What is a Self-Heating Meal?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
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  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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The self-heating meal is becoming the latest rage in quick food preparation. When you’re on the go, out camping, or stocking up a disaster supply cabinet, you might want to consider whether the self-heating meal is for you. These meals, similar to the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) made by the US military, allow you access to a hot dinner, or dishes like soup or stew, without any heating source.

Foods are double packaged and surrounded by a heating pouch or “bladder”. This pouch often contains salt water and an aluminum wafer and has a pull-string or pull tab. When the tab is pulled, the aluminum hits the water causing what is called an exothermic reaction. Within a few minutes the water has heated to about 190 degrees F (87.78 degrees C). After approximately fifteen minutes the food is ready to eat and fully heated. Some of the meals require you to place the food in a special heater package, while others are in a self-contained package that only requires you to pull a tab.


There are a number of companies that now produce self-heating meal varieties. Though the popularity of these portable products first began in Europe, an increasing number of American companies are now producing such meals. Typical offerings include things like beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and noodles, or chicken, beans and rice. Average shelf life for these meals is approximately three to five years, and they don’t need to be stored in a fridge or freezer.

Price and quality are still considerations with the self-heating meal. Grocery stores plan to carry them for about $6-7 USD per meal, and they may cost even more at camping or surplus stores. Many argue that since microwaves abound, the self-heating meal is too pricey as yet to make it worth the purchase. There’s also varied opinion on how good such meals taste. Some say the taste of certain products or vendors is “pretty good” and others vow to never eat another self-heating meal again. Furthermore, fifteen minutes can be a long time to wait for a meal, especially if you do have access to a microwave. Though they may be marketed for folks in offices, most people don’t have the luxury of lunches that will allow them to wait this long before the meal is fully hot.

On the other hand, in a disaster situation, or where you don’t have access to any heat source, taste and cost may be minimal considerations. The ability to have a warm meal despite difficult conditions could be a considerable plus. If you are putting together disaster preparation supplies, you might want to add some self-heating meals. Prudence suggests you try a few first to make sure they have an at least tolerable taste.


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Post 2

I had my share of military MRE meals when I was in the Army, and the last ones I was issued were self-heating meals. We had to put a pouch of soup or stew or whatever into another bag and pull the strip. It did take a while for the meal to get hot, but I'd rather wait for a hot meal than try to choke down a cold one.

Most MREs aren't as bad as people like to say they are. They do have some flavor, and they hold up well without refrigeration. These modern self-heating meals for campers are probably even better, because private companies produce them. The military has to have a contract for everything, so they don't always have the same options as civilians.

Post 1

Our city was devastated by a tornado outbreak several years ago, and we were without power for over a week. We had to throw away most of the food in the refrigerator, and we couldn't heat any of the canned meals, like soup or chili. By the fourth day, I would have gladly welcomed the idea of a self-heating meal, no matter what it was or how it tasted.

I think I'm going to go to a camping supply store or wherever meals ready to eat are for sale. I wouldn't want to eat them every day, but it would be good to have some available if another natural disaster takes out the power again.

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