Getting into shape is difficult. Working towards a specific performance goal is even tougher. As someone who wanted to get into powerlifting while living in the barracks, I knew the difficulty of trying to balance time and a budget to make it to the gym and to eat correctly to fuel that very well. I didn’t always eat like I should have and I learned from my many mistakes. That’s why, when a fellow soldier and friend of mine asked if I could dedicate an article to explaining how to do so, I said I would immediately.
Friend: “Hey man, hope all is well. I was showing your website to a buddy that wants to get into powerlifting and we were talking about an idea that maybe you’d be interested in writing about. It’s meal plans for the barracks soldier. Someone that can only a) eat at the DFAC or b) prepare simple, cost-effective meals in his/her room using what few appliances they may have. I’m sure there are people out there that would be interested! Just thought I’d pass it on.”
I am horrible at coming up with generic meal plans unless I sit down and tailor them to specific people (aka not generic). Plus, I don’t know what each and every cafeteria serves. So here is what I can provide.
Read this first, then come back to this article. This is where I address basic diet principles that will find much less argument in the fitness community and can mostly relate to everyone.
DISCLAIMER: I am Army, and have not eaten at Navy and Marine DFACs (or their equivalent). I have eaten at Air Force, Army and Joint Service cafeterias. Also, not all of this might pertain to vegans or vegetarians. Usually, you will have to specifically ask about meal options for those, or work to convince your command that this requires separate rations. I’ve seen the latter work more often than the former.
First off, there is no simple answer and you aren’t going to avoid spending money entirely. Because eating at the DFACs (military cafeterias if you’re a civilian and still reading along) usually involves overly processed food or food with additives, counting on adequate quality sources of protein at the DFAC alone is not reasonable. At the very least, you will also need to invest in a good protein.
Obviously, if you are trying to eat at the DFAC alone, then budget is a concern. You aren’t making BAS (seperate rations), so anything you spend will be out of your own check, and if you’re a Specialist or lower, you probably don’t want to spend $50-80 per container of protein. For the best cross section of protein, volume, and cost, Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard Whey protein is the best choice. I just bought mine (I have BAS, but I’m on a tight budget, too) for $29 here. Plus, it doesn’t taste too bad. Though if you’re used to eating at the DFACs, that might not be a concern to you. Sorry, 92G’s… but you know, already. Additionally, this does not require a refrigerator in your room or additional appliances. If you do have a fridge, I suggest using milk with your protein shakes. If not, then all this requires is water, a shaker, and the barracks sink to clean it out.
As with any performance oriented diet, you eat to meet your goals. So for any of this to be successful, you need to find your calorie and macronutrients goals. Then, handily enough, the DFACs have these helpful labels attached to everything they serve. The labels are on the outside of the glass case separating the servers from the diners most times, in addition to other places throughout the DFAC.
Use these to make quick decisions (you don’t always have time to stop and stare) about what to eat. Obviously, the military has it’s own ideas about what you should eat to fuel their work day for you: super carb loaded, varying amounts of fat, and an odd perception of what the necessary amount of protein is.
This helps… unless you have to sit through DBP (Death by Powerpoint) and don’t want to crash because those carbs began processing. Make your own judgment calls about your day, but I find that it usually helps to eat your carbs right after morning PT while your body can still burn them, and a high protein lunch to make it through the afternoon. Then, to hit the gym with enough energy, load up on generous portions of both without making yourself sick. Make sure that as you walk down the line, you keep a loose tally in your head of what your ratios are. You’ll find that when you go back and log it, you’ve over or undershot the first few times, but with practice, you’ll get better at knowing what you can add together to meet your totals.
Also, if you want to plan ahead each day, while at breakfast, check out the menu for the rest of the day. Usually, all three meals are posted ahead of time and you can generally figure out your main portion and sides. I often did this at the Defense Language Institute while I was waiting in the long line outside so that I knew what I wanted by the time it came for me to order on the line.
When you’re eating for power and strength, or to run long distances, sometimes (read: most times), it can be daunting. And the slower you eat, the less time you have to finish it all, especially if you’re MOS keeps you busy and the DFAC had a long line to order and/or sit down in the first place. So prioritize. Protein/meat first, fiber and vegetables second, any other carbs or fat last. This is because your body needs the protein for muscle growth, the fiber to regulate and by the time you’re through eating both, you will feel fuller. If you don’t finish all your fat, it’s not a terrible thing. You’ll probably make it up anyway on the weekend when your buddies “rope” you into going out to eat or when you sneak something back at your room. The fat gets made up in a soldier’s diet. Same with the carbs. Everything in the DFAC is loaded with carbs. It’s a lot easier to overdo this than to underdo it. This trick of eating order gets used by bother powerlifters and bodybuilders. Obviously, if you are more into distance sports, you need to swap your protein and carbs around when eating.
I track everything I eat on myfitnesspal.com . And you know what? Some pioneering servicemembers have taken it on themselves to log the calories and macros for many items on there for you. If it’s not there, do your best to estimate it. Or enter the calories and macros yourself.
As for recipes you can make in your room, once again, that comes down to which barracks you live in and what their rules are… or atleast what you think you can get away with. Some barracks have nothing, and you squirrel away a George Foreman Grill.
Or maybe you live in a barracks with a community kitchen or a kitchen only you and one other roomie share. The best answer in everyone of those situations (provided you have a fridge) is to invest in eggs, bread, milk and meat. Get your veggies from the DFAC. Bread will provide for carb fueling in a pinch. Eggs can provide morning protein (not exclusively morning), and milk can lend to all your meals as well as your protein shake. So long as the meat requires little or no prep time, and can simply be cooked, it’s easy to keep on hand as long as you store it in sealable containers and eat it in time. I’m still using some of the methods from the barracks now, and I live in on post housing. I start the morning off with a breakfast burrito (omelette, spinach, ham, tortilla) or an omelette (all those things minus the tortilla).
Additionally, even though it will have preservatives, cans of tuna are a great source of low fat protein, that can be whipped up and eaten on their own or on a sandwich.
However, for those of you who really want some concrete simple ways to gain while living in the barracks with ingredients and recipes from shopping on your own, Dave has this to say about our next article:
“Do you hate your DFAC? Does every meat and vegetable your DFAC serves look like it came out of a can? Trying to eat healthily but think you can’t afford it? Is a microwave the only appliance available to you? Fear not! Eating gainfully is possible, even in such austere circumstances! All of the above is the story of my sad barracks life, and with a few tweaks, eating well is possible. More to come…”
So stay tuned, and have heart. Or:
Until Next Time
Jacob Summers (SuperSoldier) is a certified personal trainer, but not a medical expert in the field of nutrition.