Erin Abraham: Shifting Mood Through Food

Erin Abraham, 31, is a holistic nutritionist and the wellpreneur behind Nourished Root. In this interview, Abraham shares nutritional advice customized for shift workers – from the importance of meal planning to why protein energy bites are a night worker’s secret weapon.

–– As told to Lauren McGill.

You work as a certified nutritional practitioner, culinary nutrition expert, and cooking instructor. Where did all of this interest in food come from?

My passion for food came from family traditions and cooking in the kitchen together. My father was Lebanese, so we had a lot of food traditions. When we would get together in the kitchen and cook, then sit down at the table and share meals together, those were good times.

How did you get into holistic nutrition?

Through my own health challenges. In my early twenties I struggled with mental health, and I realized the way that I was caring for myself could be better. I returned to my roots of growing, and cooking solely with whole foods.

After a few months of incorporating my traditional eating habits, I noticed a positive shift in my mental and physical health and overall wellbeing. I love to learn, so I dove into the research which lead me to the concept of holistic nutrition and the importance of a whole food diet. 

Tell me about your approach to working with clients.

It’s very individual-based. Everybody is different. Everybody has different needs and so it’s about understanding what is going to be balancing for them.

Understanding their lifestyle, understanding their current habits, understanding their goals and what empowers them to want to take charge of their health – that is all part of it. We basically break it right down to what they are currently doing and look at how we can foster positive changes.

When you are working at night, your digestion is not working at its peak – during the night your body is in its rest state.

What are some of the specific challenges you address with shift workers?

My mom actually worked shift work when I was a kid and with her it was all about routine and scheduling. I see shift workers struggling with not having enough time to set themselves up to succeed when working. It’s not just about meal prep, or not making your lunch. It’s taking the time to set yourself up with a schedule for a well-balanced lifestyle and stick to it in order to avoid bad choices, and bad habits.

When you are working at night, your digestion is not working at its peak – during the night your body is in its rest state. To keep it working optimally is hard and often difficult to maintain. A routine and schedule will help your digestion, and help your metabolism run more smoothly.

During the night shift, it is helpful to eat every few hours. Smaller meals can encourage your metabolism to function more effectively.

Can you give us some specific ideas on how to eat for night shift?

It can be helpful to schedule your meals this way: when you come home from your nightshift,  have your breakfast. When you wake up from your sleep, have your lunch. And before going to work, have your biggest meal.

During the night shift, it is helpful to eat every few hours. Smaller meals can encourage your metabolism to function more effectively.

Throughout the night, try snacking with protein – I highly recommend protein energy bites. The protein and fat in energy bites work together to sustain energy and to also fuel your cells. If you snack instead of having a heavy meal when you’re on the night shift, you are more likely to sustain your energy and it’s easier on your digestive system. 

The protein and fat in energy bites work together to sustain energy and to also fuel your cells.

What about caffeine at night?

I suggest that if you need to have coffee, have one coffee but have it four to five hours prior to when your shift ends because coffee can sustain you and give you energy. When you go home, you don’t want to be wired. You want to be able to eat breakfast and have your sleep.

Any foods to avoid at night?

I highly suggest staying away from anything that has sugar additives, like pop or energy drinks. Those foods don’t do anything good for you. If anything, they’ll make you crash and burn. The night shift already impacts your internal clock and you don’t need to consume sugary, processed foods which will make matters worse. 

I would suggest consuming carbs in moderation at night. So if you’re going to have a sweet potato, maybe try half a sweet potato instead. Use your palm to gauge portion size for things like nuts and seeds. Certain carbs can be heavy, so just be mindful of how it makes you feel during the day, because carbs will also make you feel like that at night.

Use your palm to gauge portion size for things like nuts and seeds.

You speak often about how intimidating nutrition, meal planning and cooking can seem. How do you help your clients overcome this?

We look at what they are currently doing, the barriers they are facing, and how it is making them feel. We assess their schedule, their budget and overall wellness goals. We dive into the basics of meal planning, and food preparation. We schedule their meal and snack time for ease.

