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Feeding Your Athlete

20 Aug

Around here, morning PT is mandatory. Our husbands and wives are up at 0400 (that’s oh-dark-hundred, in case you’re wondering – WAY too early for civilized human beings to be conscious!) running, doing calisthenics, and getting ready for their day. We’re told that once they get to their permanent duty station, PT will usually be done on your own, but in the Army, PT is always mandatory. Even the wimpiest MOS (job title) can receive promotion points for excelling on the PT test, so it’s pretty important!

In BCT, many of our husbands are taught how to eat, but some of them don’t retain much of that information! And feeding a high-performance athlete is like fueling up an expensive racecar: You don’t just use any old fuel. So how do we feed our spouses and still maintain a decent food budget AND not have to do a ton of extra work?

Unique Challenges

  1. In order to have enough fuel to perform well as an athlete, a Soldier will be taking in substantially more calories, more fat, and more protein than a sedentary person. If your husband’s activity levels change significantly (for example, if he is injured and not allowed to train for awhile), his diet should also change. You’ll need to adjust portion sizes downward, but you’ll also need to more carefully monitor fat and calorie intake.
  2. A Soldier’s diet will work well for the rest of the family IF the family is physically active, too. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you’re feeding a toddler or a teenager, most of this will work fine. But if you’re a sedentary person, eating an athlete’s diet can easily lead to obesity. Unless you’re disabled, get active! It’s the best way to ensure your own health and in the long run it will minimize the amount of work you’ll have to do on meal preparation!
  3. Many athletes (especially those working on bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc.) will require a substantial amount of protein, and this can get expensive. Add more protein through nuts, beans, whole grains, and dairy products. Protein doesn’t just have to be meat.
  4. On the other hand, an athlete NEEDS some animal products if they’re competing at higher levels. We’ll discuss this below. The point is that some of the essential elements of an athlete’s diet cannot be found in plants and cannot be found in a plant-based supplement.

Your Intuition is Wrong

When my oldest son was in first grade (before we started homeschooling), he went through a phase where he would refuse to eat almost everything. He wouldn’t eat meats or cheeses because there was too much fat in them, and he would ask us before every meal if there were any fat or calories in the food we were serving. Some teacher at his school had given his class a lecture on the dangers of fat and calories. Of course, for a little kid, it’s hard to even know what fat and calories ARE! But I had a son who was extremely physically active and in no danger of becoming overweight. Moreover, I seldom serve fast food or heavily processed foods, so even when my family does eat “fat”, it’s usually a healthy fat.

This is where feeding an athlete seems counter-intuitive.

We have all heard a lot of myths that are plain wrong, but when feeding an athlete, these myths can be harmful.

Myth: The best way to lose weight/maintain weight is to diet.
Fact: Dieting doesn’t really do that much to help you lose weight or maintain your weight, not nearly as much as exercise. A single pound of body fat requires about 3,500 calories to burn. Therefore, if you have a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day, it would (theoretically) take you a week to burn a single pound of fat, and if your body doesn’t have adequate fuel, you’re likely to burn muscle as well. The best way to lose body fat (NOT weight, as muscle weighs more than fat) is to increase lean muscle mass. This increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR) which means that you burn more fat even when you’re sedentary. The best way to maintain a healthy weight is to exercise. This doesn’t mean that your weight will perfectly align with those BMI calculators; lean and muscular people often appear “overweight” or even “obese” on those scales. But it does mean that you will have a healthy weight and a lean appearance.

Myth: Eating fatty food makes you fat.
Fact: Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat as long as it is HEALTHY fat. Within our bodies, fat is used for a variety of valuable things. Fat helps us to regulate appetite by giving us a feeling of satiety (fullness). It stores a number of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. It is critical for proper neurological functioning; higher-level thinking skills, reaction times, mood, and judgement all suffer when fat intake is insufficient. For an athlete, fat is essential because it helps to lubricate your joints and promotes rapid neurological response, both of which can help to decrease injury in training. Fat seldom needs to be added to the diet, but is prevalent in most sources of protein. (In fact, the extremely low fat content of most vegetarian diets is one of the reasons I don’t recommend them.)

