, so in an emergency, you can rely on these for some sustenance.  

As a rule of thumb, if you notice any bloating in the packaging, you can assume that the interior of the MRE has gone bad in at least some way since excess gas is a sure sign of damaging microorganisms and rancidity. If the packaging hasn’t expanded, but the food smells or looks off, then it’s a good idea just to throw at least the bad portions of the MRE away.  

Ingredients and Nutritional Value of MREs

If you are considering MREs as a food source in a survival situation, you are probably wondering how many calories in an MRE .  

The calorie count and nutritional value of these meals are designed to be proportional to the 2,000 calories that are recommended for each day. The meals are broken down into the fat, protein, and carbohydrates that you need in a day, and most MRE meals contain about 1,200 calories. In most situations, you would be given two of these meals each day, so that the calories that you need to consume in a day are achieved.  

The Combat Rations Database is a great tool that soldiers and people who are using MREs in a survival situation can use. It is a great website that was developed by the Defense Department’s Performance Resource Center to help the consumer keep track of their intake while they are in the field.  

You can track your cholesterol intake, your sugar intake, your salt intake, and more, which can help soldiers remain healthy while they are on duty. It can also help you keep the right type of fuel in your system when you need a little bit of extra energy.  

ReadyWise Emergency Food Supply, Freeze-Dried Survival-Food Disaster Kit, Camping Food, Emergency Supplies Ready-Grab Bag, Lunch and Dinner Supply, 25-Year Shelf Life, 60 Servings
  • ESSENTIAL SURVIVAL KIT: Each grab bag contains 60 servings with 13 unique meal options.
  • JUST ADD WATER: Each entrée is easy to prepare in any emergency circumstance using just water.
  • LONG-LASTING STORAGE: Durable, storable food pouches keep rations fresh for up to 25 years.
  • VARIETY PACKS: Get a selection of 13 different ready-to-eat freeze-dried meals in each bucket.
  • BE READY: From emergency food rationing to hiking and camping, our shelf-stable food is there for you.

Last update on 2022-01-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

What is the Difference Between MREs and Freeze-Dried and Dehydrated Foods?

It’s a common misconception that freeze-dried foods are synonymous with MREs, when in fact, there are definitely differences.  

First, MREs aren’t freeze-dried; they utilize a vacuum sealing process that uses tri-laminate foil packaging that keeps out both oxygen and moisture, which are two major contributors to food spoilage. MREs are initially cooked and then boiled in the packaging to kill off any excess microorganisms that may still be inside. As a result, MREs can last anywhere from three to five years as long as they are stored in conditions around 78 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.   MREs, by their very nature, are designed to be ready to eat without any further preparation, though many include heaters for those that like their food warm.  

Freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, may require the addition of warm or boiling water to reconstitute the food that has been freeze-dried. This means that there is an implicit preparation period needed to eat freeze-dried food, which makes them a little less convenient than MREs to eat.  

Another major difference is that freeze-dried foods tend to have an even longer shelf life than MREs. On average, a food preserved in this way will be able to be eaten for up to 20 years, so for those looking for long-term survival options, these may work fairly well – at least as long as you have a source of water to rehydrate your freeze-dried meals.  

Final Thoughts

MREs are an excellent option for just about anyone that wants to be sure that they are receiving the right level of calories during a survival situation.  

These packs also can have some truly delicious options for anyone that doesn’t want to simply live off of survival bars, which can be somewhat bland in comparison.  

While you may not want to subsist off of one of these packages for the long haul, they definitely provide the energy and the nutrition that you’ll need to keep going.

Jared Russo
Hey, my name is Jared, a self-reliant expert and action taker. I hope you've enjoyed this article and found it informative. If you have please feel free to leave a comment below and share it with your friends and family, it would make my day!

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for our monthly email and be the first to know when new content is available.

We promise to protect your information and not to spam your inbox! Privacy Policy.

Scroll to Top
error: Alert: Content is protected !!