12-hour “system status” EMS shifts may very well be the most difficult challenge for someone trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Long hours away from a refrigerator, temptation at every corner, and limited access to heat can make healthy eating seem impossible. But hey, as EMS providers, we are up for almost any challenge, right?
In part-1 of my meal planning series, I covered the basics and talked specifically about 24-hour shifts. Even if you don’t work 24-hour shifts, check out the article, because it has some valuable information that everyone can benefit from!
Meal prepping for 12-hours differs from 24-hour shifts in that you need to prepare meals that don’t require cooking. Remember, given the nature of our job, we never know when we will have access to a stove or microwave, so it’s important to prepare foods that we can eat hot or cold. It’s also going to be important that we include a lot of snacks like fruits, protein bars, nuts, etc.
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel by explaining all the basics of meal-prepping. For that, check out the part-1 in the series. When you’re ready to move forward, then scroll below to see some ideas and tricks for meal-prepping on a 12-hour shift:
Pre-Cook Common Ingredients
Like I said, we have to eliminate the need to cook our food when we work 12-hour shifts. To do this, I like to take things like chicken breasts, and roast a bunch of them in the oven. I’ll throw on my favorite seasoning or juices, then cut them up depending on the meals I have planned. For example, I’ll cut some thin strips of chicken to use for sandwiches, “cubes” or chucks to use for salads, and even smaller chunks for tacos. Chicken is a very lean and healthy protein, so I try to use it as much as possible. Some other ingredients I like to pre-cook are ground turkey, bison, lean beef, salmon, and even vegetables. I basically have a list of lunch or dinner items that I like to make and I’ll prep my proteins for those meals.
Make Enough for Lunch
This one is pretty easy. When you’re making dinner, try cooking enough food to feed an extra person. This is one of the easiest ways to prepare food for the next day. On the nights before your shift, try making meals that actually taste good cold or reheated. This will be nice to add variety to your lunches and keep you on track.
Ok, so this one of those “DUH” items, but I love them! Where most people go wrong here, are the items that they put in their sandwiches. Despite what some health-nuts will tell you, bread isn’t always a bad thing. The trick is to pick breads that contain whole-grains, low sugar, and no fructose syrup. You need to have a healthy serving of carbs in your daily diet.
Try to avoid using those junk processed lunch meats that come in plastic containers. If you’re going to use them, stick to things like chicken breast, turkey breast etc. It should be something that came right off the animal and into the slicer. Read over the ingredients and make sure there aren’t a bunch of added sugars, fillers, chemicals or preservatives. For me, I just stick to the chicken breasts or lean red meats that I prepare at home.
When it comes to cheese, stick to whites. Things like pepper jack or mozzarella are good healthy alternatives to some of the common choices.
Toppings are also a big nutrition-killer. Mayo is #1 on my list. Just avoid it. I know they make “healthier” versions of it, but I would rather just avoid it all together. Mustard is a good choice as long as you make sure it doesn’t include crap in the ingredients. Some REALLY good choices would be things like drizzling some olive oil just before you eat it or even some vinaigrette. I’ve actually grown to really like using those non-traditional toppings and I make it a part of my regular recipes.
Meal Replacement Shakes
I am only putting this here because I personally use a meal replacement every day and I absolutely love it. Having said that, it’s extremely important to watch out for the garbage that companies try to pass as “healthy shakes”. Many of the meal replacement shakes contain artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, added sugars, fructose corn syrup, and tons of chemicals. Their only real “seller” is that they are filling and low in calories. I personally drink Shakeology simply because it contains none of the above mentioned items, and it consists of nothing but whole-foods and vitamins. Do some research before you go this route.
This is a “DUH” item as well, but I felt that I need to point out some things as there are tons of misconceptions when it comes to salads. Green vegetables are a good thing, but there are things like iceberg lettuce that you’re actually better off avoiding. I’m a HUGE proponent of spinach and kale. They taste much better than iceberg lettuce and they have tons of health benefits. Also, avoid most salad dressings as 90% of them are just big containers of garbage that will literally defeat the purpose of eating the salad in the first place. Stick to things like olive oil or vinaigrette.
Healthy proteins like hard-boiled eggs, chicken, salmon and even steak are great. You can also mix in things like fresh bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and small-to-moderate amounts of white cheese. In order to make the salad as fresh as possible, keep the toppings, oils and lettuce separate until it’s time to eat.
Some Other Things to Consider
It’s not going to be enough to just pack meals. You have to pack snacks. 12-hour shifts can be a beating and the urge to snack can be very strong. Make sure you’re planning ahead for this challenge or else you WILL fail. Fruits, protein bars (healthy ones), nuts, and vegetables are great snack options.
Another thing to consider is eliminating the possibility of you “caving in”. Leave your debit card and cash either at home, or in your car / station. Simply eliminate the possibility of you buying anything. This will not only help you with your nutritional goals, but it will also save you a ton of money!
And for my last, but actually most important item: Water. Drink lots of water. Most of us operate at a deficiency of at least 1 liter. You have got to hydrate. The funny thing about dehydration, is that one of the most common symptoms is hunger. So yes, if you’re not drinking enough water, chances are, you’re hungry because you’re actually thirsty. Don’t let it get to this point. You need to be drinking half of your body weight in ounces every day. For example, I weigh 180lbs, so I should be drinking 90 ounces every day. I have a shaker cup that holds 25 ounces of fluid, so I just know I have to fill that up 4 times throughout my day. That’s easy! Don’t skip this step!
Don’t make this too complicated. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. Just remember that you HAVE to plan if you want to succeed. If you show up to work without your meals, you have already failed. When faced with decisions like a juicy cheeseburger vs a chicken salad, you know what you’re going to choose. I say this because I’m the exact same way…..we all are.