Meals, ready-to-eat, commonly known as MREs, are ready made meals in flexible pouches, made to US military specification.
MREs are lighter than cans and easier to pack thanks to their flexible nature, but how does MRE shelf life stack up?
Real World MRE Shelf Life
Unfortunately there is no fit-all answer. There are no expiry or best-before dates printed on MRE packaging. All there is, is the date of manufacture, and the date of inspection, if applicable. Claims of sites selling MREs are often projections or estimates. So, it the one you are looking to buy, or holding in your hands good to eat? In a civilian setting, it is up to the you to make the call based on two variables: manufacture date and storage conditions.
It is useful to know that the US military inspects MREs after 3 years, and disposes of them after 5 years of the date of manufacture.
The 5 years shelf life only applies at room temperature, or 81 F (27 C), and it drops considerably in hot conditions.
Army specifications stipulate MREs must be able to withstand extreme temperatures for a short duration on both ends of the scale: well below freezing at – 60 F (-51 C); and the extreme hot 120 F (49 C) consistent with desert deployment. What is considered a “short duration”? It’s not officially defined, but probably a few hours to a few days at most.
Chilling MREs in the fridge undoubtedly extends the shelf life of MREs, however it is not specified by how much. Some sites selling MREs claim they last as long as 130 months (almost 11 years) at fridge temperature (60 F or 16 C).
There is no army spec for cooled shelf life that I could find. Clearly, chilled shelf life is of no concern to the military.
Putting MREs in the freezer is not recommended. Find out why in the Freezing MREs article.
When buying, I recommend checking the manufacture dates. It is also a good idea to find out about the storage temperature the units experienced. Room temperature is OK, hot is less desirable, chilled is great, and frozen is a no-no.
I made this chart to give you an idea about storage temperature and shelf-life relation. These are based on taste tests done by the army and are NOT guarantees by any specific maker.
MRE Shelf Life ~ Practical Considerations
Compared to other types of disaster preparedness foodstuff, MRE shelf life is rather short.
They’re also quite costly at about $8-$10 a meal. Wikipedia puts the cost to the US military at $7.62 per pack. That’s how much of our taxes go towards a single pack. Ouch. I think we can’t expect to pay less than that ourselves.
MREs are rich in fat and high on preservatives. The high fat content serves two purposes: it is a natural preservative, and it is calory-dense, which is great for fuelling physical activities. Likewise, the high sodium (preservative) content is of no concern, if you are doing physical activities and your body gets the chance to remove it through sweat.
MREs are great for a day of camping, hiking or other outdoor activities, where the calories are quickly burned off and the unbalanced diet does not have unwanted side effects because of short term use. The strong point of MREs is convenience, and they excel in these situations.
For mid- to long term disaster preparedness, the combination of relatively short shelf life and comparatively high cost per meal makes stock rotation quite a burden.
For your mid- to long term disaster preparedness checklist, you may want to consider other items.
For a comprehensive, no-fluff guide on what items you will need, and tons of survival tips, I recommend you check out survival expert Damian Campbell’s “37 Food Items Sold Out After Crisis” book. It’s a very well researched guide that I’ve found immensely helpful when preparing my family for future emergencies.
Click here to visit the official 37 Food Items Sold Out After Crisis website.