Meals, Ready-to-Eat or MREs are proportionally rationed food that requires no extra effort to eat outside of opening the packaging. Those in the military are very familiar with MREs, but you’ve just been introduced to them. Should you stock up on MREs or will they expire before you can get to them all? How long do MREs last?
If maintained in shelf-stable conditions of around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, an MRE is usable for five years. Should the conditions be even cooler than 75 degrees, you can double the lifespan to around 10 years or longer. Conditions hotter than 75 degrees and up to 120 degrees will limit the shelf life to 30 days.
You may have more questions yet about MREs, such as do MREs expire or are old MREs safe to eat. In this extensive, detailed guide, we’ll address all your concerns about MRE shelf life so you can ensure you’re eating a meal with ingredients that haven’t yet gone bad!
Table of Contents:
1. How Long Do Military MREs Last
2. How Do MREs Last So Long? Can You Extend the Lifetime of an MRE?
3. Can You Make MREs Last Longer?
4. How Do You Know If Your MRE Is Too Old to Eat?
5. How to Find Expiry Date and Date Codes on MRE Packaging
6. Are MREs Good After Their Expiration Date?
7. The Best Storage Practices for MREs
8. How to Buy MREs and What to Watch Out for
9. Does Long-Term Storage Affect the Nutritional Value of an MRE?
How Long Do Military MREs Last?
The shelf life of an MRE is dependent on its temperature, something that we’ll talk more about in the next section. How long do MREs last at room temperature? Assuming that you keep your MREs stored at temperatures between 68 and 75 degrees, MREs can last a surprisingly long amount of time, up to five years!
If you’re staying in a heated environment such as a desert barracks and the temperatures regularly climb over 75 degrees and even 100 degrees, then you’ll want to keep a much closer eye on the condition of your MRE. In that much heat, you’ll get about a month out of the meal before it should be considered unusable.
Oppositely, in cooler climates, you can degrade expiration even further. MREs, in temperatures under 75 degrees, have been known to be edible 10+ years after purchase, which is pretty extraordinary.
We went through a variety of MRE brands, including entrees and desserts, to show you examples of MRE shelf lives in action. The brands included are ALIMRE, AmeriQual, Back Country, Bridgford Foods, Epicenter, MRE Star, Sopakco, and Sterling Foods.
- Chicken Burrito Bowl – 60 months
- Potatoes Au Gratin – 130 months
- Plain Tortillas – 130 months
- Z-Ration Granola Double Chocolate or Tri-Berry – 130 months
- Nut & Raisin Mix – 130 months
- Old Wisconsin Beef Stick – 130 months
- Corn Nuts – 130 months
- Banana Chips – 130 months
- Dried Fruit Mix – 130 months
- Chicken Salad with Two Packages of Crackers – 130 months
- Granola Cereal with Latte – 130 months
- Italian Bread Sticks with MRE Jalapeno Cheese – 130 months
- MRE Royal Kreem Crackers – 130 months
- Apple Turnover – 130 months
- Peanut Butter Dessert Bars – 130 months
- Maple Muffin Top – 130 months
- Cinnamon Bun – 130 months
- MRE Chocolate Banana Nut Muffin Top – 130 months
- Marble Pound Cake – 130 months
- Vanilla Pound Cake – 130 months
- Applesauce Pound Cake – 130 months
- Lemon Pound Cake – 130 months
- Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake – 130 months
- Cornbread – 130 months
- Tuscan Beef MRE – 60 months
- Chili with Beans – 130 months
- Italian Sausage with Peppers and Onions in Marinara Sauce – 130 months
- Chili Macaroni MRE – 60 months
- Pasta with Marinara Sauce MRE – 60 months
- Chicken with Rice MRE – 60 months
- Meatballs in Marinara Sauce – 130 months
- Beef Taco Filling – 130 months
- Beef Stew MRE – 60 months
- Chicken Burrito Bowl MRE – 60 months
- Mexican-Style Chicken Stew MRE – 60 months
- Southwest Style Beef & Black Beans with Sauce – 130 months
- Shredded Barbeque Beef MRE – 60 months
- Chicken Noodle MRE – 60 months
