Meals ready to eat, or MREs, are something that the military have used for a long time, and that are now popular among survivalists, and even making it into the mainstream. If you’ve ever been caught out in a power cut, or stuck on the roads for a long time due to extreme weather, then you’ve probably wished that you could warm up and eat something tasty to keep you going.
Few people can be bothered with the hassle of carrying a camping stove and gas, and lighting a fire “while a valuable skill” is overkill for being stuck in a traffic jam. Self-heating food packs occupy a useful, convenient position in that they provide people with a tasty, hot meal with no hassle and no mess.
What’s In a Self Heating Meal?
Self-heating meal packs come with:
– A water sachet
– A flameless heating envelope
– A meal in a sealed, waterproof and airtight bag
– Eating utensils
Making a self-heating meal is easy. While the precise instructions can vary from brand to brand, the overall idea is the same. Simply open the heater envelope, and put the meal into it. Add the water from the pack, and fold over the flap of the heating envelope, then place it on a flat surface (one that will not be damaged by heat). Leave the envelope to stand for the length of time listed on the instructions usually 10 to 12 minutes, but it pays to check. When the time is up, open the heating pack, tear open the top of the meal, and enjoy.
The pack heats up because the heater pad reacts with the water, creating an exothermic reaction. This means that it heats up, and heats the water, creating steam. The steam heats the food.
A Wide-Ranging Menu
MREs have come a long way from the early days. Today, you can get chilli con carne, vegetarian curry, mushroom risottos, paella, beef and dumplings. The choices are endless. Vegans, vegetarians, and those who follow kosher or halal diets are all well served by the menus on offer from most manufacturers.
Nutrition in MREs
Today, there are many companies offering civilian MREs, and it’s fair to say that the nutrition with those things can vary massively. The MRE meals used by the military, however, are carefully designed to keep the members of the military as fit as possible.
The perception, historically, of military MREs is that they were far from optimal; that they did not contain enough calories to sustain the expected activity level. They contained too much fat and too much salt and tasted bad. This is far from the case today. The military is committed to updating their menus to be in line with modern nutrition standards, and the modern-day MRE ration pack contains 12 meals and each meal, known as a menu, will contain an entree, some crackers, a spread for the crackers, a desert, accessories and beverages. Depending on your personal energy requirements you may be expected to eat two to four MREs a day.
Each “menu” offers 1,300 calories. Of that, 49% of the energy comes from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 36% from fat. In addition, there is a pouch of bread, which contains 200 calories -55% from carbohydrates, 12% from protein, and 33% from fat. This is far from a ketogenic diet, but it is a good macronutrient breakdown for an active person, and the micronutrient breakdown is good too. A single meal would sustain a small woman with a low activity level. An active man would eat multiple meals, and get everything that they need calorie wise.
Some MRE components have been fortified with vitamin A, B1, B2, B6, C and Niacin, as well as calcium. The cheese spreads, crackers, peanut butter, cocoa powder, cookies and brownies are all fortified, ensuring that members of the forces get everything they need nutrition wise.
Field rations vary from country to country what is served in Italy is rather different to the United States, for example. They are all carefully balanced, however, and designed to keep people going in high-pressure situations.
Can You Rely on MRE Meals?
Self-heating meals ready to eat are a good option for people who are going camping, need some emergency food to stash away, or just want to be prepared for anything. They can be eaten hot or cold, and they will keep you going far better than some dry crackers and chocolate bars. They can be expensive, though, for what you get. What you are paying for is the convenience the way that they can be heated at any time, and will keep for years if stored properly and the nutritional density. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar calorie and micronutrient density in such a small package in a mainstream supermarket.
The cost per calorie is high, but you are paying for the peace of mind. You can buy the meals once and know that they will last for an incredibly long time. Contrast that to buying some Kendal mint cake and dry noodles, where you’ll be replacing them rather regularly when they spoil, and you’ll see the value judgement.
What is the Best Way to Buy MREs?
Perhaps the best way to buy MREs is to stock up from a specialist store or an army surplus store, in bulk. You can buy meals per pack, but this is an expensive way of doing it. There are some stores that offer “prep as you go” meal services and will ship you a box per month. With these, you will find that you save a lot of money by spreading the cost but still buying in bulk.
