Army Food Allowance and Chow Hall Guide

Military cafeteria meals come from a variety of sources

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

The military promises to feed you and they do so primarily by using three separate methods: mess or chow halls; basic allowance for subsistence; and Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE).

If you are enlisted in the U.S. Army and reside in the dormitory or barracks, you will be given your meals for free in most cases.

Most chow halls offer four meals per day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal. Some are open 24 hours a day.

What Army Food Is Available?

For the health-conscious, there is a heart-healthy menu, as well as a salad bar. For breakfast, you can choose anything from 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 military dining facilities even have drive-through windows.

In recent years, the military has been trying to reduce the number of chow halls at its facilities, as the size of the U.S. Armed Forces has declined. The menus are becoming more and more healthy, which may deter some younger troops from partaking, especially if inexpensive fast food is readily available nearby.

Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS)

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

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.

The allowance is not designed or paid to provide any benefit to family members; it is solely for the subsistence of the military member. The Army does reimburse for missed meals, but it is a paperwork-intensive process and usually requires justifications and explanations to the first sergeant or the commander.

When enlisted members who received BAS are deployed, they used to lose the BAS during the time of deployment (because they received "free meals" at the deployment location chow hall). However, Congress passed a law that required the military, beginning in 1998, to continue to pay BAS to deployed members in response to the complaints of many service members following the first Gulf War.

Enlisted members who receive BAS usually can eat in the dining facility (they have to pay for the meal), but they are limited in the number of allowed meals. Officers may only eat in the enlisted mess for certain purposes that require 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 Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. These have replaced the old C-rations and field rations. MREs are sealed, foil envelopes and can be heated or eaten cold.

The packet contains an entrée, a side dish, crackers and cheese spread, a dessert item, cocoa powder, and a few other miscellaneous snack items. Military members have several choices of entrées.

Every couple of years, the Department of Defense surveys military members to find out which MREs 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 if you're so inclined. They are available in many camping stores and most military surplus stores.