When I first met my now-husband, Dane, he was heading to U.S. Army Ranger school, and during his time there, he wrote me letters on the cardboard packaging of his MREs, or a Meal, Ready-to-Eat, while he was training.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, MREs were designed "to sustain an individual engaged in heavy activity such as military training or during actual military operations when normal food service facilities are not available."
While I still have every letter Dane wrote to me more than a decade later, I had yet to try an MRE, despite hearing about them from service members off and on for years.
A quick poll of veterans and active duty military members told me that "Chili Mac" was the most coveted MRE among 24 different recipes, including meals like shredded beef in barbecue sauce, Mexican rice and bean bowl and cheese tortellini in tomato sauce.
Each MRE has a three year shelf life and provides an average of 1250 kilocalories — broken down as 13 % protein, 36 % fat and 51 % carbohydrates. My first surprise was that inside the tan packaging was more than just my main course. The DLA states that "components are selected to complement each entree as well as provide necessary nutrition."
Inside my selected MRE package, I had the beloved chili and macaroni, accompanied by a kippered beef stick, cheese spread with jalapeños, crackers, carrot cake pound cake, Wild Berry Skittles and a grape-flavored powdered drink mix.
Dane told me this was a "good" selection, so I was excited to get started.
The MRE also comes with instructions for cooking your main course, which involves a plastic bag and water-activated heater.
Despite following the instructions closely (including setting up my meal on a rock to cook) and waiting the allotted time, my heater didn't get too hot and my main course was decidedly cool to the touch.
While I had the capability of heating the meal further with conventional cookware in my kitchen, I know service members don't have this luxury when MREs are being utilized during military operations, so I chose to eat it "as is."
So … what did I think?
For starters, the grape drink tasted exactly like Gatorade, so that gets two thumbs up from me.
The "Chili Mac" main course was taco-flavored beef crumbles with elbow macaroni in a tomato-based sauce. Honestly, it was not as bad as I had imagined it might be and reminded me of canned spaghetti meals I ate as a kid. I can imagine if I was tired, cold and hungry, it would taste even better, especially if it was hot.
One thing that stood out to me is that while the packaging of the main course doesn't look big, the portion was larger than I expected and I could not eat all of it.
I took the cheese spread with jalapeños and spread it across the crackers and sprinkled some of the crushed red pepper on top. The cheese tasted really salty to me, but the flavor was similar to Easy Cheese from a can. The crackers were pretty dry and flavorless, so in hindsight, spreading the cheese on top was smart.
The kippered beef snack was really salty and something I probably would have traded given the opportunity.
The best part of the MRE, in my opinion, was the dessert: carrot cake pound cake and Skittles. The cake was moist (I was shocked), full of flavor and the perfect amount of sweet after a meal that was full of more savory flavors.
Dane told me that heaters not fully working is fairly common and that many of the items I got (specifically the pound cake and jalapeño spread) are high value items that are frequently traded and coveted by hungry soldiers.
Was an MRE as bad as I thought it would be? No, and I was pleasantly surprised by portions and variety within the packet. Am I scrambling to add them to my meal planning? Not quite. And it gives me even more gratitude for the service members who don't have other meal options, let alone a warm kitchen to eat in.