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What are K-Rations?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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K-Rations are rations which were used to feed American soldiers during the Second World War. While K-Rations didn't taste thrilling and they often didn't provide enough calories for hard-working men, they were widely used throughout the war, and they became an iconic part of the Second World War. By 1948, the K-Ration had been largely phased out in favor of other types of rations, but it had earned a place in history thanks to the long memories of soldiers who fought in World War Two.

This military ration was developed by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1941; the ration isn't named for Keys, however. The “K” was chosen to distinguish K-Rations from A, B, C, and D rations. Keys was tasked with developing a combat ration which would be extremely durable and very lightweight. The military needed rations which would last through prolonged trips and be light enough to carry in packs, and it also wanted rations which would provide the nutrition needed by soldiers in the field. Keys got his inspiration from the supermarket, looking for non-perishable but cheap food items, and the basic ration was tested in 1942 on US airmen before being widely distributed.

Three different units of K-Rations were produced: breakfast, lunch, and supper. The rations were packaged in small cardboard or wooden boxes and distributed to soldiers so that they could be stashed in bags and packs. Each type of ration had a distinctive design, making it easy to identify which K-Ration someone was looking at.

The foods included in K-Rations were chosen on the basis of cost and durability, rather than flavor. Various canned entrees, biscuits, and powdered drinks made up the bulk of K-Rations, along with emergency chocolate bars and candies, packets of salt and sugar, chewing gum, and packets of cigarettes. Three K-Rations contained 3,000 calories.

These military rations were designed primarily for emergency situations, rather than regular meals. However, soldiers often ate K-Rations for months at a time, supplementing with whatever local food they could find. Fresh produce and fruit especially were coveted as a break from the monotony of K-Rations, and soldiers often swapped undesirable things in their rations with each other for variation.

Today, soldiers use MREs, or “meals ready to eat” as their primary rations. The MRE was introduced in Vietnam, and modern incarnations have features like self-cooking packets and vegetarian options.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1007156 — On Jun 09, 2022

MREs did not come out until the 80s. I served in the Army from 1976-1997. When I first came in we were still eating C rations.

By anon89690 — On Jun 11, 2010

K rations also contained methamphetimine tablets to stay awake. I know this because when I was in high school my dad had some left over k rations and I opened one. There were white tablets and the directions said don't try to stay awake more than one week at a time.

Also, B-52 pilots were using some kind of stay awake tablets when they were flying non-stop from the US to bomb Iraq.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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