U.S. Military Chow Halls and Food Allowance Guide

Part 7 of the What the Recruiter Never Told You Series

Soldier eating in mess hall
Richard Schoenberg / Contributor/Getty Images

Why is it that in the Navy, officers eat in a wardroom, but enlisted people eat in a mess hall? The Army reportedly travels on its stomach and eats in a chow hall, as do the Marines. The Air Force lords it over the rest by eating in a dining facility.

In any event, 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—​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. This is a carry-over from the days when the Air Force actually issued a card that entitled someone to eat in the dining facility for free. In these days of computer automation, actual Meal Cards are rarely used anymore.

Most chow halls offer four meals per day: breakfast, lunch, supper, and a midnight meal. There are even some that are open 24 hours per day. The days are long gone of basic meals with few healthy choices. 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.

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. The military dining system is the number-one employer of disabled people in the United States.

Even with all the improvements, most people who are on a meal card will tell you that they think the particular chow hall on their particular base sucks. That may simply be their excuse to pocket a subsistence allowance and eat a microwave burrito instead. Another factor is even the best restaurant food starts to taste old, if you eat there every single meal, day in and day out.

One complaint that many folks have is that if duty causes them to miss a meal at the chow hall, they in effect lose money as they then have to buy food out of their own pocket. Although there are procedures to be reimbursed for missed meals, they are paperwork intensive and usually require justifications and explanations to people one would rather not talk to, such as 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. In the future, it is possible you will only be charged for the meals you actually consume. But the military relies on only 70% of the meals being eaten in the dining facilities to balance their food budget.

Which service has the best chow? With the exception of the Coast Guard, I've eaten in each and every one of the service's chow halls on numerous occasions. In my unbiased opinion, the Navy wins the contest for best chow, hands-down.

On the other hand, I have good friends in the Navy who will swear that the best chow they've ever eaten was on Air Force Bases. Of course, your mileage may vary.

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 a pay. It is not taxable. Officers are paid less BAS than enlisted personnel. Throughout our history, Congress has decided that the government should pick up the entire cost of feeding enlistment members, but not the entire cost for commissioned (and warrant) officers.

The allowance is not designed or paid to provide any subsistence to family members. It is solely for the subsistence of the military member. If an enlisted person is married, and then embarks on a ship or remote tour and resides in the dormitory, it is very likely that he or she will lose this allowance in exchange for free meals in the chow hall. (EXCEPTION: By federal law, all E-7s and above are authorized to receive BAS, and federal law prohibits the loss of BAS when temporarily away from the home station, such as a deployment or duty in the field).

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.

Whether or not you receive BAS really has nothing to do with whether you are married or not. It has everything to do with whether or not the military decides it is more advantageous for you to consume your meals in the chow hall, or whether it is more advantageous for you (from the military's point of view, not yours) to consume meals outside of the chow hall. If you are married and are living with your dependents, you'll almost certainly receive BAS. However, for example, even married people do not receive BAS while in basic training, because they are not living with their dependents, and it is perfectly reasonable to require the member to consume all his/her meals in the chow hall.

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. For example, in the Air Force, an enlisted member who receives BAS may only consume a maximum of 30 meals per month in the dining facility. If a person goes over that amount, they may lose their BAS entitlement. Conversely, enlisted "meal card" folks who go on leave, receive BAS for their leave period, and may not eat free in the Chow Hall. Officers may only eat in the enlisted mess for special purposes, requiring special permission (for example, a commander checking on the quality of meals).

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 (yech!) 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. I strongly recommend staying away from the Beef Ravioli.

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

More: What the Recruiter Never Told You