Busy days and long shifts in the emergency department (ED) not only present challenges from a clinical perspective but also from a personal standpoint for some clinicians. Finding time for a quick, healthy meal during each shift is difficult and can be potentially detrimental.

When mealtime or prep-time is limited, opting for pizza delivery or a meal in the hospital cafeteria is not uncommon. In these situations, an individual often orders the first item he or she finds appetizing without contemplating the nutritional value. During the night shift, mealtime is even more difficult because the body’s normal routine is altered. Additionally, dining options are frequently non-existent or extremely limited, leading clinicians to make a meal out of vending machine snacks or whatever is easily accessible.

Individuals who work four, 12-hour shifts a week consume a majority of meals at work. Eating habits and food choices can contribute significantly to a clinician’s performance and overall nutritional health. The body uses food as fuel, so what an individual consumes can affect his or her mood, energy, reaction times and more.

There are a number of ways to build healthy eating habits during each shift, even in the hospital cafeteria. Use the following four tips to make healthy mealtime decisions easier while working on the clock.

1. Start Each Day with Breakfast

Starting each day with a nutritious breakfast is a struggle for some clinicians. Eating before an early morning shift cuts into valued sleep time and after a night shift, sleep takes priority and meals are skipped completely. However, eating breakfast can have a positive impact on the body when it is needed most.

For clinicians working in the morning hours, eating breakfast jumpstarts the body’s metabolism and provides energy throughout the first half of the day. It also helps to battle hunger or cravings known to arrive before lunchtime on an empty stomach. Skipping breakfast can stress the body and contribute to an increased chance of developing metabolic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. After a night shift, breakfast is just as important. Eating a light breakfast before bed decreases the chance of interrupted sleep caused by hunger.

Start, or end, each shift with a meal rich in whole grains, protein and occasionally a small amount of fat from cheese or cream. To make breakfast easier on the go, consider prepping the night before or choosing items easy to take in the car. For example, fruit, smoothies, boiled eggs, whole-wheat toast, etc.

Avoid processed foods high in refined grains and sugar. Granola bars and other packaged breakfast bars sound like a healthy option but can be loaded with sugar. These items make the body break down the energy source faster and increase hunger earlier.

2. Choose Wisely in the Cafeteria

During a shift, one of the quickest and easiest dining options is the hospital cafeteria. Most cafeterias have several established meal combinations each day. When an entrée and side items are already paired fewer decisions are needed making meals ‘grab and go’. However, individuals looking for a healthier bite to eat should not feel pressured to choose from the food line.

Dietary guidelines from the USDA suggest that half of any meal should consist of fruits and vegetables. The fiber in these foods make the body feel fuller faster and aid in digestion. In the hospital cafeteria, focus on the fresh, made-to-order items and take advantage of the items offered on the salad bar. Plenty of foods can be enhanced by adding fresh vegetables or being placed on a bed of fresh greens.

Get creative and think about the nutritional value of the items without trying to build a traditional meal. A non-traditional, healthier meal option could include raw vegetables such as carrots, peppers, celery and a serving of hummus, along with a snack size serving of cheese and an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter. Most of these items can be found on a salad bar and are equally as filling.

3. Avoid Unhealthy Snacking and Vending Machines

Between celebrations or a team member trying out a new recipe, a variety of food can always be found in the ED breakroom. Getting carried away when food is readily available is easy, especially during a long shift. However, one of the easiest ways to commit to maintaining a healthy diet is to avoid unhealthy snacking. Cakes, cookies, candy, chips, etc., taste good but often lead to a heavy crash. Snacks can leave the body feeling sluggish, or shaky, making it more challenging to get through a long shift.

In addition to breakroom treats, vending machines offer quick and convenient snacks and are usually scattered throughout the hospital. Unfortunately, these machines do not offer the healthiest options. If a mid-shift snack is needed, shop smart. Choose nut mix or trail mix versus a high-calorie, high-sugar candy bar, or prep snacks for the week ahead of time. Also, do not rely on the vending machine to fill-up during a hectic shift. The body needs real food to perform at its very best.

4. Add Variety to Each Week by Ordering Out or Carrying Food In

Variety can be essential to eating healthy. Some individuals require more of a variety to be satisfied during each meal. If the hospital cafeteria does not offer a wide variety of healthy options from week-to-week, consider switching it up.

To break out of the monotony, prepare meals at home or bring leftovers. Consider bringing one or two meals a week into work. In some instances, meals prepped at home are healthier because the individual controls what is included in the recipe.

However, ordering out is always a better option than loading up on sweet snacks. If the hospital cafeteria isn’t cutting it, take advantage of food delivery services in the area. There are a number of delivery services partnered with restaurants beyond the fast-food realm. Consider ordering from a restaurant with customizable salad options or lower calorie entrees.

Remember: Food is Fuel

Healthy eating habits while on the clock is a common challenge among clinicians. With a busy work load, it is easy to pick the most convenient meal or fall in the trap of unhealthy snacking when food is readily available. Remember meals are meant to replenish nutrients the body uses to perform at its very best. Use the tips mentioned in this article to ease the burden of mealtimes during each shift.