My Experience With Self Heating Meals
I’m not a prepper, but I am on the road a lot – and I lead a very active lifestyle. Nutrition is important to me, so I spend a lot of time and money researching the best way to get a nutritionally balanced diet that will sustain my day to day activity level. I am quite an MRE enthusiast. As a small female, I find that the average single MRE contains almost enough calories for my day to day activity level. This is great news for me because it means that I don’t have to spend a lot on food and I can carry one or two rations to get me through a trip.
I keep an MRE stashed in my bag at all times, and keep some in my suitcase as well. They’re perfect for if I get stranded (yes, I have prepared an MRE at a transit station before when I’ve missed the last train, and all the stores were shut!). And they’re also ideal for times when I’m out hiking, have to take shelter due to bad weather, and really feel like I need something to pick me up to keep going.
The main meal part of most popular MREs – both the consumer stuff and the army surplus stuff – tastes pretty good these days. The manufacturers have perfected the ingredients, so you’re eating something that tastes good and that stays fresh because the packaging is sealed – not because it’s laced with enough preservatives to kill most life forms.
The rest of the package can be a little variable. Personally, I find that the crackers, bread and chocolate in a lot of MREs taste a little artificial. The spreads vary – jams are OK, but sometimes what passes for cheese spread isn’t great. It’s on a par with airline food, though – and if you’re hungry, then you’re probably still going to enjoy it.
That’s the trick, with MREs. The military doesn’t use them as primary food sources – they’re for emergency use. People pack them, but they won’t be opening them on base because they have real, fresh food available. They use the MREs when they’re far from support, and need an energy boost.
That’s how the average consumer should be using them too. We’re lucky enough to have international supply chains, and access to clean water, fresh food, locally grown produce, and fully equipped kitchens. Why use MREs when you can eat bananas, apples, broccoli, chicken, fresh cheese and wholegrain bread? Why rely on something full of preservatives when you can cook from scratch?
If you’re the prepping sort, then it’s understandable that you’d want to have some MREs in your kitchen. It’s a good idea to keep some in your car and in your backpack/bug out bag as well. Buy them, stash them, and forget about them.
Understanding MRE Date Codes
If you store an MRE at 75 degrees F or less, then it can be reasonably expected to last for around five years. In warmer temperatures, they may expire more quickly. In cooler temperatures, they will last longer – although if the entree is a wet pack one, rather than dehydrated, it’s best to assume that it will last five years only.
MRE packs, at least the military ones and the ‘military style’ ones, don’t have a standard Use By/Best Before on them. Rather, they have a manufacture date. This indicates when the package was made. As long as the seal on the packaging is still intact, it is safe to assume that it will last for around five years – although over time the package may lose some taste and nutritional value. Common sense applies here, too. If the package starts to bloat, or the food smells bad, then throw it away.
MRE makers don’t use DD-MM-YY for their dates. They use a four-digit modified version of the Julian Date Code. The first digit represents the year, and the last three digits represent the day. So, if a package was made in 5304, that means it was made on the 304th day of 2015 – so, October 31st.
MRE makers say that their MREs are not intended to last for longer than ten years, so the implicit assumption is that you will not keep them for longer than that. This is why the MRE manufacture dates do not have two digits for the year. A package made in ‘5’ was made in ‘2015’, not ‘2005’. It should also have been discarded by the time 2026 comes around so there can be no confusion that the package was made in 2025!
Can You Eat an Out of Code MRE?
Since there is no official expiration date printed on an MRE, there is no such thing as going ‘out of code’. However, the general advice is that you should throw out an MRE that is more than five years old – and you should always throw out an MRE that has a damaged seal because a huge part of what keeps MREs fresh is that they are airtight.
With that said, what would happen if you ate an out of code MRE?
There are some videos floating around on survival forums of people eating MREs that are decades old, and they have not come to harm. That’s not to say that you should follow their example. However, a properly sealed MRE that has been kept in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight, with a stable temperature at all times is not going to go bad because it is five years and one day old. That’s not how bacteria works.
If you’re a survival enthusiast with a job, a decent income and who is engaging in outdoor activities as a hobby, then rotating your MRE supply is a good idea. Donate your ‘four-year-old MREs’ to someone who needs them for food – a homeless shelter or a food bank may take them off your hands. Use them to teach the kids about survival, or eat them as little camping trip treats in the house. Buy new ones to replace them so that you don’t have to worry about them going out of code.
