The MRE, or ‘Meal Ready to Eat’ is a military invention that has found favor with ordinary citizens who understand the need to be prepared in case of natural or manmade disaster. But while they may have military roots they bear little resemblance to the canned meat served to soldiers for much of the 20th century.
An MRE today may be anything from spaghetti and meat sauce to chicken burritos, lentil stew, cheese tortellini or any of several dozen other delicious, nutritious meals. They also come in lightweight, vacuum-sealed pouches, are precooked, highly portable and will remain edible for up to 5 years.
There are a lot of different MRE options to choose from today. We’ve tested dozens of them and determined that the following are the best MREs for 2021.
1. Sterling Foods Genuine Military MREs
These military-ready MREs from Sterling Foods are DoD approved and come 12 meals to the carton. The packaging is nondescript, but the contents are anything but. These are well-considered, tasty, complete, ready-to-eat meals that come in 6 varieties but can be easily mixed and matched to avoid menu fatigue. Each meal provides approximately 1,200 calories, and all the nutrient levels are clearly listed on each package, along with a ‘use by’ date.
The meals themselves run the gamut from Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, to Southwestern Chicken with Black Beans and Rice, Hearty Beef Stew and more. Maybe the most welcome surprise regarding these meals is the taste, which is consistently good from dish to dish. Each meal also comes with its own water-activated heating element.
2. Ozark Outdoorz MREs
These are not military ‘surplus’ MREs, these are MREs ‘inspired’ by contemporary military field rations but intended for the civilian market. That said, Ozark Outdoorz MREs are made using military guidelines for preparation, packaging, shelf life and quality. Every meal is fully cooked, does not require refrigeration and has its nutritional information clearly printed on each foil pouch.
Entrees include Italian Spinach, Chicken Chunks, Pizza, Mashed Potatoes with Bacon Bits and more. Most meals include crackers or bread and some type of spread, such as peanut butter or spreadable cheese. You also have your choice of several different beverages including powdered fruit drink, coffee, or Gatorade. You can eat these meals ‘as is’, or you can choose to heat them up using the included heating element. Taste is above average, which compensates a bit for the fact that they’re pretty expensive due to covid-related demand.
3. EverSafe MREs
EverSafe is another brand designed to appeal to the civilian market. The company has put a lot of thought into their MREs, taking the best of what works for the military and adding their own distinctive slant to the product. Each meal contains an entree of either beef, chicken, pork or seafood, crackers or tortillas, one of several different spreads, coffee and condiments and can be eaten hot or cold.
If you want to heat the meal but don’t have access to a stove, fear not. Each meal also includes a water activated heater element. EverSafe MREs have a purported shelf life of 3+ years which is pretty average. Each meal provides between 1,000 and 1,250 calories, which should be more than enough for the average adult, and you get enough meals in a single case to last 5 or 6 days, depending on how many meals you eat per day. Taste is routinely good, there is a lot of variety in the meals EverSafe offers, and every package is stamped with a ‘use by’ date.
4. XMRE Blue Line MREs
XMRE Blue Line MREs feature several dozen food combos which prevents menu fatigue and provides reasonably balanced nutrition. Like most MREs on our list they mix and match their menu items constantly so it is nearly impossible to know exactly what you are going to get in any given box. Other than the fact that each meal will contain a chicken, pork, beef or vegetarian entree, some type of cracker or bread, a snack bar or other snack, fruit juice and coffee.
Each meal provides up to 1,200 calories, which is right in line with an average adult’s dietary requirements. While many of their entrees are quite tasty there are a few, such as their Hearty Chili, that need some help. At least in our opinion. Overall, however, XMRE Blue Line MREs are tasty, can be enjoyed hot or cold, will keep for several years and are made in the US.
5. Rothco MRE Box Menus 1-12
Rothco MREs are some of the only genuine military surplus meals that are worth bothering with. Many times when you encounter real military issue MREs they’re either past their expiration date or the packaging has been compromised or some such thing. Not so with these military MREs from Rothco.
While Rothco MREs won’t impress many celebrity chefs, they do what they do very well and you’re sure to get through whatever challenge has befallen you if you have these at your disposal. All meals are clearly marked with an expiration date, packaging is robust and effective, and they tend to be a little more reasonably priced than some other MREs.
6. Sopacko Military MREs
These MREs from Sopacko are also military ready MREs. To their credit, the seller has gone to great pains to specify what you get in these ready meals, and what you get is slightly above the competition. Sopacko also goes the extra mile to ensure the packaging of these military MREs is durable and that they are delivered quickly and safely to your door.
We mentioned they list what is in each 12 meal box, so we should spend a moment talking about those contents. High points include their Chicken w/Egg Noodles & Veggies, Mexican Style Chicken Stew, and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. Meals that could use a little work include, Spinach Mushrooms & Cream Sauce, and the Brisket Entree. But of course, that’s our opinion. You may love those dishes.
