You Should Meal Plan When Working 12-Hour Shifts: Here’s Why

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People who work 12-hour shifts are presented with interesting dilemmas. One of these is figuring out how to adequately fuel their bodies for the long hours they put in each day. It is important that 12-hour shift workers fuel their bodies with the very best foods for maximum energy and health.

When creating a 12-hour shift meal plan, consume a diet of little to no sugar, remove highly processed foods, limit carbohydrates and avoid having excessive caffeine as a way of getting through your shift. Spend time preparing meals, which removes the need for poor pre-packaged or on the go alternatives.

Busy schedules often leave working parents, or those that are time poor, reaching for grab-and-go solutions or even visiting the drive through on an eating break. However, a better solution would be designating a weekly time to plan and prepare healthy options for snacks and meals during the work day.

There are a number of different items to consider when determining the best way to eat during a 12-hour shift. In this article, we will discuss all of the possible considerations you might need to remember as you work out your personal plan for success.

Dietary Problems For 12-Hour Shift Workers

Jobs that are scheduled in long shifts tend to be stressful and are often highly demanding positions that are both physically and mentally draining.

When on the job, it can sometimes be difficult to find time to eat and accomplish the goals that you have during the time that you are on the clock. It might be easier to grab something easy or convenient, overthinking about a healthy option for your body.

Unfortunately, convenient options are often the least ideal types of foods that you should be using to fuel your body in a highly demanding situation.

Heading toward the vending machine or opting for the drive-through can be really poor decisions when it comes to your health. Why? More often than not, these foods are extremely high in sugar, contain excessive amounts of saturated fat and the dreaded thing for those protecting the waistline, even more calories.

These foods might give you a burst full of energy, but they are lacking in the essential nutrients that your body needs.

These foods can cause other issues for your body and mind and even interrupt your ability to concentrate on the job.

Convenience foods are often responsible for spikes or “crashes” of your blood sugar. This phenomenon will perpetuate a cycle that will leave you craving more food to give yourself a quick boost.

The roller coaster of your blood sugar will actually impact your energy levels causing you to feel that mid-shift crash. Further, this same pattern of eating can actually lead to diabetes or even obesity.

So the outcome here is… It’s better to get ahead of all of these problems before they start, or get too far out of control.

women eating donut

12-Hour Shift Meal Prepping: Building Good Eating Habits

In order to avoid the roller coaster of sugar highs and lows that comes along with unhealthy eating on your shift, you might want to consider meal prepping.

Whether you work the day shift or the night shift, meal planning can help you have exactly what you need to keep you from hitting the vending machine in the middle of your shift.

This same concept can also help to deter the habit of hitting the vending machine or running to an unhealthy instant meal at a drive through when you have limited time on a break.

The first step to meal prepping and planning is to make time for regular grocery store trips and packing the day before your shift.

Some people will buy in bulk, whilst others will make a short trip out after the shift multiple times per week. The choice is yours, but we do know that working these hours doesn’t leave much time for yourself, so we suggest doing one big shop.

If you are working 12-hour shifts, then you more than likely have more “off” days than the rest of the working world. Use that time to prepare for your working days.

Be sure to keep healthy snack options on-hand and make your lunch box and snacks the day (or night) before a shift. Trusting yourself to pack your food as you are trying to make it out the door on time is not the best practice.

Read: 10 Healthy Snacks Ideal for Hungry Night Shift Workers ​Opens in a new tab.

Instead of grabbing a bag of chips, having a selection of snacks ready to grab in your refrigerator is one fantastic way to avoid the high carb options in the vending machine.

The bottom line is that having a plan for your shift is the very best way to avoid all of the negative side effects of not having a planned-out option for your day.

Ideal Foods for 12-Hour Shift Workers

When you are working on a long shift like the 12-hour model, then you should be looking out for slow-burning foods. Foods that allow your body to feel full and maintain steady energy for a long period of time.

You might be surprised to learn that not every one of these options is considered a “healthy” option. So, you will want to pick and choose foods from this list that also compliment your personal goals regarding your health.


Eggs are a really great source of protein, and they are packed with other nutrients that your body needs to stay sustained.

You can cook eggs in a variety of different ways, but it is important to point out that a boiled egg makes a great snack when you are on the go!

Trail Mix:

Nuts are another great source of protein that keep you full and stick with you for a long time. You might want to consider making your own trail mix to avoid any unwanted ingredients.

While nuts of your preference should be the base of your trail mix, you might consider adding dried fruit or even small amounts of dark chocolate to balance out the protein.

Whilst I’m talking about dark chocolate, the right one can also aid in weight loss. Check out this post Opens in a new tab.we wrote about 16 of the best weight loss foods for night shift workers.


