Napoleon once famously said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Or maybe it was Frederick the Great. It might have even been Claudius Galen, chief physician to the Roman army. What’s important is that food is essential to the ability of a military force to carry the fight to an enemy. No one disputes that. Spend enough time in uniform and you’ll develop an appreciation—or lack thereof—for military rations.

During the Gulf War, hot food was often a rarity. I still remember enduring the M-M-T (two Meals Ready to Eat and a tray ration) meal cycle for weeks on end. When our eventual return from the desert heralded the arrival of contract meals, our joy was stifled a bit with the sweat-soaked food we received twice a day. It’s no surprise that people often thought nothing of waiting hours outside a Wolf Burger van for a hamburger and fries.

In 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, we found ourselves with nothing to eat but chili mac t-rations for weeks on end. While certainly not my favorite meal, it was better than eating MREs three times a day. It could be worse. I knew that from experience. Given the choice, I’ll take mediocre t-rations any day over MREs. Besides, a little routine is good for digestion – something that matters during a long deployment.

When You Have to Call it a Delicacy…

Several years later, while eating at the Baghdad Embassy, I marveled at a strange looking offering listed as a Bosnian delicacy. A woman who worked with us as an advisor remarked, “I’m Bosnian, and I’ve never heard of that before.” Frankly, the fact it was shaped like a dog turd should have alerted us. It became renowned as THE meal that would put you in the health clinic with gastro-intestinal distress. IF you were lucky enough to make it that far before it forced itself out of your body.

Through it all, the venerable MRE was the safe, go-to meal you could count on in a pinch. Throw in a little Tabasco sauce and you were in business. Good or bad, it filled the stomach and generally didn’t produce any bad digestive side effects. As the MRE matured, it evolved beyond the limits of the early menus to assume new flavors, textures, and surprises.

The Best and Worst MREs

The advent of a wider variety of meal items also offered the opportunity to look back on the best and worst of those menus. What were the crowd favorites, and which were the meals to be avoided at all costs?

The Best MREs

  1. Chili and Macaroni (Menu 10). It’s not that I have thing for chili mac, it’s that this meal came with two things that were always staples for me: teriyaki beef sticks and cherry Twizzlers. The chili mac was good, but those two items made it a meal worth fighting over.
  2. Hash Brown Potatoes with Bacon (Menu 20). I could barely stomach the main entrée, but the rest of the meal was enough to survive on: granola with milk and blueberries, apple turnover, and salted peanuts. That’s the breakfast of champions.
  3. Shredded Beef in Barbecue Sauce (Menu 2). Okay, this will never quite measure up to the standards of good Kansas City barbecue, but after a long day in a combat zone, it’s passable. And you can follow it up with an oatmeal cookie.
  4. Beef Ravioli (Menu 3). I generally don’t eat ravioli unless I am deployed, but this is actually quite good. It also doesn’t hurt that it comes with a chocolate banana nut muffin, plain M&Ms, and tropical punch. The meal also came with some wicked hot sauce for some reason. Who eats spiced up ravioli?
  5. Meatballs with Marinara Sauce (Menu 8). There was a lot to like in this meal, from the main entrée to the side items. The teriyaki beef sticks alone made this a hot ticket item, but it also came with cherry-blueberry cobbler, a chocolate chip cookie, and Italian bread sticks. That’s fine dining for an evening around the burn pit.

The Worst MREs

  1. Chicken a la King (Menu 9). In the early days of the MRE, there was no more heinous meal than chicken a la king. The fruitcake was a meal unto itself and you could wash down the cheese and crackers with hot cocoa. Try as I might, I never got to the bottom of a bag of chicken a la king without getting nauseous.
  2. Dehydrated Beef and Pork Patties (Menu 1). You never wanted to be the last in line to pick up MREs, because this was the meal that was always left behind. For good reason. Assuming you could rehydrate the main entrée, it had the consistency and flavor of an old shoe. You could salvage the applesauce and the cookie, but not much else.
  3. Cheese and Vegetable Omelet (Menu 4). I remember being excited to try this meal when it first showed up in the field. Once I opened it, the excitement didn’t last. The taste of that entrée remains of the most disgusting culinary experiences of my life. Thankfully, you could salvage a few things from this horror: blackberry jam, the frosted brown sugar Pop-Tart, and a cinnamon scone-like thing.
  4. Veggie Burger with BBQ (Menu 12). When I was three years old, my mother scolded me for eating dirt. Honestly, dirt tasted better than this. Ideally, you could stuff it between a couple of pieces of bread and douse it in barbecue sauce, but that didn’t make it taste any better. Throwing in a First Strike bar and applesauce seemed like a cruel joke. I would go hungry before eating this again.
  5. Ham Slice (Menu 8). From the ham itself to the potatoes hog-rotten, this MRE was nasty to the core. The meal included a brownie, but that couldn’t make up for the general terror that came with being stuck with this MRE. To this day, I’m not convinced this was actually ham and not some lab-grown meat substitute from Hell.

Bonus Round

During the march to Baghdad in 2003, my driver brought along a case of Halal MREs, something new at the time that offered some much-needed variety. The meals included a lot of nuts, dried fruit, and granola, things that made the long, slow days of driving pass a little faster. But the days weren’t the only things passing faster. Unlike standard MREs, which are notorious for inducing constipation, the Halal meals have the opposite effect. Which, when you’re on an extended tactical movement through enemy-held territory, can be a bit inconvenient. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing that an empty MRE case can double as a field-expedient toilet.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.