From there, we look at meals that they can incorporate multiple times during the week that are versatile and nutrient dense. We consider the time it takes to meal prep because if there is a lot of preparation, people typically don’t want to do it. I encourage slow cooker meals and Instant Pot meals and promote leftovers.

We even dive into their grocery shopping process, and consider the shelf life of various whole foods. Breaking the process down, while keeping an open mind is key. Providing my clients with accountability and support throughout the process gives them confidence to move forward and make the best choices for themselves. 

What is one mistake that you see clients making with their food choices? How can it be fixed?

People don’t make time to eat. People schedule their lives around everything else, but you should schedule your life around when you should eat because ultimately that food that you’re going to be sitting down and chewing is going to nourish and fuel your body. A lot of people don’t take that as a priority and everything else that goes with it, like grocery shopping. 

The biggest thing is consistency – find a system that works for you, especially with meal planning.

Any final advice for shift workers?

Staying active is so important. It improves mood, and helps with stress management. Shift workers sometimes say, ‘I don’t have enough time to be active.’ But if you schedule it and do your movement prior to going into work, you’ll increase your energy and keep it stable throughout the night because you’ve done your cardio prior to going into your night shift. 

The biggest thing is consistency – find a system that works for you, especially with meal planning. And for your days off, don’t overextend yourself with tons of things to do. Don’t burn yourself out, stay consistent with your ritual so that it allows for success.

Lastly, stay hydrated, nourish your cells and if you have to schedule time to drink water, that is okay. Set a timer and drink on!

Thank you, Erin, for sharing your wise and loving approach to nutrition, cooking and all things food-related. Check out more of Erin’s approach to health on her FB page @Nourished Root

Photos: Mitch Jackson

Meal Kits + Shift Work

This post is *NOT* sponsored. Night Shift Wellness loves to share brands that make shift work easier and we think this is one of them! Scroll to the bottom for an exclusive deal available to Night Shift Wellness readers.

My co-workers introduced me to meal kit subscriptions. They swear by them as a sanity saver. Below are three examples of my colleagues – all shift workers – who really, really ♥️ meal kits.

  • One doctor I work with has three kids; his wife is also a doctor. Their family orders a family-sized meal kit each week. He says this makes an enormous difference to their life and lets them cook with their kids.
  • Another doctor resorted to meal kits after the staff razzed him for ordering every single meal as takeout. Every. Single. Meal.
  • A phlebotomist I work with says she never had time to plan healthy meals, do the groceries, and then all the prep for her husband, toddler, and pregnant self. She jokes that the only reason she eats vegetables is her meal kit subscription.

There are several meal kit options available in my area. I was wavering over which one to try, so I turned to my friend Emma who had tried every single option. For her, the clear winner was GoodFood, a brand I knew several of my coworkers were using. It wasn’t the cheapest, but Emma loved the variety and quality of the meals. The website is easy to use. The meals are delicious. The delivery options are great.

How does it work? You buy a subscription online, select your preferences, and they deliver meal kits to your door on a designated day. You choose how many meals you want per week and can select from 5 categories:

  • Classic Meals
  • Easy Prep Meals
  • Clean 15 (Low Carb)
  • Vegetarian Meals
  • Family-Style Meals

For my first week, I opted for three meals of two servings each from the Clean 15 category.

Everything you need to make the meals is delivered in a cooler box. The ingredients are divided to make it a no-brainer. Each kit contains all the ingredients you need, along with a set of simple, step-by-step instructions with photos.

My Meal Kit Choices

There are tons of options available each week. I opted for:

  • Grilled Maple-Mustard Chicken Breasts
  • Summer Beef Meatballs with Sweet Potato ‘Spaghetti’
  • Grilled Tofu Buddha Bowl

Meal #1: Grilled Maple-Mustard Chicken Breasts

How did GoodFood know that it was mid-July and I didn’t want to turn on my stove and instead wanted to hang out and BBQ on my porch in my flip-flops?! Oh, right, they have a whole team thinking these things through. Maybe I’m an easy sell, but I was already impressed that they just knew that crunchy, saucy salad with grilled chicken was exactly what this girl needed.

