(CNN) -- Loathed by most, loved by virtually none, battlefield cuisine has left an indelible mark on the taste buds of American troops -- and it's not a good one.
Marines eat their MREs in a burned-out hotel in Haqlaniyah, Iraq, in 2006.
"Meals Rejected by Everyone" is a popular nickname for MREs, which stands for Meals Ready to Eat, those brownish polymer pouches filled with precooked food and snacks.
While MREs provide food when there's no way to make it to the mess hall, they are no substitutes for what troops crave.
"They really want pizza and beer," says Judith Aylward, senior food technologist at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts.
She and a team of food technicians are working hard to improve the quality and the taste of combat food. And while they haven't been able to give servicemen and women everything they desire, troops are eating a variety of foods far more appetizing than the canned C-rations of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Explore the history of U.S. combat rations »
Soldiers now dine on penne pasta with vegetarian sausage in spicy tomato sauce, chicken breast fillet and boneless pork rib.
"I like to eat the chicken breast when on the move because it does not have any gravy, so it will not spill all over and make a mess, and it fills you up," said Army Staff Sgt. Joel Klein, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who served in Iraq. Klein is currently stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.
The beef patty is also a favorite, Aylward says. "It comes with two slices of wheat snack bread, and we include a package of cheese and BBQ sauce so they can feel like they are eating at McDonald's."
While perennial favorites like spaghetti and beef stew please most palates, old classics have fallen out of favor -- like Chicken a-la-King, affectionately called by some Chicken a-la-Death. Other entrees just never catch on. "We had a tuna noodle casserole ... the troops really didn't like it," she says.
"My least favorite is the cheese omelet with vegetables," says Fort Benning Pvt. Antonio Kinslow, from Macon, Georgia.
Klein's least favorite is also the omelet. Watch as civilians taste MREs »
Opening up a case of today's MREs is a lot like walking into a mall food court, says Stephen Moody, team leader for the Individual Combat Ration Team.
There are 24 MRE menus, and Italian, Mexican and vegetarian meals are represented. Whenever possible, familiar commercial items like M&Ms and Tabasco are tossed in -- a taste of home that boosts morale, Aylward says. Find out what's in an MRE »
Troops enjoy mixing and matching MRE items, creating their own culinary recipes.
"Peanut Butter + Crackers + Coffee + Sugar + Creamer + Coco Base Powder (Crush it all up and mix in a little water) = Instant Joy," according to 1st. Sgt. Donel Hagelin, from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Hagelin is also based at Fort Benning and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The flexible pouch-based meals have been around for more than 20 years. In the early 1980s, the military replaced the C-ration with the MRE, a 1,200- to 1,300-calorie entree meal with snacks, spreads and a dessert. And it's a hot meal -- just place the entree in the flameless ration heater bag, add water, and a chemical reaction warms the food in 10 minutes. Troops can enjoy a hot cup of coffee with the included plastic-zippered hot beverage bag.
"All items in the MRE are useful, from the matches to the toilet paper," Hagelin says.
MREs are considered restricted rations -- food eaten when regular meal services cannot be provided. They are meant to be eaten for up to 21 days and have a three-year shelf life.
"There are a lot of great commercial items where if we only needed six months [of shelf life], we could just go down to the Kroger or the Safeway and grab what's popular, but there aren't a whole lot of things on the shelf that last for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit," Moody says.
The military uses the three-year shelf life to maintain its "war reserves." There are millions of cases of MREs positioned around the world at any given time for contingencies, he explains.
Sometimes, the military needs something more practical than the MRE. During intense combat operations, troops don't have time to heat an MRE, and they don't have the space to carry nine of them, enough food for a typical 72-hour mission.
To give troops something to eat on the go, the team at Natick came up with the First Strike Ration, or FSR -- pocket sandwiches and snack food that can be eaten throughout the day. One FSR has 3,600 to 3,900 calories and is packed with energy boosters like nutrition bars, electrolyte beverages and caffeinated gum. One FSR is equal to three MREs.
Moody says troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are downing a lot of Red Bull and Starbucks products.
"We've got a group of young caffeine drinkers on our hands," he said. "We're trying to meet those needs for them."
Several thousand assault ration prototypes were shipped to Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Kuwait and Haiti, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive on the weight savings vs. the MRE.
The military estimates the assault ration will begin shipping to troops in November. E-mail to a friend
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