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VA Gourmet - Teaching Vets How to Cook Healthy

Two men and two women chopping vegetables around a kitchen counter

Veterans Larry Nicholson (foreground) and Ron DuRand learn some valuable chopping techniques from VA Gourmet instructors and dietitians Donna Ogden (chopping cucumbers) and Allison Wanner.

By Tom Cramer
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

You are what you eat. That’s the philosophy at the Fargo VA Medical Center in North Dakota, which is why they have a staff of dietitians dedicated to teaching Veterans how to eat stuff that’s good for them.

“Sometimes people can be intimated by healthy cooking, especially people who haven’t been in the kitchen very much,” said Allison Wanner, a clinical dietitian at Fargo. “So we try to make it easy; we try to break it down into simple steps for our Veterans. We want to give them confidence that they can prepare good, nutritious food for themselves. It seems less daunting to them if they can walk through the process with us.”

Wanner is part of a team that runs the ‘VA Gourmet’ program at Fargo, where Veterans learn the basics of how to eat right.

They prepare the food right in front of you so you can see how they do it. You say, ‘Hey, I can do that!’
— Ron Durand

“VA Gourmet is our interpretation of the VA’s Healthy Teaching Kitchen concept, which is being implemented across the country,” she explained. “We have several dietitians and dietetic technicians who teach the class. Over the last couple of years we’ve worked really hard to evolve it.”

Evolving a cooking program can be challenging, especially when you don’t even have a kitchen to work in. But Wanner and her team of dietitians don’t let that bother them.

“No, we don’t have a kitchen to teach our cooking classes in, but we have a mobile cooking cart that we bring around to the different classes going on here at Fargo,” she explained. “We’ve been implementing the class with our MOVE! Weight Management Program, our Substance Abuse Treatment Program and also at our Community Living Center here at the hospital. Our goal is to get it into the diabetes and hypertension classes as well.”

Wanner said she and her team strive to make the class interesting and fun, not just educational.

“We try to make it seasonal,” she said. “For example, one of the more popular recipes was our summer corn salad. It’s so good, so colorful, and loaded with veggies like onions, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. It’s only 115 calories…

“And around Thanksgiving we do our meatloaf muffins with sweet potato toppings. That’s another popular one. Then, when it’s Super Bowl time, we introduce our buffalo chicken meatballs. The guys really love that one. It has ground chicken instead of ground beef. And it has scallions, carrots, onions and garlic incorporated into the meatballs. Our dipping sauce is non-fat plain Greek yogurt with crumbled blue cheese.”

If you go to the buffet, you don’t have to eat everything. It’s tempting, but you don’t have to.
— Jim Aasness

Wanner said that in addition to learning about good nutrition, Veterans are taught such fundamentals as hand-washing, basic knife and chopping skills and the importance of reading food labels at the grocery store. They also learn how to eat, not just what to eat.

“They teach you to put your fork down and chew your food 20 times before you swallow,” said 69-year-old Army Veteran Jim Aasness. “That’s helpful for me, because right now I’m at about 228 pounds. I’d like to get to under 200. So I’ve backed off the bread and pasta and soda. I don’t eat after seven or eight o’clock at night. And I take my fish oil and my calcium, and my multivitamin.”

Aasness said he’s learned a lot during the time he’s been participating in the ‘VA Gourmet’ program.

“They teach you what to eat, and how much to eat,” he said. “It’s all about portion control. They teach you to use a small plate, and not to eat out of a container. They tell you that it’s okay to go out and eat a steak, but just eat half of it and save the rest for later. And eat your fruits and vegetables. And watch your sodium intake, and your carbs.

“I drink water now instead of soda pop,” he added. “Lots of water.”

The Army Veteran said one of the best things about ‘VA Gourmet’ is the comradery it generates among the Veterans in the program.

“There’s a lot of us Vietnam-era guys in the program,” Aasness observed. “There’s seven or eight of us who take the class together. We have a lot of fun. You have people to encourage you. You have people looking out for you.”

And when they’re not in cooking class, you can usually find the VA Gourmets eating at one of their favorite area restaurants, giving each other a hard time about what’s on their plate.

“We might tease each other, but we don’t make fun of each other, said Air Force Veteran Larry Nicholson, 68. “It’s all good-natured. It’s always the same group of guys, and we eat out a lot.”

So what was on the menu for today when the gang met up at their favorite bistro?

“I’m a diabetic, so I need to be careful,” Nicholson said. “I had a salad today. Actually, I think four of the guys there had salads. But we don’t just sit around talking about food. We talk about about all kinds of stuff. They’re good guys. They’ll do anything for you. Just prepare to be harassed.”

“My weakness is French fries, so the guys always get on me for eating French fries,” said 68-year-old Army Veteran Ron DuRand. “I try to have just one or two, but my will power is lacking. But even though we critique one another, we also compliment each other for eating the right things, or losing some weight. It’s helpful having a support system; it’s helpful to get positive reinforcement from your friends. It makes a big difference.”

DuRand said his weight has been a concern to him for a number of years now.

“I was really packing on weight while I was drinking heavy,” he said. “Then, when I gave up alcohol about 13 years ago, I think I switched to food as a substitute. Plus I’ve been a bachelor for quite a few years so I probably wasn’t eating like I should. But now they’re teaching me how to prepare quick, easy meals that are nutritious and healthy for me. I’ve dropped about 25 or 30 pounds since I started the program.

“It’s a slow process,” he added. “But that’s okay.”