Peas and pork to pasta and pesto

Feeding the troops through the years

Meals at U.S. military bases will get a major nutritional makeover for the first time in 20 years. Field rations have been evolving through the years as well. Read the latest. | Read about the development of gourmet MREs.

  • 1776
  • 1863
  • 1917
  • 1942
  • 1951
  • 1968
  • 1990
  • 2011
Military rations timeline

In 1775, the first formal military food program is established by the Continental Congress.
In 1832, rum, brandy and beer in rations are replaced by coffee.

American Revolution


By 1777, rations were most often distributed to groups rather than individuals. Soldiers had to be fed on the move, so food was preserved in salt and stashed along the path the troops planned to travel.

Spruce beer (brewed with spruce needles or buds in it) or cider
Beef, pork or salted fish
Peas or beans
Rice or corn meal
Hard bread

Military rations from the Revolutionary War
Military rations timeline

In 1863, pepper becomes the first spice sanctioned for troops' meals.

Civil War


Cattle were brought along with troops and slaughtered as needed, but nutritional balance was nonexistent, fresh vegetables were rare, and poor diet caused many illnesses.

"Dessicated vegetables," which were chopped, mixed, dried and pressed into hard lumps
Bread or hardtack
Coffee and sugar

Military rations from the Civil War
Military rations timeline

World War I


For the first time, hot food and fresh water were delivered to troops in trenches. "Trench rations" arrived in heavy cans that would each feed 25 men. Individuals carried "emergency rations" of chocolate bars and cakes of beef powder and wheat.

Hard bread
Corned beef
Roast beef
Coffee, salt and sugar

Military rations from Wordl War I
Military rations timeline

World War II


Alphabet rations debut! Perhaps best known of the 23 types were unpopular C-rations, which contained M-units (meat and vegetables) and B-units (bread, sugar and coffee). Pocket-size K-rations that paratroopers carried were the most nutritionally complete.

A C-ration dinner:

Hard bread
Can of spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew, or franks and beans
Chocolate or hard candy
Chewing gum

Military rations from World War II
Military rations timeline

Korean War


Despite advancing research into better nutrition, troops were mostly stuck with leftover C-rations from World War II, supplemented with canned fruit and cakes.

A C-ration dinner:

Hard bread
Can of spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew or franks and beans
Chocolate or hard candy
Chewing gum

Military rations from the Korean War
Military rations timeline

By 1958, the philosophy behind rations changes from filling stomachs to meeting soldiers' nutritional requirements.
In 1972, cigarettes are removed from C-rations.

Vietnam War


Challenges in Vietnam were unique because there was no clearly defined front. Mobile kitchen trailers (MKTs) carried food along with troops but usually had no means of refrigeration.

Grilled corned beef
Lyonnaise potatoes
Stewed tomatoes
Cabbage with green pepper salad
Corn bread

Military rations from the Vietnam War

* U.S. involvement, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs

Military rations timeline

1983: The first official Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) are evaluated by a unit that ate them for 34 days. Troops consumed only 60 percent of the food. (The same unit declared a 1986 version to be much better.)
In 1993, the FRH (Flameless Ration Heater) debuts, allowing a service member to heat a meal by simply adding water to a pouch.

Operation Desert Storm


The first Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) were widely panned. Improvements began in the early 1990s, with brand-name snacks and innovations such as the heat-resistant Hershey Desert Bar.

Chicken stew
Freeze-dried fruit
M&Ms, Tootsie Rolls
Peanut butter and crackers
Tabasco sauce
Taster's Choice coffee

Military rations from the Operation Desert Storm
Military rations timeline

In 2009, Chef Emeril Lagasse turns the contents of an MRE (beef patty) into a "gourmet" Southwestern-style concoction by smothering it in spices and adding a pile of fresh vegetables.

Afghanistan and Iraq


Troops have 24 menus, with options such as kosher and vegetarian. Professional tasters evaluate mouthfeel and "nasal pungency." Calling the latest MREs gourmet would be a stretch, but they beat hardtack and beans.

Chicken pesto pasta
Potato cheddar soup
Cinnamon roll
Jalepeno cashews
Twizzler Nibs (cherry)

Military rations from the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Published Oct. 30, 2011.
Sources: U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center; U.S. Army Quartermaster Foundation; "Special Rations for the Armed Forces, 1946-53," by Franz A. Koehler;
Bonnie Berkowitz and Patterson Clark/The Washington Post