Monday, October 26, 2009

Meal. Ready to Eat?


This was sent to me by a relative I'll call Tim and, boy, was it an adventure. To begin with, receiving something so out of the ordinary was a total thrill. Plus, there was the element of criminality; the package clearly states that resale is verboten. Of course, my MRE was a gift, so Tim and I should be safe from prosecution.

I'm curious about the daily life of our troops - even more so since hearing the bit about $400 per gallon gas (and going thru over 800,000 gallons a day in Afghanistan). Speaking of intrigue concerning our armed forces, I'm surprised we don't have war shows on TV, something a la Friday Night Lights.

But back to the MRE. Upon first inspection I was pretty impressed by the Armed Services menu option #23, and Tim’s choice for me - Chicken Pesto Pasta - way more highbrow than the beef, peas and potatoes of yesteryear. Regular readers know Chicken Pesto Pasta is in regular rotation on the Pinch menu.

The MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) is a lightweight packaged meal containing a main course, side dish, bread, dessert, hot and cold beverage mixes, and flameless ration heater. This field ration has been around since 1981 when it replaced the MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual). MCI were canned, wet rations issued by the U.S. Armed Forces beginning in 1958. (Click here to watch a clip of a retiring Army Colonel tasting a 40-year old pound cake he brought back from Viet Nam.) Be prepared for disappointment if you're curious about what exact preservatives are involved in keeping a pound cake fresh for forty years - it's something of a Don't ask, don't tell policy, I'm sure.

We took the MRE to the park to simulate an out-of-the-kitchen cooking and eating experience. But since I didn't open it until we got to the park and didn't bring water, we ended up preparing it back home.

There was a lot to praise in the MRE. The directions for the flameless heating element were clear (my favorite part had to do with placing the heating entrĂ©e on an incline – the written direction said "Lean it up against a rock or something") and the unit put out some serious BTUs.

Nutritionally, the meal was sound in terms of protein/fat/carb percentages. The Institute of Medicine found that the typical serviceperson burns over 4000 calories per day yet was consuming only about 2400. Giving our troops healthy but good food that they will want to eat will ensure that they are getting the calories they need.

The meal was balanced well for salty/sweet cravings and contained grab and go items that were completely ready to eat. (The entree, which is intended to be heated - NOT ready to eat -requires about 15 minutes of heating time in addition to the rock.) But with 24 different menu options it seems there's something for everyone. Most are comfort type foods like Meatballs in Marinara, Chicken with Noodles, and Beef Stew, and a couple of Mexican options, enchiladas and fajitas.

Now the negatives. For starters, it wasn't tasty. It's hard to imagine that there's not substantial waste involved in MRE shipping and distribution. Given the preservatives needed to keep them shelf stable for over three years, the ingredients list was, like, a mile long.

While the entree tasted better than I expected, it was by no means appetizing. The wet pack of pineapple was tasteless and messy to eat out of the slim package. Dried pineapple or mango would have been better. The chocolate pudding was ok, but it should have been chocolatier. Come on! Give the troops more chocolate!

The non-fruit drink was essentially sugar water. I allow that at some point a calorie IS a calorie, and finding ways to get servicemen ingesting more calories might mean including some empty ones. But sugar water? Couldn't there at least be some vitamins involved?

Other interesting facts:
- The Pentagon pays $86.98 for a case of MREs, or about $7.25 per meal. You can buy a case on Amazon for $79.99. Capitalism 1 Taxpayer 0

- MREs must be able to withstand parachute drops from 380 meters (1,200 ft), and non-parachute drops of 30 meters (98 ft). Um, what CAN withstand a non-parachute drop of 30 meters?

- In March 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune invited three chefs to taste and rate 18 MREs. No meal rated higher than a 5.7 (scale was from one to ten) with the Chicken Fajita meal receiving the lowest average score (1.3).

All in all, while MREs have improved over the years, they need to look and taste better. It really seemed like prison food, tucked into individual portion packs. And that's sad.

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1 comment:

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