You may have heard about the difference between “good fats” and “bad fats”. The biggest difference is that “good fats” are from natural sources, whereas “bad fats” are often the result of some wholly unnatural man-made process. Trans fats are the result of hydrogenating an oil (usually vegetable oil), usually to extend shelf life or to turn a liquid (vegetable oil) into a solid (shortening). Hydrogenated oils are often used in commercial food products as an attempt to mimic the texture and mouthfeel of butter while using (less expensive!) vegetable oils. Needless to say, there’s really NOTHING good about hydrogenated oils unless you’re preparing for the zombie apocalypse! Saturated fats are generally found in animal products (dairy, meat, etc.) and tropical oils (palm oil, coconut oil, etc.). These oils have a pretty bad reputation – they were the “evil fat” before trans fat hatred became a big deal. The truth is that an active person can derive great benefit from the saturated fats because they’re a highly efficient source of energy and they do help with calcium. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, they’re absolutely essential! Then comes polyunsaturated fats; these include the Omega-3 and Omega-6 that we all hear so much about. These are great fats for brain growth and development, but they’re not found in very high amounts in commercialized Western diets. Omega-3 fatty acids are almost doubled in meat that was grass-fed (not grain-fed, as in a feedlot). Then finally, we get to the monounsaturated fats (MUFAs): These are some of the best fats and should be encouraged! These are found in red meat, milk fat, avocados, olive oil, and nuts (especially fatty nuts like cashews), and because of the way they affect insulin resistance in the body, they are great for helping to maintain (or reach!) a healthy weight.

Myth: Cholesterol is a terrible thing.
Fact: Sometimes. Some people do tend to have high cholesterol, and those people should obviously follow doctor’s orders. But cholesterol is also an essential part of a healthy diet, especially for (are you sensing a theme here yet?) athletes and pregnant or breastfeeding women. In addition to helping insulate nerves (to allow faster communication along the nervous system), cholesterol is absolutely critical for the formation of sex hormones. For a woman of childbearing age who is not pregnant or nursing, cholesterol allows her body to more efficiently form progesterone and estrogen which can help to regulate mood. For an athlete, cholesterol is used to synthesize testosterone, which is essential for helping to build muscle mass. As with fat, cholesterol has its own benefits.

So Now What?

First, talk with your athlete and find out what his goals are. You may want to speak to a nutritionist if there are special dietary needs (diabetes, Celiac’s, etc.) within your family. Some personal trainers have a strong background in sports nutrition and can be useful resources as well. His goal will help you to determine how best to customize his diet.

If he wants to build muscle mass, don’t worry about fat or cholesterol: focus on protein. Protein shakes and protein-filled snacks can help him to take in more protein than he normally would.

If he wants to slim down, focus on lean sources of food and healthy fats. Protein is a key here, but in healthier forms. Protein helps to keep you full which helps you to regulate your appetite better. Sugar should be eliminated or avoided as much as possible if fat loss is the goal; blood sugar fluctuations are some of they biggest causes of food cravings. And while it’s important all the time, make sure to take a multi-vitamin if you’re trying to slim down. Focus on chicken, fish, nuts, and beans (savory, not too sweet).

If he wants to train for something specific, like a specific race or athletic event, work with him to adapt his diet to meet his training needs. Competitions can alter regular dietary schedules.

In any event, try to remember a few things:

  1. Snacks are good as long as they’re healthy snacks. Small frequent meals and mini-meals help to regulate blood sugar and maintain good health.
  2. Spices are always a good idea. Using seasonings and spices can make healthy foods taste great!
  3. Always choose complex carbohydrates over simple sugars whenever you have the choice.
  4. Whenever possible, try to choose foods as close to nature as possible. For example, most conventional cattle are treated with hormones designed to help increase weight gain in cattle; when you eat the beef, those same hormones enter your body. Is it really that far-fetched to think that they might just increase weight gain in humans, too?

