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Armed Forces Recipe Service retains flavor, trims fat

Less fat and sodium. More complex carbohydrates and fiber. All the flavor. Healthier menus are part of an ongoing effort of the Armed Forces Recipe Service (AFRS) to improve the quality of the military’s food service.

At 1,700 standardized recipes that expand by nearly one per week, the list is also being modified to reflect changes in consumer tastes and simplify life for cooks while increasing food safety.

Armed Forces recipes
Armed Forces recipes are printed on colored index cards.

“We’re serving garrison dining halls on land and at sea. We want to keep soldiers fit by reducing the fat to an acceptable level,” said Elizabeth Painter, a food technologist with the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

“When we create or revise a recipe, it must meet consumer preferences, assure efficient use of personnel, ingredients and equipment, and meet the Office of the Surgeon General nutrition initiatives for lower salt, fat and cholesterol, and higher complex carbohydrates and fiber,” she said.

Painter along with Anthony Lee, also a food technologist, completed a three-year project this year to revise every recipe in each section to meet healthier guidelines, but the AFRS mission continues.

“We’re competing with readily available fast food and restaurant fare, and we’re trying to keep the soldier in the dining hall,” Painter said. “(The recipes) should reflect what’s available on the outside. We’ve developed new entrees that include a lot of diverse, ethnic foods. We incorporate authentic flavor profiles from specific regions to make it a satisfying experience that brings them back.”

Wrap sandwiches, lime chicken soft tacos, southwestern shrimp linguine and Asian barbecue turkey fillets are among the newer menu items. Halal recipes are also part of the mix and were sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the spring to assist the military in feeding the alleged Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners detained at Camp X-Ray.

Although the history of military rations is as old as the military itself, it wasn’t until 1896 when the Commissary General of the U.S. Subsistence Department published a manual for Army cooks with recipes for 100 servings, the same serving size still used today.

By 1941, military food services began using standardized recipes with precise quantities of ingredients and preparation methods to ensure recipes met nutritional requirements and were approved by soldiers. After the war, a military food program was established in Chicago that moved to Natick in 1963.

The first edition of the AFRS list was published in 1969, after representatives of each service reviewed and selected those most adaptable, Painter said.

Tasty substitutions

Painter said she and Lee revise and develop new recipes, but many originate from various outside sources unknown to her and are passed along by the Naval Supply Systems Command in Mechanicsburg, Penn., which prioritizes the testing effort and edits the recipes. All recipes are tested in the Combat Feeding Program’s food laboratory using the same equipment that is issued for garrison feeding.

New Brunswick stew recipe
Elizabeth Painter, a food technologist, adds chopped onions for a New Brunswick stew recipe.

For improved nutritional demands, Painter and Lee have adopted a number of strategies. They’ve altered and increased seasonings, substituted soup and gravy-based dishes with chicken or beef broth, changed to marinated meats, and used nuts and chow mein noodles as a garnish instead of a main ingredient.

Dried plum puree instead of vegetable oil makes a non-fat, yet moist fudgy brownie. Replacing half of the vegetable oil in banana bread with applesauce or using non-fat cream cheese and egg whites to make a light cheesecake dramatically lowers the fat and calorie count.

One way they’ve increased complex carbohydrates is by increasing the portion size of vegetables and by incorporating more vegetables, wild rice and beans into the recipes.

Other ingredients are substituted for newer commercial items. Some industry changes in products, such as leaner pork, farm-raised catfish, or pre-portioned boneless, skinless chicken breasts and turkey fillets, also make reducing the fat easier, but not at the expense of good taste.

“We don’t want to compromise the recipe. If the fat can be lowered, it is lowered, but some dishes like buffalo chicken wings are intrinsically higher fat options,” Painter said. “All of the food technologists give their impressions of each other’s work, and we have to be honest about our sensory perceptions. Whenever possible, we try to introduce the new entrees to the mess hall on base so we can get feedback from our target audience.”

Some shelf-stable field rations use the formulations of the armed forces recipes, she said, but different starch thickeners as well as two to three times the amount of seasoning are necessary because of retort processing. The recipe service is now in the process of redeveloping some of the Unitized B Rations.

Preparing new dish
Anthony Lee and Elizabeth Painter, both food technologists, prepare a new dish for the Armed Forces Recipe Service in the Combat Feeding Program’s Food Pilot Plant.

Once divided into a book for the Army and Air Force, and 5-inch by 8-inch index cards for the Navy and Marines, all the services merged into colored index cards separated into different sections in 1967.

The cards once had variations, but now each variation is its own recipe. Recipes are reviewed with attention toward reducing the number of steps and equipment necessary to prepare a dish. Another push is for ready-to-use products.

Efficient cooks

Replacing multiple seasonings with commercial seasoning blends for the existing and newly created recipes is a new project under way.

“Military cooks are always in a hurry. They just don’t have time to weigh and measure a lot of different seasoning ingredients,” Painter said. “One-pot entrees also help with limited time and manpower.”

Switching from conventional to convection ovens has brought changes to the cooking times and temperatures that need updating. Improving recipes helps cooks perform their jobs more efficiently while preventing food-borne illnesses.

“We’re including the hazard analysis critical control points for thawing, rinsing and internal cooking temperatures on every recipe card,” Painter said. “These guidelines are part of the overall training procedures for the cooks.”

Outside the military mission, AFRS assisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997-2000 by performing yield studies on more than 700 food items and then re-writing their Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition Programs. The guide is used by food service personnel to purchase the right amount of food for the School Breakfast and Lunch Programs as well as other Adult and Child Nutrition Care Programs and the Summer Food Service Program. Fortunately, Painter said the AFRS, as well as industry, can use the guide to order food.

Although some recipes have been dropped from the cards, they remain electronically archived. Painter said any business or organization serving large-quantity meals can purchase the cards, but there is no cookbook available for family-size servings.

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