- Beef Strips in a Savory Tomato Sauce – 130 months
- Chicken Chunks – 130 months
- Hot Turkey Chili with Beans – 130 months
- Shelf-Stable MRE Tortillas – 36 months
- Cherry Turnover – 36 months
- Apple Turnover – 36 months
- Blueberry Turnover – 36 months
- Filled French Toast – 36 months
- Cinnamon Bun – 36 months
- Sandwich Bread White Flat Bread – 36 months
- Italian Style Sandwich – 36 months
- Honey BBQ Beef Sandwich – 36 months
- Honey BBQ Chicken Sandwich – 36 months
- Mexican Style Beef Sandwich Wrap – 36 months
- Mexican Style Corn – 130 months
- Long Grain White Rice – 60 months
- White Rice – 60 months
- Chicken & Rice with Vegetables – 60 months
- BBQ Chicken with Black Beans and Potatoes – 60 months
- Pasta Marinara with Veggie Crumbles – 60 months
- New Orleans Chicken Gumbo – 60 months
- Curry Chicken – 60 months
- Cheese Tortellini with Marinara Sauce – 60 months
- Southwest Chicken – 60 months
- Chicken Noodle Stew with Vegetables – 60 months
- Tuscan Beef with Cannellini Beans – 60 months
- Lentil Stew with Potatoes – 60 months
- Lentil Stew with Potatoes and Ham – 60 months
- Spicy Vegetarian Chili with Beans – 60 months
- Pinto Bean Stew with Ham – 60 months
- Beef Stew with Vegetables – 60 months
- Cheese Tortellini in Tomato Sauce MRE – 60 months
- Beef Ravioli in Meat Sauce MRE – 60 months
- Spaghetti with Meat Sauce MRE – 60 months
- Applesauce Cake – 60 months
How Do MREs Last So Long? Can You Extend the Lifetime of an MRE?
Although some of the MREs on the above list have a rather brief shelf life (30 months is only equivalent to 2.5 months), for the most part, they can last for months at a clip. That has you wondering, how does the average MRE last for as long as it does?
Remember how we said earlier that it has to do a lot with temperature? It’s time to talk more about that. But before we do, check out this chart courtesy of ReadyMeal.com.
It’s an MRE shelf life chart that shows you the influence of temperature on prepackaged meals. The data in this chart correlates to what we discussed in the section above. In other words, in hotter conditions, MREs expire faster, and in colder conditions, they expire more slowly.
The reason for this is that many MREs include freeze-dried components. These components will retain their freshness at room temperature or slightly over and especially in temps considered below room temperature. Yet as soon as you begin exceeding temperatures of 80 degrees, the frozen components will melt and soon expire.
Another factor that dictates MRE shelf life outside of temperature is the ingredients. Most MRE manufacturers, including the brands above, know which ingredients last long and which don’t. They tend to choose the latter when packaging MREs considering these foods are known for their long shelf lives. Yet some ingredients don’t last as long, and these will be the foods to expire first. Three examples are cheese spreads, applesauce, and peanut butter.
Can You Make MREs Last Longer?
If you bought an MRE and it still seems edible so you want to wait to eat it, can you extend its shelf life even further? Perhaps, although this will vary by the individual MRE and nothing is guaranteed.
The first method is one you should follow regardless of the age of your MRE, and that’s to maintain its packaging. When an MRE is still in its original sealed box or wrapper, it’s going to remain fresher longer than an MRE in which the packaging is dinged up or damaged.
This video from EverSafe MRE also notes that there exists a connection between pH and MRE longevity. You wouldn’t want to store your MREs around any highly acidic or alkaline products then.
How Do You Know If Your MRE Is Too Old to Eat?
With their shelf-stable ingredients, you’re curious about something. Do MREs go bad? Absolutely, they do. Yet how old is too old, you’re wondering? Well, we’ll talk more about expiration dates in the next section, but those are generally good to follow. Otherwise, you can look out for the above signs that your MRE is too old to eat.
