By Tom Faller
From the misc.survivalism newsgroup:
As promised, I’ve written up some of my evaluations of MRE entrees and accessories. These are very subjective – I’m sure Julia Child would have just starved, but in general, I don’t think you’d do too badly using MREs for emergency food backup. Several manuals I’ve seen suggest that children and the elderly will stop eating if they are required to survive off of unfamiliar food, so these are a possible alternative to straight wheat, salt sugar, powdered milk in nitrogen-packed #10 cans.. 😉
MREs: To Feed or Not to Feed?
A prime concern of anyone fending for himself is a steady supply of nutritious food. Although the body can go without food far longer than it can without air or water, lack of food can cause weakness, confusion and fainting. At the very least, the noise of an empty belly will be distracting and may scare off game.
Preserving food for carry has a long and dismal history. The desire for fresh-tasting food can at times be overwhelming, as shown by the examples of the Donner party and occasional stranded rugby teams. Given the choice of carrying around heavy canned food or taking a mortgage out to buy freeze-dried, the typical camper chose to subsist on Triscuits and M&Ms, and tuck an extra ten dollars in his boot for a stop at McDonalds on the way home.
The genius of the military provides another alternative: the Meal, Ready to Eat, or MRE. (Just another example of the military’s insatiable appetite for TLA’s, or Three-Letter Acronyms). The MRE is a full meal, already cooked, that just wants warming up. It is packaged in airtight foil and plastic bags, which are lighter than cans and only twice as bulky as bricks.
The full MRE is a package about a foot long, six inches wide and two inches thick. Wrapped in brown plastic and sealed at the ends, it looks like a giant candy bar. Inside the initial bag are several flat cardboard packages containing more brown pouches and, well, more brown pouches. Sorting this out is usually easy, in broad daylight, in good lighting. Each brown package has black lettering on it somewhere, indicating the contents. This is to keep you from boiling the package of crackers or opening the stew in your lap.
The cardboard packages have the contents printed on the outside, and these are usually the main courses, so it is wise to set them aside. Each MRE has a meat pouch, or a meat and starch pouch, kind of like a stew, or casserole, or leftovers. There is a side dish, like more starch or fruit, a bread and spread, a dessert, and a separate package with accessories. A spoon or fork is packed in the main pouch. Each meal includes a pouch with powdered beverage, like fruit drink or cocoa.
The accessory pouch contents are pretty standard, even across meal types. Packages of salt, pepper, sugar, instant coffee, creamer, and a moistened washing towel accompany toilet tissue, chewing gum, special matches, and sometimes candy or other accessories.
MREs are made by contractors, following government specs, so contents can vary slightly, but quality has to stay high. You may see variations in origin and recipes, but the meals will be familiar from menu to menu.
I bought a range of MREs for taste testing from three different sources: a survivalist outlet, an army surplus store, and at a gun show. In each case, the range of menus offered was different, and the packaging varied. Most of the time, you will see MREs offered only as complete packages, either singly or as cases of 12 or 30 meals. Outlets can supply the individual components, offering the opportunity to buy the components you need and not get stuck with leftovers. Some outlets offer discounts on “emergency packs”, made mostly of main courses and entrees. This is a good way to get the main meal components for packing along on day trips or to stock for emergencies.
In evaluating the MREs, I kept things simple. I heated the main pouches in hot water, to test how well the bag’s seal leaked, and to see if heating imparted a chemical or plastic taste to the food. In all cases, the pouches did not leak, nor did they add a taste to the food. I varied the meals, at times just using one package, at times using several, or even mixing them together. For tasting purposes, I’ll report each one separately. The military, endlessly inventive, and with 19-year-old stomachs, mix together the damnedest combinations of packages in order to force some variety into their diet. I kept this to a minimum.
A couple of points to go into before I start. I was surprised; the food was generally palatable and fresh-tasting. In some cases, it was good, and I could look forward to some of these meals. In other cases, it was at least better than some hospital food I’ve had, although not quite up to airline food. Tabasco sauce is fiendishly included in some of the meals, in a cute little small bottle. There is just enough for flavor, and not enough to hurt yourself with. Living just on the edge of Cajun country, I know that overdosing on pepper sauce can be fun, but you pay for it later. In several cases, even without the sauce, the meals caused indigestion (which I rarely get these days otherwise), but nothing serious, and I did not get any evidence of unhealthy food – it was probably due to the levels of dextrose and salt in some of the meals.
