Meal Planning on an EMS Schedule Part 1: 24 Hour Shifts

If you have ever tried to eat healthy while working an EMS or fire schedule, then you probably understand that it isn’t an easy task. Getting up early, working long hours, and never knowing when you can sit down to eat – much less cook – usually leads to failure. If you’re anything like me, you probably reach a point when you’re hungry, tired and cranky, which leads to just grabbing something from the closest fast food place. It’s a struggle that most of us face.

In my earlier attempts at getting healthy, I would start with the best of intentions. I would buy plenty of food to make at work with the intention of avoiding the junk that I had been eating. After a few shifts of having my cooking interrupted, I would become angry and discouraged and feel like I wasted my money buying groceries. I would then progress to accepting the fact that I just won’t be eating all that great when I’m at work. But hey, eating healthy two-thirds of the time is better than never, right? Eventually I would just give up and go right back to my old routines.

Does this story sound familiar to you?

This was the story of my attempts at getting healthy until I finally reached a breaking point and decided to make a serious, lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle. I knew that if I was going to win, I would have to come up with a real plan to address the challenges of this job. While there is no way to address everyone’s specific challenges, this article can at least serve as a good starting point towards your success.

Figure Out a Nutrition Plan

First things first…you gotta get on some sort of a plan. Notice that I’m not saying “diet”. Diets deprive, restrict and lead to failure. A nutrition plan is a set of guidelines to follow. For me, I just do basic clean eating. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated.

Here’s my basic rules:

1: Avoid processed foods. If it comes out of a bag, can, or box, it probably has more ingredients than you need.

2: Stick to foods that your great, great, great grandparents would recognize (thank you, Tony Horton). For example: Fish, meat, vegetables, eggs, fruit.

3: Avoid simple or “empty” carbs. Try eating whole-grain instead.

That’s pretty much it. My only other thing is portion control, and to do that, I started using the 21-Day-Fix meal plan offered through Beach Body. The only exception I can think of when it comes to processed foods are nutritional supplements like protein powders, recovery drinks or Shakeology. However, it is extremely important to pay close attention to the ingredients as many “health” shakes or supplements are actually not very healthy at all. I eat clean about 80-90% of the time and reserve my “cheat meals” for things like going out with friends, enjoying beer and food at a baseball game, etc. I still enjoy all the same things I did before, I just do it moderation now.

This is what works for me. You might be interested or require a completely different nutrition plan and that’s just fine. Whatever it is, just figure it out so you can start to plan!

Identify Your Challenges and Temptations

Every situation will have it’s unique challenges. If you’re going to seriously commit to change, then you have to identify those challenges. Once you do this, you can start planning ahead and limit your chances of slipping up. Here is an example of the specific issues I identified with my work schedule:

  1. Shift starts at 7, which makes eating breakfast before going to work difficult.
  2. Hospital offers free lunch and breakfast, which is tempting but very unhealthy.
  3. Depending on my station assignment, call volume may be too busy to cook most meals.
  4. I often go long periods of time without being at the station, making it difficult to stick to eating the food I brought.
  5. 24 / 48-hour work-days make it difficult to bring enough food.
  6. There’s TONS of tempting but terribly unhealthy food outlets nearby.

So here’s how I addressed each issue:

  1. Depending on the station I’m working, I either bring pre-made egg-muffin omelettes (recipe coming in later installment), or I bring vacuum-sealed packs of peppers and onions to toss in a skillet with fresh eggs for a quick scramble. I also bring my bag of Shakeology in the event that it’s too busy to make breakfast. (more on that later)
  2. I go to the hospital cafeteria only to get fresh fruits and water. If I’m feeling tempted, I just stay in the ambulance.
  3. This is quite possibly the hardest part of working my schedule. I really try to make things that can be prepped at home and cooked slowly, like in a crock pot or dutch oven. Otherwise, I do all my meal-prepping at home to cut down on my cooking time.
  4. This is where my backup plan comes in. I keep a bag in my ambulance that contains some healthy snacks like almonds, protein bars, etc. It’s enough food to hold me over should I find myself in a situation where I won’t get to eat soon.
  5. Where I work, we rotate station assignments every month. At the first of every month, I go to the store and buy at least a 2-week supply of food to leave in a LOCKED container in the station fridge. If I’m working with a partner who is on board with my plan, we’ll split the grocery bill.
  6. I leave my debit card and cash at home.

Do All the Prep Work at Home

This is an absolute MUST. Meal preparation can be the biggest challenge when it comes to cooking in a station as it consumes a large amount of time and leaves a much bigger mess to clean up. In order to maximize the chances of your meal plans working, you are going to have to minimize the amount of time it takes to actually make the meal.

There are 2 different ways that I go about this. Depending on the station I’m working, I’ll either do my meal prep at my home, or actually at work. If I’m working in a station where multiple people have pooled their money together to pay for the month’s groceries, then I’ll prep at the station. Otherwise, it’s done at home. The idea is to plan the meals and purchase the food as far in advance as you reasonably can. It also helps to focus on simple, healthy and desirable meals.

Try to pick several meals that share many of the same ingredients. This makes your shopping and meal prep easier.

While I like some variety with my meals, I know that many ingredients – as well as the way I prep them – will be the same. For example: breakfast. Depending on my mood, I’ll go between making scrambles, omelettes, etc. What doesn’t change much is the contents. I try to consume eggs, peppers, onions, and whatever greens I can. So if I know that I’m going to be making breakfast 5 times over the next pay period, then I’ll dice up enough onions, peppers, and red potatoes to make up 5 meals. I’ll divide the diced goods into 5 serving-size bags, vacuum seal them and stick them in the freezer. Now when it comes time to make my scramble, I’ll just dump the bag into the skillet and start cooking. I apply the same principles to lunch and dinner.

Pick a day of the week to be “prep day”. For me, it’s either Saturday or Sunday morning (depending on what day I have off). Get your food out, throw on some good tunes in your headphones and start prepping away. You’ll be glad you did.


The old saying “Failing to plan is a plan to fail” couldn’t be more true. Our job is plagued with obstacles when it comes to getting healthy. If you’re serious about living a healthy lifestyle, then you have to stay one step ahead of the challenges that come your way. There are no excuses here. If you’ve been doing this job for any period of time, then you understand the challenges that will come your way. If you understand those challenges, then you can come up with a plan.

Stay tuned for part-2 when I talk about meal planning for those of us that are assigned to shorter-hour shifts working street corners or system status. 


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