With all that in mind, I’ll be back in a couple of days to share some of my favorite portable protein recipes!

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Care Packages

22 Apr

Care packages are absolutely INVALUABLE for your Soldier! They may be restricted in some cases, so be aware of the rules and restrictions. Here’s a few general guidelines:

  • If your Soldier is in basic training or AIT, ask before you send care packages. ESPECIALLY in BCT, some Drill Sergeants don’t allow care packages. If you DO get to send care packages in BCT, do NOT send food items. Check with your recruiter, the BCT location, and/or the U.S. Army Future Soldier Family Program for updated lists of BCT care package items. General rule of thumb for BCT care packages: Don’t send anything unless he requests it. The only exception to this is cards, letters, drawings from the kids, etc.
  • Get the kids involved! Kids frequently enjoy helping out in the kitchen, and regular care packages will always require some level of “quality control”!
  • Care packages are a big deal. In BCT, he’ll be opening care packages in front of his Drill Sergeant. After BCT, it’s not uncommon for his buddies to crowd around him to see what he got. With that in mind, watch what you send. If you send naked pictures to him in BCT, the Drill Sergeant will confiscate him, smoke him, and generally make his life hell. If you send them to him while he’s deployed to a Muslim country, the entire care package may be destroyed. And if you send them at any other time, don’t be surprised if you get some funny looks from his buddies when they all get home.
  • As a general rule, don’t send tobacco or alcohol. If he’s authorized to have it, he’ll be able to purchase it locally. It’s forbidden in BCT and in most AIT’s, and it’s forbidden in Muslim countries. Also forbidden in Muslim countries: pork or pork products. No bacon muffins, and if you’re sending store-bought items, check the labels carefully. Sometimes pork fat can turn up in the most unexpected places! I once bought some banana chips to send to Saudi Arabia and found pork fat included on the ingredients list!
  • Don’t make a mess! Somebody always thinks it’s cute or funny to send a care package designed to explode confetti everywhere when it’s opened. It’s not. Your husband might laugh about it at first, but when he’s starting his second hour of looking for confetti that landed somewhere underneath his wall locker, he’ll be cussing.
  • Keep in mind that he may have limited space. Food items, baked goods, candy, etc. – all of these things are consumable, so you don’t have to worry too terribly much about overloading him with that stuff. But books, games, etc. – keep in mind that his space may be limited, ESPECIALLY if he’s on board a ship or in BCT/AIT.
  • Care packages are made for sharing. Always try to send enough so that he can share with his buddies (if it’s food items).
  • Don’t send stuff he can buy there. My hubby’s in AIT, and as much as he loves Fig Newtons, he can buy them at the PX. There’s no need for me to send them. On the other hand, when my ex-husband was deployed to Saudi Arabia, he would ask for those banana chips because he couldn’t get them in theater. Girl Scout cookies are often a big hit, but lots of guys in deployed locations have access to them (the Girl Scouts donate a large number of them through the USO every year), so ask before sending them.

Regularity
There is one BIG note about care packages that applies to ALL communication with your Soldier: BE REGULAR!!! Decide in advance how frequently you can send things and STICK TO IT! Our Soldiers are creatures of habit. They grow to expect the things we send and get very disappointed if we don’t send them on schedule. Now sometimes, things come up. One of the first care packages I was planning got delayed because everyone in the house came down with a stomach bug and I didn’t want to send vomiting and diarrhea to my hubby! But I also notified him of the circumstances. That way, he knew I didn’t just forget.

For me, when my husband was in BCT (and I didn’t send care packages unless he specifically requested something), I wrote letters EVERY DAY and sent them every day. I missed one or two days, but I worked very hard to get those letters out daily. The kids wrote and sent letters once a week, and after about the third week I started sending one of two greeting cards randomly throughout the week. The letters from me & the kids were a part of his routine and the greeting cards (and letters from his parents & extended family) were fun bonuses. But he told me once that he looked forward to every evening after mail call when he would settle in and read my letter before bed. It was part of his evening routine, and it was something he came to expect. On those occasions when the mail was screwy and he didn’t get a letter like he was supposed to, he would re-read old letters, but he was always disappointed.

