4 Tricks to Eating Well on Night Shift

Dec 27, 2018

A lot of things aren’t ideal about working the night shift, but you knew that already.

Noting being able sleep is obviously the big one.

But then there’s also the wacky nausea-hunger hybrid you get when you’re suuuuuper tired. There’s the fact that nothing but candy can sound good at 2 am, and you brought tuna salad for “lunch”.

There’s the crazy hunger the following day.

And the heartburn from too much coffee.

If you work some day shifts too, there’s a weird long day and a weird short day on either side of your night shift as you transition into and out of vampire schedule.

There certainly are a handful of challenges, but don’t make the mistake of confusing difficulty for impossibility. It’s not impossible to eat nutritiously or practice healthy habits with night shift work, you just need a system.

Trick 1: Don’t Think About “Eating 3-4 Meals a Day”; Think About Eating Every 4-6 Hours You are Awake.

This switch will help you manage the days you have during which you’re awake a lot longer than usual, as well as the short days where you might only need to eat twice. If you work a 24-hour call shift at a hospital (medical residents, I salute you), then take 4 substantial meals, at least. You might feel like you’re over-packing when you schlep a suitcase-sized cooler bag into the office, but not bringing enough food is the number one culprit in night shift nutrition problems. And the food available at night is often limited to vending machines, so consider bringing lots of healthy food as an investment in candy-prevention.

If you’re working for 24 hours, I suggest planning to eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and a meal in the middle of the night. If you eat breakfast at home before leaving for work, that means packing up THREE meals to bring with you and having breakfast the following day at home before collapsing into bed.

If your shift is a more normal 8-12 hour stretch, you’ll probably be bringing one or two meals with you to work.

Trick 2: Make Sure to Include a Protein, Fruit or Vegetable, and Some Fat.

This tenet is unchanged, whether you are eating at night or eating during the day. If you want to lose weight, then maximizing your appetite satisfaction at every opportunity just makes sense, and it takes all the major macronutrients to accomplish this. Even if weight management is not on your mind, steady energy and blood sugar is reason enough to balance your meals out. Here are some examples:

  • Eggs, whole wheat toast with butter, and a grapefruit.
  • Spinach and feta omelet, English muffin, strawberries
  • Ham and Swiss sandwich, side of raw carrots, bell peppers, and radishes with dip
  • Turkey, spinach and avocado wrap with a bag of grapes
  • Lentil soup, side salad, and a protein bar Chicken and veggie stir fry with brown rice
  • Pasta with zucchini and meat sauce, an apple

Trick 3: A Sweet Flavor Profile Goes Down Easier at Night. Plan Accordingly.

I can only imagine how many tupperwares of leftover lasagna, tacos or soup have languished in lunch bags while their owner noshed on Snickers bars and cookies in the wee hours of the morning. Sweet stuff is often more palatable than savory meals, as demonstrated by many children who were “full” of green beans but had room for ice cream. But at night, this differential widens to the point that it’s not even a fair contest. It’s an uphill battle for many night shift workers to eat “normal” meals when they are very tired, and sweet carby things are calling. You can still make your meals balanced, even if they are on the sweeter side. Fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal are helpful here. It is absolutely fine to take a pass on veggies at this one, in the name of actually enjoying your food (and not resorting to the vending machine).

Here are some more examples of portable meals which are easy to eat even on an overnight:

  • Cut up pears or peaches (or other fruit), some almonds or cashews, and cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt, granola, flaxseed and banana (or other fruit)
  • Oatmeal with milk, protein powder, a cut up apple, and cinnamon mixed in
  • Made ahead Kodiak Cakes power cakes (high protein pancake mix) with cut fruit and nut butter
  • A large whole wheat tortilla spread with peanut butter and sliced banana, plus an individual Greek yogurt

Trick 4: Keep Comforting Things on Hand

Nights are hard. A furry blanket, a hot cup of tea or sugar-free hot cocoa, your favorite playlist of tunes, or a book can all make things feel a little better when they are at their hardest. Leaving tea bags and hot drink mix at your desk or locker is an easy start. Maybe some fleecy socks would be nice too? Be creative and think proactively about how you can comfort and nurture yourself; it will pay off greatly in helping you avoid comfort eating when you aren’t actually hungry.

We hope that having these tricks in hand helps you feel more confident about eating well, no matter what hours you happen to be working. Remember to share it with any of your friends who might benefit from these tips!

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