If you know a young soldier in todays Army, chances are they have told you how terrible the MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat is. He’s lying. They taste great. Now.
Back in the dark ages when the MRE was first introduced, they were so bad, people prefered the old C-ration. With good reason, too. The meals were terrible. The Army had abandoned the C-ration because of issues with the weight of the canned meals, and the difficulty of packing them in a soldiers load. The problem was that few foods were stable enough to be stored in the new foil pouch packaging. That shortcoming led to the following selection of less than inspiring menus:
Pork Patty (a dehydrated chunk of ground pork)
Ham and Chicken Loaf (yes, it is as bad as it sounds)
Beef Patty (similar to the aforementioned Pork Patty)
Beef Slices in BBQ Sauce (think shoe leather)
Beef Stew (almost palatable)
Frankfurters with Beans (The Four Fingers of Death, since there were 4 dogs in a pack)
Diced Turkey with Gravy (not like Mom’s home cooking)
Beef Diced with Gravy (best of the bunch, which ain’t saying much)
Chicken a la King (in 5 years, I never finished this one- that’s how bad it was)
Meatballs in BBQ Sauce (heartburn, here we come!)
Ham Slices (again, almost palatable, how do you screw up ham?)
Beef Ground with Spice Sauce (whoever came up with the sauce committed a war crime)
Chicken Loaf (this, and the Ham and Chicken Loaf, had the looked a lot like tuna in a pouch, but dry and tasteless)
In addition to this entree, each meal had crackers; a spread -such as jam, peanut butter, or processed cheese; a desert such as a rock hard chocolate bar or what they called pound cake; and an accessory pack with salt, pepper, sugar, instant coffee, creamer, a toothpick, matches, and a tiny little bundle of toilet paper (EVERY grunt knows to take his own roll or baby wipes with him)
When we went to the field, that’s all we got. MREs. Generally, if we were going to be out in the field for a week or less, that’s all we got. If we were lucky, they would bring us one hot meal (hot is a relative term- it was cooked, but stone cold by the time we got it). Each meal had about 1200 calories. Now, I know that the svelte ladies who read this site will say that that’s enough for a full day. But consider this- the average grunt burns between 4500 and 6000 calories a day in the field. That leaves us 2400 calories short per day. In fact, because the meals were so bad, most folks ended up getting only about 2400 calories a day. You would be weakened by hunger in two or three days.
The Army actually worked hard to fix this problem (no, really), but progress was very slow and it wasn’t until Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm that improved MREs came into the field. New menu items, larger portions and better accessories made for a much more survivable experience. Later, in 1992, a big leap forward came with the Flameless Ration Heater- a plastic pouch that heated the entree in by adding just a little water to it. I can’t tell you how great it was to have a hot meal.
By 1997, there were 20 different entree, including some breakfast menus, and all the original menus had been dropped. Every year now, new menu items are tested to see what the troops like. If it’s popular, it’s added and the least popular menu is dropped.
In the aftermath of Desert Storm and in Somolia, MRE were given to refugees facing starvation. Turns out, that wasn’t the wisest course of action for people suffering from malnutrition. The rich, fatty, high-protein menus were difficult for them to digest. In response, the Humanitarian Daily Ration was developed. This was a single pouch with food for one day, and was usually a high starch meal, such as beans and rice or lentils. They were also kosher/halal so there were no cultural issues in distributing them. Quite a few soldiers snuck a few of these and found them very tasty. As a result, the menus made their way into MREs as well.