Working 12 hour shifts can really it difficult to stay on track with health and wellness, but healthy eating for nurses is a critical component of overall wellness.

A reader asked what I do to focus on healthy eating while working long shifts:

I’m about to start my grad year and was just wondering- what do you usually take for meals? I know what I took for nursing school placements, but I often came home starving or too tired to feel hungry! Do you have any advice about eating properly while working shift? Thanks! PS (I love the blog!) xx – A question by ssonicbooom from Tumblr Good question – it’s so easy to eat like crap when you’re a nurse. If you don’t plan, you eat whatever is quickest and easiest (crap).

Healthy Eating For Nurses

Healthy Eating Tips for Nurses

We all took the nutrition for nurses course, but let’s be honest, there wasn’t a lot of practical advice on how to actually manage to eat healthy yourself.

Here are my top 3 tips to promote a healthy diet and ensure optimal nutritional intake while working as a nurse:

  1.  Brown Bag It: I always make my lunch and bring it. Otherwise, I end up getting something not great for me. Plus, when I spend money to eat out, I want it to be when I can actually enjoy the food and not eat it cold during a 4-minute lunch break at 1600. I’ve learned not to waste eating out by ordering food at work.
  2. Plan Ahead: Make it the night before or all your meals the day before you start your work stretch. Meal planning is a game changer in healthy eating.. You’ll always be too tired before work. Meal planning and meal prep may feel like a dirty word, but when you can get out the door 15 minutes faster every morning, that 20 minutes of preparation really doesn’t seem so bad. 
  3. Healthy Snacks: I bring a small morning snack, lunch, and a small afternoon snack – and I make sure to eat them!

These tips work for the night shift and day shift!

Meal Prep Nurse Hack

I also try to plan meals with my husband so I don’t eat badly when I get home. If he gets home after, we usually have a meal prepped that just needs to be baked. Then I just enjoy my post-work glass of red wine while it’s baking!

Healthy Food = Healthy Nurse

You are what you eat isn’t just a trendy catchphrase. Garbage in truly is garbage out. The good news is that healthy eating habits never go out of style and are the ultimate form of self care. 

If you want to perform at your best and ensure your nursing judgment is firing on all cylinders, you have to nourish your body with nutritious and filling whole foods. Proper nutritional intake is the basis of a healthy lifestyle, and you can’t ignore that just because you are at work. This goes for night shift nurses too. It doesn’t matter if it’s light or dark outside,  healthy food for night shift is just as important as day shift.

Also – it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, you can literally eat whatever you want when you want. Eggs and bacon do not have to be just for breakfast. Eat them at 3am, girl. You do you,

Snacking in the Workplace Environment

One key component I’ve found to help me stay on track with my well being and to ensure I maintain a healthy weight, is to eat nutrient-packed snacks and not just depend on one large meal. If I only eat once, I find I go home starving and will destroy the pantry and disrupt any healthy behaviors I’m working on. 

Morning Snack for Healthcare Professionals

For my morning snack I usually like to have one of my homemade granola bars (or any granola bar, really!), a piece of fruit, or some cheese + Triscuits. I will usually take several food options so I can have a choice for what to eat and I also have extra in case I feel extra hungry during a particular hard twelve hour shift or if a nurse friend is having a hangry moment.

Avoiding the vending machine is key here. It’s improbably that they will have a lot of healthy choices and you’ll pay a larger mark up for the convenience. 

Afternoon Snack (or 2 am Snack for Overnight Shifts)

I like to have a bit of natural peanut butter and natural milk chocolate chips. All I need is just a few spoonfuls and I’m full and my sweet tooth is satisfied. In case you’re wondering, 2 tablespoons of sugar-free peanut butter is only 200 calories, and tossing in a few chocolate chips is only a few more. Stick with the natural stuff. You want your food sources to be as whole as possible, as your body does actually struggles with satiety when you eat processed foods versus whole and nutrient-rich foods.

