The History of Military Rations

Brief History:

The first soldier ration established by a Congressional Resolution, during the Revolutionary War, consisted of enough food to feed a man for one day, mostly beef, peas, and rice. During the Civil War, the military moved toward canned goods. Later, self-contained kits were issued as a whole ration and contained canned meat, bread, coffee, sugar and salt. During the First World War, canned meats were replaced with lightweight preserved meats (salted or dried) to save weight and allow more rations to be carried by soldiers carrying their supplies on foot. At the beginning of World War II, a number of new field rations were introduced, including the Mountain ration and the Jungle ration. However, cost-cutting measures by Quartermaster Command officials during the latter part of World War II and the Korean War again saw the predominance of heavy canned C rations issued to troops, regardless of operating environment or mission.[3] During WWII, over 100 million cans of Spam were sent to the Pacific.[4]The use of canned wet rations continued through the Vietnam War, with the improved MCI field ration.

In 1963, the Department of Defense began developing the “Meal, Ready to Eat”, a ration that would rely on modern food preparation and packaging technology to create a lighter replacement for the canned Meal, Combat, Individual ration. In 1966, this led to the Long Range Patrol, or LRP ration, a dehydrated meal stored in a waterproof canvas pouch. However, just as with the Jungle ration, its expense compared to canned wet rations, as well as the costs of stocking and storing a specialized field ration, led to its limited usage and repeated attempts at discontinuance by Quartermaster Command officials.[3]

In 1975, work began on a dehydrated meal stored in a plastic retort pouch, led by Dr Abdul Rahman. It went into special issue starting in 1981 and standard issue in 1986, using a limited menu of twelve entrées.

Rations over the years”

“Iron ration” (1907–1922)

The first U.S attempt to make an individual ration for issue to soldiers in the field was the “iron ration”, introduced in 1907. It contained three 3-ounce cakes (made from a concoction of beef bouillon powder and parched and cooked wheat), three 1-ounce bars of sweetened chocolate and packets of salt and pepper. The ration was issued in a sealed tin packet that weighed one pound, to be carried in infantrymans’ top tunic pockets, and was designed for emergency use when the troops were unable to be supplied with food. It was later discontinued by the adoption of the “Reserve Ration”, but findings from the development and use of the Iron Ration went into the development of the emergency D-ration.

“Reserve ration” (1917–1937)

The Reserve Ration was issued during the later part of World War I to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen. It originally consisted of 12 ounces (340 g) of bacon or 14 ounces (400 g) of meat (usually canned corned beef), two 8-ounce (230 g) cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, a packet of 1.16 ounces (33 g) of pre-ground coffee, a packet of 2.4 ounces (68 g) of granulated sugar, and a packet of 0.16 ounces (4.5 g) of salt. There was also a separate “tobacco ration” of 0.4 ounces (11 g) of tobacco and 10 cigarette rolling papers, later replaced by brand-name machine-rolled cigarettes.

After the war, there were attempts to improve the ration based on input from the field. In 1922, the ration was reorganized to consist of 16 ounces (450 g) of meat (usually beef jerky), 3 ounces (85 g) of canned corned beef or chocolate, 14 ounces (400 g) of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, coffee and sugar. In 1925, the meat ration was replaced with canned pork and beans. In 1936, there was an attempt at variety by having an “A”-menu of corned beef and a “B”-menu of pork and beans. This was cancelled upon introduction of the new Field Ration, Type C, in 1938.

Field ration, Type C (1938–1945)

The original Type C ration, commonly known as the C-Ration, was intended to replace the Reserve Ration as a short-term individual ration designed for infrequent use,[4] to be supplemented by the D-Ration emergency ration.

