Rather than calling for changes in the way foods are prepared by food service contractors and military cooks, the Defense Department's emphasis so far has been on creating better options within the existing system: making sure that vending machines on bases contain healthy snacks, for example, and keeping DFACs open longer and later so that service members have the option of hitting the salad bar on base rather than the drive-through in town.
But it's worth noting that, for better or worse, the responsibility for eating healthy has always rested, in part, on the shoulders of soldiers themselves. As the DoD already knows quite well, you can hand a soldier a nutritionally dense cracker that provides half a day's worth of vitamins and minerals—standard issue in MREs—but you can't make her eat it.
Meals, Ready to EatThere's no question that MREs are wonders of food science and packaging technology—they can be cold-stored for up to five years and are designed to be dropped out of airplanes. And there's also no question that combat chow has come a long, long way since packaged-for-deployment foods were invented by the military during World War I.
Sean Owens, an Army combat engineer who ate his share of modern-day MREs in the field during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, remembers his first taste of military field grub. "When I was a kid, my father used to give us a special treat from a crate in the garage—Army C rations. I thought they were the best food on the planet. They took a little bit of work to open the cans with the enclosed opener—I think it was called a C-9. I could never get enough of them." Years later, Owens was in the position of comparing those old-school C rations to some cutting-edge MREs. "When I was in the Gulf, [the Army's] Natick research lab developed fresh bread for the MREs. It came out of the metal packets soft and fresh, just like it was fresh-baked. It still amazes me that they were able to develop it."
MREs arrive in large plastic sheaths about the size of a FedEx priority shipping package (usually 9 inches wide by 14 inches long, and a few inches thick) and contain a multicourse meal of individual packets, assorted condiments, and personal-care accessories, plus a packet containing a flameless chemical heating agent: Tear it open, add water, pop in a sealed packet of food, and prop the whole package upright (amusingly, the instructional label includes a diagram showing the heating packet propped up against a "ROCK OR SOMETHING"). Ten minutes later, there's your meal, ready to eat.
As a student at Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, in the mid-1990s, Marine Jonathan B. Connors participated in some of the user testing that went into the creation of today's MREs. "In the early '90s, there were only 12 main course options for MREs, half of which were inedible. During the testing phase, they served us different food options that eventually made it to the 'new' MREs, like pizza, Mexican food, or hot dogs. They monitored everything we ate or drank daily, measured us, weighed us, monitored caloric intake." In 1998, the military brought the total number of MRE menus from 12 to 24, and has developed, released, and rotated new menus each year since then. The 2012 MRE lineup includes Ratatouille, Cheese Tortellini, and Lemon Pepper Tuna.
By design, MREs contain the proper proportions of protein, carbohydrates, and fat and provide an adequate number of calories for a soldier in the field (that is, quite a lot: about 1,200 calories per meal). But some MREs are RE-er than others. Of the 24 menus currently in rotation, the most beloved are Meatballs in Marinara Sauce, Chili and Macaroni, and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. Some of the more infamous modern-day MREs include Frankfurters in Sauce, or "the Five Fingers of Death" (the dogs came five to a pouch), and Chicken à la King, both now retired. "Cold coagulated fat and 'gravy'—you needed to be really hungry to choke that down," remembers Sean Owens.
"Field stripping" MREs is a common practice whereby soldiers headed out on a mission remove the parts of the MRE that they like from the package and leave the rest behind to make their meals easier to pack and carry. Equally common is the application of creative ingenuity to MRE elements to make them more portable and palatable. Mike Furrow gave an example: "Eating the MREs gets old really fast, so most people would bring their own food to the field. Lots of beef jerky and ramen noodles. We'd cook up some ramen, and then if we were lucky and had a Ham Slice MRE, we could chop up the ham slice and squeeze the cheese sauce in while we were cooking the noodles, and maybe the crackers too, to make a little soup." Daniel Gorman provided the recipe for another classic Frankenstein variation on the MRE, Ranger Pudding: "Dump the coffee packet, cocoa mix, salt, crackers, and anything else you can into one pouch and stir it all up. It's a pretty expedient way to eat everything all at once!"