How Nurses Feed Themselves While Working Shifts

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated November 18, 2022
    Find out how to eat healthy while working long nursing shifts.
    Featured Image
    • Nurses work a variety of shift work hours that adversely influences food choices and can negatively impact health.
    • Data show that support systems and interventions that reduce barriers can improve dietary habits, increase energy levels, and reduce the risk of disease.
    • Nurses recommend foods that aren’t messy, are easy to prepare and pack, and are easy to eat quickly.

    Nutrition is critical to support your health and immune system. A poor diet can significantly contribute to developing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

    In addition to a busy schedule, many nurses work alternating shifts, which places a heavy demand on their sleep and dietary needs. Dive into meal plan tips and tricks our contributors offer for nurses during shift work.

    8 Tips for Nurses to Care for Their Bodies With a Busy Schedule

    Nurses have many options for the length of their work shift. Hospitals may offer 8-hour, 10-hour, or 12-hour shifts. However, it’s not uncommon when staffing runs short for nurses to be asked to work 16 hours in one day.

    This hectic schedule contributes to some unique challenges nurses must overcome in their nutritional choices. Understanding these influences can help hospitals develop programs that target healthy eating practices.

    One study concluded that hospital shift nurses could benefit from supportive systems and interventions that reduce the barriers to a healthy diet for nurses. The proposed support systems should help inform administrative policies, staff education, and workplace wellness programs.

    1. Smart Dietary Choices

    Amber Dixon is a dietitian, geriatric nurse, and CEO of Elderly Assist Inc., which helps the elderly to make healthy lifestyle choices. She believes that nurses should stay informed on how best to make strong dietary choices for themselves while maintaining a busy schedule. For example, she has found eating small meals throughout the day keeps her energy level up and her caloric intake down.

    “It might seem like something small, but it can make a difference in how you feel overall,” she says.

    2. Meal Planning

    Kristen O’Dell, FNP-BC, has over 17 years of experience in neonatology and newborn medicine. She not only helps parents and guardians in the first few months of their children’s lives but also has expertise in supporting pregnant individuals through pregnancy and chestfeeding.

    O’Dell takes an integrative holistic approach to wellness. She believes nurses should find a community of like-minded individuals who are interested in meal planning and preparing for a busy shift.

    “Find out what they are putting in their meal plans. Use that for inspiration. This keeps you from choosing an unhealthy piece of cake at the midnight birthday party for the respiratory therapist,” she says.

    3. Taking Care of Yourself

    Paying close attention to your nutritional intake is one form of nursing self-care. It is crucial that you pay attention to your own health and wellness to support your ability to care for your families and patients.

    Another way that you can care for your body during a busy schedule is to ensure you are getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep. Studies show that adequate amounts of sleep can help speed your metabolism and improve your energy levels.

    Although studies show that walking constitutes a significant portion of inpatient nursing care, one study showed nurses might walk an average of 4-5 miles in a 12-hour shift. Ensuring you have the best shoes for your nursing shift can help avoid any health-related issues from poor supporting shoes.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults engage in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week and strength training at least twice a week.

    One study published in 2022 evaluated data from over 100,000 adults and found those who completed between 300-600 minutes of exercise per week reduced mortality by up to 31%. But a report also from the CDC finds just 23% of adults exercise for the recommended 150 minutes per week.

    4. Eat Small Meals

    Our nurse contributors have many years of experience doing hospital shift work and watching others as well. Dixon talks about several simple ways that nurses can make small changes that impact their health.

    During a busy day, she recommends eating four small meals throughout the day since you’re less likely to overeat. It helps reduce blood sugar spikes or drops that can result in mood swings and fatigue.

    “When I was a nurse, I found that my energy levels were much lower than when I ate more frequently throughout the day,” she says.

    5. Avoid Caffeine

    She also recommends steering clear of too much caffeine. This includes coffee, energy drinks, and soda. Instead, she recommends a glass of water with lemon or herbal tea. If you do drink coffee, adding milk or cream can help prevent excess acidity, stomach upset, and heartburn.

    6. Avoid Sugar

    Foods with sugar can also cause blood sugar spikes that can leave you feeling dizzy, tired, and irritable. This includes not only foods with processed sugars but also those high in carbohydrates, such as bread, fruit, pasta, and baked goods.