1- The Food Looks Different Than It Should
If you’re up for it, you can always play the comparison game. Open up two packages of the same MRE. Does the new one look like the old one? Old food may become discolored or even develop mold and mildew in some instances. Other times, it just looks its age. In those instances, you should throw away the MRE.
However, if you don’t see any perceptible differences between the new MRE and the old one, then you can always try your luck.
2- You Smell a Rancid Odor When You Open the Package
If your MRE has a terrible smell, that’s a pretty overt signal that you shouldn’t eat it. That goes double if the smell is emanating from a sealed package. The rancidity is a sign that at least some of the ingredients in the MRE have gone bad.
3- The Food Texture Feels Mushy or Very Firm
You know how the meal you purchased should feel. If yours has an abnormal mushy texture when the food is usually pretty solid, this is yet another indicator that you shouldn’t eat it. So too is that true if the food is hard and firm, as it’s likely stale and ingesting it will be like trying to munch on a rock.
4- The Taste Is All Wrong
Let’s say you were brave enough to take a bite. The MRE just tastes…off. Before you end up with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, you should stop eating right away and dispose of the rest of the meal.
How to Find Expiry Date and Date Codes on MRE Packaging
If you’re feeling a little nervous about biting into a rancid MRE, it doesn’t have to come to that. MREs make it somewhat easy to tell when your meal is about to expire or already has. You only need to use what’s known as a TTI or a time and temperature indicator, which has been in use since around 1997.
The TTI is a freshness indicator that features two circles, usually against a red background. The main large circle is usually blackish or maroon so it contrasts with the red background. If the inner circle is a lighter color than the outer circle, the MRE hasn’t yet expired. When both colors are similar, the MRE is soon going to go bad. If the inner circle is darker than the outer circle, then the MRE is considered expired and you should get rid of it.
If your MRE doesn’t have a TTI, then you’ll have to read the manufacturing code. This isn’t always as cut and dried as you’d think. The reason for this is that the manufacturing code uses the Julian calendar. Never heard of that before? The Julian calendar is Julius Caesar’s Roman calendar amendment created in AUC 708.
Manufacturing codes don’t print the expiration month and date on MREs, but the number of days since the start of the year, which is a cycle in the Julian calendar. So let’s say your MRE has a four-digit code: 1120. This doesn’t mean November 20th.
Instead, the 1 is a single-digit representation of the year of production, so 2011. The last three digits tell you how many days since the start of the year that the food was manufactured. A 120 means April 30th. If it was 122, that number would represent May 1st. There’s no quick way to figure out the date the numbers correlate to except to count the calendar months, but make sure you’re using the Julian calendar!
So this tells us that your MRE was produced on or before April 30th, 2021. This isn’t the expiration date. You’d have to know how good your MRE is to determine when it will expire. You can also use something like the Ready Store’s handy-dandy MRE shelf life calculator. All you have to do is input the date code on the package and the average storage temperature and you’ll get an expiration date.
Let’s use the 1120 example from before. If we kept our MRE stored in an environment that’s 70 degrees, it would have expired on August 30th, 2014.
By the way, not all manufacture codes are necessarily the same. Individual components within the food can have different codes stamped on the bags and boxes. That’s been the case since 2003, so if your MRE’s individual components are not stamped like that, this tells you automatically how old the food is.
Are MREs Good After Their Expiration Date?
You’re glad you know more information about reading MRE manufacturing codes, because you just found out that yours expired. Are old MREs safe to eat or do you have to toss yours in the garbage can?
That answer will vary on a case-by-case basis. Here is a post on the Survivalist Boards about this very topic. A poster on Quora also asked about eating MREs after they’ve expired. What it comes down to, as it has this entire time, is temperature, storage, and conditions. If you know the meal was kept in a humid room and it was produced several years ago, then we’d say to err on the side of caution and not eat the MRE.
