Tell me about military dining on base

(ps sorry in advance for giant wall of text… just trying to get my thoughts in order)

I’m working up some scenes set in a cafeteria on a small, obscure military base, contemporary timeline. The base is one of those sci-fi staples: a mothballed post-Cold War underground setup, repurposed for a secret international project, blah blah blah. (The location of the base is a running joke, even most of the people who work there don’t know exactly where it is.) It’s probably got some radioactive missiles laying around in storage, and rumor has it the cockroaches are attracted to red flags.

About 200 people work there, including soldiers, scientists, and maintenance crew. Most personnel work the “daytime” schedule, a few are on duty during nights and weekends, although it all looks the same underground.

My experiences of dining in large groups mostly consist of school and summer camp, so I’m wondering what (if anything) is different on a base. (For starters, do they even call it a mess? Or is that just the navy?)

I understand a lot of military bases these days hire a contractor to do the food, but since this base is a secret, everybody who works there is part of the organization, even the cooks. So let’s just pretend it’s a little old school.

What kind of food is served? I’m sure it depends on budget and availability, but I’m picturing dishes with cheap ingredients that are easy to produce in large quantity: eg casseroles, rice and beans, etc. Is the food the same a lot?

How are tasks assigned re: prep, service, and cleanup? Does everybody serve themselves buffet-style and clear their own dishes? Is there a “lunch lady” who doles out servings as you pass by her with a plate? Is there a protocol for cutting the line based on rank?

Do you have to pay for the food, or is it included in your wage? What about specialty items like candy and alcohol? Would those be sold at a separate place?

A possible problem I may bring up during the story: different people on base have different nutritional needs. For example, the active soldiers need to eat a lot of high-calorie food, but the computer tech guys are more sedentary and they’ll get fat if they’re not eating a lot of vegetables. How do militaries normally handle this problem?

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Hey! Ok, so I have personal experience with Navy and a slight tip about Coast Guard. The tip about CG is that during officer training, the officers have to eat across from each other and NEVER BREAK EYE CONTACT. Which means there is little to no dressing up of food and such…

Ok, Navy. Yes, in Navy it’s called Mess, or Mess Hall. Food served: varies. My brothers, at their trainings, told us they ate for breakfast things like scrambled eggs (the pourable kind in a jug that you can buy in bulk), and on good days, pancakes, French toast, etc. For lunch/dinner etc, yes, things like that that you can buy in bulk.

Where do you eat? Well, this goes for CG and Navy. I toured several ships and for CG, there are little rooms on board (CG boats are MUCH smaller than Navy). These rooms are filled with booths and little tables, far fewer booths than there are men, so they eat in shifts.

Ok, assigning tasks is different in CG and Navy. In CG, since the boat/crew is tiny, everyone helps out where needed (mostly a ton of boat painting and maintenance but also other odd jobs). Still tho, most of the CG cooking is done by the cook, or, “Culinary Specialist”. (for a list of CG jobs, see this link:

For Navy, everyone has a specific job. There are a few cooks, and they make and serve food, as well as wash the dishes. The men themselves clear tables, I believe.

Dining placement for rank… CG, no. Navy, yes. On the Navy ships, there are smaller rooms for officers to eat in. Everyone else takes shifts in the slightly bigger room.

Yes, food is included in wage. (unless you’re on land and you choose to eat out)

Specialty items, good question. CG, there are occasionally such things. Coffee is always available. Alcohol, I do not believe that is available at all, CG nor Navy. Candy…occasionally for CG, probably rare for Navy. For Navy, candy is probably and individual thing, sent from families or bought by each person while on land.

Okay, for your final question, no, there is no change of food for anyone. There is generally very little to begin with, so tech guys would be okay but active people are always hungry. That’s just the way it goes.

NaNoMail me if you have more questions, or if my answers weren’t clear enough! I’ll try to help! (if you have questions according to a specific branch of miltary, lemme know. I have fam in CG, my Pappy was in the army, I have a neighbor who I think was in the air force, and my bros and I are going in the Navy)

Hope this helps!

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By enrolling them (probably against their will) in the Fat boy club, which means mandatory exercise at least once and maybe twice per day.

On the ship, Fridays were burger day. With all the leftovers from earlier in the week available as toppings. So yes, you could have your burger with eggs, beans, or mashed potatoes inside.


This is a topic that could go on forever! Where to start.

Didn’t see cutting in line due to rank. but certain Job’s got first in line. Reactor and watch standers.
On ships everyone just got in line, on shore you had a chow card.
No candy, but there was normally a desert, no alcohol…that was at the E-Club and you paid for that.

Well each branch has levels of “class” The USAF almost always had an upscale dining area. USA and the Navy was about the same but this would depend n the size of the installation. USMC…my details are from 1996-2006ish basic. Again, the base size and what it’s standing had some to do with it.

Kessler AFB had 3, I believe the Zoomies called them Dining Halls. It was staffed with civilians and the would come and take your tray. I was in the Marines at the time and felt insulted that they tried to take it. I refused to let them and they seemed to get a laugh at it. Navy and USMC for the most part you took your tray to the scullery. Lot’s of Naval terms in these branches.

Bagram AFG was primarily an USA base and was operated by Halliburton, scandal there, but it was called a DFAC. Not bad food…

USN and USMC was called everything out there, Chow-hall, galley, mess deck or mess (Ship) and had at time junior military personnel assigned to them. Lots of Chili-mac and cordon blue. The Enterprise maintained a great bakery! Lassen food was good too. As stated the Navy had an officer mess, chief’s mess E-7 and up, first class are e-6’s (if the ship had room). Flatdecks yes DDG’s no, then the general mess.

