Conversations on Firehouse Nutrition – Part 2: Substitutions and Other Tricks for Healthy Firehouse Eating

March 22, 2016
Couple Having Chat At Breakfast TableIn Part 1, our nutritionist, Kayla Little, RDN, and our former Firehouse Chef, Captain Michael Morse, talked about the nutritional hazards of being a firefighter.
Partly the stresses of the job, and partly the result of firehouse culture and job-related eating habits, 15-year firemen gain weight, sleep poorly, and experience exceptional stress. And the roller coaster ride from low activity to high stress combines with eating habits to lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. When we left off, Kayla and Mike were exploring ways to move firehouse eating in a healthier direction, with Morse describing the firefighter’s approach to food:

Michael Morse: What is the saying? “When there’s a lot, take a lot. When there’s a little, take it all.” That’s the sad truth of the firehouse. They do, too.

Kayla Little:  I totally realize that a lot of these concepts will probably have to be slowly introduced and slowly adopted. It all takes time. That’s human nature in general. .. Really it requires that the entire culture change. Here’s what we’re doing now: Maybe once a week, or maybe two meals a week – you can set your number – meals are going to be more indulgent. The rest of the meals this week, they’re going to be healthier. They can have something to look forward to on Fridays.

Fridays we’re having something really comfortable. A comfort food you love. On the other days of the week, we’re going to shoot for healthier options. That’s usually a goal I set with most my clients. “Choose one or two meals that you are comfortable indulging in. And the rest of the time we’re really just shooting for healthier options.”

What are we really talking about then? We’re talking about making sure that half of the plate is vegetables, something colorful – green, red, orange and all of the vegetables. Then it’s a complex carbohydrate. Maybe it is that whole grain pizza and bread. It doesn’t include having a whole grain piece of bread and a potato and corn. Choosing one carbohydrate food option, and having that served as probably about a quarter of the plate.
If you’re looking at a round plate, we have the half that says vegetables. A quarter of it is carbohydrates. Then we’re adding that lean protein on top. Sure, have a steak, but make it a fillet. Make it something lean, like flank or sirloin. If it’s chicken, bake it, grill it. If it’s fish, same thing. A quarter of that plate is that lean protein. Then of course we want to have some form of healthy fat. That’s going to help keep them full. It helps create texture. It actually helps absorb nutrition, as well.

Maybe thinking along the lines of like an 80/20 rule, where 80 per cent of the time, the food is going to still be tasty, but more vegetables. Then 20 per cent of the time, maybe we’ll have a couple of those comfort meals that everybody really, really loves. Then looking at that balanced plate, trying to make sure all those components are present.

I will say, and this is kind of the ugly truth, that when something is incredibly flavorful, of course it’s harder to control our portions.

Our palette tells us we want more, when really our stomach is telling us that we’re full. Where on some of the other days, if it’s not something that is absolutely just out of this world delicious, like Chicken Parmesan or something like that, the body will tend to favor its needs over the palette’s desires.

AAC:  There’s a couple of things I think of. You were talking about snacks before. I was wondering if there were a snack kind of thing that could be around that would actually fill people up a little, and maybe a way to be less focused on, “I’m not getting enough,” than on having to get food on the check list, say those colorful vegetables.

Michael:  Things aren’t hopeless. As the years have progressed, I’ve noticed that the younger folks are a heck of a lot more nutritionally aware. They’re all guys in their 20s, women in their 20s and 30s. They’re a lot more conscious. I think when you hit your late 30s early 40s, you give up a little bit. You let your guard down. I’ve seen a tremendous metamorphosis in the stations.

Every Saturday it used to be hot dogs and beans. That was it. No exceptions. Clean the floor. Hot dogs and beans. We knew it was coming. We all hated it. Most of us hated it, but a few of the old timers loved their hot dogs and beans. We all went along. Now Saturdays are more Chicken Caesar salad days. I’ve noticed that just about citywide. Wherever you go.

We have 15 stations in the city. We don’t get together and figure out what we’re going to have. It just kind of happens. We have candy machines which are now filled with a little bit of candy, but a lot of nuts, a lot of healthier snacks. Not healthy by any means, but healthier.

Unfortunately, you have the loose cannon that will grab all the snickers bars out of the machine. He’ll eat two or three a day. In a group there’s always going to be two or three that are just not going to go along with what you’re doing.

I actually, for the last couple of years, just brought my own food in. My wife has MS. We adopted a very restrictive diet. We’ve learned how to eat a lot more healthy to cut down the inflammation and try to repair her gut, things like that. I had a cooler. It was great for me. I was used to it. I learned this is what I have to eat. My cholesterol went down to nothing. I am pretty much at the right weight. I feel great.

Try to get the other guys to eat what I was eating was next to impossible. I was like a lone wolf. It’s kind of sad, too. You’re not part of the gang anymore. That’s part of the fun of the firehouse, cooking together, eating together. It’s a great camaraderie thing. It’s one of the better parts of the job to be honest with you.

You have to take care of yourself sometimes and make a stand.