Regularity is critical with care packages as well. I prepare my packages on Sunday and send them out on Monday morning. Because they go out Priority Mail, he normally receives them on Wednesday or Thursday. It’s something that he looks for and expects. Decide in advance what your schedule will be and stick to it.

What to Send
Obviously, some things are pretty much expected in care packages, like foodstuffs (especially homemade stuff!). Other things he may request, like a certain video game or book or magazine. Other things (like letters, cards, drawing from the kids, etc.) can be added to give him a taste of home. Keep in mind what he has access to. My husband has a laptop, so I’ll frequently burn a DVD for him of home movies and pictures we’ve taken since he left. You may want to keep a video diary and burn it to DVD and send it with your care packages.

One note about videos: Our Soldiers love seeing videos of important and special events, so make sure to videotape the birthday party, the trip to the zoo, the school play, the soccer game, etc. But they also like seeing a “slice of life” from home. It may sound silly, but try setting up the video camera during dinnertime. Set the camera in Daddy’s spot and videotape the family having dinner together. Set up the camera in the kitchen and “talk” to your husband while you’re doing dishes. Don’t neglect the “boring” stuff; a lot of times, that “boring” stuff is the stuff that they miss the most.

Condiments can be greatly appreciated depending on where he is, especially if he enjoys something more exotic than salt and pepper! Dried condiments (like garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, dried seasoning mixes, etc.) can be packaged into small plastic zipper bags – you can usually find these at craft stores with the cake/candy decorating stuff. If he’s deployed someplace where the food is terrible, having little baggies of his favorite seasoning blends can be VERY welcome.

Liquid condiments are a bit more difficult. If he likes something like soy sauce, look at places like Costco, Sam’s Club, and local Asian grocers or restaurant supply stores to see if they have any single-serve packets. But there IS another method you can use for liquid condiments; it’s a bit dicey, but it is often effective for things like Srirachi that my husband loves. You fill ice cube trays with the condiments and freeze them solid. Once they’re frozen, use a vacuum sealer (like a Food Saver) to seal one or two ice cubes together completely. Let thaw before you ship, but that will USUALLY (not always!) keep the condiments for a pretty long time.

When it comes to baked goods, keep a few things in mind:

  • If you’re sending to a very hot location, don’t use butter of margarine. Use something like butter-flavored shortening because it won’t go rancid as quickly. Also, beware of peanut butter, nut butters, and other foods with a high oil content because of the rancidity.
  • Don’t even try sending fudge to a hot place or to any place overseas. Any type of fudge-y candies will not work. Hard candies can work if it’s not too hot and/or has too long of a delay.
  • Anything crumbly can crumble. Plan accordingly. Anything chewy is going to be likely to go bad if you’ll have to wait too long for delivery. Cookies will usually last longer than bar cookies, muffins, breads, etc. Don’t ship that unless you know you’ll be getting pretty quick delivery.
  • Everything MUST COOL COMPLETELY before you try to package it.
  • Don’t send stuff that’s frosted. If you want to send something with frosting, send it unfrosted and then send an unopened package of frosting along with it so that he can frost it when he gets it.
  • Small sizes will work best. Think mini-muffins instead of full-size muffins, mini-loaves of bread instead of standard sizes, etc. Small sizes are easier to pack and easier to share!

Packaging
Packaging is critically important! Nothing will break your heart faster than your husband calling you on the verge of tears because all of the brownies you sent him arrived in crumbs!

The most important thing to remember with packaging is to package in small batches and do NOT hesitate to overpackage! If you package in small batches and one batch is destroyed, it’s likely that the other batches will be okay.

For Muffins, Breads, etc.
I sent my husband some cinnamon streusel muffins (his favorite!). Here’s how I packaged them.

First, I let them cool COMPLETELY!

Then, as you can see, I laid out wax paper and foil. I placed each individual muffin upside down on the wax paper.

