The “Meal, Ready to Eat” or MRE was developed by the Department of Defense in response to a series of problems presented by previous field rations. The “C-rations” used during World War II and the “Meal, Combat, Individual” (MCI) that immediately preceded the MRE were canned “wet” rations that were intended for use when soldiers were unable to access a garrison or field kitchen. Though they were only supposed to be used for short periods of time, the reality was that on patrol field rations became the primary source of nutrition for soldiers. Thus, it was essential that the U.S. military address the shortcomings of the MCI in order to provide soldiers with a shelf stable ration that would adequately provide nutritional content for troops. The main problems with the MCI were: the cumbersome weight of the cans (sometimes up to 25 pounds), the lack of variety of the meals, and the lack of adequate nutritive content.
The Department of Defense began development of the Meal, Ready to Eat as early as 1963 in response to the heavy weight of the MCI. Early experiments focused on developing a dehydrated ration that could be carried in a canvas pouch. This led to the development of the “Long Range Patrol” (LRP) ration, which debuted in 1966. Unfortunately, though it solved the problem of weight, the LRP proved to be too expensive for continued use especially when compared to the existing MCI ration, leading to its limited usage and continued attempts at discontinuance by Quartermaster’s Command (QMC), the branch of the U.S. military charged with providing food sustenance to warfighters. By 1975 the LRP ration and other freeze dried rations such as the, “Jungle” ration were discontinued in favor of the first generation of the Meal, Ready to Eat. In 1978 the first large scale production of test of MREs was tested, this early version was encased in a plastic retort pouch and was shelf stable for up to three years in room temperature. After testing the U.S. Military deemed the MRE to be adequate for fulfilling the dietary requirements of soldiers and in 1981 the MRE-1 was first delivered to active duty troops. The first generation of the Meal, Ready to Eat attempted to improve on the variety of the MCI by offering six different menus. In 1983 the MRE underwent its first field evaluation when the 25th Infantry Division was sent out for a 34 day mission with nothing to consume but the new MRE. Though the troops self-reported the new field ration as “adequate,” only 60% of the calories provided were actually consumed. The MRE was fielded once again in 1986 with similar results. Improvements that emerged from these studies included the expansion of the menu to a (limited) 12-item menu, introduction of commercial candy products to many of the menus, and the expansion of entrees from 5 ounces to 8 ounces. After these improvements were implemented the Department of Defense made the Meal, Ready to Eat the standard issue field ration for all warfighters in combat operations.
In 1991 Operation Desert Storm provided the first opportunity for scientists of military nutrition to properly observe the MRE in extended combat scenarios. Results were mixed, though the meals were regarded by U.S. Military brass as adequate for nutritive purposes and were much lighter than the previous C-rations and MCI rations, on the ground the new field ration was regarded with contempt. Soldiers came up with many derogatory names for the rations including “Mr.E (mystery),” “Meals, Rejected by Everyone,” “Meals, Rarely Edible,” even “Meals, Rejected by Ethiopians.” They were sometimes referred to as “Three Lies in One: they aren’t meals, they aren’t ready, and they certainly aren’t edible.” The low content of dietary fiber also led to nicknames like “Meals, Refusing to Exit.” On one USO tour comedian (now Senator) Al Franken joked that he was on his fifth MRE and “none of them had an exit strategy.” With all of the new input scientists working for the Department of Defense went back to the drawing board to improve the meals. What they found was that if the MRE menu lacked variety warfighters were less likely to consume the necessary calories for combat situations. With this in mind the MRE-XIII was released in 1993 with an expanded menu (full) 12 items, many of the worst offenders from the previous generation were done away with and new items were introduced. In 1992 the Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) was introduced and dramatically improved the amount of calories that soldiers in the field consumed. In 1994 the MRE-XIV introduced commercial graphics (it seems troops were more likely to consume more calories if the packaging was something other than standard military olive drab), the packaging was made easier to open, and utensils (usually just spoons) were made longer (to make it easier to reach the contents) and biodegradable (to make them more environmentally friendly). Other innovations that were introduced in this generation were chocolate bars that did not melt, even in desert heat, and shelf stable bread that looked and felt like fresh bread even after weeks in the field.
By 1996 the MRE menu had expanded to 18 meals (and eventually 24 where it now stands) and meals for specialized diets were first introduced. Today independent contractors working in association with the U.S. military provide vegetarian, Halal and Kosher meals. There is even a special menu for the Passover meal. All of these options are tailored to provide the same nutritive content without the offending contents of the standard MREs. The U.S. Military has also greatly improved the Research and Development aspect of the MRE. Early in the development of the MRE input from active duty troops was rarely sought out, but the overwhelmingly negative reaction Desert Storm troops gave it caused the Department of Defense to change the way it handled succeeding generations. Today the Continuous Product Improvement (CPI) program sends dieticians, engineers, and scientists to troops in the field to test out potential changes to the MRE. These controlled studies mean that feeding warfighters has become much more focused on the needs and tastes of actual active duty troops instead of a paternalistic system of “scientifically adequate” rations approved by top military brass. Changes made in response to the CPI program include the addition of a small Tabasco bottle in a number of the MREs and beverage packets (because today warfighters generally use hydration packs instead of canteens meaning there is no container to mix powders).
The modern-day MRE is a fully contained meal that provides all of the essential nutrients necessary to keep a fighter going in the field. Thanks to the tireless effort of the U.S. Military there has also been a substantial improvement to the percentage of nutrients the active duty soldier actually consumes as well. When the contemporary soldier opens their MRE today it includes: an entree, a side dish, a dessert (often a commercial candy), crackers or bread, and a spread of cheese, peanut butter, or jelly. In addition to the food it comes with an accessory pack that includes a powdered beverage (usually coffee or tea), utensils, the Flameless Ration Heater, beverage mixing bag, chewing gum, a matchbook, and spices (salt, pepper, and another spice).
The success of the Meal, Ready to Eat has led to investigations as to whether the technology could be applied to the civilian population, especially in times of desperate need, such as a natural disaster. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike, civilians displaced from their homes were provided with MREs. Unfortunately due to the high amount of calories in each MRE (approximately 1200-1300) many people gained weight because they were not as active as a warfighter out on patrol. This led to the development of the MRE’s closest cousin, the Humanitarian Daily Ration (HDR) in order to provide victims of natural disasters with the proper amount of nutrition.
The success of the MRE bodes well for the U.S. Military, today the meals are tested and approved by active duty troops making them as popular as any field ration has ever been. The future of field rations lies with the Department of Defense’s ability and desire to continue to improve the MRE to suit the tastes and needs of warfighters. So far it looks like they are committed to listening to those fighters in the field meaning that the Meal, Ready to Eat has a bright future indeed.