The instructions were incredibly easy and it took no time at all to whip this up. It felt a lot fancier than what I normally pull together for myself and it was SO tasty. Honestly, those nice folks must put a lot more thought into meals than I do – there was contrasting colours, textures, and flavours. There was crunchincness, sweetness, tanginess… there was even garnish! Five stars, highly recommend, would make again.

Meal #2: Summer Beef Meatballs with Sweet Potato ‘Spaghetti’

Another winner. This was so simple and SO good. Spiralized sweet potato ‘noodles’, flavour-packed meatballs, and a sassy sauce of cherry tomatoes.

I made this one between Night One and Night Two of hospital shifts. For me to cook at 5 pm before heading into my second shift, it has to be realllly easy. And this delivered. I had my first meal of it for supper and brought in the rest for a delicious 3 a.m. meal.

Again, I was impressed by how this meal had been summer-ized and was seasonal perfection! Fresh basil, fresh tomatoes, fresh parm. Fresh-ilicious!

Meal #3: Grilled Tofu Buddha Bowl

^^^^ The picture doesn’t do it justice because I made this at 10 p.m. at night and so there was no daylight to capture its beauty.

Guys, this is where things got interesting. I could pretend that I’m really open-minded and progressive about loving all foods but I’m not. Tofu just isn’t my jam. I didn’t finalize my choices online – which is supppper easy to do – so I ended up getting a Grilled Tofu Buddha Bowl meal kit shipped. This was totally avoidable and easy peasy to fix, but I flaked out partway through meal selection and forgot to choose all three meals. My bad.

I was off to a very strong start with the other meals, so I decided to dive in with a positive attitude. I didn’t end up loving all of this meal, because even with the fun spice blend provided for the grilled tofu, I couldn’t get on board with a block of curdled soybean. But, everything else about this meal was completely delicious. Matchstick beets, shredded daikon, marinated kale, and garlicky snap peas – I’d totally make it again, just with no tofu. There are so many other delicious options – no need to pick the tofu one!

The Bottom Line

I ordered my box for a week when I had a string of night shifts and I am 100% sure I ate a LOT better that week because a big ol’ box of great ingredients with instructions was dropped at my door. It made it a no-brainer to cook healthy meals.

I was impressed with GoodFood meal kits. I think they are a game changer for shift workers.

There is still some cooking and assembly required – and then the dishes, of course. But I found myself spending zero time meal planning and zero time grocery shopping. I spent between 20 and 30 minutes preparing each meal, and the results exceeded my expectations. I felt like a fancy pants chef and I had generous leftovers to bring with me on my shifts. So much winning.

As a con, I am somewhat concerned about the amount of packaging involved in these kits, but here’s the Good Food website recommends dropping the cardboard box, insulation liner, bags, bottles and baskets in your recycling bin. Also, the solution in the ice packs is a water and salt gel, so you can pop them in your freezer, or snip off the ends and pour the all-natural solution in the toilet.

This concern is counteracted with another pro: I definitely had less food waste using their meal kits. I tend to overbuy ingredients, but GoodFood sent exactly what I needed to prepare each tasty dish.

The bottom line? I highly, highly recommend night shift workers try meal kits. If you live in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Maritimes, then I recommend starting with Good Food. I think you’ll love it!

Are you ready to try GoodFood for yourself? Get $40 off your first basket – no strings attached – using this link. <<< (full disclosure: affiliate link) You can choose what kind of meals you want, how many meals you want to receive and the number of portions. Just go for it!

