Some people are just starting their workdays when other people are going to bed. Such people include factory workers, security guards and healthcare workers who work the night shift. Most of them have a disrupted eating and sleep routine. It’s important that these employees create a healthy meal plan in order to avoid weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia and an increased risk for disease. Here are some tips for creating an effective 12-hour night shift meal plan.
12-Hour Night Shift Meal Plan: When To Eat
It is always a good idea to start off the night with a proper meal before starting work. As it gets closer to midnight, hold back on your food intake and add small snacks throughout the rest of the shift as necessary. Try this simple trick: eat more at the beginning of the shift and less towards the end.
The reason behind this timing is digestion and metabolism aren’t as efficient at night, whether you’re awake or asleep. You might be fully awake, but your metabolism isn’t. This means that you shouldn’t expect to eat a full meal at midnight and then digest it as you would during the day.
The Dietitians of Canada recommend having dinner a few hours before going to work if you’re working through the night (9). The best part about timing your meal before your shift is you can enjoy a proper dinner with your family before heading out.
What To Eat At Night
Working the night shift can cause you to experience a change in appetite, digestive problems, trouble falling asleep, and weight gain or loss (11). However, knowing which foods to eat at night and including them in your night shift diet plan can help you avoid all these issues.
Some healthy foods to eat at night include:
Low GI Foods
Research in animals has shown that the pancreas may not function as well when circadian rhythm is disrupted (3). This might affect your body’s ability to manage blood sugar spikes caused by certain foods.
Some of the best foods to eat at night are low glycemic index foods. This is because these foods produce a gradual increase in blood sugar levels. This includes foods such as vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains.
A lot of people try to eat more protein when working the night shift because it keeps them full and helps them build muscle mass (5). It is important to remember that eating too much protein will cause your body to lose water content, so make sure you watch how big your portions are during the night. Low-fat dairy products can be great sources of lean proteins at night. These foods include skim milk and low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese with whole-grain cereal.
Drinking lots of fluids is one of the most important things you can do at night. Your body is constantly losing water, both through perspiration and breathing, so staying hydrated helps your overall health and energy levels (7). Some food items that are good for hydration include watermelon (91% water), apricots (89%), cantaloupe (86%) and strawberries (85%).
There should be no need to drink coffee or sodas because they can lead to dehydration. If you work in a warm environment, then consider eating canned peaches or watermelon as well to help replenish lost electrolytes and fluids.
Healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats, are good for you for many reasons. When you’re eating dinner out before going to work, you could ask your server if they can include this healthy fat on your plate. Olive oil and nuts are just two examples of foods that contain monounsaturated oils.
Sample 12-Hour Night Shift Meal Plan
Here are some healthy meal options to have before and during your night shift:
Meal 1: Breakfast
- 1 serving of garlic omelet (3.3g, 25.8g fat, 25.5g protein and 353 calories)
- 1 vanilla banana milkshake and 2 servings of whole wheat toast (81.4g carbs, 10.9g fat, 20g protein and 363.8 calories)
- 1 slice of peanut butter banana toast (51.7g carbs, 17.3g fat, 12.1g protein and 384.9 calories)
- 1 serving of basic chaffle (1.6g carbs, 17.3g fat, 18.7g protein)
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Meal 2: Lunch
- 1 chicken and mayo bagel (60.7g carbs, 11.4g fat, 65g protein and 622.6 calories)
- 2 servings of pasta with fresh tomato sauce (92.7g, 3.9g fat, 20.6g protein 459.1 calories)
- Pasta caprice (117.8g carbs, 15.4g fat, 32,4g protein and 726.2 calories)
- 1 serving of steamed broccoli with olive oil and parmesan alongside 2 cups of grapes (66.2g carbs, 14g fat, 10.8g protein and 397 calories)
Meal 3: Dinner
- 2 rollups of chicken wraps (59.5g carbs, 24.9g fat, 65.9g protein and 736 calories)
- 2 servings of healthy caesar salad (12.5g carbs, 44.1g fat, 115.3g protein and 921 calories)
- 2 servings of curry tuna salad alongside 2 bananas (60.7g carbs, 8.9g fat, 36.3g protein 226.6 calories)
- 2 servings of ham and cheese sandwich together with 2 servings of easy steamed green beans (64.6g carbs, 28.1g fat, 40.4g protein and 663 calories)
- 2 turkey sandwiches (54.5g carbs, 6.2g fat, 21g protein and 353 calories)
- 2 cups of blueberries (42.9g carbs, 1g fat, 2.2g protein and 168.7 calories)
- 2 servings of tuna avocado salad (7.9g carbs, 12g fat, 30.3g protein and 248 calories)
- 1 serving of fruit salad (33.1g carbs, 0.9g fat, 2.1g protein and 133 calories)
12-Hour Night Shift Meal Plan: What Not To Eat At Night
Night shift workers might have the tendency to overeat or eat unhealthy items because they feel like they haven’t eaten all day long. However, there are certain foods you should avoid at night:
Caffeine is known to alter sleep patterns and interfere with normal digestion (2). It is for this reason that you may want to avoid coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate or any other caffeine-containing food or beverage after lunchtime. If your job requires that you stay awake all night (such as a security guard), then limit your caffeine to one cup of coffee.
Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda can also cause dehydration, which may make you feel tired when it’s time to go home. Dehydration might also contribute to insomnia and constipation because your body eventually becomes dependent on it (4). It is best to avoid these drinks at night if you’re working the night shift.