Wrap it up like a present:

Then you do the same basic wrapping with the foil. Place LOOSELY in a Ziploc bag and pack. The foil helps to keep them from being crushed and the wax paper helps keep them from sticking to the foil.

 

For Bar Cookies, Soft Candies, and Crumbly Cookies
Wrap in wax paper and package in hard containers, like Ziploc Take & Toss. Make sure the wax paper goes between EACH AND EVERY cookie or candy (for the soft ones)!!! It’s not as big of a deal on crumbly cookies, but make sure that there’s enough wax paper to reduce movement with the crumbly cookies.

 

For Hard Candies
Individually wrap and package in a Ziploc bag. Individual wrappers can usually be found in craft stores with the cake decorating supplies.

For Regular Cookies
Run a length of wax paper. Put the first cookie on one side of the wax paper about 2-3 inches from the end and fold the wax paper in half over the cookie. Fold up the end and place another cookie on top of the package. Fold the long end of the wax paper over the top of the cookie, then place another cookie on top of the package. Fold the long end of the wax paper over, placing another cookie on top, until you have about 5-6 cookies. Fold the excess of the long end over the top of the last cookie. Place the wax paper packet face down on some foil and wrap like a present. Place two or three packets LOOSELY into a Ziploc bag.


How to Send
It really depends a lot on where your Soldier is. Check with your local FRG, your Key Spouse, your unit, etc. For example, on some Air Force bases, they send out “Re-Deployers” once a week or once every few weeks to deployed locations, and they’re usually happy to stick your care package on the plane when it goes out (and it’s free!). In a lot of places, you have no choice but to send it through freight.

Make friends with the U.S. Postal Service! They will delivery more regularly and more efficiently to virtually every military location than UPS, FedEx, or DHL. They also offer a variety of shipping discounts if you pay for your shipping online, especially if you pay through your PayPal account. Their USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate Boxes are also a great bargain because you don’t have to pay for the box, and it’s usually cheaper than shipping a box of a similar size.

Why is Military Homemaking Different?

30 Mar

In fairness, this is a question I get often from civilian friends who just don’t understand what makes homemaking different as a military wife. Military homemaking combines a lot of challenges that a LOT of homemakers face, but most people only face one or two of these!

