Nursing placements are tough and can take a while to get used to. The constant changes in routine from long days to night shifts and days off can really confuse our bodies and make staying physically healthy a challenge.
In addition, finding time on busy 12-hour shifts to eat properly and planning meals on days off can be a challenge. Convenience foods are often a student nurse’s saviour and doughnuts in the staffroom often provide the energy needed to get through a busy shift.
Consequently, many students find it hard to keep to a healthy diet and end up spending more money than necessary on food. I am by no means an expert on healthy eating, but it is something that I try my best to do, especially while on placement.
When it comes to shift work, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting a nutritious and filling breakfast will help to kick-start your metabolism in the morning, help with concentration and will keep you going until you get your long-awaited lunch or first break. I personally would recommend porridge as it is warm, filling and inexpensive.
Many brands sell quick porridge that you can cook in the microwave or add hot water to, so you can grab breakfast in a rush. If plain porridge isn’t for you, try adding hot chocolate powder, honey or fruit.
Another idea is to decant yoghurt and granola into a pot and leave it in the fridge the night before so you can have a quick breakfast in the staff room before your shift or on the bus/ train into placement.
“It is up to you and it make take a few shifts to find what works best for you”
One question that often gets asked is “Do I eat on night shifts or not?”
There is no right or wrong answer and you will have to find what works for you. Some people find that it gets them into a bad habit of eating late and means that they end up eating more or less than they usually do. Others rely on a big bowl of pasta to keep them going through the night.
It is up to you and it make take a few shifts to find what works best for you. However, having a small snack at some point is important to keep your energy up and your mind alert.
I would personally recommend taking at least a banana to give you some slow-release energy but if you want to stay healthy, it might be best to avoid having a giant pizza at 2am.
Meal prepping can be a nuisance but can save you money and help you to stay healthy. If you cook a big batch of pasta with chicken and vegetables on your day off (or whatever you usually like to eat) you can save some to take with you on your shift.
Most wards and units will have a microwave and fridge but if yours does not, a pasta salad or homemade sandwiches work well. This way you know what you’re eating (no hidden sugars or preservatives) and will be less tempted to grab a high-calorie ready meal for your shift.
By no means do you have to stop having ‘treats’ and a ready meal is sometimes just what you need on a busy shift. Just be mindful of what you’re eating and maybe have just one doughnut instead of two.
“Make sure you ask to get your breaks as you will need them”
Depending on your mentor and shift pattern, on a 12-hour shift, you will usually get one full-hour break or two half-hour breaks. As you are a student and technically supernumerary, make sure you ask to get your breaks as you will need them.
If you take two breaks it might be a good idea to have one as a lunch break and one as a dinner break – so you can take a sandwich for lunch and then a hot meal for dinner. This way you’re sticking to a ‘normal’ daily routine and might be less tempted to snack.
In addition, getting home at 9pm after a long day might mean that you grab a takeaway on your way home instead of cooking or might go to bed without eating dinner. If you don’t manage to get a break for your dinner, there are plenty of quick recipes online that you can whip up when you get home or you can grab something that you prepared the day before.
To summarise, keeping a ‘healthy’ diet on placement can be tricky and it is all about finding a routine that works for you. Preparing meals in advance can be extremely useful but don’t completely cut out foods that you enjoy. It is all about moderation and being mindful of what you’re eating. Even takeaways have healthier options.