Being a registered nurse is hard work. Imagine spending 12-hours on your feet and being so busy that you barely have time to eat, let alone worry about it being healthy. Though this is the reality of many nurses, it can be more challenging being a travel nurse and/or working the night shift. Night shift can adversely affect your circadian rhythm, which results in altered appetite and eating patterns. The challenge for travel nurses will depend on their travel assignment location and their housing arrangements.
Meal prepping is a great way to save money and encourage a healthy diet. How often do nurses get so busy at work that they either forget to eat or grab something from the vending machine? Then, they are so hungry when they get off work that they run through a drive-thru instead of cooking. I am guilty of these same habits and know them all too well. As nurses, we know that these habits don’t promote a healthy lifestyle.
Write Down Your Weekly Meals Plan - One Day at a Time
So how will meal prepping save you money? I can’t tell you how many times I buy groceries, then work my three 12-hour shifts and end up throwing away food that has gone bad. Let’s face it: who wants to cook after a 12-hour shift (whether it's day or night shift)? I know I don’t. This is why planning your weekly meals on a day that you aren’t working helps you create a successful meal-planning routine. Here are some tips to get you started on meal prepping and saving money:
- Plan your week of meals and make a grocery list (by planning ahead, you reduce the urge to impulse buy)
- Take inventory of what you already have on hand in your kitchen to cut waste and maximize your savings before you head to the store
- Using the grocery pick-up helps reduce impulse buys and saves time by allowing you to order only what’s on your grocery list without going into the store
- Invest in meal prep containers (even better if they are dishwasher safe)
- Use meal delivery companies, such as Hello Fresh
- If time is valued over money, look into local meal-prepping companies who will do the work for you
Buy Bulk Groceries
Whenever possible, plan to buy your groceries in bulk. The most common places where this is possible are Costco or Sam’s Club. When you buy food items in bulk, it has a smaller price point over time. This option also allows you to go longer periods before having to make another trip to the grocery store. For perishable food items, be sure to research what items can be frozen to extend their freshness.
Food Storage Containers
Food storage containers are great options for portion control, decreasing food waste, and to ensure your food stays fresh. There are many varieties available-single containers, storage containers with multiple sections, plastic vs. glass, and more. My personal favorite is this type! It is also important to note which ones are freezer-safe.
Healthy Recipe Ideas for Nurses
Now that you have the tips to get you started, when are you going to cook all this food? You can choose any day that works best for your schedule. For example, if I am working Monday-Wednesday, then I will make Sunday my meal prep day. Be mindful of the cook and prep times of certain menu items to ensure you get the most out of your day.
Now let’s get into some recipes that make great healthy lunches for nurses, as well as dinner and snack options.
Slow cooker chicken fajitas
This recipe is super easy and has a short prep time; combine all your ingredients and toss it in your slow cooker and let it cook all day.
Pro tip: Double the recipe and freeze extra portions to use throughout the week.
This is a great option for dinner or as an easy lunch idea-use with low carb or whole wheat tortillas or add some rice and make it into a bowl!
Easy skillet jambalaya
This is a quick recipe that makes for an easy packable lunch. The primary ingredients include smoked sausage, bell peppers, onions, olive oil, and rice. To make it more heart healthy, use turkey sausage and brown rice.
Grilled/rotisserie chicken meal
This is a staple in my house. You can grill up a bunch of chicken breasts, saute some veggies in olive oil and add some brown rice and you have a hearty meal. You can drop the rice if you want a low-carb option.
If you don’t want to grill, you can buy (and prepare) a whole chicken or buy a cooked chicken at your local grocery store for a faster meal.
This is one of my favorites- it can be a quick and easy snack or lunch and you can alter the ingredients based on what you have at home!
To optimize protein consumption, I always include 1-2 servings of deli meat (ex: turkey)
Other items include crackers (I prefer gluten-free crackers), string cheese, nuts, veggies, and fruit… the possibilities are endless.
You can’t go wrong with a bagged salad. They are quick and easy, not too expensive, and can be used as meals or sides.
Healthy Snack Ideas for Nurses
If you are interested in finding more healthy recipe ideas, the possibilities at your fingertips are limitless (Pinterest is great for this)! What about snacks, though? People who work in health care know that food is love and we love all the snacks. Here are some of my go-to snack options:
- greek yogurt parfait
- string cheese
- apple slices with peanut butter
- almonds or cashews
- carrot sticks
- granola or protein bars
Regardless of what options you choose, meal prepping is a great way to save money and cut down on waste, while also making healthier food choices. Nurses are busy and need to eat nutritious meals to nourish their bodies so they can take care of others also. Granted, it may take some time once you get started, but after a little practice, you will be a pro (and will get some of your time back)! What are you waiting for? Start writing that menu and grocery list!
Why is it hard for nurses to focus on a healthy diet?
Though nurses are highly-educated and aware of the necessary proper nutrition choices, their work environment doesn’t make it the easiest to follow through. Nurses may arrive to work with the best intentions of eating healthy, then get so busy on their unit that they often don’t get lunch breaks. This causes them to go longer periods of time without eating or drinking enough and causes them to choose less optimal food or snack selections.
Why is meal prepping so important?
Having adequate nutrition allows nurses to be nourished enough to tackle their long shifts. By planning and prepping ahead, nurses can set themselves up for success in the long run and decrease the likelihood of unhealthy eating habits.
How can a travel nurse implement these strategies?
This depends on your specific assignment and location. If you are staying in a short-term rental with access to a full kitchen, then all of the above suggestions will work just fine for you. Bonus points if you are traveling with a buddy and you can split the cost of groceries! If you are one traveling in an RV, then I would suggest a little more creativity, but this also depends on what appliances and space you have access to in your RV.
Krystle Maynard is the creator of Innovative Nurse Solutions and has been a nurse for over a decade. She has specialized in medical-surgical and critical care nursing, in addition to having a long-standing history of being an adjunct faculty member for a college of nursing. Innovative nurse Solutions focuses on healthcare content writing (such as blogs, E-books, emails, academic coursework, and educational content for healthcare personnel and patients). Krystle also offers leadership consultation for healthcare organizations as well as tutoring and mentor services for undergraduate and graduate nurses. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and children and her two favorite hobbies are traveling to various destinations (mainly beaches) and concerts. If you would like to connect, you can reach her at LinkedIn.