Storing MREs for an Emergency

Storing MREs for an Emergency: Shelf Life - Cost - Pros & Cons - Contents

MREs (or “Meals Ready to Eat”) are individually packed and self contained meals. They are designed to be shelf stable and are best known for their use by military combat troops during deployment. These meals do not need to be refrigerated and can be eaten straight from the packaging with no need to cook or heat the contents. These food rations became the main source of food for deployed combat troops in the U.S. military beginning in 1981.

Modern day MREs come with 24 different entree choices and 150 various “additional items” inside each meal.  Since about 1990, a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) has been available which allows the user to quickly heat up the contents of the main entree with no flame involved, only a chemical reaction between flakes of magnesium and water takes place producing heat. You simply add water to the small plastic bag provided, insert the entree, and in a few minutes you have a hot meal ready to eat.

These are great supplements to your emergency food supply as they provide a different set of nutrients than you may receive from your other emergency foods. They are an excellent choice for when you have to be mobile as they are completely self contained, although they are heavier than some alternatives such as freeze dried foods since they are not dehydrated and still contain water.

Attributes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)

  • Average Cost Per Ounce Prepared: $0.43/oz
  • Average Cost Per Ounce: $0.43/oz
  • Approximate Number of Days of Survival per $100: 4.5 Days
  • Approximate Cost Per Day of Survival: $21.50
  • Shelf Life: 3 – 4 Years
  • Typical Storage Temperature: Room temperature (65-72°F)
  • Ideal Storage Temperature: 50ºF

A Note About the Above Calculations:  “Average Cost Per Ounce Prepared” is the average cost of the food once it is fully prepared. The “Average Cost Per Ounce” is the average cost per ounce in their shelf-stable and fully packaged state. Since MREs don’t require anything more than what is contained inside their packaging to prepare, these two numbers are the same. A “day of survival” is based on consuming approximately 50 ounces of food in a day. This is approximately equal to the recommended daily consumption amount for U.S. military members (three MRE’s per day).

Cases of MREs being loaded during Hurricane Rita.
Cases of MREs (12 meals per case) being loaded onto a transport helicopter during Hurricane Rita.

Specifications and Requirements

One full day of nutrition is provided by three MREs (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) containing approximately 1250 calories each for a total daily caloric intake of 3750 calories. This relatively high recommended daily caloric intake is due to the typically strenuous physical demands put on soldiers during deployment. If it is being used instead as an emergency food, many individuals find it relatively easy to get by on two meals a day (or 2500 calories).

Each meal contains one third of the military’s daily recommended vitamins and minerals. The U.S. military has specific requirements that each MRE needs to meet to ensure they are suitable for combat personnel. Below is a list of these requirements as well as general MRE specifications.

  • Calories: Approximately 1250 calories per meal
  • Minimum Shelf Life: 3.5 Years if stored at 81°F or 9 months stored at 100°F. Must be able to withstand short durations from -60°F to 120°F
  • Weight: 18-26 ounces each
  • Recommended Maximum Period of Consumption: 21 days
  • Packaging: Must withstand a drop from 98 feet or a parachute drop from 1,250 feet

Contents of an MRE

The heart of an MRE is the entree or main course. Some examples of main courses  are beef stew, beef taco, turkey chili with beans, chicken with rice and vegetables, chicken noodle stew, and chicken fajitas. Not all types of MREs include the same components although there are some items that are generally contained in most versions.

Contents of a Typical MRE
MREs contain a variety of different components and are not all the same. As you can see, this one does not contain any crackers (#4) or a beverage mixing bag (#12), but it does contain multiple drink mixes and components (#6).

Typical MRE Contents

Component Examples
1. Main course chili with beans, spaghetti, beef stew, chicken chunks, beef taco
2. Side dish rice, corn, mashed potatoes, snack bread
3. Desert cookie, pound cake, pastry
4. Crackers plain
5. Spread cheese, peanut butter, jelly
6. Beverage mix tea, coffee, coco, Gatorade like mixes
7. Candy Tootsie Rolls, M&M’s, Skittles
8. Seasoning blend spice, hot sauce, salt, pepper
9. Utensils fork, knife, spoon, matches
10. Napkin standard, moist towelette
11. Chewing gum bubble gum, Chiclets like gum
12. Beverage mixing bag standard plastic
13. Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) standard magnesium based heater in a plastic bag

The contents of an MRE varies and not all will be the same.

Pro’s and Con’s of Using MREs as an Emergency Food Source

It is important to be aware of the limitations with using MREs as a survival food. They certainly have their place and are a great way to diversify an existing emergency food supply with a highly portable and easy to prepare solution. However, they should not make up the majority of your food supply and should only be used as a supplement to it.


