Eating Army Food Brings Me Back to Some of the Best Times in My Childhood

Nothing says childhood to me like an Army combat ration—as my husband soon learned.

My husband, Mark, looked at me, confused. “You used to like this stuff?” he asked as he dipped his brown plastic spoon into his mushy shredded barbecue beef. “You have to mix it up,” I said, “so the heat is evenly spread throughout.” I tore the top off my own meal: spaghetti with beef and sauce. The aroma—a mix of SpaghettiOs and hot Spam—rushed out of the packet and into my face. It smelled like home.

Growing up, I was obsessed with Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. The thick plastic pouches containing about 1,250 calories of highly preserved food were introduced in 1981 and marked a significant upgrade from the C-ration meals of old. With their airtight, heavy-duty packaging, they can withstand just about any climate and are designed to last a minimum of three years with no refrigeration. They give troops a taste of home and the ability to maintain a high-calorie diet while away on the battlefield. In my Army household, there was always one lying around somewhere: in the back of my dad’s car, in the garage, in a closet.

Nothing beat eating dinner from those brown plastic pouches, and that’s why, when I saw MREs for sale on Amazon, I bought some for $15 apiece. I posted a picture on social media, and my military friends laughed. But as I opened the shipment, it felt as if I’d just unearthed a box filled with childhood memorabilia. I was finally able to give my husband a literal taste of my past.

Eating an MRE was an adventure, and we savored every bite.

Mark cut open his MRE and spilled its contents onto our coffee table. He held up the bag and eyed the instructions printed on its packaging. A ­water-activated heating packet uses a mix of magnesium metal, iron, and salt to generate the heat that warms up the meal. With the shredded barbecue beef packet tucked inside, I poured water into the heating envelope and watched as it almost instantly began to bubble. When I was a kid, this always felt like magic. The instructions call for you to lean the package against a “rock or something.” My father used to take this part very seriously, sending my siblings and me out into our yard to find a rock big enough to get the job done. Mark and I leaned our heaters against a stack of books instead. We’ve been together for six years, married for three, and in that time I’ve fallen in love with Mark’s hometown of McLouth, Kansas. I’ve cheered for the McLouth Bulldogs in the same high school stadium where Mark once played football as the team’s quarter­back. I’ve driven down the same winding dirt roads he and his friends used to drive, sometimes sneaking beers while parked underneath the big Kansas sky. I’ve slept in his childhood bedroom, the walls still plastered with clippings from local newspapers and posters of ’90s sports icons such as ­Michael Jordan and Emmitt Smith.

The idea of growing up in the same town all of my life, let alone the same house, was foreign. During my father’s 24-year Army career, my family lived in 11 different houses in five states and two countries. While I never had a hometown, I did have a culture. The Army was—still is—home to me, and MREs are a part of that.

My siblings and I weren’t allowed to eat them often. My mother said they would constipate us; back then, I didn’t know what that meant, so I’d just roll my eyes. They were saved for camping trips or the nights my dad was in charge of dinner while my mom was out with other Army wives playing bunco, a dice game that was popular back then. My father could have offered us anything on these nights—pizza, Burger King, ice cream—but we would choose MREs. Eating one was an adventure, and we savored every bite. My first experiences of anxiety came when I had to choose which one I wanted. The main entree was printed in dark brown letters on the front of the pack—Menu No. 12: Cheese Tortellini; Menu No. 17: Beef Ravioli; Menu No. 23: Meatloaf with Gravy.

Staring at the packages lying on our counter, my hands would shake as they hovered over the rations before grabbing one. It was a difficult decision, and it wasn’t about just the entree. It was about the extras that weren’t mentioned on the outside of the package: the dry yellow cake or the brownie that crumbled into a million pieces the second the packaging was unsealed. The bready crackers with the cheese spread if you were lucky and the chunky peanut butter if you weren’t. Jalapeño or regular cheddar, it didn’t matter—I loved that cheese spread. There was nothing more disappointing than ripping open an MRE, seeing the peanut butter, and knowing you’d have to wait until next time to try your luck at the cheese.

prepared MRE on white backgroundRebecca Simpson Steele for Reader's Digest

There are so many things created for war that remind me of my childhood: reveille in the morning and retreat in the evening; Black Hawk helicopters and their big, echoey hangars; dusty brown boots, camouflage uniforms, and heavy flight helmets. These were just parts of the job for my father, but they defined my childhood. I grew up on post, saying “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am,” using military time, and speaking in acronyms. I showed my military ID card at the shoppette when I filled my first car with gas and then again at the gym, the commissary, and the PX. These on-post amenities were created exclusively for service members and their dependents, but as a child I never knew they were unique to my community.

I’ve never served in the military myself, but I’ll always feel a kinship with those wearing a uniform when I walk by them at airports or see them on subway platforms. I’ll forever smile when I hear the familiar hum of a Chinook helicopter flying overhead. I will continue to feel a little extra pride for the Army every year on Flag Day, the service’s birthday. Because, like MREs, these things are a reminder of my “home.”

“They’re not so bad, right?” I said to Mark with a smile, breaking my dry cracker in half and smearing the lumpy cheese spread on each piece. Growing up, I never, ever would have shared this precious MRE side dish with anyone. “This cheesy stuff,” he said, eyeing the cracker before taking a bite. “It’s not that bad.”

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