The difference between a good shift and a great shift is food. Food, glorious food! But the thing about food on the night shift is that if you don’t bring it, you’re not eating it. With most restaurants closed and limited delivery options, the sad excuse of a vending machine in the lobby may be your only option. Night shift brings its own share of challenges—finding good food doesn’t need to be one of them.
Prep meal basics ahead
Prep work will pay off big time. So before you disappear into the relentless grind of back-to-back night shifts, take a few minutes to prepare some go-to nutritious, filling foods. Meal prep, batch cooking, and meal kits can all be super helpful in pulling together quick, delicious meals to bring with you. If you’re dipping your toe into meal prep for the first time, here are a few simple things to try:
- Wash fruit
- Chop veggies
- Whip up some smoothies (store them in the freezer)
- Make hard-boiled eggs
- Cook grains (quinoa, brown rice, etc.)
- Bulk cook protein like chicken breast or ground turkey
Having basic meal elements ready means that it’s easy to pull together balanced meals. Rather than worrying about cooking and packing full meals, a mix-and-match approach means you can decide what to eat depending on how you’re feeling during your break and whether you’re in an eating-on-the-run situation.
Make it easy and convenient to bring food to work by having all the right equipment. Invest in a thermal lunch bag and some glass leftover containers with snap-on lids. Get some reusable snack bags and a thermos too. Mason jars with wide mouths are great for packing salads, veggie sticks, yogourt with granola, etc.
Make it easy and convenient to bring food to work by having all the right equipment.
Plan to snack
I don’t know how your night shifts roll out, but I found that some nights I was barely hungry and other nights I was a ravenous wolf. Some nights I could snack all night, and other nights I could barely find time to pee, never mind sit down for a meal. The one thing that was consistent across all my night shifts is that I regularly craved foods that are sweet, salty, and fast. The later the night got, the more I risked turning to the vending machine for support. (The chips! The chocolate! The sodas! Give me one of everything!)
Without snacks you’ve prepared ahead of time, it’s easy to start snacking on muffins, doughnuts, or the pizza your coworker is sharing, regardless of whether that’s something you would normally want to eat. These foods are great in moderation, but relying on them night after night can start to take a toll after weeks, months, or years of shift work.
Here are some ideas that just might keep you out of the 3 a.m. doughnuts:
- Carrot, celery, and red pepper sticks with hummus
- Flax and sesame seed crackers with olive tapenade
- Plain yogourt with crunchy granola and raspberries
- Almond and fruit muffins
- Quinoa salad with chopped fresh veggies and vinaigrette
- Tabouleh or lentil salad
- Oatmeal muffins with fruit and nuts
- Boiled eggs, already peeled
- Energy bites or good granola bars
- Fruit salad
- Beet or kale chips
- Good-quality granola bars
- Peanut butter energy balls
If your meal breaks are either hard to find or often interrupted, then regularly grazing on small snacks is the best way to stay fuelled.
Know your goals
more protein = increased alertness
Incorporate high-protein foods like hard-boiled eggs, tuna or chicken salad, roasted chickpeas, Greek yogourt, cottage cheese, or a shake with protein powder into your meals and snacks. Consuming adequate protein will increase alertness and focus, and it can help you feel fuller, longer.
balanced carbs = more energy
Foods high in carbohydrates—like bread, potatoes, and cereals—are the main energy source for most people. But having a carb-only meal can make you sleepy. Eat carbs in balance with protein, fat, and fibre during your shift to ward off extra sleepiness and maximize your energy.
no sugary drinks = no crash
A strong sugar rush may give you a temporary boost, but it is usually followed by a crash. Some research even shows that the body’s ability to process sugar declines at night. Instead, try herbal tea; water infused with lemon, mint, or cucumber; or fruit juice diluted with water.
limited portions = less sluggishness
Try to eat small, frequent meals instead of one large meal. Eating a single large portion can make you feel sluggish or tired while on the job. Instead, if it’s possible, try eating several smaller portions throughout the night.
Have you ever left the night shift with dry lips and no memory of having peed all night? It’s easy to get swept away by the tide of a stressful shift and forget to drink. Staying hydrated is a simple way to keep you feeling both awake and energized, and to ward off hunger pangs.
- Bring a water bottle to work and fill it often. You’ll save money on bottled drinks and keep more plastic out of landfills. If you need some variety, infuse your water with fruit, tea leaves, cinnamon sticks, or citrus slices for an added flavour boost.
- Invest in some high-quality tasty teas to stash at work or in your bag—make a hot tea when you’re tempted to sip a warm, sugary drink to stay awake. (And if you’re like me, I get really cold late at night and need something hot to warm me up.)
- Make a quick berry smoothie or green smoothie and stash it in the fridge until you’re ready for it. It’s portable hydration and nutrition that will fill you up without causing a sugar crash.
Was it just my workplace, or is it standard practice to have delicious, deep-fried, sugar-laden options ushered in during the night shift? When my stomach was growling? And my resistance was lowest? There were also generous coworkers who were happy to do middle-of-the-night coffee runs and deliver my sugary, syrupy macchiato. Not to mention the home-baked goodies that grateful patients dropped off. And the siren call of the vending machines. Every. Single. Shift.
Many people find that when they restrict or deprive themselves of food, they are more likely to have strong cravings for the things they are “not supposed” to have. Having delicious and nutritious snacks at your fingertips is key to eating and feeling well while working nights. By packing one or two small treats to enjoy during your shift, you’ll have already set limits before you dive head-first into the fresh box of doughnuts. (Hey, we’ve all done it—especially when it gets stressful).
- A small bar of dark chocolate
- Almond butter fudge
- Homemade cookies
- Chocolate-covered raisins or almonds
- Vanilla or rice pudding
Prepare for your shift the same way you would prepare a little kid’s lunch. Because by 2 a.m., we all start to feel like overtired, very hungry toddlers. Beat the temper tantrum by filling your lunch bag with delicious, appealing proteins, carbs, veggies, drinks, and a treat or two. Bon appétit!