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A Nurse’s Guide to Eating Well at Work

Eat better in a pinch. Here's how to fuel your body and boost energy during a busy shift.

Medically reviewed in January 2022

Updated on March 23, 2022

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As a nurse, healthy eating on the job can be a major challenge. Limited time during a busy shift, combined with few healthy options in the cafeteria, can mean your body doesn’t get the fuel it needs to stay energized and focused. Still, there are ways to eat healthy no matter the situation. Use this as your cheat sheet to getting the best nutrition possible in the time that you have.

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Avoid Cafeteria Calorie Bombs

Salad bars are typically the best option, but your cafeteria may not have one. So what to do?

  • Avoid anything that's covered with cheese, deep fried, or swimming in a thick sauce.
  • Choose lean protein and cooked veggies that have been broiled, boiled, steamed, or baked.
  • Think of quarters when you fill your plate. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the healthiest plate consists of one-half fruits and veggies, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter healthy carbs.

Tip: Keep portion sizes in check by using a salad plate. Your meal looks bigger on a smaller plate, which may trick your brain—and your stomach—into thinking you’re eating more.     

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Eat Right At The Salad Bar

If your cafeteria has a salad bar, that may be your best option. Fill your plate with lots of leafy greens and crunchy vegetables and a serving of lean protein. Choose oil-based dressings and use them sparingly. Drowning your salad in dressing could sabotage your healthy-eating efforts.

Picks: Romaine lettuce, spinach, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, grilled chicken, chickpeas, walnuts, green olives, oil-based dressings

Skips: Iceberg lettuce, salads made with mayo (cole slaw, tuna, chicken, potato), croutons, creamy salad dressings

Tip: Avoid sodium traps like canned vegetables. Canned beets, green beans, and corn usually have more added sodium than fresh options.

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BYO From Home

It goes without saying that the best solution is to bring your lunch or dinner from home and stash it in the fridge. Salads are one easy way to eat in a hurry and sneak more veggies into your diet. Try filling your Tupperware container with spinach, pecans and strawberries for a light, refreshing meal under 300 calories, or mix up a bowl of tomato asparagus salad. Top it with strips of leftover grilled chicken for a complete meal.

Try one of these cook once, eat twice recipes:

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Vending Machine Hacks

In a pinch, grabbing a small snack from the vending machine may be better than not eating at all. But finding healthy snacks can be a challenge, since most are stocked with candy bars and high-fat chips. Look for these options:

  • Nuts or seeds
  • Trail mix
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Soy chips
  • Baked chips
  • Raisins

Tip: Avoid any snacks with more than 4 grams of added sugar per serving. 

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Hydrate The Right Way

What you drink is just as important as the food you eat. Consuming drinks like sugary soda can lead to weight gain. In fact, drinking one sugar-sweetened soda each day could add up to a 15-pound weight gain by the end of the year. Don’t be fooled by diet sodas. They may have zero calories but they may still fuel sugar cravings. Stay hydrated with seltzer water or unsweetened green tea. Studies suggest that the theanine in iced green tea helps improve mental alertness—just what a busy nurse needs!

Tip: Energy lagging? Ditch energy drinks for water. Water is an all-star at quenching your thirst and if you’re dehydrated, it gives you a natural boost.

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Snack Smartly

Preparing healthy snacks to bring to work is a good way to prevent extreme hunger, which can lead to overeating later. Good-for-you snacks also keep blood sugar steady and metabolism high. A healthy snack is fewer than 200 calories, combines a protein with complex carbs, and avoids the five food felons: trans fat, saturated fat, added sugar, syrups, and any grains that are not 100 percent whole grains. 

What to bring:

  • Hummus and veggies
  • Apple and peanut butter
  • Almonds and a serving of fruit
  • Apple slices and cheddar cheese
  • Slices of turkey and whole wheat crackers

Tip: Be sure to watch portion sizes and factor snacks into your daily calorie count to avoid excessive calorie intake. 

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