This is not health food. It will keep you alive, and keep you going under heavy exertion. A full day’s ration should give you 4000 calories, well over the diet of most adults not running around in a battle zone. There’s a lot of salt and fat in some meals – again, not a problem if you’re active, but if you’re using these as rations, look for supplements and go easy on the spreads and desserts. I’ve listed some of the nutritional information below.
The meals include almost no vegetables. There are tomato sauces, and some small pieces of veggies, but you won’t find broccoli or a salad. Fruits are also at a minimum. Most calories are from protein, starches and fats, generally in that order. Sauces may have extra dextrose for flavor as well as for energy. This makes them very useful for survival use, as a compact source of energy, but you will have to supplement your diet over the long run.
There are tables published which give most of the nutritive values of each meal, broken out by package. Some outlet’s catalogs will have tables. Generally, they only cover the meals that supplier can get, so I’ve listed some of the details in a table below, but some columns are blank where no info was available.
Escalloped Potatoes and Ham – Ham and potato cubes, about 1/4″ across in a creamy sauce. The picture looked like hash, but it’s more like a well-stocked soup. The ham is the same quality as all the ham used in these meals – good and lean, not Spam-like, not chewy, but with a ham texture. I didn’t find any gristle. The potatoes are soft, but not overcooked. The broth is like potato soup, a little salty, but good. It could use a little pepper. There’s enough gravy to serve as a basis for stew.
Cooked Ham Slice (smoke flavoring added) – This was a solid block of shaped (not chopped) ham, about the size of a tin of sardines. It is packed in water-based juice, but not sloppy. It has a good, slightly smoky flavor and good texture, like a slow-baked smoked ham. I found no big pockets or veins of fat or gristle. This isn’t Spam, it’s a shaped ham steak.
Tuna Noodle Casserole – Tuna with flat noodles, green peas, small amounts of mushroom and celery. As with some of the other casserole meals, the first two ingredients are the main constituents and the rest just add a little color or flavor. The tuna taste was good, and the noodles and sauce were filling. A lesser onion taste was present. Other ingredients (listed on box) kind of vanished into the sauce.
Pork with Rice in BBQ Sauce – Mostly pork and thick, sweet tomato paste with rice. The pork is in small chunks (it isn’t the ham), and has good taste and texture. The sauce is close to the texture of sauce in canned spaghetti, but it has some barbecue flavor. The overall taste is meaty. After the initial tasting, I added a can of pineapple rings to mine – a great lunch!
Omelet With Ham – this is the infamous dish that gave MREs a bad name in the Gulf War. As I heard the story later, though, the problem was that we were feeding our Arab allies the same MREs as our troops. Oops – they won’t eat the ham dishes. So one bunch of brave soldiers sorted out all their beef and chicken entrees and got a monotonous diet in return, with the Omelet being served several times a day. The Omelet is actually pretty good, although blander than the rest. The package includes Tabasco sauce, which helps it greatly. The color is pale yellow/orange, and the texture is like pressed scrambled eggs, (which is what it mostly is, natch..). Lots of small chunks of ham are sprinkled evenly throughout, and although it wouldn’t make the grade at IHOP, it has a meaty taste, and the ham is the same good quality as in the other dishes.
Corned Beef Hash – Ground corned beef with small potato chunks in broth, accompanied by small flecks of green pepper, onion, and other veggies. Taste and texture were kind of bland. Pepper helped, but this isn’t one of the more exciting meals.
Beef Frankfurters – Four all-beef franks, each about three inches long. They’re real hot dogs, boiled in the bag. Up country, you’d have to forego both charcoal and a bun, but they taste just fine, just like the ones in the grocery store. These would be good for campfires.
Applesauce – Thick and fine grained, with an average apple taste. Not oversweetened or citrus enhanced, but it could use some cinnamon.
Potatoes Au Gratin – Quarter inch cubes of potato in a bland cheddar cheese sauce. The sauce was more yellow than cheesy – like most commercial cheese sauces and soups. This was greatly improved with pepper or pepper sauce. It seems kind of light as a side dish, though.