This one is a great hack to keep you feeling full when you don’t have a lot of time. It’s hard enough to get one full meal break, so this one is great if you don’t have time to devote to a complicated snack.

What I Eat During Meal Breaks (Lunch or Midnight Meal)

I love a good sandwich. And a good sandwich doesn’t have to be fancy.

I typically do a Boar’s Head turkey and white cheddar sandwich (I bring all the parts of the sandwich separately and assemble it during lunch so it’s fresh + yummy), full-fat greek yogurt + fresh fruit + raw honey, and some kind of veggie (usually a cut-up bell pepper), and some tortilla chips. 

Up Your Water Intake

Drinking water is critical for health promotion. If you do not have adequate hydration, every other health habit you try to pursue will be negatively impacted. 

I usually bring a water bottle and drink 1-2 of them. Chances are you are not drinking nearly as much as you should, but you should find the time to drink the water and the time to take actual bathroom breaks. You deserve it and your body needs it.

Adequate hydration is one of the best ways to prevent weight gain and emotional eating. I could go into a lot of details of all of the benefits of drinking water, but it’s probably the easiest of the healthy behaviors to adopt and your skin, hair, nails, and gut will thank you for it.

I try not to use styrofoam and I especially try not to drink hot coffee out of it (there are lots of articles on how bad it is for you; here’s one ).

What to Pack Your Meals In

Sometimes I’ll bring dinner leftovers, but I always make sure I bring it in glass so that I’m not heating my food on plastic in the microwave. Studies have actually shown that heating your food in plastic can leach out chemicals.

Nutrition Tips for Nurses: Summarized

  • Plan ahead
  • Eat whole foods
  • Drink water

Try your best to break up your food/eating. Have a small snack a few hours in. Then eat your lunch a little less than halfway through. Finally, have another snack 2 hours before your shift is done.

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Healthy eating for nurses isn’t impossible. It just takes planning.

Picture of Kati Kleber, founder of FRESHRN

Hi, I’m Kati.

Kati Kleber, MSN RN is a nurse educator, author, national speaker, host of the FreshRN® Podcast, and owner of FreshRN® – an online platform created to educate, encourage, and motivate newly licensed nurses in innovative ways.

Connect with her on YouTube, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and sign-up for her free email newsletter for new nurses.

5 Comments

  1. brit

    thank you!! I think, especially on nights, we make the mistake of trying to eat too little, and then end up bingeing later. Did you used to have a post on nurseeyeroll about Living the Noc Life? I have been searching everywhere for it 🙂

    Reply
    • Kati Kleber

      There used to be a post for that, but I made it part of my book and therefore took it down (go to freshrn.com/books to check it out – Anatomy of a Super Nurse). I do have a podcast episode about night shift though: https://www.freshrn.com/2017/06/01/2084/ – hope this helps!

      Reply
      • Brit

        Oh perfect! I haven’t read the book for a while, I’ll re download it! Thank you 🙂

        Reply
  2. Brit

    Sorry to drop this here, I’m on my way into work. I bought Anatomy of a Super Nurse, and Love the updated shift work sections. thank you for adding the Work life balance, especially the foreboding joy. Why do we do that?! Thank you for the tips. There are plenty of shifts that leave me feeling like I want to be home instead of at work, spending our short time with loved ones instead of ungrateful patients. especially after something horrific. (One of our co-workers died in a freak accident and I’ve been thinking about this at 0200 on nights off, ugh.) Thank you for the relaxation tips and how to think ourselves out of it. Planing to read the rest later, I just skimmed this section quick :). I’ve been an RN for 10 years but still find these books so helpful 🙂

    Reply
    • Kati Kleber, MSN RN CCRN-K

      Brit – so so glad you found it so helpful! I am actually working on an online course for new nurses and just finished the curriculum – the self care section is by far the largest! It’s such a big area that we need support in, none of it comes naturally, and is only learned after years in the field of trial, error, and suffering by doing it wrong or without support/guidance. Hoping I can help newbies be ahead of that learning curve!

      Reply

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