How to Pack Healthy Food for Shift Work

The difference between a good shift and a great shift is food. Food, glorious food! I don’t know how your night shifts roll out, but I find that for me some nights I am barely hungry and other nights I’m a ravenous wolf. Some nights I could snack all night; other nights I can barely find time to pee, never mind sit down for a meal. The one thing that is consistent across all my night shifts is that I regularly crave junk food. The later the night gets, the more I risk turning into a vending machine junkie. (The chips! The chocolate! The sodas! Give me one of everything!)

When I was preparing to go back on night shifts after a long spell of working days, I asked a paramedic friend for advice on he handles long shifts at all hours of the day. His instant advice? Pack great food– and lots of it. Here’s some ideas on how to do that.

Pack it up

Make it easy and convenient to bring healthy snacks to work with you 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 a salad, veggie sticks, yogurt with granola, etc.

Know your goals

more protein = increased alertness

Incorporate high-protein foods like hard-boiled eggs, cooked quinoa, and nut butter into your meals and snacks. Other great sources of protein include tuna, nuts, & trail mix. Consuming adequate protein will increase alertness and focus.

fewer carbs = more energy

Foods high in carbohydrates- like bread, potatoes, and cereal- can have a sedating effect, especially if eaten all by themselves. Avoid loading up on carbs during your shift to ward off extra sleepiness.

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.

limited portions = less sluggishness

Try to eat small, frequent meals as opposed to large heavy ones. Heavy meals often have more calories than most people need in one sitting. Eating a large portion can also make you feel sluggish or tired while on the job. Don’t use your night shift as a reason to eat massive meals in the middle of the night.

Plan to snack

Instead of worrying about cooking and packing full meals, focus on packing lots of healthy, nutrition-dense snacks. Then mix and match your meals according to how you’re feeling and whether you’re in an eating-on-the-run situation.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Carrot, celery and red pepper sticks with hummus
  • Flax and sesame seed crackers with olive tapenade
  • Bowl of plain yogurt with chopped nuts and berries
  • Almond and fruit muffins
  • Quinoa salad with vinaigrette
  • Tabouleh salad
  • Boiled eggs, already peeled
  • Energy bites or good granola bars
  • Fruit salad
  • Almond butter fudge
  • Beet or kale chips
  • Apple slices and peanut butter

Hydrate often

Your body can signal hunger and thirst in the same way. So if you’re feeling hungry, there’s a chance that you’re actually just quite thirsty. Staying hydrated is a simple way to keep you feeling both awake and full. Bring a water bottle to work and fill it often. You’ll save money on bottled drinks and keep more plastic out of the landfill. If you need some variety, infuse your water with fruit, cinnamon sticks or citrus slices for an added flavour boost without the calories.

Treat yo-self

You don’t want to feel deprived so pack one or two small treats to enjoy during your shift. That way, 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) Having healthy snacks at your fingertips is key to clean eating while working nights.

How do you keep up with healthy eating on night shift? What do you pack up for your night shift lunch bag?

Night Shift Wellness How to Pack Healthy Food for Shift Work

How to Eat Clean while Working the Night Shift

Is it just my workplace, or is it standard practice to have delicious, deep-fried, sugar-laden options ushered in during the middle of the night shift? When my stomach is growling? And my resistance is lowest?

There are also generous coworkers who do middle-of-the-night coffee runs and deliver my sugary, syrupy macchiato. Not to mention the home-baked goodies that grateful patients have dropped off. And the siren call of the vending machines. Every. Single. Shift.

If your meal breaks are either hard-to-find or often interrupted, then healthy grazing is the best way to stay fuelled.

If you don’t have healthy snacks prepared, it’s too easy to start snacking on muffins, doughnuts or the pizza your coworker is sharing. Those kind of night shift diet choices start to take at toll after a few weeks, months, or years of shift work. Here’s some ideas that just might keep you out of the 3 a.m. doughnuts.

1. Plan 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 get prepared with some go-to healthy foods.

  • Wash fruit
  • Chop veggies
  • Whip up some smoothies (store them in the freezer)
  • Make hard-boiled eggs
  • Cook grains (quinoa, brown rice, etc.)

