Veterans and a healing kitchen
My son Russell was a corpsman in the Navy and his fellow soldiers called him Doc. It’s a corpsman’s job to keep soldiers healthy and sometimes simply alive. In 2010, Russell was with the Marines in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan—the year I will always remember as the year I held my breath. I am proud to say that Russell is now finishing his degree at the University of San Diego after serving his country.
That next summer, last summer, I offered some free classes to veterans as a thank you for their service, not knowing what that would put into play. As a nutritionist and chef, my primary goal is to help people obtain or maintain their good health. I am founder and director of DirectionFive, a culinary and nutrition program for kids, but I make time mid-day to work with some local veterans for a few hours. I realize now that for our veterans, a kitchen truly is a healing place beyond the healthy food.
They come into the kitchen while I’m cooking and sometimes they help me or just visit, ask questions or tell me about their memories of the smell of their grandma’s kitchens, or their favorite foods, or do I know how to make this or that. Many, if not most, are overcoming addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression, and it is absolutely imperative to serve them healthy food for the healing of their brain chemistry and every other body system you can name.
It’s a tricky balance because without exception, they love comfort food, sugar and salt. They almost all smoke. So where do I begin? I have studied nutrition and addiction extensively, and I know what they should and shouldn’t eat, but if I made all the changes at once, it wouldn’t work for them personally nor would it work for their bodies. Changes need to be made slowly and steadily to help them heal.
I always have a selection of foods at every meal, and I cater to those who are lactose or gluten intolerant, simply can’t stand something, or they don’t have strong enough teeth (or teeth at all) to chew certain foods. There are always veggies and fruits and salads. They know that they need to ease up on salt, sugar and caffeine, and I am proud to say that although their consumption of these foods/drinks is still too high, it’s less than it was, and their veggie intake is way up. The meats purchased are better quality now and they are happy with a little less meat but better quality. They’re drinking more water, no soda, and are now used to iced tea without sugar. All the trans-fats are gone, and I only use olive oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee and flax oil in the salads. No more purchased salad dressings. No artificial sweeteners. Small changes but I can see the difference. They understand why I have made these changes because part of making them well is educating them.
Their favorite recipes are my turkey meatloaf, roasted turkey, BBQ chicken (they absolutely love my BBQ sauce), pork loin roast, grilled hamburgers, burritos and enchilada casserole. Veggies are served at every meal, as are various whole-grains. Dessert is served twice a week and is always homemade. It’s simple food, but they love it.
I am honored to help those who have served their country and many times have been forgotten. They are so grateful and kind and appreciative. They are gentleman to me and call each other “sir” more times than not. Old habits, I suppose. Some of the stories I hear could break your heart (they break mine), but when they speak, there doesn’t seem to be self-pity. They are just talking, thankful for someone to listen and thankful for help. They want to feel better, and they will, in slow and sustainable steps.
They need the nurturing feel of someone who cares about them cooking in the kitchen almost as much as they need the food I prepare. I start there. I hear, “It smells good. Patty must be here!” all the time. This caring part of the healing process cannot be underestimated and this has been my big lesson.
I have also discovered that veterans truly help other veterans. They have each other’s backs and encourage each other on their path to wellness.
As I said, it’s been an honor.
Patty James M.S., C.N.C.
Founder and Director
Co-author of “More Vegetables, Please!”
Veterans and a healing kitchen