If, on the other hand, the zombie apocalypse strikes tomorrow and you find yourself with no food, dangerous people outside banging on the door, and no way of preparing anything better, then there’s a decent chance that your ‘out of date’ MREs could be perfectly safe to eat.
You will have a better chance of enjoying good, long-lasting MREs if you buy ones that are high quality, ex-military, in opaque packets. There are some cheap consumer-grade MREs which are sold in clear packages, and these go bad quickly.
Time and Temperature Indicators
Some modern MREs have a Time and Temperature Indicators located on the outside of the main box. This is a circular indicator. If the center of the circle shows a lighter color than the outer ring, then there’s a good chance that the MRE is fine. If the two circles are the same color then the MRE may have started to decay a little bit, but could be worth eating in an emergency. Replace it at this point if you have the opportunity to do so. If the center is darker than the outer ring, then the MRE is almost definitely spoiled and should be discarded.
Again, in a survival situation, you should use your common sense. You can open the MREs to check them. Some things such as sauces will turn dark brown if they have been exposed to heat or gone bad. Some things will grow mould and should obviously be thrown away. Dry parts of the meals will likely last longer than wet parts and can be eaten as long as they don’t smell and are not mouldy.
Leaky pouches are likely to have spoiled. A pouch that is bulging is also a very bad sign. A bacteria called botulism can thrive in anaerobic conditions such as those in tinned food or MRE pouches, and botulism can be fatal to humans. Discard bulging pouches immediately, but try to do so in an environment where wild animals will not be able to get to the food because botulism can be dangerous for animals as well.
Living on MREs
Some people joke about living on MREs, but this is probably not a good idea. The meals will keep people going in a pinch, but because they are designed to be shelf-stable for several years, they aren’t as kind on the body as normal food. You’ll be getting less fiber, for example, and that can lead to gastric distress over time.
It’s handy to have MREs on hand for those emergency moments – and if you’re the kind of person that likes to prepare for storms and for power cuts, then they can be fun to have. You can even make power cuts exciting by saying to the kids “let’s pretend we’re camping. Would you like to make the MRE?” You can then use it as a science lesson, and explain exothermic reactions, and talk about the food itself and how it would keep someone going if they were out in the wilds. Done right, this entertains the kids for a while and makes them not feel like the power cut or storm is a huge inconvenience. It’s also better than feeding them crisps and chocolate bars during a storm and having them get hyperactive.
If you’re not sure what menus you might like, why not buy an MRE sample box and try a few different meals? This will help you to figure out what you like and could save you a lot of money compared to buying an entire crate and discovering that actually, you don’t enjoy it.
Self Heating Meals vs Home Canning
One popular alternative to self-heating meals ready to eat is home canning. The tradeoff here is complex. Self-heating MREs are convenient, pre-packaged, have a long shelf life, and are generally safe and really hard to damage. Home canning can be significantly less expensive than MREs. However, you need to prepare the food once it is opened – and, while home-canned food can happen in theory last “forever” as long as the can’s seal is not broken, there is a lot that could go wrong. If you don’t can the food correctly, it could spoil, and the first you would know about that would be when you opened the can.
Home canning works well if you know what you are doing and have some experience with food preparation, but it is risky if you do not. If you are worried about keeping yourself and your family safe for a longer term disaster, then commercially sealed products are the lowest risk bet, even if there is a price premium.
As with anything, it is a balancing act. Many people feel that MREs are too expensive for anything more than short-term use, so they opt to stock up on a few of them and then do other preparation on top. This is a smart compromise and a way around the challenges of keeping people safe and healthy.
MREs have the advantage of being portable and tradeable. You can carry them with you, and if you’re out camping and run into someone who has something you want, then you can swap it. In a survival situation, you could swap a meal, or parts of a meal, for something else that you need. Many people may be reluctant to trade canned food since there is no guarantee of what is actually in the can.
How and when to use MREs comes down to your own judgement and your own needs. They’re a great investment for a lot of different people, however, and it’s well worth looking at them. Be realistic about how much you spend, though, and what you use them for. Prepping is good – but there’s no point wasting money on something that is impractical. Consider investing in training to learn some valuable survival skills for yourself, so that you can continue to survive after the last MRE has been used up.