If you’re new to the letters M-R-E, it probably means you’re not in the military, nor are you some kind of quirky survivalist. You’ve possibly also never camped, been on a four-wheeling excursion, or simply been too lazy to cook. Therefore, know that an MRE is a “meal, ready-to-eat,” and its history dates all the way back to when it replaced canned goods for military in the field and combat. To learn more about MREs, we turned to where most idiots go when they want to seem instantly smarter about a topic: Wikipedia. It was there that we boned up on how in 1963 the Department of Defense began developing the MRE.
The resulting packaged food was so successful with soldiers, it immediately earned terms of endearment such as “Mr. E” (mystery) and “meals, ready-to-excrete.” Another was “three lies for the price of one,” as in, not a meal, not ready, and you can’t eat it.
But as it goes with most technology, things in the MRE world have improved greatly since 1963. And, yes, this type of food is indeed technology—you’re carrying meatloaf in your backpack, after all. Dehydrated, freeze-dried, and self-heating meals are some of the options available today. And that’s why this month we decided to explore these prepared, packaged, and boxed foods by sampling food from GoPicnic, Mountain House, MRE Star, and Packit Gourmet. Our testing was about evaluating things like appearance, taste, and if we’d rather take a bullet than eat it in combat. We even did a ranking system of 1-5, but no foods got a 5, and none saw a 1. We don’t know exactly what a 5 would be in this type of food; it’s probably an unattainable thing. We don’t know exactly what a 1 would be in this type of food; it’s probably an attainable thing.
“MREs are good for idiots. They have everything you would eat in one meal.”
The companies in this story offer a wide range of products, from self-heating and just-add-water to boil-to-cook and eat-as-is. You can get complete meals, entrees, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, desserts, drinks, and anything in between, as well as regular, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free foods.
For this taste test, we also enlisted Max Pavoni, 13, a potential idiot-in-training, who helped with a previous edition of Two Idiots Outside. We wanted to mix in his younger, less-jaded viewpoints with ours, and he was able to provide insight such as “Some of this looks like stuff you’d put in fertilizer” and “People don’t want to look at food that comes in all sorts of brown colors.”
Hmm, maybe technology hasn’t actually come that far.
Flavors Tested: Black Bean Dip & Plantain Chips; Hummus & Crackers; Turkey Pepperoni & Cheese; Sunbutter & Crackers; Tuna & Crackers; Peanut Butter & Crackers; Turkey Stick & Crunch
Overall Appearance (scale: 1-5): Overall appearance (scale: 1-5): It’s kind of hard to screw up the appearance of these straightforward snack foods, plus the box included a Sudoku game, so 4.
Overall Taste (scale: 1-5): “GoPicnics were the best performers because they were the least offensive,” said one tester. A 4, but teetering on 3.5. That’s because no one wanted to be the first to try the tuna, and that wasn’t just because it was more like pate with a hint of green.
Best Quote: “I was never a fan of pepperoni, but this was good.”
Flavors Tested: Beef Stroganoff with Noodles; Scrambled Eggs with Bacon Precooked; Beef Stew; Neapolitan Ice Cream Classic Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry
Overall Appearance (scale: 1-5): For freeze-dried, it was appetizing to the eye and fairly recognizable. A 4.
Overall Taste (scale: 1-5): Another 4. The scrambled eggs and bacon smelled legit, and one tester had a second helping of stroganoff. The Neapolitan was a unanimous hit, with everyone agreeing they’d have it as a snack, not just as a dessert.
Best Quote: “The stroganoff was actually good when cooked. Looks can be deceiving.”
Flavors Tested: White Chicken and Rice with Vegetables; Beef Stew; Lentils Stew with Potatoes Flavored with Ham
Overall Appearance (scale: 1-5): A 3, because they all kind of looked the same and prompted a bad mash-based culinary dissertation from one tester who is a military buff.
Overall Taste (scale: 1-5): We’d go with 3.6, just above average. All testers liked the taste, and the chicken and rice was extremely well received, but most of us couldn’t get past the appearance. Smelled authentic, too.
Best Quote: “If you’re hungry, you’ll be able to eat what’s inside the bag.”
Flavors Tested: Big ’Un Burrito; Potato Samosas; Jump Start Fruit Smoothie Berry Berry; Jump Start Smoothie Eat a Peach; Market Pasta Puttanesca w/ Rich Marinara Sauce; Trailside Black Bean & Cheese Burrito; Lemon Cheesecake; Jamaican Peanut Porridge; Banana Puddin’; Copper Canyon Mudslide Mixer
Overall Appearance (scale: 1-5): A 3, but mainly because a lot of what we tested was intended to be liquidy. If you add too much water to the solid foods, you might rank a 2.
Overall Taste (scale: 1-5): 3.5, but we couldn’t go higher, mainly because the desserts and smoothies were a little sweeter than we’re used to eating. We did like the banana pudding, and the burrito had a nice kick to it. The pasta took a lot longer to cook than we expected, and we’re not big fans of al dente.
Best Quote: “The spaghetti is not worse than Olive Garden.”
Best of the Best
Best Entrée: Beef Stroganoff
Best Snack: Sunbutter & Crackers
Best Exotic-Sounding: Jamaican Peanut Porridge
Best Interpretation of a Home-Cooked Meal: White Chicken and Rice With Vegetables
“There’s a lot of stew in the military.”
“How do you decide on an expiration date for these things?”
“These meals make it seem like there are professional chefs on the battlefield.”
“I wouldn’t eat that one unless it were a life or death situation.”
“I would like to see an MRE pizza.”
“What polluted ocean waters was this in?”
“If it looks like crap, it usually tastes like crap, but some look like crap and actually taste good.”
“It doesn’t look good, but it does taste good. Perfect for if you’re a blind camper or your campfire went out.”
“This is pretty good, it just tastes bad.”