Dining Down-Range

In military slang, downrange is a term for being deployed overseas, usually in a war zone.

The first soldier ration was established by a Congressional Resolution during the Revolutionary War. It consisted of enough food to feed one man for one day – mostly beef, peas, and rice. During the Civil War, the military created self-contained kits that included canned meat, bread, coffee, sugar and salt.

Soldiers in the First World War were issued lightweight preserved meats that were either salted or dried.

At the beginning of World War II, a number of new field rations were introduced including the Mountain Ration and the Jungle Ration.

  • The Mountain Ration (or “M-Ration”) was specifically developed for use by U.S. troops operating in high-altitude or mountainous regions of the European Theater of Operations and included powdered soup and milk, canned meat and butter, cereal, chocolate, biscuits, compressed fruits, sugar, tea and coffee.
  • The Jungle Ration (or “J-Ration”) was designed for soldiers on extended missions in tropical regions. Originally based on foods carried by American civilians, such as geologists and engineers, prior to World War II, J-Rations were lightweight, ready-to-eat dry foods appealing to American palates such as dried beef, peaches, apricots, and dehydrated whole milk.


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.

  • The C-Ration (or Type C Ration) was an individual canned, pre-cooked, and prepared wet ration. It was intended to be issued to U.S. military land forces when fresh food (A-Ration) or packaged unprepared food (B-Ration) prepared in mess halls or field kitchens was not possible or not available, and when a survival ration (K-Ration or D-Ration) was insufficient. C-Rations consisted of three variations of the main course: meat and beans, meat and potato hash, or meat and vegetable stew. 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.

The K-Ration first saw use in 1942, when it was issued to U.S. Airborne troops on an experimental basis. But the K-ration was ultimately deemed inadequate in its caloric and vitamin content for soldiers fighting, digging, and marching in extreme conditions. K-Rations were composed of three units:

  • Breakfast Unit: canned veal, chopped ham, or eggs & biscuits, dextrose or malted milk tablet, dried fruit bar, pre-mixed oatmeal cereal, Halazone water purification tablets, instant coffee, and sugar (granulated, cubed, or compressed).
  • Lunch Unit: canned pork luncheon meat (Spam), canned processed American cheese, Swiss and American cheese, or bacon and cheese, biscuits, 15 Dextrose or malted milk tablets, five caramels, sugar (granulated, cubed, or compressed), one salt packet, and a powdered beverage packet (lemon, orange, or grape).
  • Dinner Unit: canned sausage, pork luncheon meat with carrot or apple, or beef and pork loaf, biscuits, a 2-ounce emergency chocolate bar, Tropical bar, or (in temperate climates) sweet chocolate bar, and a bouillon packet (cube or powder).

The Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) was the name of canned wet combat rations issued by the United States Armed Forces from 1958 to 1980; the MCI saw duty in Korea and Vietnam. Despite the new name, the MCI was still popularly referred to by the troops as “C-Rations”. The MCI was intended as a modest improvement over the earlier canned C-Ration, with the inclusion of additional menu items to reduce monotony and encourage adequate daily feeding and nutrition. The MCI consisted of a rectangular cardboard carton containing 1 small flat can, 1 large can, and two small cans containing a meat-based entrée, a bread item, and a dessert item.

Today, according to their web site, the U.S. Army says that MREs (Meals Ready-To-Eat) are the main operational food ration for the United States Armed Forces. Developed in 1980, the MRE is still the U.S. Army’s primary ration.

Generally, an MRE contains the following items:

  • Entrée – the main course, such as spaghetti or beef stew. Soldiers can choose from up to 24 entrees, and more than an additional 150 items in the MRE chain.
  • Side dish – rice, corn, fruit, or mashed potatoes, etc.
  • Cracker or bread.
  • Spread – peanut butter, jelly, or cheese spread.
  • Dessert – cookies or pound cakes.
  • Candy – M&Ms, Skittles, or Tootsie Rolls.
  • Beverages – Gatorade-like mixes, cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee, tea. In 2006, “Beverage Bags” were introduced to the MRE, as service members began to depend more on hydration bladders than canteens, which denied them the use of the metal canteen cups 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.
  • Hot sauce or seasoning – in some MREs.
  • Flameless Ration Heater – to heat the entrée.
  • Accessories – spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.

Each MRE provides an average of 1,250 calories (13 percent protein, 36 percent fat, and 51 percent carbohydrates) and one-third of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals. A full day’s worth of meals would consist of three MREs. They are capable of withstanding parachute drops from 1,250 feet, and non-parachute drops of 100 feet. MRE packaging maintains a minimum shelf life of three and a half years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or nine months at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.