High school culinary students from across New Jersey put their kitchen skills to the test recently in a cooking competition using MREs – military field rations – as ingredients.

The first annual Skills USA state-level MRE Challenge Competition, held in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Army Recruiting Battalion and the New Jersey School Boards Association, took place at Mercer County Technical School on March 2.

Twelve teams faced off in the competition, which was expanded after the success of a Mercer County program last year. Winners will be announced at a banquet on April 14.

“In coordination with our education partners, the MRE competition was an idea of a couple of army recruiters, as a way to enhance high school CTE education curriculum by testing student’s culinary skills and team work while creating a fun competition,” said Cpt. P.J. Hartman, commander of the Central Jersey Recruiting Company.

“As a result, we are sending the results to the Army’s Sustainment Center of Excellence so that the recipes can be sent out to the Army for soldiers to use,” he said.

The competition gave students an opportunity to demonstrate their culinary knowledge and creativity using military-issue Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Contestants were required to produce an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and 12-ounce beverage, using water and a heat source.

Competitors turned out a variety of dishes, including quesadillas and tacos; and desserts such as cakes and parfaits. Some students embraced the military theme, producing dishes shaped like military tanks.

Sergeant First Class Joshua Simpson, iSTEAM Fellow at NJSBA, said following the success of the statewide contest, the MRE Challenge will expand to the national level next year.

“Through this competition, students show that with ingenuity and creativity the MRE could go from being somewhat boring and bland, to a culinary masterpiece that could ultimately benefit the soldier, by providing motivation during a time in need,” Simpson said.

The MRE Challenge was created by an unprecedented three-way partnership between the U.S. Army, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the Mercer County Technical School District.

Winning recipes from the competition will be provided to the Army’s Sustainment Center of Excellence and fielded to Army Culinary Arts specialists.

The top three teams will be announced at the April 14 banquet, held in Old Bridge, where winning teams will be presented the gold, silver, and bronze “MRE Challenge” Patch to wear on their culinary uniforms. All participants are also awarded an olive drab patch for their uniform.

For more information on the competition and on the NJ Skills USA program, visit https://www.nj-skillsusa.org.