How To Eat Healthy On A Crazy Schedule

Between overnight shifts and constant emergencies, here's how a nurse actually maintains a healthy diet

We hardly have to say it, but we are forever indebted to nurses (as everyone is). These dedicated warriors give up their normal schedules, weekends and full nights of sleep to help save lives, and we are eternally grateful.

Still, with hectic schedules like theirs, we can't help but wonder: What do nurses actually eat? Working overnight shifts with virtually nonexistent dining options can't be easy, and the subsequent exhausted days must not be very conducive to hours spent cooking. To get answers, we reach out to a few of our favorite nurses to learn how they maintain healthy eating habits despite being on brutal schedules.

Julia Harrison has been a nurse for about six years and currently works eight-hour day shifts at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. However, she also spent two years working 12-hour night shifts.

Justine Norton has been a nurse for five years and works a 12-hour schedule, three to four days a week, in the emergency department at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Do you bring your own food with you to work? Do you do any meal planning or prepping?

Julia: "I do bring all of my own food with me to work. When I used to work 12-hour shifts, I had off days, and I would do my grocery shopping and planning on those days. When I was off, I tried to switch back to a normal sleep schedule so I could actually see my fiancé (now husband). Therefore, I would only let myself sleep for about three hours or so, then wake up and force myself to do something. A lot of the time, that 'something' would be walking around New York City (where I lived at the time) like a zombie, shopping or cooking."

Justine: "I bring my food most days. I usually prefer leftovers instead of always buying in the cafeteria, as it can get expensive and the food is just OK. I have meal-prepped a few times in the past, and it works out great! I [could] double a recipe and meal-prep for myself and my husband."

What are a few examples of meals you have during work that keep you full and focused through a long shift?

Julia: "The biggest problem with the night shift is that your body doesn't really know what it wants to eat. In the beginning, almost everyone has stomach issues, because they're not used to eating in the middle of the night. Eventually, I started packing a light meal, which I have had almost every shift since. I cut up half a cucumber, a whole pepper and a handful of carrots or cherry tomatoes, as well as [bring] a small Tupperware container of hummus. Then, I cut an apple in half, cut out the core and fill the core space with peanut butter. If you put the two halves together and wrap it in plastic wrap, the apple stays fresh for over a day.

"I know this doesn't seem like a lot of food, but it's actually a lot of vegetables to fill me up, and the hummus and peanut butter provide me with the protein I need to get through the shift feeling full. Sometimes in the last couple hours of a 12-hour shift, I would feel really tired and hungry (around 6 a.m.), and I would have a bag of almonds stashed in my bag to get me through. I also drank a LOT of water during the shift to keep myself awake."

Justine: "I really like a turkey taco bowl recipe that I've made [in the past,] and I feel like it keeps me from snacking and eating all day. (It is very easy to want to snack all day long in an ER.) I like to bring leftover casserole or basically anything I can reheat in a microwave. Sometimes I don't get a lunch break until 3 or 4 p.m., and it's not a long one, so whatever I can heat up quickly is good for me."

Are your eating habits similar to your colleagues' habits?

Julia: "I would say about half of my colleagues pack their lunch, and it tends to be leftovers from dinner. Some pack salads. A majority buy their lunch in the cafeteria or at food carts nearby. I personally do not want to buy lunch five days a week—that seems like a lot of money!"

Justine: "I find a lot of my coworkers order food. They are always ordering Italian, Chinese, sushi, Peruvian, etc. Some people will say, 'I'm going to be good today and get a salad,' and some people will go to the cafeteria or the café we have at my hospital. I am usually the minority who always bring a lunch box!"

What are your best tips for anyone with a busy schedule (whether they're a nurse or not) who still wants to stay healthy?

Julia: "Find a few different meals that work for you that are easy to make quickly ahead of time. Vegetables, for example, stay crisp cut up for multiple days, especially if you keep them in water. Anyone can steal my PB apple creation, which seriously lasts for days!

"Also, working a crazy schedule can make eating and prepping more of a chore than something to enjoy. I love going to farmers' markets and buying beautiful, fresh produce. It is a definite treat to myself to do so and gets me more excited about my food."

Justine: "I would suggest trying meal prep or at least cooking healthy at home and bringing leftovers. Try packing snack bags with some healthier snacks or anything portable that you can take on the move. And try to resist those office snacks!"