7. A-Pack Ready Meals
A-Pack Ready Meals are commercially produced for the private market. Each carton contains 12 meals with six different entrees. Everything from Asian Veggies and sauce, to Indian Pork and Spaghetti with Italian Meat Sauce is on the menu. Even if you are stuck in an emergency shelter or isolated in your home for a week you’re not likely to suffer menu fatigue.
Smoothies, crackers, desserts, seasoning packets, utensils and towelettes are all included. What you won’t find in these ready meal packages is coffee. Nor will you find salt and pepper or sugar. The coffee omission is kind of a head scratcher, but not so much as to be a deal breaker. These ready meals do tend to sell out quickly. Which might be their biggest downside.
8. MRE Star Full Meal Kits
MRE Star Full Meal Kits provide well-balanced nutrition and decent variety, and have a shelf life of 5+ years when properly stored. Everything from the packaging to the comprehensive nature of each meal is first-rate, and each complete meal package can be opened up and the contents swapped around to create your own variations and keep things interesting.
There’s Pinto Bean Stew with Ham, Vegetarian Chili with Beans, Chicken Noodles with Vegetables and more. Each meal also comes with crackers/bread, a snack or snack bar, powdered fruit juice, coffee, condiments and spoon. With few exceptions the meals are quite tasty and will keep you and your family well-fed. A good choice for hikers too.
9. Western Frontier 24 Meal MRE Case
Western Frontier 24 Meal MRE Case is one of several short-on-frills but big-on-taste MREs on the market. They look like military ‘surplus’ MREs but they’re not. They’re made for the civilian market and have become quite popular among people fearful that ‘temporary’ lockdowns could become something more serious. Each case contains 24 meals and each has a recent inspection date stamped clearly on the side.
With Western Frontier it’s impossible to tell from their case exactly what will be inside. The company produces numerous different entrees and sides and is known for mixing things up. Sometimes their combinations work to perfection. Sometimes they fall flat on their face. If you do not have a gambling sensibility you may find other MREs more to your liking.
10. Captain Dave’s 12 Military MRE Entrees
The final entry on our list of best MREs comes from Captain Dave. There’s nothing terribly exceptional about these particular ready meals. Except that they aren’t really ready ‘meals’. They’re ready entrees. And that’s fine because not everyone is down with some of the peripherals you get in a typical ready meal. And by that we mean folks often pass on the snacks, coffee and fruit drinks. Instead they eat the entree and push away from the table.
If you want to have some basic backup food in the house in case the SHTF, these military-style entrees from Captain Dave will fit the bill. Maybe the best thing about them, (besides the price), is the variety. Everything from Turkey Chili, to Beef Tacos, to Pasta Marinara, to Lentil Stew and many more. Comes with their own water activated heating element too.
What Is an MRE?
MRE stands for ‘Meal Ready to Eat’. This type of prepared food is by and large a military innovation that resulted from the need to keep troops in the field well-nourished. An army runs on its stomach as they say, and MREs keep those stomachs full without compromising mobility or requiring elaborate preparation.
Although the MRE has its roots firmly planted in the military it has become a popular item with the civilian population including preppers and survivalists. But they’re not the only ones. Families have begun to see the wisdom of keeping MREs on hand, to mitigate the effects of a hurricane, tornado, flood, blizzard or a half dozen other natural disasters.
Today’s MREs are a far cry from their immediate progenitors, the MCI or Meal, Combat, Individual (1) rations that sustained US troops throughout much of the Vietnam War. While the MCI consisted of little more than some canned ham, crackers and canned fruit, today’s MREs may be anything from chicken burritos to lentil stew to chicken tetrazzini. Many of today’s MREs also come with their own heating element and so do not require you to lug heavy and dangerous fuel around.
How long do MREs last?
Unlike dehydrated food MREs are ‘wet’. That is, they have been prepared as you would normally prepare such dishes in the kitchen and then sealed ‘as is’ in an airtight pouch. You have to remember that food has 2 primary enemies: air and water. If allowed unfettered access to your food they will turn your delicious lentil stew into a bacteria pool in pretty short order.
By removing the air component from the MRE you extend the shelf life of the food from days to as many as 3-5 years. But, because water is present, you will not get 20 years out of an MRE like you will with some dehydrated foods, because dehydrated foods remove both air and water from the equation. Some of the earliest MREs contained dehydrated elements that extended their shelf life beyond 3-5 years. But these have largely been purged from contemporary MREs in order to simplify preparation and improve taste.
How are MREs Packaged?
The MRE as we know it today resulted from an evolutionary process that started centuries ago and continues as you read this. One of the most important steps forward in MRE evolution occurred in the post-Vietnam era when heavy, impractical cans were replaced with vacuum sealed pouches (2).
Eliminating the can greatly increased portability by reducing weight. Many think it also helped improve taste by eliminating the metallic overtones some foods acquired when sitting in cans for long periods of time.
