FORT LEE, VA, UNITED STATES
Story by Sgt. Eric Zedalis
FORT LEE, Va. (Mar. 16, 2022) — Imagine your dinner meal tonight must be 850 calories or less.
It must also contain a nutrient breakdown of 15-20 percent protein, 40-60 percent carbohydrates, and 20-30 percent fat.
What comes to mind? Maybe you mutter to yourself: Alright, I guess I’ll bake some chicken and boil some canned vegetables. Or maybe you just shout: That’s impossible!
Two U.S. Army culinary specialists have devoted their lives to the premise that cooking and eating nutritionally is not out of reach for any Soldier and does not have to compromise taste.
“Everybody thinks health food is inherently bland, yucky, gross, no flavor…and we just served a classy, delicious, healthy, four-course meal,” said Sgt. David Wisbauer, 25th Quartermaster Company, 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Wisbauer was referring to the meal he prepared with his partner, Sgt. Christopher Hancock, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regument, G Co., 82nd Airborne Division, for the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge, part of the 46th Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise (JCTE) at Fort Lee, Virginia. Representing Fort Bragg, the duo took home a silver medal for their preparation of the following menu: tofu-stuffed mushroom with grilled asparagus, a spring salad with pâte á choux and fresh fruit, a grilled salmon with quinoa, basil-pesto sauce and a vegetable ragu, and topped it off with a panna cotta dessert with a berry sauce and a tuile beet.
“We had menus that had the nutritional values already mapped out, so we selected from those,” said Wisbauer. “We had to make sure whatever we were cooking, we followed our recipes exactly. Every calorie had been accounted for, every carbohydrate, every piece of protein, every piece of vegetable. Our macros had to be within certain ratios on every plate.”
The rules of the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge dictated each of the nine competing pairs prepare a four-course meal within 850 calories and meet the required macronutrient percentage breakdown of 15-20 percent protein, 40-60 percent carbohydrates, and 20-30 percent fat. They were competing against the Army standard rather than against the other teams.
Another team competing in the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge included Sgt. Jodi Palmer, 22nd Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Polk, Louisiana, who was invited to join the Fort Drum culinary team and pair up with Cpl. Christopher Ramirez, 371st Cavalry, Delta Troop, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
The Fort Drum duo earned a bronze medal for their preparation of the following menu: vegetable-filled dumpling with miso ginger sauce, spinach and romaine lettuce salad with roasted sesame seeds and a sesame vinaigrette, a miso-honey cod, yellow-Thai cauliflower with vegetable stir-fry and hoisin sauce, and a chocolate mousse with a banana sorbet, roasted sesame seeds and a raspberry tuile.
According to Palmer, the key to maximizing flavor in each dish while adhering to the calorie and macro restrictions, was the sauces.
“The sauces we picked were low in sodium but high in flavor,” she said. “Ultimately, the judges really liked our menu choices as well as our flavor.”
Palmer, a native of Jamaica, has been involved with cooking for as long as she can remember.
“Growing up, my aunt used to cook, and I would want to help, but she would never allow it, because I was still just a child,” she said. “But because I so badly wanted to learn to cook, I would go inside the kitchen and help her measure and weigh the ingredients, wash the dishes, and while I did that I’d be taking notes on what she was doing.”
Once she reached high school, she signed up for her school’s Food and Nutrition Team and declared Food and Nutrition her major in both high school and college.
“Now I’m currently getting my master’s degree in Nutrition,” she said. “Nutrition is something I have a passion for, and the Army only allows greater opportunities for me to spread my wings.”
Much like Palmer, Wisbauer also developed a passion for cooking and nutrition at an early age. His father was a grocery store manager, and his mother was a nurse.
“Their cooking at home is what inspired me to cook professionally,” said Wisbauer. “I didn’t have a chef in the family, but my parents were excellent cooks.”
Wisbauer, a Texas-native, has not forgotten his roots even as he has served as a Culinary Specialist in the U.S. Army for 12 years (six years active duty and six years Army Reserve) with a lot of additional civilian experience. His parents’ ability to put nutritious, yet good-tasting, food on the table despite their amateur status, continues to prove to him even now that if nutrition is important enough to you, there are plenty of ways to go about cooking without compromising the taste of your food.
“We all know going to McDonalds is easy. What’s hard is prepping your meals for the week on a Sunday,” he said. “There’s plenty of health food that’s delicious…it’s taking the time to cook it right and doing a little research and preparation ahead of time.”
Often what requires research and preparation are his ingredients…properly ripe ingredients make all the difference in his final product.
“Everybody likes an apple, but nobody likes a mushy, bruised apple. If all you’re using is cruddy ingredients, you’re going to end up with a cruddy product,” said Wisbauer. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and spend extra money. Find out when your raspberries are in season. Find out when’s the best time to buy locally sourced produce.”
Buying local, Wisbauer says, is always going to be the preferred option.
“If you can buy local, find a farmer’s market around you where the food hasn’t travelled 6,000 miles to get to you…it’s going to taste better,” he said. “I have a garden in my backyard, and the squash I get every summer from my garden is way better than anything I’ve ever gotten at a grocery store, because it’s right there.”
Wisbauer also likes to point out to anyone seeking nutrition help or advice that the key to a healthy diet is moderation.
“Even if I make the switch from steak to salmon, if I’m still eating a 16 oz. salmon, that’s still just as bad as eating an 8 oz. steak. There’s nothing particularly wrong with having steak, just maybe have a 6 oz. steak instead of a 12 oz. steak,” he said. “It’s important to find those light, healthy, but still delicious foods to incorporate into your diet that bring more value per calorie than they take.”
Meanwhile, Palmer focuses herself on living the right mindset when it comes to nutrition.
“You are what you eat, I truly believe that,” she said. “Whatever you put in your body will determine the person you are. If you feed yourself well, your performance will be better, your features will be better, you’ll have a happier and longer life.”
Palmer also points out that Soldiers need to remember that they never stop being Soldiers, in or out of the uniform.
“It should be a lifestyle. When I wake up in the morning, this is who I am. I’m a Soldier. I’m a Soldier 24/7,” she said. “And what comes with keeping up with that lifestyle and performance standards is fueling the right way, and in order to fuel the right way, nutrition plays a vital role.”
Ultimately, if Soldiers do not want to commit to eating healthy, then they won’t, but if they do want to commit, according to Wisbauer, they will find a way.
“What I want Soldiers to know is that it’s a lot easier than they think to eat healthy and cook healthy, and it can be just as delicious as any other meal,” said Wisbauer.