Corn Chowder – Looked more like bean casserole. Small, dark peas/beans with some corn and tomato in a sweet, slightly smoky sauce. The peas were firm, but not crunchy. The sauce was sticky, and had a slightly peppery taste. Note: this may not be a regular MRE. The cardboard package had a US flag emblem and HDR printed in block letters. A title explained: Humanitarian Daily Ration – A Gift from the People of the United States of America., along with a graphic of someone eating the contents of the pouch with a spoon. Our tax dollars at work, presumably.
Breads and Spreads
Crackers – also known as “biscuits” abroad, these are two flat crackers, about 4″ square. They are dimpled, but they don’t easily break into smaller sections. They’re flat-tasting, with just a hint of chemical taste that’s probably from the freshness extender. Still, they’ve got a good “wheat” background taste. They’re stiff, rather than crisp, which helps them hold up to spreading better. They aren’t very salty, which accounts for the slightly flat taste. I’ve crammed these in a bike bag and found them mostly intact hours later.
Peanut Butter – Typical smooth peanut butter. A little dry, meaning it isn’t over oily, and the oils didn’t separate out. Goes well on crackers, or you could try Thai cooking with it…
Jelly – Grape. What more needs to be said?
Cheese Spread – Pale yellow, it’s more like Cheeze Wiz than cheddar, but think of it as cooking ingredient rather than an hors d’ourve spread.
Chocolate Granola Bar – Like a chocolate-covered brownie, with rich chocolate taste. Very sweet, small nut pieces. Much like the commercial breakfast bars.
Cherry Nut Cake – Orange-tan flat “glob” of cherry and nut-flavored pastry. It’s kind of dense, like a squashed cake or a brownie. The taste is like a cherry Danish. Sweet and fruity tasting, there are lots of nut pieces. It isn’t spongy or crumbly, but pieces break off easily.
Maple Nut Cake – Strong maple aroma (no, there aren’t bits of maple wood included). Plenty of various nut pieces. Texture and consistency similar to cherry nut cake.
Fruit Bar – Freeze-dried fruit cocktail bar that’s dry and crunchy like styrofoam, and leaves a sticky edge to your mouth. It’s like other freeze-dried foods like the “astronaut ice cream” from a couple of years back. It’s light orange-pink in color with dried fruit suspended in a sugary matrix. Tastes good, but you have to wash it down with some water, it’s so sweet.
Oatmeal Cookie – A tan, 2 1/2″x1″x1/2″ brick, dry but easily chewed. It’s sweet, but not as chewy as an oatmeal cookie. The texture is very fine grained.
There are plenty of desserts and a couple of entrees I haven’t tried yet. I’ll try to add more reviews as I get to things, but these are made as production runs, so suppliers can run out of certain meals. I haven’t tried any of the chicken or beef entrees yet, but I’ve got more here to work through and I’ve seen more around.
*This is not a vendor’s guarantee.
Basic Nutrition per US Army labs* Entree Calories Protein gm. Fat gm. Sodium mg. Beef Stew 267 30 10 1040 Corned Beef Hash 330 30 13 870 Meatballs & Rice 376 33 15 1400 Spaghetti & Meat 241 23 7 1100 Tuna & Noodles 255 26 9 600 Omelet & Ham 221 23 13 940 Escalloped Potatoes 234 24 8 1200 Ham Slice 153 26 5 1360 BBQ Pork & Rice 443 32 25 830 Chicken a la King 281 30 14 970 Chicken & Rice 290 31 11 1040 Chicken Stew 250 19 10 635
- Desserts varied widely in calorie content and fat content. Use desserts as energy food. An average person, planning MREs to get him through a house-bound emergency, should watch fat and salt intake, and supplement MREs with canned or dried vegetables and fruits.
- Well, I hope this saves someone a lot of effort and taste-testing, and maybe will get somebody else, who bought MREs as a “good idea” but has never had the guts to try one to break down and use them. I can re-post this privately on request, and would appreciate comments and advice.
- The cheese and peanut butter used to be better than store bought. MREs taste much better hot. The fruit-nut cake goes well with water added to the dried fruit. Many of the entrees are also improved by adding hot water.
- The stews and similar entrees have *very* thick “gravy”, and when hot water is added (tear off at the top notch, open, and add water to fill) they make a very tasty soup — not watered down at all, and more tasty and filling.