Instead of drinking coffee or soda, try a glass of water with some fresh lemon juice squeezed into it. This will help your digestion by inducing peristalsis, while also providing hydration for your metabolism and electrolytes to keep your energy levels high throughout the shift (7). Try adding a splash of cranberry juice for a delicious drink that’s high in vitamin C.
Carbohydrate-heavy foods should only be avoided before bed because they can lead to an increased level of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps control the time our bodies go from wakefulness to sleepiness. Eating lots of carbs will raise levels of this hormone, which can make it difficult for people working the night shift who are trying to fall asleep early enough so they can wake up for their night shift (6). This is a good reason to avoid eating rice, pasta and bread at night.
Deep Fried, Spicy, And Sugary Junk Food
Sleep deprivation often leads to cravings for foods high in fat and sugar (10). Yet greasy foods such as fried chicken, pizza, and French fries are more difficult to digest late at night and can lead to indigestion.
Sugary foods such as candy, soda and cookies are even worse because they increase blood sugar levels rapidly and lead to the dreaded sugar crash.
If you’re trying to lose weight and need something sweet at night, then try having a piece of dark chocolate rather than an unhealthy sweet treat. Dark chocolate has high amounts of antioxidants called flavonoids, which could help reduce your risk for heart disease and memory loss (1).
In place of greasy foods, choose small portions of lean proteins, veggies, fruits, whole grains, and nuts.
Some people find that avoiding high fiber foods, such as beans, lentils, large amounts of raw vegetables, and spicy foods will help them avoid having a gassy or upset stomach that could interfere with their work and sleep hours later.
12-Hour Night Shift Meal Plan: Tips For Working Night Shift And Eating The Right Foods
One difficulty of night shift work is often lack of time to eat healthy, nourishing food in the middle of the night. However, this isn’t an excuse if you’ve put some thought into it ahead of time. These tips can help you choose healthy foods to eat at night.
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Eat A Main Meal Before Your Shift
The best way to avoid needing to eat junk food at night is by eating a healthy, balanced meal just before you start working the night shift. This will help you feel fuller and more satisfied when it’s time for bed.
If your evening hours are busy with work, try making big pans of soup or pasta the day before so you have a quick meal ready to go to take to your shift.
If this isn’t possible, consider bringing a large container of homemade chicken noodle soup with you in your lunch box so that you can have something filling and nutritious if you get hungry while on duty.
Eat Frequent Small Snacks Throughout Your Shift
As mentioned above, it’s easy for night shift workers to skip meals, or to eat junk food when it’s convenient.
Staying full and satiated will help you fight cravings for late night fast food or snacks that are high in fat and sugar. Try packing a lunch box with small snacks so you have something nutritious and ready if hunger pangs strike during your shift.
Choose simple snacks like nuts, yogurt, fruit cups, baby carrots, sliced bell peppers, pre-cut veggies like celery and cucumbers with low-fat ranch dressing dip or hummus thinned with lemon juice.
You should also carry healthy meal replacement bars such as Keto bars with you to provide energy while you’re working the shifts.
Have A Light Meal After Your Night Shift
It can be hard to sleep well after a night shift when you’re either too full or too hungry. To make sure you aren’t too hungry before bed, try having a light meal like soup or oatmeal. If you can cook and eat this food at your home or workplace, that will help save time during your shift.
If you find it difficult to deal with the fatigue of working night shifts, then eating a nutritious breakfast after each shift is especially important. This will help reduce any cravings for unhealthy foods late at night.
Use Proper Food Storage
If possible, choose foods that don’t need refrigeration such as nuts and crackers rather than pizza or other meat-based sandwiches that will go bad if left out too long. However, if you must carry any food that can go bad then perhaps use an insulated lunch bag or a cooler with ice packs to keep the food fresh. When you get to work, store perishable meals and snacks in a refrigerator or freezer and heat them in a microwave when you’re ready to eat.
According to the USDA, perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than 2 hours may not be safe to eat (12).
Take Active Breaks
While working out at night might not be practical or possible, taking active breaks and moving around can aid digestion. Walk around the parking lot, take a flight of stairs or do some jumping jacks to stay energized, improve your mood, and sleep patterns.
The Bottom Line
A healthy diet can improve mood, performance at work, weight control and even self-esteem . By planning ahead and making smart choices about what foods to eat on night shifts — as well as during daytime hours — you will be able to gain these important benefits without sacrificing nutrition.
Keep nutritious snacks ready to stave off hunger during your shift. When you get home, have a light meal before bedtime so that you are not too hungry or full when you go to sleep.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Antioxidants: In Depth (2013, nih.gov)
- Caffeine for Your Health- Too Good to Be True? (n.d., aarp.org)
- Consequences of Exposure to Light at Night on the Pancreatic Islet Circadian Clock and Function in Rats (2013, nih.gov)
- Dehydration (2020, mayoclinic.org)
- Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit (2019, nih.gov)
- High-glycemic-index carbohydrate meals shorten sleep onset (2007, oup.com)
- How much water should you drink? (2020, harvard.edu)
- Monounsaturated Fat-Rich Diet Prevents Central Body Fat Distribution and Decreases Postprandial Adiponectin Expression Induced by a Carbohydrate-Rich Diet in Insulin-Resistant Subjects (2007, diabetesjournals.org)
- Nutrition tips for shift workers (2020, unlockfood.ca)
- The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain (2014, nih.gov)
- The risks of night work (2011 apa.org)
- What is the “2 Hour Rule” with leaving food out? (2019, usda.gov)