Development of a replacement for the Reserve Ration was undertaken by the newly formed Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago in 1938 with the aim of producing a ration that was more palatable, nutritionally balanced, and had better keeping qualities.[5]

The first Type C ration consisted of a one-pound ‘meat’ unit (M-unit) (reduced to 12 ounces (340 g) after being field tested during the 1940 Louisiana maneuvers). In the initial Type C ration, there were only three variations of the main course: meat and beans, meat and potato hash, or meat and vegetable stew. Also issued was one bread-and-dessert can, or B-unit. Each daily ration (i.e. enough food for one soldier for one day) consisted of six 12 oz (340 g) cans (three M-units and three B-units), while an individual meal consisted of one M-unit and one B-unit. The original oblong can was replaced with the more common cylindrical design in June 1939 due to mass production problems with the former shape of can[citation needed]

The 12 oz (340 g) C-Ration can was about 4.4 inches (11 cm) tall and 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter. It was made of non-corrugated tinplate, had a visible tin solder seam, and incorporated an opening strip. A key for use on the opening strip was soldered to the base of every B unit can.

The first C-Ration cans had an aluminized finish, but in late 1940, this was changed to a gold lacquer finish to improve corrosion resistance. There was noticeable variation in the depth of gold color in World War II vintage cans, because of the large number of suppliers involved. Late in the war this was changed to drab green paint, which remained standard through the remainder of the C-ration’s service life, as well as that of its (very similar) successor, the Meal Combat Individual (MCI).

During the war, soldiers frequently requested that the cylindrical cans be replaced with flat, rectangular ones (similar to a sardine can), comparable to those used in the earliest versions of contemporary K rations, because of their compactness and packability; but this was deemed impractical because of the shortage of commercial machinery available to produce rectangular cans. After 1942 the K ration too, reverted to the use of small round cans.[6]

Initially, C-Ration cans were marked only with paper labels, which soon fell off and made a guessing game out of evening meals; US Soldiers and Marines receiving an unpopular menu item several nights in a row often found themselves powerless to bargain for a more palatable one.[7]

The C-Ration was, in general, not well liked by U.S. Army or Marine forces in World War II, who found the cans heavy and cumbersome, and the menu monotonous after a short period of exposure.[8][9] There were also inevitable problems with product consistency given the large number of suppliers involved and the pressures of wartime production. When issued to British or other Commonwealth forces formerly issued hardtack and bully beef-type rations, the C ration was initially accepted, but monotony also became a chief complaint after a few days of consumption.[10] Australian forces tended to dislike the C ration, finding the canned food items generally bland, overly soft in texture, and unappealing.[11] Originally intended only for infrequent use, the exigencies of combat sometimes forced supply authorities to make the C ration the only source of sustenance for several weeks in succession. In 1943, a ration board reviewing medical examinations of soldiers after long-term use of Type C rations recommended that they be restricted to a maximum of five continuous days in the absence of supplementation with other rations.[12]

While the initial specification was officially declared obsolete in 1945, and production of all Type C rations ended in 1958, existing stockpiles of both original and revised Type C rations continued to be issued to troops serving in Korea and even as late as the Vietnam War.[13] A Marine tank commander serving in Vietnam in 1968 noted his unit was frequently supplied with older stocks of C rations, complete with early 1950s dates on the cans.[14]

“M” Unit

The M-unit contained a canned entrée originally made of stew meat (a mixture of beef and pork) seasoned with salt, various spices, and chopped onions. They initially came in three varieties: Meat Stew with Beans, Meat with Vegetable Hash, and Meat Stew with Vegetables (carrots and potatoes). The commonplace nature of the menu was intentional, and designed to duplicate the menu items (hash, stews, etc.) soldiers were normally served as A- or B-rations in Army mess halls.

Another new menu item, “Meat & Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce” was added in 1943. In late 1944 “Chopped Ham, Egg, and Potato”; “Meat and Noodles”; “Pork and Rice”; “Frankfurters and Beans”; “Pork and Beans”; “Ham and Lima Beans”; and “Chicken and Vegetables” were introduced in an attempt to increase the C rations’ period of continuous use. The unpopular Meat Hash and equally unpopular experimental “Mutton Stew with Vegetables” meal were dropped. In the final revision, “Beef Stew with Vegetables” was added in 1945. By all accounts, after the meat hash and mutton stew, the Ham and Lima Beans entree was the most unpopular; despite continued negative field reports, it unaccountably remained a standard entree item not only during World War II, but also during the Korean War and Vietnam War.[15]

