When starting to prepare for disasters or emergencies, one of the things that many people think about is stocking up on military MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) packs which contains a shelf-stable meal for one person that does not require refrigeration.
Surplus military MRE's are convienent, however they are also expensive, costing on average around $8 to $10 each, plus the cost of shipping. There are even Heater Meals brand versions of the popular MRE's that have come out catering to the civilian market which heat themselves automatically through a chemical reaction once you add water to the heating pouch which average around $12 - $15 each plus the costs of shipping.
MRE's are a good option for ready to go, shelf-stable meals that do not require refrigeration can be useful for several situations like hiking or backpacking, camping, roadside emergencies and breakdowns, and disaster preparedness.
In the case of Disaster Preparedness, having several weeks or even months worth of MRE's stocked up and ready to go can be extremely beneficial, yet it is also extremely cost prohibitive. That is, unless you make your own, which can save you quite a bit of money and lets you have more choice in its contents.
Having prepackaged MRE's has another drawback that a lot of people do not think about, unless they have been in the military and had to eat a lot of MRE's in their career. They are very limited in their diversity meaning there are only a limited number of meal options to chose from. Eating the same thing over and over again gets old very quickly.
There is another drawback to the pre-packaged military MRE meals. They are high in fat content and low in fiber were originally designed to meet the needs of someone doing heavy physical activity. When you combine that with the low water content, you are destined to get constipated, which is why many Marines jokingly refered to MRE's as Meals Requiring an Enema.
By creating your own MRE packs, you determine what foods are included into them. So you have more flexibility in selecting the types of foods that you and your family enjoy eating. This is especially important in a disaster situation where low moral will already be an issue. Make sure that they have something that they will actually enjoy eating, it will help their overall outlook and help you get through the situation.
There are a couple ways to create DIY MRE packs, depending on how extravagant you want to make them, and the types of situations you are making them for. For instance, if you are making some for a camping trip or to put in the car in case you break down on a trip you may not want to add some additional items that military MREs contain like matches, toilet paper, tissues, plastic spoon, etc. However, if you are making them for hiking/backpacking or as part of your disaster preparedness plan, these additional items would be more important.
One of the additional items that are often contained in the military surplus MRE's is a small piece of gum. Many people believe that the gum contains a laxative to keep you from getting "stopped up" from eating the MRE's while others believe it contains an anti-diareheal to "stop the flow", so to speak.
Unfortunately, both sides on this great debate would be incorrect. The gum contains xylitol, which is a plant-based sugar substitute commonly used in sugarless gum and is simply given to prevent "stank-breath" by helping to keep your teeth clean which in the field, or after a disaster, can be challenging. Keep in mind that xylitol is poisonous to dogs, even in small ammounts so make sure Fido does not get ahold of your gum. If your dog eats a product that contains xylitol, it is important to take the dog to a veterinarian immediately.
You can create MRE's that will last between 3 to 5 years by using a simple vaccuum food sealer to vacuum all of the air out of the pouch after you have placed all of the items that you want to include in your meal inside. This is the cheapest and simplist way of creating your own MRE's.
If you are going to use this method to create your MRE packs, be sure to use a thumbtack or pin to poke a small hole in the packages of any food items like noodles, rice, potatoes, and crackers. These bulky items will have areas around the food inside its packaging which can hold air and it will make your MRE package bulky. Poking a hole in their packages will not harm them or lessen their shelf-life because they are being resealed in the vacuum bag which you will be pulling all of the air back out of.
Once you have created your vacuum sealed MRE packs be sure to mark the date that you created the pack on, and plan on it lasting between 3 to 5 years as the plastic bag is actually porous and will allow air to re-enter the packaging slowly over time. Pre-packaged military surplus MRE's have a shelf-life of 5 years from the date of manufacture.
Another way of making your own MRE packs that have a longer shelf-life of between 5 to 10 years would be to use mylar bags and oxygen absorbers to remove the air from the packs and protect the food stored inside. This is the absolute best way to make your own MRE's, but it is just a little bit more expensive than using the vacuum seal method.
With this method you still create your own meal with your chosen foods as above with the vacuum seal method, but instead of placing them in a clear vacuum seal food storage bag and using a machine to remove the air you will place the items in a mylar bag which is made using thin layers of plastic and aluminum foil and use an oxygen absorbing pad to remove the air. Mylar bags are the preferred method for long-term food storage and are how the pre-packaged military surplus MRE's are packaged.
As I stated above, instead of using a machine to suck the air out of the bag you will insert an oxygen absorbing pad into the bag before you seal it up. This will slowly absorb any oxygen in the bag over a few hours and you will see the bag become solid just as if you has used a vacuum sealer on it. Just as with the vacuume seal method above, be sure to use a thumbtack or pin to poke a small hole in the packages of any food items like noodles, rice, potatoes, and crackers to allow the oxygen absorber pad to also remove the air from those inner packages.
The difference is that over time, if any air were to slowly re-enter the bag as it is known to do with the vacuum seal bags, the oxygen absorber is still inside the bag to remove it. The mylar bags are also thicker and protect the food from light, which causes the food to not last as long. By adding the light blocking layer you extend the foods shelf-life.
The mylar bag can also be used to prepare the food when you are ready to eat it if you do not have access to a pot or other item that you can put the food into hot water to reconstitute it. Simply place the food in the mylar bag, add hot water, and allow to sit. To do this, make sure when you order the mylar bags that you select the ones that have the ziplock strip across the top of the bag that allows the bag to be resealed.
These food-grade mylar bags cost around 25 to 30 cents per bag and are well worth the investment. The oxygen absorbers are generally around 12 to 15 cents each. For making MRE packs I recommend either the pint or the half-gallon mylar bags depending on what foods you will be storing in them. The pint bags are around 6" x 10" and the half-gallon bags are around 8" x 14". Personally, I use the pint bags for all of the MREs that I make.
The only drawback to using the mylar bags is that you can not see through the bag to see which meal is packed inside it, so be sure to use a Sharpie marker to list the contents of the bag. Also mark the date that you sealed it up and you can expect a 10-year shelf-life as long as they are stored in a cool, dry area.
I have eaten MRE's that I made using this method 10 years after they were packaged and they were still perfectly fine with no issues at all, even though the contents inside the mylar bag were past their individually marked expiration dates. As I said earlier, the mylar bag method is the preferred method for "long-term" food storage. We use these same mylar bags and oxygen absorbing pads to store bulk amounts of rice, beans, and other food products for our emergency food supplies. These food supplies then have a 20-year shelf-life. I will get into bulk long-term food storage in another episode later.
If you wish, you can also include a couple of the Emergency Drinking Water pouches inside the MRE packet if you wish so that you have clean drinking water necessary to prepare the meal with redily available when you open the MRE. If you are going to include the Emergency Drinking Water pouches, I would upgrade to the half-gallon mylar bags to allow for the extra room necessary for the water pouches. Read the directions on the food and drink packages to determine how many water pouches to include with the MRE.
When you have created your MRE with the mylar bag, and included an oxygen absorbing pad close the Ziplock seal most of the way across and gently squeeze the majority of the air out of the bag, then seal the Ziplock closure the rest of the way.
We also need to create a long-lasting seal across the top of the bag just like there is along the sides and bottom. To do this, we do not need any expensive equipment. A simple $10 hair-straightening flat iron or non-steaming clothing iron, each set to medium heat will work great.