2. Pack snacks

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 a overtired, very hungry toddlers. Beat the temper tantrum by filling several small resealable containers with appealing, healthy snacks.

  • Carrot, celery and red pepper sticks with hummus
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Plain yogurt with crunchy granola and raspberries
  • Oatmeal muffins with fruit & nuts
  • Quinoa salad with chopped fresh veggies and vinaigrette
  • Healthy granola bars
  • Peanut butter energy balls

3. Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is a simple way to keep you feeling awake and ward off hunger pains.

  • Get a couple of good refillable water bottles and fill them up – add some lemon wedges and mint leaves for a zesty refresh
  • 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 sugary hot drink to stay awake. (And if you’re like me, I get really cold in the middle of the 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 nutrition that will fill you up without causing a sugar crash.

4. Treat yo-self

You don’t want to feel deprived or like you’re missing out on the fun. 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 donuts.

  • A small bar of dark chocolate
  • Healthy cookies (yes, they exist!)
  • Chocolate-covered raisins or almonds
  • Vanilla or rice pudding

5. Use freezer bag slow cooker meals

Prepare some freezer bag slow cooker meals on your days off. Put them into the slow cooker when you get home in the morning after your shift. Go to bed, and supper will be ready for you when you wake up. Pack up some leftovers to bring to work for a midnight dinner.

Need some recipes to get started with this idea? Grab a copy of my Slow Cooker Freezer Bag: Complete Guide + Recipes for all the tips, tricks, and recipes you need.

Night Shift Diet Healthy Eating

Slow Cooker Spicy Saffron Chicken with Apricots

Warm and Spicy Saffron Chicken with Apricots

If you’re looking for a delicious recipe to throw in your slow cooker or Instant Pot to cook itself while you’re sleeping during the daytime, look no further! This fragrant Indian dish has a vibrant and complex flavour, with just enough heat to keep it interesting. Don’t be afraid of the ingredient list… most of the things listed are herbs and spices!

Add in apricots, honey, onions and garlic and things get pretty exciting. And that’s before you top it off with a sprinkling of freshly minced parsley and the crunch of toasted slivered almonds!

This recipes comes from my Freezer Bag Slow Cooker Complete Guide + Recipes e-book. The whole idea behind these meals is that you can prep a whole bunch of them on your day off, and then throw them in your slow cooker (or hello! Instant Pot!) when you get home from a long shift. Then they cook themselves while you snooze and when you wake up… presto! Dinner! You can check out the book here – it has tons of step-by-step photos, slow cooking advice, and 12 make ahead clean eating recipes.

Warm and Spicy Saffron Chicken with Apricots

If you prefer to skip the make-ahead freezer bag step and just put this dish together in the slow cooker the same day you plan to eat it- that works great too! Either way, you can count on a hearty, tasty dish that will keep you fuelled all night long.

I can hardly wait to make it again for myself. I loooove the tantalizing smell as it cooks in the slow cooker.

Warm and Spicy Saffron Chicken with Apricots

Warm and Spicy Saffron Chicken with Apricots

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

2 medium yellow onions, sliced
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, cut in half
2 tbsp honey
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 can tomato paste (156 mL or 5.5 fl oz)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp paprika
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp saffron threads
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, halved or 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1-28 oz can diced tomatoes

1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Instructions

To make the freezer bag meal, combine onions, apricots, honey, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, paprika, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt, pepper, saffron and chicken pieces in an extra-large freezer bag. Double bag if desired. Lay flat and freeze.

Thaw the night before you plan to cook.

Empty freezer bag contents into slow cooker and add diced tomatoes. Stir. Cook on low for 4 to 5 hours.

Discard bay leaves and cinnamon stick before serving.

Garnish with parsley and sliced almonds. Bon appétit!

NOTES: If you are opting to skip the freezer bag meal and enjoy this the same day you assemble it, then just go ahead and add all the ingredients (except the garnishes of parsley and slivered almonds) to your slow cooker. Cook as directed above.