An army marches on its stomach, said Napoleon allegedly. Not just soldiers either, but students and school leavers too, with good nutrition reckoned to be key to maintaining the stamina to battle essay crises and conquer stress as well as tackle an assault course.
Yet for every Bake Off wannabe teen grabbing the Insta-limelight, there are dozens of young men and women who feel completely clueless about the skills it takes to put a meal together.
A new book aims to help. Developed by the British Army with Michelin-starred chef Adam Gray, The Healthy Soldier Cookbook is a slim volume (the second of its kind; the original was published a few years ago) of ultra-simple, healthy but appealing recipes. Although written for soldiers, it’s ideal for anyone starting out at university or a first job, as army barracks have much in common with student accommodation and shared houses, with basic cooking facilities, and often no place to sit and eat together. The clincher? The book is free for anyone to download.
The Armed Forces have particular reason to improve the eating habits of their men and women. Although food in the mess and cookhouses is said to be better since the uproar in 2016 over the shoddy quality of meals sold there by the outside caterers Sodexo, takeaways and ready meals are still a lure for soldiers. And for all our image of the lean, mean fighting machine squaddie powering over the battlefield, obesity is a major headache for the Armed Forces.
The most recent study, in 2018, found almost 18,000 full-time trained members of the army, navy and air force to be clinically obese, and more than half carrying too much weight. It’s better than the UK population as a whole, where around two thirds of the population are overweight or obese.
Still, we expect our armed forces to be literally fighting fit, and while carrying extra weight doesn’t preclude being in good shape, it doesn’t help either. This is potentially a financial as well as a health problem, as last year former surgeon Lord McColl of Dulwich claimed, “Ejector seats in fighter planes are having to be modified because of obesity, and … we may have to enlarge the escape hatches of submarines.”
When I visited Mons Barracks near Aldershot, however, the focus was on the positive aspects of cooking. Staff Sergeant Alecia Grant, staff assistant to a three-star general, was in her block kitchen cooking up a dish from the book, glass noodles with prawns and chilli dressing. Twelve officers in her block share the kitchen, a stark white room with three washers and dryers, plus fridges and sinks, but no hob or oven.
According to Lieutenant Colonel David Grindel, “the Army are providing more cooking facilities in the newer accommodation – some even have cookers. By the end of 2022, 70 per cent should have cooking facilities. But old [difficult to update] blocks and cost get in the way.” In the meantime, most are provided with a microwave, an electric wok, a kettle and a steamer, plus a blender, so the recipes in the book limit themselves to these bits of kit.
SSgt Grant, who says her family are good cooks, appeared unfazed by this as she sliced a cucumber into strips. “Most of the officers actually eat in the mess,” she told me, “but timings for meals don’t always work. It’s more flexible to do your own meals, and as you move up the ranks, you tend to more.” How does she find the recipes? “What I’ve had is good. I’m from the Caribbean and I like a lot of spice, but you can’t expect them to do dishes like that for everyone,” she told me with a twinkle. “It’s really good for breakfast – I love the breakfast pancake, so easy. I do them for dinner with curry chicken as well.”
The block has no communal areas, so although she sometimes cooks with other colleagues, they can’t sit around a table together. Here there is a rank divide, explained Lt Col Grindel. “Sergeants can eat in the mess, which has places to relax.” The cookhouse, a bit like a food court with various food choices, is for junior ranks to eat. “It’s not a social space, but the accommodation block will have places to hang out,” he adds.
Lance Corporal Michael McCulloch, from Wishaw near Glasgow, lives in single quarters while his wife and three children under four stay in the family house in Scotland. He told me wryly, “My wife doesn’t believe that I cook. But in the block in our corridor of seven, a lot of us do, together, too. And we’ll eat in the common areas. It’s a good way to welcome young lads.” The recipes are hugely popular, he told me. “One of the guys cooked a veggie toastie and said it was dynamite.” Food ammunition to blow you away.
Download the book at army.mod.uk/people/live-well/healthy-soldier-cookbook/