The vacuum-sealed, thermo-stabilized, laminated pouch provides outstanding food safety without the need for refrigeration. The pouch is also much easier to open than cans ever were and does not produce the sharp, dangerous edges that result even from the pull-top lids you find on soups and other canned food today. These pouches are also subject to rigorous field testing to make sure they will not be compromised by continued jostling.
What are the Benefits of MREs?
MREs offer outstanding variety – MREs represent the culmination of centuries of effort by various governments to supply their soldiers in the field with livable rations during wartime (3). The MRE itself first appeared during the 1980s and has since undergone numerous revisions and improvements. One of the most obvious improvements is in the sheer variety of dishes you have at your disposal today, from chicken, pork and beef dishes to rice or pasta, vegetable stew, fajitas, chili, smoothies, crackers and more. These taste a lot better than hardtack.
MREs have a long shelf life – MREs won’t last as long as freeze-dried food (4). That much is a given. But they do not force you to use water either, which can be important in the event of a natural disaster when potable water may be hard to come by. And while MREs may not last 3 decades like some freeze dried foods, they are no slouch in the shelf life department. Many will last up to 5 years.
Most MREs can be eaten hot or cold, negating the need for a stove – In the event you and your family need to evacuate, or you are facing a long period without electricity and/or gas, MREs are the perfect food choice as they are pre-cooked and can be eaten as is right from their container. So, whether you are in an evacuation shelter, bomb shelter, or simply on the road looking for a safe haven, you still have nutritious, tasty food to eat. Stove or no stove.
MREs are easy to take along if you are evacuated – If you are forced from your home for whatever reason, food and water become paramount concerns. You cannot simply rely on being able to find an open grocery store or restaurant. You need to bring food with you (5). MREs are a great way of alleviating concern over where you will find food in difficult situations.
MREs provide well-balanced nutrition – No one would suggest you try living on MREs the rest of your life. But in theory, you probably could. MREs provide an array of nutrients, with many being designed specifically to meet the demanding needs of soldiers in the field. MREs don’t require elaborate preparation but they are not ‘fast food’ as most people understand the term. Fast food often does more harm than good. MREs, on the other hand, generally provide well-balanced nutrition.
With MREs there is no lengthy cleanup – No matter where you are when you break out the MREs you can be sure of one thing: you won’t have to spend an hour cleaning up after you eat. All you need is a trash or recycling bin to dispose of the waste and you can get back to focusing on other things, like finding a place to sleep and communicating your plight to the outside world.
MREs are easy to store and easy to use – Just because you can eat your MRE straight from the package without heating it up, doesn’t always mean you have to. Many MREs come with flameless ration heaters (6) included. These packets use chemical reactions to produce heat that can then be used to warm up your MRE and make it more palatable.
MREs are affordable food security – MREs represent a significant value when it comes to securing your family’s food security in the event of a crisis. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars or hope you can bribe someone into selling you their food so you can eat. For just a couple of bucks per serving you can secure enough food to last for weeks, and in the process enable your family to rest easy knowing that no matter what happens, they won’t have to worry about going hungry.
Things to Keep in Mind When it Comes to MREs
Buy from a reputable source – It’s important that you buy your MREs from a reputable source and not from someone who found some old MREs in their basement during spring cleaning. When buying online read reviews, especially those from verified customers.
If there is no date stamp give it a pass – MREs are not the kind of thing that are fine one day and trash the next. The expiration date is important, though, because it provides a general idea of when you should think about replacing the product.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a way to heat them – Most MREs are precooked and can be eaten as is right out of the pouch. Some may taste better if they’re warmed up a bit, and those will typically come with their own water-activated heating elements.
Pace yourself – If the SHTF and you are forced to break out the MREs make sure to pace yourself. Remember, these meals are designed to feed soldiers in the field who typically eat 3 of them per day. It is likely you and your kids can get by just fine on 1 or 2 MREs each per day. This will ensure you don’t run out of food before the emergency passes.
There is a right way to store them – MREs don’t require refrigeration. But that doesn’t mean you can just leave them lying around anywhere. Leaving your MREs in a hot room dramatically reduces their shelf life from several years to as little as 6 months. Always store them in a cool place out of the sunlight.
Have some ready to go – MREs typically come in big cardboard boxes that are easy to stack and store. However, disasters often occur without warning, forcing people to beat a hasty retreat from the homestead. Because of that, you should always have a ‘go bag’ (7) at the ready. One that includes enough MREs for several days.
The Bottom Line
Today, MREs are valued by soldiers, preppers (8) and survivalists. But that’s not all. Ordinary homeowners have also come to realize that it makes a lot of sense to have dependable, portable, nutritious food on hand that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking in the event of a natural or manmade disaster.
All of the MREs on our list are from reputable sources and will make a valuable addition to your home preparedness kit. Use the above information to determine which MREs are right for you.