If the MRE is from two decades ago but was otherwise kept in pristine condition, you can always open the package and give it a sniff. If it passes the smell taste, then you might go ahead and take a bite, but only if you feel comfortable. If the MRE tastes good, then wait 10 or 15 minutes before having more. Should your stomach feel fine, then you can continue eating it.
That said, there are very few instances in civilian life that would call for you to risk eating expired MREs. If you’re keeping MREs for emergency usage or you’re in a survivalist situation, then proceed with the rules above. Otherwise, with MREs costing on average $8 to $15 each, we think you can let one or two go to waste to avoid an upset stomach and even food poisoning in some instances.
The Best Storage Practices for MREs
How long can you store MREs? In conditions of around 60 degrees, your MREs can stay in the same place for five years, and in 70 degrees, for three years. To get that many years out of your own MREs, here are some recommended storage tips.
1- Choose a Ventilated Spot, but Not Near the Vents
A well-ventilated room is ideal for keeping your MREs, as fresh air will be introduced that can dispel any humidity in the air. In the winter, heat can pump in through the vents so the room doesn’t get so cold that your MREs freeze.
However, do make sure that you don’t put the food near the vents. The force of the hot or cold air can definitely degrade the quality of the food, causing it to expire sooner than it would in consistent ambient temperatures.
2- Watch the Sun Direction
If your MREs will be in a windowed room, then you must put them in a spot where they won’t receive direct sun. The sunlight will heat up the temperature of the food and increase its rate of expiry, as hotter temperatures are worse for MRE longevity. Do keep in mind that the direction of the sun changes not only throughout the day, but throughout the year as well.
3- Don’t Place MREs Directly on the Floor
If you have a few boxes full of MREs, you might think they’re safe on the floor. We disagree. In the winter especially, a hard floor like one that’s made of concrete will be just as cold as the ground outdoors. In the summer, the aggregates, cement, and water in concrete can warm up, getting hot and accelerating the expiry of your MREs.
4- Limit Storage Duration
Ideally, if you bought an MRE, you don’t want it sitting around forever. Certainly, get to it before three years!
How to Buy MREs and What to Watch Out for
You can find MREs just about anywhere these days, especially the civilian variety. Maybe you shop on a site like Camping Survival or specialty sites like it. If you’d prefer familiar retailers, you can indeed purchase MREs on Amazon. No, we’re not kidding!
If you want to get your hands on military-grade MREs, then you’d have to search for second-hand stores like eBay. Since the rules about selling MREs are pretty fuzzy, there’s nothing inherently illegal about buying or selling military MREs. The prices aren’t all that more expensive than civilian MREs either, but of course, the price is at the discretion of the seller on eBay.
Should you decide to go the second-hand route, please make sure you have all the information you need to make an educated decision. We don’t want you to waste your hard-earned money on MREs that are long since expired, something that you cannot tell by looking at photos or reading a description alone.
If it’s not already in the listing, then ask the seller for the date codes. Request photos, as you don’t want to just take the seller’s word for it. You also should ask to see the packaging from all sides so you can tell if there are any punctures or other signs of damage. Make sure you message the seller about the storage conditions of the MRE if that’s not clear from the listing.
Does Long-Term Storage Affect the Nutritional Value of an MRE?
You just purchased a box of MREs from someone on eBay and you know they’re quite old. Do you have to worry about the nutritional value of MREs degrading due to long-term storage, temperature, or a combination of the two factors?
More than likely, yes, you do. According to Metabolic Research Center, dehydrated food is short on antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. A classic New York Times article states this: “the longer food is stored in the refrigerator, freezer, or cupboard, the greater the nutrient loses.”
Neither of those sources describe MREs specifically, but MREs are not a different species of food. The pasta is real pasta, the potatoes are real potatoes, and so thus the same rules would apply. This is just another compelling reason to not save your MREs for a rainy day, or at least not a rainy day years from now.
MREs are a fantastic ready-made solution for those who can’t access a microwave, toaster, oven, or stovetop but still want a filling meal. To increase the longevity of your MREs, remember that cool storage is key, but don’t store the meals for too long! Their nutrition may degrade.