Military Chow Halls and Food Allowance Guide

What the Recruiter Never Told You About Military Food

Soldier eating in mess hall
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The military promises to feed you, and they do so primarily by using three separate methods: chow or mess halls, basic allowance for subsistence, and meals-ready-to-eat.

Military Chow Halls and Mess Halls

If you are enlisted and reside in the dormitory/barracks, in most cases, you will be given your meals for free. Different services have different names for this. In the Air Force, it's called being on a Meal Card (although physical cards are rarely used anymore).

Most chow halls offer four meals per day: breakfast, lunch, supper, and a midnight meal. Some are open 24 hours per day. Most dining facilities now give the choice of a full-blown meal with two or more entrees, or fast food such as burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, fries, or chicken.

For the health conscious, there is normally a heart-healthy menu, as well as a salad bar. Desserts are usually a choice of fruits, cakes, ice cream, puddings, pies, and more. For breakfast, you can choose anything between a small fruit cup to a full-fledged made-to-order omelet with all the side dishes. Take-out cartons are freely available in many chow halls. Some dining facilities even have drive-through windows.

KP Duty in the Military

Other than a few exceptions at some military training centers, boot camp, while embarked on a vessel, while deployed, etc., KP duty is a thing of the past. Most military dining facilities are contracted operations, so troops aren't assigned to KP (short for "kitchen patrol).

Although there are procedures to be reimbursed for missed meals, they are paperwork intensive and usually require justifications and explanations to the First Sergeant and/or the Commander.

There have been suggestions to close all military dining facilities and give a monetary subsistence allowance to everyone.

This would be difficult because most barracks don't have proper cooking facilities. If nothing else, the dining facility offers at least a chance of obtaining a balanced meal.

Enlisted and officers receive full-rate BAS after initial entry training. However, for those required to consume meals in the dining facilities, most of the BAS is automatically deducted from their paychecks. 

Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS)

For officers and enlisted people who do not reside in the dormitories, the military pays a monetary allowance food. BAS is an allowance, not pay. It is not taxable. Officers are paid less BAS than enlisted personnel. 

The allowance is not designed or paid to provide any subsistence to family members. It is solely for the subsistence of the military member. 

It used to be that when an enlisted member deployed, and they received BAS, they would lose the BAS during the time of deployment (because they received "free meals" at the deployment location Chow Hall). However, responding to complaints of many service members following the first Gulf War, Congress passed a law requiring the military to continue to pay BAS to deployed members, if the member received BAS at their permanent duty station.

Enlisted members who receive BAS are usually authorized to eat in the dining facility (they have to pay for the meal), but the number of meals they are allowed is restricted. Officers may only eat in the enlisted mess for special purposes, requiring special permission (for example, a commander checking on the quality of meals).

Military Meals Ready to Eat (MRE)

No article on military food would be complete without mentioning MREs. These have replaced the old C-Rations," and Field Rations. MREs are sealed, foil envelopes (rather hard to open sometimes), and can be eaten cold or heated up.

The packet contains an entree, a side dish, crackers and cheese spread, a dessert item, cocoa powder, and a few other misc. snack items. There are several choices of entrees. Since the development of MREs is that every couple of years the Department of Defense surveys military members to find out which dishes were popular and which were not.

Unpopular menu items are taken out of service, and new menu items are introduced all the time. 

You don't have to join the military to try an MRE. They are available in many camping stores and most military surplus stores.

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