So I would say pick a service /location and we could go in more detail.

Bringing in @saffronangel and @Dichotomy6958 as they can share more about the USAF.

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Training was different. At Paris island you got your food and sat. If you got up, you were done. Needless to say the platoon was on week 6 or so before anyone attempted to get a drink refill. I remember the fear in one guy’s eyes as he watched the DI to see if he would say anything.

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My chow hall experience was 40+ years ago, and mostly in Berlin, which at the time was still occupied territory, and funded by Berlin (not the normal military set-up).

Our chow hall was open 24-7 as other than the admin folk, we worked rotating shifts (4 days / 4 swings / 4 mids / 4 days off then start all over again, with four different flights in rotation at all times so a flight was always working. There was no such thing as a light duty crew overnight.

The big chow hall was at Templehoff, where the single personnel were quartered, as well as all the admin offices. There you could order breakfast anytime, and the (mostly Turkish) cooks would make eggs to order, including omlettes with a large variety of filling choices, a rotating variety of breakfast meats and potatoes (cottage fries, hashbrowns, etc.).

Formal breakfast was served from 5 - 7 am (when day shift started)
Lunch was from 11 am to 1 pm.
My memory is fuzzy, but I believe dinner started around 3 pm and lasted through 5 or 6 pm, so that the swing-shift workers could eat before starting their shift at 4 pm, and there was time for the day-shift folk to get off work and back to the chow-hall for dinner.

I don’t have much memory of lunch menus - they were likely sandwiches, burgers, brats, etc. with fries or chips. Salads were also always available.

Dinners were more complex, with typically several hot entrees as well as a choice of soups / salads. I recall plenty of traditional German dishes - sauerbraten, schnitzel, etc., as well as lasagna, roasts, fried chicken, etc. There was always a choice of vegetables and other side dishes, noodles, potatoes. Fridays was seafood and the chow hall at Templehof was the first time I ever ate lobster. There was always shrimp and lobster tails offered on Friday along with the other entree choices. And the breads were made locally. I still dream about the brotchen…

Those of us who worked off-site (Marienfelde or Teufelsberg) had a 20-30 minute bus ride to our duty station so the mid-shift meal “lunch” was typically eaten on-site. At Marienfelde there was a small kitchen/chow hall on site, so we could eat our mid-shift meal there. On day shifts they offered traditional lunch choices: sandwiches, burgers, salads soups, and at least one hot meal entree choice. Swing shifts would provide much the same as lunch, but typically with a second hot entree choice. And on mid-shifts I almost always had breakfast as the mid-shift meal: some of the best omlettes I’ve ever eaten, with wonderful sausages. Yum.

The food wasn’t up to Michelin star ratings, but it was good and plentiful, especially given the kitchens were cooking for large crowds. There were no restrictions about how many times you could go through the line - if you were still hungry, seconds (and thirds) were served until the food ran out, but I was usually full by the time I finished the first plate of food.

Meals were served cafeteria style, and we bussed our own tables at the end of the meal. The tables were 4-tops and sometimes we’d push 2 or 3 together for a larger group. If you wern’t kitchen staff, you never went into the kitchen, but we deposited dirty dishes in bays and took care of the garbage and wiped down our tables. There was no wait staff. Enlisted and officers all ate at the chow hall at no charge - if you were in uniform, no ID required. If dressed in civvies, you might be asked to flash your military ID, but typically not - new faces were quickly recognized.

As stated above, this is probably not the typical chow hall since Berlin provided all of the funding for the US military presence, so I expect our quality and choice of food was greatly expanded thereby.

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Thank you all so much, this is very helpful!

I can’t be as specific as I’d like about the branch of service in the current story, because, well, there isn’t one. The tale is about a diverse crew working on a project of dubious legality, with very loose oversight from a shadowy council of alleged world leaders. (Authorial handwave: in the backstory, the brass of participating nations agreed to quietly leak some money from their war budgets, sign off on a few discreet shipments, and send along some personnel they figure nobody will miss. It’s a motley bunch of misfits saving the world, if they can manage not to kill one another first!)

So, definitely going to be fuzzing up some details, but I still wanna get in the right ballpark if I can. It sounds like the mental picture I had is not too far from reality.

The guy in charge is a US Army officer, and another important character is USMC enlisted, so I’m trying to pay attention to the jargons those two guys would use. Most of the other characters are from different countries, so I’d be happy to hear from people in other forces too.

If you have any questions on particulars just let us know. Good luck on your plot.

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Mess hall menus have become a bit more varied in recent years. One had some of the best pizza I had in a while, was a 10" personal pizza where you can put all types of toppings on it, and it was only $6.50 (at most). There was also smoothies and the typical tray food, like Chicken Parmesan, and it actually looks and tastes decent (of course it’s not something you would eat at a 5 star restaurant, but it’s super cheap and edible). You can tally up an average of $5 for a meal, which is much less than most places for lunch.

I was in USAF basic thirty years ago now. When we went into the chow hall, the flight commander went in last and when she was done, the whole flight was done. We could get eggs made to order and omelettes even in basic. At lunch we had stuff like burgers and other sandwiches plus entrees. I got lucky. My flight commander would go in last and order something to order so that we all had time to eat. Of course, you couldn’t start eating until your table was full. Four people to a table and there was to be no talking. When you finished, you took your tray to the dishwasher area and turned it in to be cleaned. Every flight had their turn at KP and some of us pulled more than once. I do remember that once in basic we actually had steak and shrimp. There’s a reason why the Air Force is known as Uncle Sam’s Country Club.