A field ration is a type of prepackaged military ration designed to be easily and quickly prepared and consumed in the field, in combat, at the front line, or where eating facilities are otherwise unavailable. Field rations are primarily used by military forces, though they are also sometimes distributed to civilians as part of humanitarian aid and emergency management. They differ from garrison rations and field kitchen provisions, which are intended for where proper meals can be supplied and prepared with relative ease and safety, such as in the rear where logistics are steady and fresh food can be supplied. They are similar to, but distinct from, other purpose-designed long-lasting types of food or rations such as emergency rations, humanitarian daily rations, and camping food.
Names used for field rations vary by military and type, and include combat ration, food packet, ration pack, battle ration, or meal ready to eat (MRE); the latter is widely used but informal, and more accurately describes a specific American ration, the design and configuration of which has been used worldwide since its introduction. Field rations may be divided into two types: individual rations, which are intended to sustain a single soldier; and group rations, which are intended to sustain multiple soldiers in numbers ranging from a fireteam to a platoon.
A typical field ration consists of:
Field rations may come in different varieties, or carry multiple meals, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or supper. Vegetarian, vegan, and religious diet variants may be available if a military's demographics necessitate them. Specialized variants of field rations may exist for different environments, situations, and roles, such as cold-weather warfare, mountain warfare, jungle warfare, desert warfare, long-range reconnaissance patrols, and vehicle crew variants.
The meals offered in a field ration often come in multiple different "menus" (varieties) predominantly featuring foods from a military's national or traditional cuisine—and, if diverse enough and possible under the constraints of a field ration, fusion cuisine such as soul food or Canadian Chinese cuisine—intended to evoke the "taste of home" while on deployment or away. Some rations include commercially available items, often snacks such as Tootsie Rolls, Charms, and Yorkie bars. However, basic or less-accommodating rations (usually emergency rations) may consist of very simple meals intended to provide enough nutrients and energy to keep a soldier combat-ready or alive, like compressed food bars.
Field rations are commonly issued to land forces such as armies, who may spend lengthy periods of time away from fixed food sources. Navies and air forces are not commonly issued field rations as they are closely attached to the rear or steady supplies of food—prepared in galleys aboard naval vessels and flight kitchens at air bases—though they may still be issued to marines and air force ground forces. Additionally, rations may still be issued to personnel in certain situations or roles, like long-range flight rations for bomber, transport, and reconnaissance aircraft crews, who could otherwise spend hours in flight without food.
As field rations are intended to last long, the packaging they are stored in is designed to ensure a long shelf life and prevent spoilage. Rations are canned, vacuum-sealed, or freeze-dried foods stored in packages to prevent leakage or spoilage, commonly retort pouches, boxes, or cases. These containers are preferably easy to open, though some may require specific tools that are issued to soldiers or included in the ration package, such as the American P-38 can opener or Australian field ration eating device. Some, but not all, ration packages may be biodegradable or compostable.
NATO categorizes ration packaging under three types:
NATO bases the nutritional content requirement on a reference soldier weighing 79 kg (174 lb), who on normal operations would have an energy expenditure of approximately 3,600 kcal per day. For combat operations, energy expenditure is estimated to be 4,900 kcal per day; however, this is seen to be a worst-case scenario.
|Minimum Nutrient Content Standards,
General Purpose Individual Operational Ration
|Additional Nutrient Content Recommendations,
General Purpose Individual Operational Ration
|Energy||3,600 kcal (15,070 kJ)||Total fiber||30 g|
|Carbohydrate||404–584 g||Riboflavin||1.3 mg|
|Protein||118–185 g||Niacin||16 mg|
|Fat||54–140 g||Pantothenic acid||6 mg|
|Vitamin A||900 µg||Biotin||30 µg|
|Thiamin||1.2 mg||Vitamin E||10 mg|
|Vitamin B6||1.3 mg||Vitamin K||70 µg|
|Vitamin B12||2.4 μg||Choline||550 mg|
|Folate||400 µg||Phosphorus||1,000 mg|
|Vitamin C||45 mg||Iodine||150 µg|
|Vitamin D||5 µg||Selenium||55 μg|
|Calcium||1000 mg||Molybdenum||45 μg|
|Zinc||14 mg||Copper||1.8 mg|
|Iron||8 mg||Chromium||35 μg|
|Magnesium||410 mg||Manganese||5.5 mg|
|Potassium||3,800 mg||Fluoride||4 mg|
Field rations can be eaten at any temperature, but are preferably heated or cooked. However, as the use of cooking appliances or fire may be unavailable or tactically unwise, smokeless solid fuel and a portable stove are typically included in rations to heat meals. Hexamine fuel tablets have traditionally been preferred, though gelatinized ethanol is also sometimes used. Some modern field rations use a flameless ration heater instead of fuel tablets.
NATO standardization states that, while main courses and entrées must be consumable without heating, main course components and hot beverages should be provided with a heater, with such items intended to be heated to a minimum temperature of 62 °C from an ambient temperature of 20 °C within 12 minutes.
The shelf life of rations depends on the type and purpose, including how long the ration is intended to be used or kept until logistics and steady food supplies can reach the front lines. Per NATO standardization, the shelf life of a field ration from the time of delivery must be at least 24 months at a storage temperature of 25 °C; individual rations are designed to be used for a period of 30 days, after which fresh food should be given and medical screening should be conducted for nutritional deficiencies.
Further information: Military rations § History
Military rations have existed since the beginnings of organized warfare. Some form of military food distribution and ration system has existed in practically every region and recorded era in history. However, for the most part, food actually brought into the field with military forces was uncommon; most of what could be considered "field rations" were, until around the early modern period, stable ingredients (such as grains), easily or already preserved foods, food soldiers brought with them, and livestock. As most reliable food preservation methods did not exist, military food at the time focused more on foods that could keep and transit well, such as hardtack, rather than foods that were nutritious. Modern field rations took recognizable forms with the inventions of airtight food preservation, tin cans, and pasteurization in the 19th century. Canned and preserved rations became standard in both World War I and World War II, with modern ration configurations being developed and becoming standard during and after the Cold War.
Main article: List of military rations
As of the 21st century, a vast majority of the world's militaries field their own field rations, with different varieties of food based on national and cultural considerations. Many use 20th century-style packaging such as cans, boxes, and vacuum-sealed packaging, though some newer rations use retort pouch-based packaging.