“B” Unit

The B-unit (bread and dessert portion) contained several calorie-dense Crackers, 3 sugar tablets, 3 dextrose energy tablets, and a packet or small can of beverage mix (instant coffee, powdered synthetic lemon drink, containing the rations’ main source of vitamin C; or bouillon soup powder). Later revisions added orange drink powder (1944), sweetened cocoa powder (1944), and grape drink powder (1945), all enriched with Vitamin C, to the list of beverages. In 1941, the energy tablets were replaced with loose candy, such as candy-coated peanuts or raisins, Charms hard candy, or Brachs Chocolate Caramels. Due to spoilage, the loose candy was replaced in 1944 with a chocolate disk (e.g. Brach’s Fudge disk) or a cookie sandwich (e.g., Jim Dandee) and the number of biscuits was reduced to 4.

Another B-unit, consisting of pre-mixed oatmeal cereal, was introduced in 1944 as a breakfast ration that was usually paired with the “Ham, Egg, and Potato” Meal.

Accessory pack

Originally, the accessories and condiments were put in a 12-ounce (340 g) can. However, their bulk led to the development of an accessory package.[16]

The brown butcher paper accessory pack contained sugar tablets, halazone water purification tablets (for a brief period in 1945), a flat wooden spoon, a piece of candy-coated chewing gum, 3 “short” sample 3-packs or one “long” sample 9-pack of commercial-grade cigarettes and a book of 20 cardboard moisture-resistant matches, a paper-wrapped P-38 can opener printed with instructions for its proper use, and typically 22.5 sheets of toilet paper (compared to 3 sheets for the British Army). [17] The P-38 can openers were generally worn on the GI’s “dog tag” chain to facilitate opening the next meal’s cans.

In 1945, the accessory pack was modified. Per the order of the Surgeon General, the halazone tablets were removed and salt tablets were added. Also, feedback from the field revealed that soldiers who smoked often opened up accessory packs just to get the cigarettes and threw away the rest of the items. To reduce waste, the accessory pack was now divided into the “short” pack with cigarettes and matches and the “long” pack containing the other accessories.

Cigarette brands issued included Camel, Chelsea, Chesterfield, Craven “A”-Brand, Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Philip Morris, Player’s, Raleigh, and Wings.


The rations came packed in a small rectangular wooden crate that weighed 40 lbs. and had a volume of 1.12 Cubic Feet. Each crate contained 8 daily rations of 3 meals each for a total of 24 “M” units, 24 “B” units, and 24 accessory packs.

Early rations came with a variety of 8 Meat and Beans, 8 Meat & Vegetable Hash, and 8 Meat & Vegetable Stew “M” units and 24 “B” units. Later rations (c.1944–1945) added a breakfast meal of 8 Chopped Ham, Egg, & Potato “M”-units and 8 Compressed Cereal “B”-units in place of the Meat and Vegetable Hash. Alternate “M”-unit menu items came packed in cases of 24 “M” units (and 24 “B” units) rather than a mixed 8-8-8 menu like the main items.


The K-ration was an individual daily combat food ration which was introduced by the United States Army during World War II. It was originally intended as an individually packaged daily ration for issue to airborne troops, tank crews, motorcycle couriers, and other mobile forces for short durations.[1] The K-ration provided three separately boxed meal units: breakfast, dinner (lunch) and supper (dinner).

Field ration, Type E (1946–1948)

After World War II there was an attempt to combine the best features of the C-ration and the K-ration into a new individual ration. Called the E-ration, it was for all intents and purposes the same canned C-ration, with the addition of some new components. In field testing, the bread component of the E-ration was found to be so unpalatable that the E-ration was quickly dropped from classification and inventory.[18]

Ration, Individual, Combat, Type C, (Revised) (1948–1958)

After the failure of the E-Ration, ration planners decided to save costs by returning to the basic C-ration designation, intermittently revised with new menus and item specifications.