  1. The Importance of Homemaking. I believe that homemaking is important for EVERYBODY, but it’s even more important for military families. It’s important for everyone to have a place that feels like “home” – a place of refuge and sanctuary when the outside world is stressful. We all can benefit by having a comforting retreat in times of turmoil. But for many of us, the “home” may be a combination of different areas & different places. The idea of “home” is larger than the house in which we live. “Home” encompasses our neighborhood, our yard, even our friends’ homes! We may feel at home in our schools or our workplaces, and that’s a very good thing. But for military families, all of these external signals of “home” can change frequently. It’s not unusual for Army families to move every 2-3 years! So when your neighborhood and the exterior of your home (and even many elements of the interior!) change, it’s crucial that the interior (the only part you can really control!) remains as stable as possible.
  2. The Importance of Homemaking, pt. 2. Children in particular thrive on stability, and the fact is that the military life is ANYTHING but stable, especially for kids! Dad’s duty hours may change frequently. He may deploy. There are frequent moves, and the keyword in military life is “resiliency”, which is really just a nice way of saying, “Quit complaining!” So a wise mom will do all that she can to create an atmosphere of stability with her children. When the same painting hangs in the front hallway of every home they move to or the living room furniture is arranged in a similar manner no matter where they go, it creates stability, which is critical for military kids. Maybe every Monday is Meatloaf Night, or maybe every night before bed is Storytime in the living room. All these little routines and household minutiae really do help children to be well-adjusted despite their frequent upheavals. These things help to CREATE resilient children.
  3. The Importance of Homemaking, pt. 3. Last one, I promise! Homemaking is important for our husbands as well. When they are away, they are thinking of home. In their down time, they re-create images of home and family based on what they remember. It can be tempting for a mom to change things while her husband is deployed, but this seldom has a happy ending. During a deployment or separation, the kids need stability more than ever, but the husband also needs to know what he’s coming home to. While it may seem like an amusing anecdote, it’s not uncommon for a man to come home, find the living room furniture re-arranged, and immediately move everything back to how it was before he left! He’s been dreaming of “home”; keep it stable for him. (Incidentally, when change can’t be avoided – like when you have to move to a new house or his favorite recliner breaks and must be replaced – take a picture of the new setup and send it to him via mail or e-mail with an explanation. It will make it MUCH easier for him to accept when he gets back.)
  4. Frequent Moves. This one, most people understand. After all, we live in a pretty mobile society, and we’re all going to move a few times in our adult lives. But many people can under-estimate the frequency of these moves and the impact that it has on us. While the average for Army families is about 3-4 years, it’s not unheard of for Army families to move as frequently as 12-18 months! Air Force families tend to have longer tours and be a bit more stable, and Navy and Marine families tend to be somewhere in between (although I hear that Marines are closer to Army relocation times). We will be moving. And even when/if we don’t move, the understanding that we WILL be moving can often be psychologically difficult to deal with. I’ve known military wives who LOVED to garden and went years without planting anything in their garden. One told me, “We’ve been here four years, so we’re overdue for a PCS (a military move). Since I know that spring and summer are prime PCS seasons, I don’t see the point in planting a garden since I’m pretty sure we’re going to move soon.” She actually ended up staying at the same base for 7 or 8 years, but the impact it had on her was significant. Not only will we be moving; we KNOW that we’ll be moving. We KNOW that we’re “short-timers.”
  5. Rental Homes. Most of us who live in the continental United States (CONUS) will be living (at least temporarily) in civilian rental homes or apartments. On-post housing is notoriously hard to get into. But the point is that whether we’re in rental homes or government quarters, we are often prohibited from making major changes to the decor or design. We often can’t paint and are very limited with what type of modifications we can make to the home. This can make decorating on a budget very difficult.
  6. Government Quarters. Clearing government quarters has a justly deserved reputation for being a NIGHTMARE! While it depends greatly on who your housing inspector is, a mostly clean house in government quarters can be cause for all sorts of problems! 
  7. Vastly Different Quarters. If I live in Columbus, Ohio, I have a pretty good idea of what sort of home I can afford. If I get a pay raise and upgrade to a nicer home, that pay raise will probably be fairly modest and any changes to my living quarters will probably be pretty minimal. The point is that my living quarters are unlikely to change drastically. If I can currently afford a 1,500 square foot 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom townhome, I might be able to upgrade to a 1600sqft/3BR/2BA townhome, but whatever I look for will be about the same. But this isn’t true for military families. In one part of the country, they may be able to easily afford a 2,500 square foot, 4BR, 2BA rental home (or that may be the government quarters they’re offered). In another part of the country, they might struggle to afford a 1,000 square feet, 2BR, 1BA apartment. If you’ve been living in 2,500 sq ft and you now have only 1,000 sq ft, how do you fit everything in? Or vice versa? How do you make 1,000 sq ft or furniture look properly scaled in a 2,500 sq ft house? If your last home had a very modern feel and this one is extremely traditional, the furniture that looked great before might look very out of place now. This sort of instability can make decorating especially challenging for military families.
  8. Tight Budget. It’s no secret that the military doesn’t make a ton of money. There are many military families that live below the poverty line, and as Congress continues to slash money-saving programs like the Commissary and MWR programs, we’re going to see a lot more military families in financial trouble. The point for the homemaker is that we have to deal with all of these challenges without the benefit of an unlimited budget. We have to find creative solutions to the problems that we so frequently face.
  9. Decorating to Please Someone who Isn’t There. For many of us, we want to please our husbands, but our husbands are seldom available to go furniture shopping with us. Maybe they’re out in the field, on a drill, deployed, or just unable to get out of work, but we have to go out and guess what he might like and then just hope that we guessed right.  

Anything else? What did I miss?

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