Treatment TherapyKayla:  That brings up a really good point, that folks are going to change when they’re ready to change. We can’t always tackle everybody. That pulls into those really small changes that can make a big difference. Even if, what we would call, the token problem child, could we look at one area and say, “OK. Well, why don’t we maybe look at drinking only water? Or water and coffee? Why don’t we just take a look at this small thing, or choose to eat one plate versus three plates?” It’s utilizing those really small things for the people who are having the biggest challenge.

Maybe that might lead to more changes. Everybody’s going to change whenever they’re ready. Some people are really never ready. That can be out of the health care practitioner’s hands, or the support system.

AAC:  I wonder, Mike, what are the leverage points, the fireman’s worries in the fireman’s words – like, “I hate to be huffing and puffing after a drill,” or whatever. What do you think? Are there those issues?

Michael:  Yeah. We are not afraid to let the other folks know that they’re getting heavy. It’s never been a problem with fire fighters. We’ll tell you right out, “Look. You’re a fat bastard. You can’t go up those stairs like that. You’ve got to lose some weight.” They do it. We torture each other. We make fun of haircut, shoes, people’s eye color, it doesn’t matter. It’s all in good fun. It really is. Nobody gets too offended.

As far as when health becomes a problem, and people start to drop at fire scenes, it’s just time to really take something seriously. I’ve noticed a lot of groups. You’ll have one fire station with four groups working there. A, B, C, and D. A group is eating healthy. They look great. They’re fantastic. B group, not so much. They’re OK. C group. Good God. Those guys are eating enchiladas for breakfast, or whatever it is. They’re just enormous. It’s a group mentality.

To tackle the problem, there’s always a way. I like that start slowly. I like that one plate instead of three because we’re famous for filling up and filling up. It’s almost like a cafeteria set up, in the fire house. You make the meal. You don’t all just get served a plate. You just put everything on the stove. You grab a plate from the cupboard. You grab a spoon and a fork, or a knife. It’s completely up to you how much you’re going to eat or not eat. You could, instead of three or four loaves of bread, one loaf of bread. Let them fight over it. You kind of need an alpha person, or a point person, in these things, because if you don’t have that, the group will just bombard you with all sorts of terrible things.

If you’re just making fish, thrown in the oven with no taste, no flavor, no seasonings, you’re never going to pull it off. You have to make it good, and you can. I found that I could and people actually were coming along with my thing. Then when I got tired of cooking for everybody, and the other folks got in on it, they kind of got right back into the heavy sauces and the things that were stick to your ribs good. My stuff was good, but it wasn’t as good.

It’s doable. Start slowly. Just talking about it, if you can get people to listen, that’s going to be key.

Kayla:  Yeah. I think traditional mindset is that if something’s healthy then we get to this point of too restrictive, where we think, “That means I can’t use this, or I can’t use that, or I shouldn’t do this, or I shouldn’t do that.” Really we can just make small swaps, which is probably what you do, Mike. If somebody’s wanting to have burgers and French fries, why not use either really lean ground beef or ground turkey? Maybe make some half and half – half ground beef, half ground turkey. Season that meat up. Make sure you’re putting things like onion and peppers in it to give it some jazz. Put it on a whole grain bun. Let’s bake our fries instead of putting them in the fryer. Let’s use maybe sweet potatoes and bake them.

Then we have a cheeseburger and French fries. It’s significantly healthier than if we were utilizing that higher fat ground beef on a white bun with actually fried fries. Lasagna utilizing whole grain noodles. Swapping that meat out for a turkey or Italian chicken sausage.

It’s utilizing those different swaps – that’s when you’ve really won is when you can just make little tweaks and you’re essentially cutting the calories sometimes by half, but keeping everything really tasty. Of course, with still looking at portion control. A lot of folks think, “Well, it’s healthy, so I can just eat as much as I want of it.” It doesn’t exactly work that way either.

Michael:  No. It certainly doesn’t. Fire fighters are no different. We’re a vain bunch. We don’t want to be overweight. We don’t want to be unhealthy. As you get older, you just don’t have the energy. The vanity goes down a little bit. You hit your 40s. You’re not going to have the beach bod – unless you’ve got some sort of genetic miracle going on.

People will acquiesce. One or two people start getting into it, then three or four. Before you know it, most of the crew is on board. They’re coming up with suggestions.

You’re never going to keep everybody happy.

Kayla:  Sometimes it’s perspective. There’s a couple of things happening in regard to just the overall relationship with food. If those meals are looked at as a big break time, creating camaraderie around the crew, is the staff building up these meals so much that the food actually has to match the excitement of the camaraderie?

With that being said, sometimes we have to take a look at our relationship with food and really take a step back and remind ourselves that food is for nutrition. It is a lot more than that, it’s culture, it’s social, it’s a whole lot of things. Eight times out of 10 it should be about nutrition.

Michael:  That is a great point. We put so much importance on those two meals a day. If it’s not good, people are sad. [Laughs.] It’s a meal for God’s sake. We’re going to have another one tomorrow. They do. We really, really do put a heck of a lot of importance on the meal. That’s a great point.