Type C-2 ration (1948–1951)

The C-2 ration was described in TB-QM-53, Department of the Army, dated March, 1948, as an individual ration which consisted of packaged pre-cooked foods which could be eaten hot or cold. It replaced the World War II C-Ration, and later, the E-Ration. It could be carried and prepared by the individual soldier. The revised C-Ration was now intended for feeding combat troops continuously up to three weeks (21 days).[19] Due to the required individual portability of this ration, maximum nourishment had to be provided in the smallest physical unit. The components of this ration were prepared in five different menus.

Each menu included an accessory packet which consisted of essential toilet articles, tobacco, and confections.

Type C-3 ration (1951–1953)

In 1951, a new C-3 menu for the Type C ration was introduced. The C-3 ration was composed of the same five menus of the C-2, but offered greater variety. In addition to new and improved “B” (bread) and “M” (meat) units, each menu contained an accessory packet, fruit, and cigarettes. The ration was very heavy, weighing 5 lbs. 8.5 oz. [2.5 kg.], and was packed in 8 small cans in a cardboard box. There were 6 daily ration boxes per cardboard case.

  • Three “M” (meat) components, which offered 10 different varieties of meat entrees.
    • Chopped Eggs and Ham
    • Pork and Beans
    • Meat Chunks and Beans
  • Three “B” (bread) components consisting of:
    • B-1: a unit of 5 crackers, a packet of soluble coffee, a packet of powdered milk, a packet of granulated sugar, a cocoa disc, and a 1.5 oz (43 g) tin of jam.
    • B-2: a unit of 5 crackers, a packet of soluble coffee, a packet of powdered milk, a packet of granulated sugar, 1 cookie sandwich, and 1 chocolate fudge disc.
    • B-3: a unit of 5 crackers, a packet of soluble coffee, a packet of powdered milk, a packet of granulated sugar, 2 cookie sandwiches, and a 1.5 oz (43 g) tin of jam.
    • B-4: a unit of pre-mixed and compressed cereal.
  • One 12 oz (340 g) can of fruit.
  • One sundries can containing the accessory packet: (Gum, toilet paper, a P-38 can opener, granulated salt, and a flat wooden spoon) and the cigarette packet: (one 9-pack of cigarettes and a book of matches).

Field cooking equipment was not required for the preparation of this ration. The C-3 ration was more adequate than the original C ration in respect to its nutritional value.

Type C-4 ration (1954–1958)

In 1954, the C-4 ration was developed as a modification of the C-3 ration, and was called Ration, Combat, Individual. It included the issue of two 6-ounce (170 g) cans of fruit for 2 meals to replace the one 12-ounce (340 g) can issued for one meal in the C-3 ration.

Sample C-4 ration contents

A sample C-4 ration (stamped March 1954) contained:

  • 1 instruction sheet
  • 2 cheese bars (1.5 net ounces/43 g net)
  • 2 cereal class 5 bars (1.5 net ounces/43 g net)
  • 3 type XII style 1 enriched chocolate bars (1 ounce/28 g)
  • 1 jelly bar (2 ounces/56 g)
  • 2 Fruit Cake Bars (2 ounces/56 g)
  • 3 sticks Topps peppermint chewing gum
  • 3 Domino sugar packets
  • 3 Nestea “soluble tea product” packets
  • 1 packet of pure soluble sugar
  • 1 packet of soluble cream product
  • 1 bottle water purification tablets (iodine)
  • 1 plastic bag

End of the C-Ration

At its introduction, the QMC stated that the Type C ration was intended for short-term use for periods not to exceed three days.[6] After the war, in light of field evaluation reports of monotony, the QMC Food Services Branch used this limitation as a defense to the largely negative response to the C ration during the war,[20] while at the same time advocating standardization on the C-Ration as the sole individual packaged ration for U.S. troops. Not only did the QMC decide not to develop or introduce new alternative lightweight individual rations, it successfully campaigned for the elimination of alternatives, including the K-ration, Mountain ration, Jungle ration, and even the 10-in-1 group ration (which had proven somewhat useful in boosting nourishment and alleviating complaints of monotony for men living for extended periods on C-Rations or K-Rations).