  • No cooking required.
  • Respectable shelf life.
  • Each package is a nutritionally balanced meal with a good variety of food.
  • Many include a powdered drink.
  • Ready to eat at any moment and all necessary water is included (except for the drink mixes).
  • A chemical heater is available (just add water and you will have a warm meal).


  • Somewhat expensive.
  • Cannot customize the meals easily (each meal is in a sealed pouch).
  • Heavy when compared to alternatives.
  • They are designed to be consumed for no more than 21 days at a time.

MREs really shine in a situation when you need a portable food that you can eat quickly on the go. However, since none of the moisture of the food has been removed in any way, it means they are relatively heavy (water weighs a lot). This can be a positive in some situations, specifically when you are trying to survive in an environment where water is difficult to come by. However, if water is plentiful and you are on the move, you would be much better off with freeze dried or dry foods.

The main course of an MRE
MREs can be quite delicious. This main course is spaghetti and meat sauce and can be consumed cold or hot with the help of a Flameless Ration Heater (FLH).

The addition of a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) will make it quick and easy for you to have a hot meal on the go. There is no fire involved and the only necessary element that you need to add to activate the heater is a few ounces of water. This makes the MRE the easiest way to have a hot meal on the go.

Eating More than the Recommended 21 Day Maximum

MREs are designed by the U.S. military to be used for a maximum of 21 days. The thought is that within that length of time a soldier should be at a place where typical military food can be served. MREs are only to be used during deployment in the field when there aren’t any other options.

The largest problem with going past the 21 days is that these meals lack in fiber. A lack of fiber for that length of time can contribute to severe constipation. If you believe you may have to consume these longer than 21 days straight, it may be a good idea to store fiber pills along with your supply of MREs.

U.S. Navy service member eating an MRE while deployed.
MREs are easy to consume quickly while on the go and do not need to be cooked before consumption.

Shelf Life

MREs are required to have a shelf life of 3.5 years if stored at 81°F, which is fairly warm. Of course if they are stored at typical room temperatures (65-72°F) they should last longer. If the packaging of the meal is not compromised and a meal is past it’s expiration date (even significantly so), it has been shown through lab tests that they are generally still safe to eat. However taste, texture, color, and nutritional content of the food will suffer.

Most experts will agree that the 3.5 year shelf life is extremely conservative and a more realistic number, that is generally accepted, is that an MRE stored at 75°F will last about 5 years. Most homes rarely get above 75°F in the United States so this is a fairly safe number to go by.

Below is a chart of the official shelf life of an MRE stored at various temperatures. However, as stated above, this is widely considered fairly conservative and you will likely see a longer shelf life than depicted here.


We at are not doctors or scientists. We are merely a group of passionate preppers sharing what we learn as we go. We do not guarantee that you will experience the same shelf life as displayed on this page. When in doubt, do not eat it! Always consult with a professional first.

Official Shelf Life of MREs Stored at Various Temperatures

MRE Shelf Life in Relation to Storage Temperature

Time Temperature Indicator (TTI)

Since 1997, MRE cases (a case is a box containing 12 MRE’s) have had a “TTI” sticker fixed to them. TTI stands for Time-Temperature Indicator. This is a sticker with an image of a circle inside of another circle. The inner circle changes color with time and temperature. Since time and temperature are the two biggest factors affecting the shelf life, it is a very effective way to assist in determining if the meals inside are still fresh to eat.

TTI On a Box
MRE TTI Stages of Freshness
Notice the inner circle of the indicator getting darker as time passes.

When the case is first produced by the manufacturer, the inner circle of the indicator is lighter colored than the outer circle. As the case is exposed to temperature and time, it slowly darkens and will eventually match the color of the outer circle. When this happens, the MREs are considered to have reached their maximum life (equivalent to 3 years of storage at 80°F). Of course this is based on the rather conservative manufacturers recommendations. If the inner circle is darker than the outer circle, the meals have exceeded their recommended shelf life.


Storing a significant number of MREs as your primary food supply for when a disaster strikes is not very practical. They are relatively expensive and it is not recommended survive on them as your primary food source for more that 21 days at a time. They will also typically need to be rotated approximately every 3-5 years. If you want a “store it and forget it” solution to your emergency foods, this probably isn’t the best answer.

This does not mean, however, that MREs don’t have a place in your food preparations. I suggest keeping approximately 10% of your food preparations in MRE form for a few reasons. First of all, they are highly mobile and make for an easy way to grab fully nutritious meals quickly if you need to leave your home in a hurry. Also, they can be eaten on the move with or without heating them up. A majority of emergency planners will carry MREs in a bug out bag or in their vehicle but will turn to dry and dehydrated foods (or freeze dried foods) for the majority of their at home food preparations.

Other Options for Emergency Foods

Option 1: Canned Foods

Option 2: Dry and Dehydrated Foods

Option 3: Freeze Dried Foods

Option 4: MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat)


John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

Recent Posts