Ready to eat meals or MREs are military field rations that are becoming increasingly popular with preppers. It’s illegal to sell military MREs (although they sometimes pop up on eBay), but several companies sell similar products for civilians.
MREs don’t come with a set expiration date, and their shelf life is temperature dependent.
So how are you supposed to know how long they’ll last?
That’s the question we’ll answer in this article.
What Do MREs Contain?
Each MRE contains everything you need for one meal.
Typically, this includes an entrée, side dish, crackers and spread, dessert, candy and hot drinks (e.g., instant coffee, milk powder, and sugar) and some snacks or candy.
They may also include a spoon or spork, napkin, and a flameless heater, for warming up your entrée.
Military MREs contain around 1,250 calories, though civilian equivalents are sometimes a little less. Three meals a day would still provide you with more calories than most people will need.
Making Sense of MRE Date Stamps
Most MREs aren’t stamped with an expiration date, as their shelf life depends on how they’re stored.
Instead, they’re stamped with a manufacturing date, which you can use to calculate the age of your rations.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as looking for a “June 2020” label…
Your MRE might be stamped with various numbers and codes, but what you’re looking for is a four-digit code.
The first digit indicates the year of manufacture. For example, a “4” would be 2014, and a “9” would be 2019.
The remaining three digits tell you the day of the year. June 19 is represented as 169.
So in the above image, you can see a code of 5350, which indicates a manufacturing date of December 16, 2015. Use a day of the year calendar for quick reference.
Some MREs may also have an inspection expiration date. This isn’t a use-by date but indicates when you should inspect the MRE to check it’s still looking good to eat.
The downside to this system (apart from figuring out the day of the year from a three-digit number if you don’t have access to Google) is that it doesn’t differentiate between decades.
Your 8055-ration pack could technically be from 2018 or 2008. MREs that are that old shouldn’t be sold, but it’s one more reason to make sure you’re buying your MREs from a reputable source.
Once you know the manufacture date, you’ll have a reasonable idea of whether your food is still good to eat.
How Long do MREs last?
Although they don’t have a specific expiration date, MREs stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit should be safe to eat for up to three years.
If they’re stored at much cooler temperatures, then some or all of the contents could be good for up to five years. Conversely, if they’re allowed to bake in the Texan sun, then they might last as little as one or two months.
If you don’t know what conditions your MREs have been stored in, then the manufacture date may not be that helpful. Equally, just because an MRE is a few months past the three-year mark doesn’t mean it’s not safe to eat.
Some further detective work might be needed…
Signs That Your MRE Might Not Be Good to Eat
If you find an old pot of yogurt at the back of your refrigerator, chances are you’ll give it a sniff before tossing it out. Well, you can do the same with your MREs.
Signs that an MRE might be past its best include:
- Damaged packaging. Perforations or weaknesses in the laminated pouches could allow air in, spoiling the contents.
- The bag is swollen. This can indicate that bacteria causing botulism could be present. Botulism is a rare but severe illness, and it’s not worth taking a risk on. If your MRE looks bloated, ditch the pack.
- You know (or suspect) it has been stored at a high temperature.
- It smells off or tastes funny when you eat it.
Cases of military MREs have a Time Temperature Indicator label consisting of a two-part circular indicator. The inner circle darkens with time and at higher temperatures. If it’s darker than the outer circle, then the MRE has exceeded its recommended shelf life. (source)
Remember that some parts of an MRE won’t last as long as others. Cheese spreads, peanut butter, and applesauce typically go off faster than packaged meals or candy.
How to Store MREs to Maximise Shelf Life
MREs are not cheap, so you want to make sure they last as long as possible, especially if you don’t use them in day-to-day life.
You can maximize storage life by purchasing new cases of MREs. Getting a deal on second-hand meals might feel like a cost saving at the time, but if you have to replace them in two years rather than five, you’ll end up out of pocket in the long run.
Like most food, MREs are best stored in cool, dry temperatures away from direct sunlight. Although they’re robustly packaged and shouldn’t be damaged by water or tempting to rodents, it’s worth keeping them off the ground to be safe.
It’s not generally recommended that you freeze MREs. Freezing can damage the laminated pouch, particularly if the contents are thawed and refrozen several times (e.g., if you have a power cut). However, freezing would extend the shelf life, so it may be a risk you’re willing to take.
You don’t want to reach for your MREs in a disaster only to find they’re four years out of date, so make sure you check your stock regularly and rotate meals out as needed.
How to Use MREs in Your Prepping Food Stash
MREs are a medium-long term emergency food option. They’ll last longer than your grocery-store cans and packets, but not as long as dehydrated and freeze-dried emergency food.
You may feel that having a short-term stockpile and a bunch of 20+ year meals is a better option than adding a third element to your food stash, but MREs have two significant advantages over freeze-dried food:
- They can be eaten hot or cold.
- You don’t need to add water to prepare them.
If you have limited clean water, then this allows you to prioritize that water for drinking. The option to eat them cold means you don’t have to worry about electricity, gas, or lighting a fire if it isn’t safe to do so (though many MREs come with a fireless heating kit).
As each MRE is packaged as a complete meal, they’re an easy option if you need to grab food and run. There’s no risk of ending up just with dessert or forgetting the sugar for your coffee, and you know you’re getting a set number of calories in each packet.
For more see our post about how to cook MREs
Where Can I Buy MREs?
There are various places you can buy MREs, from online distributors to shady dealers. We’d always recommend buying from a retailer you can trust. To make things easy, we’ve compiled a list of the cheapest places to buy MREs online.
If you’re on a budget, follow a special diet, or want to control exactly what’s going into your food, you can make your own MREs. Check out our guide on making your own survival MREs for instructions.