Instead, the C-Ration, still designated as a packaged ration intended for infrequent or short-term use, went through a series of largely unsuccessful minor revisions.[21] This decision resulted in limiting troops in the field to a single class of packaged ration that despite meal variances, was neither suited to varied field environments nor for long-term use. Troops continued to complain of the monotony of a single class of field ration with one or more unpalatable menu items, especially where A and B rations were not available for extended periods of time.[7]

Primarily implemented due to cost concerns, the selection of a heavy canned wet ration resulted in a severe weight penalty for troops marching on foot and forced to carry a multi-day supply of rations.[8] The overuse of the canned wet ration reached an extreme during the Vietnam War, where American troops resorted to placing stacked ration cans in socks to save bulk and reduce noise on patrol, while their enemy increased their mobility by carrying lightweight rations of dry rice.[22] The Quartermaster Branch’s insistence on canned wet rations for all postwar field issue, and the failure to develop a suitable lightweight dehydrated or other dry ration for jungle and other extreme environments led directly to the hurried development of the LRP ration or Long Range Patrol ration in 1966.[23]

Starting in 1958, C-Rations were slowly replaced by the nearly identical canned Meal, Combat, Individual ration. These rations were issued for most of the next two plus decades, until they were replaced by Meal Ready to Eat or MREs in the early 1980s.

Meal, Ready-to-Eat

The Meal, Ready-to-Eat – commonly known as the MRE – is a self-contained, individual field ration in lightweight packaging bought by the United States military for its service members for use in combat or other field conditions where organized food facilities are not available. While MREs should be kept cool, they do not need to be refrigerated. MREs replaced the canned MCI, or Meal, Combat, Individual rations, in 1981,[1] and is the intended successor to the lighter LRP ration developed by the United States Army for Special Forces and Ranger patrol units in Vietnam. MREs have also been distributed to civilians during natural disasters.

The MRE has been in continual development since its introduction. In 1990, a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), a water-activated exothermic reaction product that emits heat, allowed a service member in the field to enjoy a hot meal. In an array of field tests and surveys, service members requested more entrée options and larger serving sizes. By 1994, commercial-like graphics (images) were added to make the packets more user-friendly and appealing, while biodegradable materials were introduced for inedible components, such as spoons and napkins. The number of entrées expanded to 16 by 1996 (including vegetarian options), 20 entrées by 1997 and 24 entrées by 1998. Today, the system includes 24 entrées, and more than 150 additional items.[6] The variety allowed service members from various cultures and geographical regions to find something palatable.

The ration originally came in a dark brown outer bag from 1981 to 1995 because it was designed for service in the temperate forests and plains of central Europe. It was replaced in 1996 with a tan outer bag that was better suited for service in the deserts of the Middle East. In 2006, “Beverage Bags” were introduced to the MRE, as service members have begun to depend more on hydration packs than on canteens, thus denying them the use of the metal canteen cups (shaped to fit in a canteen pouch with the canteen) for mixing powdered beverages. In addition to having measuring marks to indicate levels of liquid for precise measurement, they can be sealed and placed inside the flameless heater.

Most recently, MREs have been developed using the Dietary Reference Intake, created by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM indicated servicemembers (who were classified as highly active men between the ages of 18 and 30) typically burn about 4,200 Calories (kcal) a day, but tended to only consume about 2,400 Calories a day during combat, entering a negative energy balance. This imbalance occurs when servicemembers fail to consume full portions of their rations.[7] Although manipulations to the food items and distribution of macronutrients to help boost the amount of kilocalories per MRE have been made, more studies are showing many servicemembers still do not meet today’s standards of daily consumption, often trading and discarding portions of the ration.[8] Researchers continue to study the habits and eating preferences of servicemembers, making constant changes that encourage servicemembers to eat the entire meal and thus get full nutritional value.[8]

In addition, the military has experimented with new assault ration prototypes, such as the First Strike Ration and the HOOAH! Bar, designed with elite or specialized forces in mind. Lighter than the typical MRE, they require no preparation and allow servicemembers to eat them while traveling.[9] In July 2009, 6,300 dairy shake packets of varying flavors were recalled due to evidence of Salmonella contamination.

The MRE has led to the creation of several similar field rations.