    Although fruit is a healthy addition to your nutrition plan, many fruits are also high in natural sugars. So fruit needs to be balanced with other foods that are high in healthy fats, such as nuts, avocado, and seeds. Dixon also warns that sugar can trigger the production of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.”

    “This can leave you feeling anxious and agitated, which is why it’s best to avoid sweets altogether if possible,” she says.

    7. Know What’s Available Depending on Your Shift

    As a neonatal intensive care unit nurse practitioner, O’Dell works 24-hour shifts at two different hospitals. In her experience, the night shift tends to bring healthy snacks they share during their breaks. Because most restaurants are closed late at night, night nurses are unable to order out frequently and usually come prepared with food from home.

    Day-shift nurses have more choices, such as bringing food from home, buying from the hospital cafeteria, or ordering takeout. O’Dell recommends nurses keep a list of foods that can easily be made at home.

    “We need things that aren’t too messy, that we can grab on the go,” she says, “or meals that we can eat at the desk while we chart on the computer. It’s rare that we can take a long period of time to sit and eat. We multitask while eating.”

    8. Keep a List of Easy Recipes

    Dixon also keeps a list of manageable go-to recipes she can easily make at home. Her favorites are a chicken vegetable stir fry, simple pasta with pesto sauce and grilled chicken, or grilled salmon with mashed potatoes. She stresses the need to stay hydrated and to bring water with you when working.

    O’Dell is a former certified health coach from the American Council of Exercise. She enjoys clean eating and recommends for nurses egg cups, overnight oatmeal, yogurt, or a protein shake for breakfast. Her lunchtime choices include low-nitrate turkey and cheese wraps filled with lettuce, tomato, and onion.

    She also enjoys homemade chicken noodle soup that is light on the noodles and heavy on the vegetables, tuna sandwich on whole grain bread or a lettuce wrap, or a taco salad. On some days she takes an extra step. She keeps a steamer at work for raw chicken, pork, or shrimp with vegetables to make a fresh steamed meal.

    The Importance of Prioritizing a Well-Rounded Diet for Nurses

    It is essential that you prioritize your health, including eating a well-rounded and balanced diet. This can help you stay focused at work, raise your energy, and protect your health.

    “Our bodies are incredibly complex, and we need a wide variety of nutrients to function properly. If you’re not getting all the nutrients you need from food, your body will start to break down and become less efficient,” Dixon says. “This can lead to fatigue, mood swings, and other issues that can impact your ability to perform at work.”

    Dixon recommends a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, and healthy dairy choices like yogurt or cottage cheese. This can help support the mental, physical, and emotional challenges you face at work.

    Nurses work long hours and eat at odd times of the day. O’Dell recommends providing your body with healthy food to set yourself up for success. With a busy work and family schedule, you may not always have enough time to provide your body with the resources to recover and heal as well as it should.

    Prioritizing sleep and planning ahead for those days when you are stressed can also help. Foods that are high in vitamin B can help lower stress without raising cortisol.

    Vitamin B-rich foods include beef, chicken, eggs, and fortified cereal. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like avocados, olive oil, wild-caught salmon, and sardines, can help reduce inflammation.

    Foods high in magnesium can also relax your body and mind. These include pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate (in moderation), avocados, and bananas. In contrast, it is crucial to avoid alcohol, caffeine, high-sugar foods, soda, and simple carbohydrates. These can raise your cortisol levels and actually make you feel more stressed.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Amber Dixon, RN

    Amber Dixon, RN

    Amber Dixon is a dietitian, geriatric nurse, and CEO of Elderly Assist Inc., an organization that focuses on providing assistance to the elderly/seniors. Dixon started the company to give back to the great elderly citizens who cared for us when we were young. That’s why she goes above and beyond to provide the best resources for the elderly to live the healthy lifestyle they deserve.

    Portrait of Kristen ODell, FNP-BC

    Kristen ODell, FNP-BC

    Kristen O’Dell, FNP-BC, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with over 17 years experience in neonatology and newborn medicine. She has taken care of over 10,000 infants, attended more than 5,000 deliveries, and has helped an estimated 8,000+ pregnant individuals and babies get through those first crucial days of chestfeeding. While trained at Columbia University and currently working in a hospital, she takes an integrative holistic approach to wellness.