Grandma's cooking it is not. And it is definitely is a far cry from gourmet, but the MREs — Meals Ready To Eat — that military personnel are issued when they have to go for extended periods in the field serve the purpose for which they were designed.
Opinions of the MREs vary among the personnel who eat them, depending in part upon their own culinary habits prior to joining the military, but most concur that even if Mom's cooking came out of a box or a can, Mom's was probably tastier.
At Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, the opinions about MREs of three Marines varied.
“The nice thing about the meals is that they are designed to be nutritionally balanced and to provide you with enough calories to do the things that you are doing when you are in the field,” said Gunnery Sgt. Dustin Dunk, who has had 17 years' experience in the Marines. “A lot of times you are going to burn more calories, so you actually need to be ingesting more calories. They are designed to be a nutritious meal … to be eaten as a meal.
“Usually the main meal itself, you just open the pouch and you are ready to eat it,” said Dunk. “The MREs today have heaters with them. It's a little plastic bag with a little wafer of something in there, that when you add water in it, the reaction causes that to heat up. So you put whatever you want to heat up — whatever your entrée is down in this plastic bag, you pour some water in to the line where it tells you to fill, you roll it up so it seals it in there, and you let it sit for a short period of time, and it heats up your MRE. So you can have a hot meal while you are out in the field.”
Hot or cold would make little difference to Lance Cpl. Uriel Avendano, who ate some of them during his basic training, combat training and other training exercises.
“They weren't that bad for me,” said Avendano. “I remember hearing a lot of complaints like they are not that great or they are stale or something, but I never had any problems with them, really. I never even had to heat them up. To me at that point, they were just food. I was happy to have anything. There is a lot of food in them — probably too much. There are a lot of calories in them, not very many healthy choices, but at that point you take what you can get.” (Each meal contains about 1,300 calories.)
Lance Cpl. William Waterstreet holds a different view.
“I would much rather eat at McDonald's any day than eat an MRE,” said Waterstreet. “I am not as much of a fan of MREs as some other people. A lot of the time I would just rather not eat. But that's just me. I was raised on some good cooking. My grandmother made the best food every night and every day — just awesome — the most delicious things you ever had.
“I am very selective with what I eat,” he added. “Now if I know I am going out in the field for a day or two, maybe three, I'll just give my MREs to other people and just tough it out and not eat.”
The ready-to-eat meals have some advantages, though, that other meals lack. For instance, Dunk explained that the MREs come in a big package, but if one removes the contents and arranges them in different ways, more can be packed into less space. This is especially helpful out in the field where packing space is limited.
“It didn't mean you were getting rid of anything,” said Dunk. “Sometimes you did. Sometimes you said, ‘I'm not big on this' or ‘I don't need 400 spoons; I can wash mine off.'”
Another advantage is shelf life.
“They keep for long periods of time,” said Dunk. “I came in (to the Marines) in '95. I remember being in the field in '96 and opening an MRE that had a package of M&Ms in it that said ‘Proud Sponsor of the 1984 Olympics.' It was at that point 13 years old at least.”
Now more than ever before, the variety and availability of foods packaged into MREs is greater, too. Most of them also come with instant coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, matches, a towelette, and snack cookies or crackers.
“Early on, they had a few varieties,” said Dunk. “When I came in, I want to say there were six different kinds. They were not the tastiest things on the planet, but when you are out there in the field, you didn't care. You ate what was there. Now there is such a variety. There are even MREs for vegetarians.”
As to availability, Dunk said, “They sell them all over the place these days. I've seen them in grocery stores.” Locally, MREs are sold at Sprague's Sports by the case.
Perhaps an additional advantage to MREs is the minimal preparation time needed for a nutritious meal to eat for those who are who are in a hurry or don't like to cook or don't know how. Dunk said that he would prefer an MRE over meals from “a fast-food joint.”
“I grew up out in the country,” said Dunk. “So if I had to, I could go shoot a deer and I'll take care of it, and I will eat. I can fish and I can hunt, but if I am out in the field with the enemy downrange, I would much rather have something right there for me.”
Waterstreet, by contrast, said that by choice he ate a lot of fast food growing up. “I would much rather eat at McDonald's any day than eat an MRE.”
Avendano, who grew up in a city, said, “I never had a good food experience growing up, and so I guess my bar is set extremely low — extremely. Honestly, I am not a picky eater.”
As Waterstreet said of MREs, they are very different.
“For what they do, for what they are designed, to put you into a field environment and to keep you running when going downrange, they serve that purpose excellently. But for gourmet dining, go to a gourmet restaurant.”
Added Dunk: “It won't kill you. It will definitely keep you alive, whether you want to eat it or not — it will keep you alive. But if I get the choice, I would definitely prefer venison. If you get a choice between (the MRE and) the filet mignon, I'll take the filet. But if I am out in the field, and it is starve or eat, the MRE is going to be very tasty.”
Clearly, Grandma's cooking it is not.