Kayla:  We sort of call it the preoccupation with food. How much time is really spent either thinking about it, preparing it, fantasizing about it…

Michael:  …and fire fighters complaining about it. [laughs]

Kayla:  …culture. It’s part of the culture. You really have a high preoccupation with food.

Michael:  It really is.

Kayla:  We have to kind of take that step back to say, “What’s my relationship with food here?” That’s kind of the hard step to get connected with. From a culinary standpoint, Mike, I’m sure you have great experience with taking some of these comfort foods and just making simple swaps.

Utilizing Greek yogurt in place of sour cream, still using cheese, but using significantly less cheese, maybe a light cheese versus the cold cut version. There’s those small tweaks that can be made to still make meals that are really tasty and exciting, but just a lot healthier for the body to prevent those weight issues, cholesterol issues, diabetes, all of those things.

Michael:  That was one of my favorite things to do, was make a great meal that was healthy. I would tell everybody exactly the calorie count, amount of fat. I used to drive them crazy actually. There’s 17 grams of fat in that by the way, which actually isn’t bad for a huge meal with sausage in it. I’d leave the cheese out and put something else. That was one of my greatest things. If it was really good and satisfying and healthy at the same time, that was like a winwin.

Any dummy can make a horrible fat cholesterol bomb. It’s going to be delicious.

To really take it to the next level it takes a little more effort. It’s a little more expensive but in the long run it’s well worth it.

Kayla:  Mike have you seen the Engine Two diet?

Michael:  Yeah. I just saw that. I was at Whole Foods the other day. I saw his book. I kind of thumbed through it. He’s an Austin Texas fire fighter I believe.

Kayla:  Yes, I’m not a huge diet pusher; however, there are some neat recipes on their website that might be taken well if it’s a fire fighter who made the recipes. I’m wondering if some of those can be incorporated.

They’d be a little bit more wellreceived, because they are from Engine Two plans.

Michael:  I read the introduction and a few of the recipes. That’s right in line with the kind of stuff I was making. It’s pretty good actually. He’s got the whole workout regimen going and everything. Actually that guy now, I forget his name, but he’s the healthy food spokesman for Whole Foods. He got himself a job with that whole market. I just read his biography on the advertisement as I was walking out.

Kayla:  Interesting. Yeah. There’s meatloaf on here. Stuffed peppers. There’s some neat recipes on here.

AAC:  Kayla, if were going to go into a fire house and do a workshop, with the eaters, not the cookers, what are some of the points you’d try to hit on in talking about eating healthy for firemen? Is that something you’d have to think about and prepare [laughs] a speech for?

Kayla:  I think portion control is probably the number one. Like I said, you could eat rich food many times a week if you kept the portion under control. I would say portion control is probably one of the biggest things. If you have that intact, it doesn’t matter where you are. You can always apply that. If you’re at your Christmas holiday or at the firehouse, or at a restaurant, wherever you are, you may not always be in control of what is served.

If you’ve got portion control then you can really do yourself a lot of good by keeping that in check.

AAC:  I was just wondering if Kayla had any tips for Michael’s diet – he’s had to cut out a lot in eating along with his wife, trying to improve the symptoms of MS. Mike is cutting out … glutenfree. What was the other one? No sugar.

Kayla:  Yeah.

Michael:  Gluten, sugar, and dairy.

Kayla: We can see some improvements, especially with things like MS, when we are really paying close attention to inflammation. Absolutely there are a lot of recipes that can be achieved without those components.

You can use vegetables instead of noodles. You can use a vegan style cheese that doesn’t have dairy, but still seems like cheese. Then you have maybe lasagna that utilizes the vegan cheese. There’s different options there.

I haven’t cooked a lot with vegan cheese, to be honest, but I’ve eaten it before. It’s pretty similar. I think they traditionally utilize almond and rice to create those things. There are a lot of alternatives. It does open up a lot of doors.

AAC:  Great.

Kayla:  I would say 95 per cent of the population can eat those components and still be perfectly healthy, provided that we are paying attention to quantity and frequency.

Michael:  Sure. I ate that way most of my life. I’m pretty darn healthy. I was getting heavy. That’s for sure. It’s not for everybody. It’s not easy. I would never try to pull that restrictive diet off at the fire house. However, like you said, I could have made mine without the cheese. Everything’s doable. You just have to really want it enough.

Once you flick that little switch on you, it’s kind of like addiction. Once you flick the switch on in your head, and say, “Wait a minute. This is no way to live,” it just gets so much easier. We call it a spiritual awakening in the addiction world. In the food world, maybe it’s a nutritional awakening. It went off for me. Since then, I’ve been 95 per cent better about eating

Kayla:  Sometimes we call it the Oprah ahha moment.


Michael:  The ahha moment. There you go.

AAC:  That’s awesome. If you have any pressing questions to ask each other, go right ahead. If not, we’ll wrap up.

Kayla:   I’ve worked with fire fighters in the past.

This was really helpful to take all the information that they provided, and then of course from another perspective, and really put those couple pieces together.


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