Aircrew Build to Order Meal Module (ABOMM) are a special variant consisting of repacking existing MRE food elements into a form that provide military flight crews and tank operators with a meal designed to be eaten on the go or while operating their aircraft/ground vehicle without the use of utensils, and packaged for use in confined spaces.[33]

For servicemembers with strict religious dietary requirements, the military offers the specialized Meal, Religious, Kosher/Halal. These are tailored to provide the same nutritional content, but will not contain offending ingredients.[34] The entrees come in distinct stylized packaging with a color picture of the prepared entree on it (like civilian pre-made meals) and the food accessories come in commercial packaging. Kosher entrees are marked “Glatt Kosher” in Hebrew and English, while halal entrees are marked “Dhabiha Halal” in Arabic and English. The meals come in cases of 12 that weigh 18 lbs (8 kg) and have a volume of 1.4 cubic feet (40 L). To keep with dietary laws, the Entree and Accessory packets are packed in two separate inner boxes in an outer case and come in kosher or halal only (the two special ration types are never mixed in a shipping case).

The original meals were kosher only and came in 4 Beef, 4 Chicken, 2 Salmon, and 2 Gefilte Fish menus. The meals now come in Beef, Lamb, Chicken, Vegetarian, and Pasta dishes. The entrees are a mixture of traditional Middle-Eastern and Southwest-Asian dishes (like Lamb & Vegetable Jalfrezi or Curried Chicken with Basmati Rice, Lentils, and Vegetables) and Western dishes (like Vegetable Ratatouille, Florentine-style Vegetable Lasagna, or New Orleans Gumbo with Chicken). Each menu contains an average of 1200 kilocalories and has a shelf life of 3 to 10 months.

There is also a special kosher meal certified for Passover requirements.[35] The “Passover Ration” (officially called the Meal, Religious, Kosher for Passover) contains packages of Matzoh Crackers and has Beef, Chicken (served on the bone), or Salmon entrees. Each meal is in its own packet and come 12 packets to a case.

The Humanitarian Daily Ration (HDR) is a self-contained Halal meal designed to be given to refugees and other displaced people. It is designed to feed a single person for a full day, and the menus were intended to be palatable to many religious and cultural tastes around the globe. To meet this goal, no animal products or by-products, no alcohol or alcohol-based products, and minimal dairy products are used in their production. It is otherwise created and packaged much like MREs; feedback from the Afghanistan campaign led to the interior packing being reinforced to withstand being air-dropped, as the packets sometimes ruptured on impact. The outer bag is tinted a high-visibility red or yellow and has an American Flag and a picture of a person eating out of the bag with a spoon. There are usually instructions printed on it in English and one or more local languages as well.

In extreme cold temperatures, the packaged wet food in MREs can freeze solid, rendering the food inedible and the heating packet insufficient. The Meal, Cold Weather (MCW) provides a ration similar to the MRE designed for lower temperatures than the MRE can withstand. Clad in white packaging, it offers a freeze-dried entree designed to be eaten with heated water, the same side ingredients as the standard MRE, and additional drink mixes to encourage additional hydration. The caloric and fat content of the meals is also increased.[36] The MCW replaced the Ration, Cold Weather (RCW).[37]

The Meal, Alternative Regionally Customized (MARC), is a self-contained, shelf stable meal developed by U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM)/Natick, Individual Combat Ration Team (ICRT), Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD). MARCs were developed specifically for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and have since found wider spread use, notably Iraq and Afghanistan. MARC meals are entirely vegetarian as an easy way to prevent conflicts with culturally “prohibited products” (Islam/Judaism forbidding pork, Hindus avoiding beef, etc). However, they are neither Kosher nor Halal certified. Many of the menus available have a Southeast Asian/Indian style to them (Saag Chole, Curried Vegetables), but others are simply the equivalent of vegetarian MREs (Cheese Tortellini, Minestrone).


2 thoughts on “The History of Military Rations

  1. Carol McAdoo

    Hope you can help me. My Dad was a Japanese POW in WWII and I found “MENU No. 5” in his papers. It lists a can opener is in a small envelope and includes Halazone tablets. So am I correct in assuming part of what the Red Cross sent over were c-rations and he got this in 1945? Thank you so much for any information you can provide



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