M.R.E.s are having a moment, but it's not because of the military

·3 min read
MREs including pizza
MREs including pizza

I am absolutely fascinated by M.R.E.s, aka, Meals, Ready-to-Eat, developed for use by the U.S. military. I’ve purchased many for myself, just for fun, and almost all of them have been terrible. But that doesn’t mean I’m done buying them, not by a long shot. But why deliberately buy food that tastes bad? Because it’s fun as hell. And lots of other people agree with me. The New York Times has a feature article on how and why this utility food has moved beyond the military and into popular culture.

During the early, panicky part of the pandemic in 2020, M.R.E. purchases blew up. But now that the country is easing out of restrictions, sales are still up, due to people’s fascination with the stuff.

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Sylvia Marie, a food policy researcher at Tufts University, bought some M.R.E.’s online for personal use. She was searching for new food that was easy to prepare. “A lot of the reviews were people who had been talking about how they had bought these to stock their bomb shelters,” she told the Times. “I don’t think I would normally associate myself with that population.”

The team at the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Division (try saying that three times fast), which develops some of these M.R.E.’s, is curious about the burst in interest. They are scientists and engineers who ask questions like whether the food is nutritious enough for the end user, or whether the packaging can survive combat or extreme environmental conditions.

Each package includes a full meal, including snacks, drinks, and a main meal, and each component has additives for a boost in nutrition or energy, like beef jerky fortified with caffeine. Meals that are unpopular get cut from the roster, and new ones are regularly added to take their place. In 2018, food technology was used to finally make pizza. I tried a version once and can say that while it wasn’t very good, I could see how it would scratch that itch, especially if you were very far away from home and it was the only pizza you might have access to.

Soldiers hate M.R.E.’s and have given them nicknames I personally find hilarious, like “Meals, Rarely Edible,” or “Meals, Rejected by Everyone.” But civilians on social media love this stuff, at least based off the popularity of YouTube channels like Steve1989MREInfo.

The meals I’ve tried have all contained a special chemical heater that is activated with just a touch of water. Results vary with those things, though. Most of my meals were barely heated, and not evenly, but when they did work properly, it was a miracle of modern science.

The M.R.E. trade is pretty murky. Technically, the meals are for military use only,and aren’t supposed to be sold, which makes me wonder if my purchase at a military surplus store was less than proper. I feel like such a rebel. The NYT piece goes into great depths about how the ecosystem around these meals persists, and about the resale business, so do yourself a favor and read it when you’ve got a minute. And if your curiosity ever does get the better of you, trying an M.R.E. really is a remarkable experience, even if it’s not a delicious one.