3 nutrition tips for shift workers

By Karen LaVine, health coach at StayWell

While many of us are crawling into bed at the end of the day, just as many doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and other late-shift workers are clocking in at work. About 15% of Americans who work full time do so outside of a typical 9-to-5 schedule.

Working at night or irregular shifts can be a challenge when it keeps you from getting the regular sleep that you need. Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your body clock, impacting eating habits, exercise, and mood. Shift work changes sleep-wake rhythm, and meal times, which can lead to physiologic stress and potential health problems such as an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The good news is, you can use these three shift work meal ideas that can help you make it through a long shift, while fighting shift work’s negative fallout.

Stock your fridge full of healthy foods

When you’re tired, you’re more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Make sure you store easy-to-eat fresh fruits (e.g., apple slices, bananas) and raw vegetables (e.g., cut carrots, broccoli) in your refrigerator or cooler at work.

Try this easy and tasty idea—pack a salad in a mason jar. Start by pouring your favorite low-calorie dressing into the jar, and then layer ingredients like leafy greens, crisp veggies, and beans, and end by adding more delicate ingredients, like boiled eggs and cheese, on top. Make several jar salads ahead of time, and each day, grab one to go with you for your work meal.

Whole-food, plant-based meals like salads are high in nutrient density and low in caloric density, making them a great choice for improving metabolism and lowering health risks associated with shift work. Want more ideas for good foods to eat on a night shift? Try hummus (with fresh veggies), nuts and seeds, tahini (mixed with lemon or lime juice), or even peanut butter (with no added sugar).

When planning your meals, keep in mind that smaller meals as opposed to large, heavy ones can keep you from feeling tired and sluggish.

Make friends with your crockpot

Cooking after a 12-hour shift may sound exhausting. Put a crockpot to work instead.

Add some chicken and veggies (or any ingredients from your favorite slow cooker recipes) to your crockpot before you leave for work, set the cooking time, and come home to a healthy meal conveniently waiting for you. You could even do a little food prep on the weekends or night before, browning meats or chopping veggies. Get into the habit of making extra so you have plenty of homecooked leftovers to take to work or freeze for later.

You’ll find lots of great slow cooker recipes online—for stews, soups, pot roast, pasta, and sauces, for example—that can cook for 10 or more hours. Plus, they’ll still do fine when your crockpot flips over to the warm setting.

Stay hydrated, not caffeinated

Your body works best when it’s hydrated. Women should aim to drink 4 to 7 cups of water a day, and men should try for 6 to 11 cups.

Mild levels of dehydration can affect thinking and mood. Bring a reusable water bottle to work with you, and fill it often, drinking from it throughout your shift to stay hydrated. Avoid dehydrating drinks like sugary sodas. If a little flavor is what you’re looking for, try adding a slice of lemon or lime to your water.

When you’re feeling hungry and about to reach for an unhealthy snack, go for a glass of water instead. Remember, your body uses the same signals to tell you it’s hungry or thirsty. And when it comes to caffeine, limit your intake for the last several hours of your shift—so you can start winding down for relaxing at home.

Help employees make the shift to nutritious eating for improved performance. See how the My StayWell Platform can help them understand more about good nutrition, exercise, and healthy behaviors.