Tuna is the perfect choice for a main meal over your long shift. It is easy to find in a ready-to-go form which makes it a great choice to have on hand for days when you are in a hurry. Just don’t forget the chewing gum.

Sweet Potatoes:

Sweet potatoes are another great, easy option for a full meal that is both healthy and easy to make. In fact, you can make a sweet potato as simply as washing it, chopping it up, placing it in the oven with some herbs or spices and you’ve amazingly filling chips on hand.  

Check out 6 other delicious breakfast (or dinner!?) snacks you’ll want to try during your next shift here.Opens in a new tab.

Foods to Avoid Whilst Working 12-Hour Shifts

The list of foods to avoid when working a long and stressful shifts is going to be different for each of us based on our individual needs. However, there are three basic items that we can’t stress enough to avoid on a regular basis.


We talked in great detail about the way that sugar affects your body in the long run. The main side effect to avoid when you are on the clock is the crash that will come, along with spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels. Nobody wants to be on a rollercoaster when working!

Highly Processed Food:

Highly processed foods are not always a bad choice for your diet. However, it is a good practice to avoid highly processed foods because they tend to have an enormous amount of hidden sugars in them. Though often delicious, sugar can do terrible things to your concentration and energy levels while on the job.


Now we have an asterix on this one.

You don’t have to avoid caffeine altogether. In fact, there is plenty of research that suggests that caffeine is a really great, healthy form of waking up.

However, you should avoid relying on caffeine to get through your shift. Drinking too much caffeine will wear off the body’s ability to wake itself up and might even cause a caffeine crash during the day.

For me, I love tea and the odd can of coke zero. However, if it’s within 5-6 hours of needing to sleep I avoid these beverages and choose something else. Inside this postOpens in a new tab. I list a whole range of different drinks you could choose when caffeine should be avoided.

12-Hour Day Shift Meal Plan (7 A.M.-7 P.M.)

People who work the dayshift are actually able to hold a much more normal eating schedule than the night shift crew.

Most dayshift workers will begin their day with a small meal before they head to work for the day. Eggs, oatmeal, or cereal with some fruit on the side makes a great breakfast for the dayshift worker. Eating a solid breakfast with plenty of protein will help you sustain your energy throughout the long and grueling shift that you have ahead of you.

Your lunch schedule will likely be determined for you, but it will usually fall between 11 am and 1 pm. It is important to remember that you should eat a lunch that is not loaded with carbs or sugar. Eating a carb-filled lunch is only going to cause a mid-afternoon sugar crash that will leave your brain in a fog. Instead, focus on a properly-sized lunch with a balance of carbs and protein.

You should also have a few healthy snacks on hand for the afternoon. After lunch, you will notice that there is a great deal of time between that last meal and your dinner. These snacks will be a great way to avoid hunger pains or having a crash in the afternoon while you are waiting for your next meal.

Although your dinner is not consumed until after your shift, it is important to note that 12-hour shift workers should consume a small dinner. Shortly after you eat you will be going to bed which means you will be burning far fewer calories, thus you do not want them transitioning into your fat stores.

Remember, your digestive system goes in “shutdown” or “sleep mode” when the suns stopped shining and there is less detection of natural light. So you don’t need to eat anywhere near the volume of food you would during the day.

I found this tip and many others in the book I reference as the #1 essential for shift workers in this blog postOpens in a new tab. and I couldn’t recommend it higher for the shift work community.

12-Hour Night Shift Meal Plan (7 P.M.-7 A.M.)

People who work the nightshift have quite a few things to consider when it comes to preparing meals and snacks for their work schedule. Our bodies are not built for staying up all night, and it is important to note that the night schedule affects more than just in your sleeping patterns. It can actually negatively affect your weight as well.

For one, the people who work on the night shift tend to have significantly less access to exercise than the dayshift. It is often too dark outside to jog or go for a walk when they wake up in the evening. Many gyms are not open during convenient hours for night-shift workers to visit.

Further, even if there is an opportunity for exercise, the night shift worker is often significantly more tired than a dayshift worker. With sleep patterns messed up, exercise is often the last thing on the night shift worker’s mind at the end of the day.

For all of these reasons, it is more important for the night shift worker to focus on a healthy schedule than the dayshift worker. While a night shift worker certainly does not work a normal schedule, they have a need to normalize their eating patterns.

The first tip a night shift worker should follow is to eat their largest meal before they start their working shift. Most people eat a small breakfast, but night shift workers should eat a large meal with plenty of protein and only a few carbs. This will fuel them to get through the first few hours of a night shift (which can be particularly hectic).

Rather than trying to plan your shift around a typical eating schedule (breakfast, lunch, dinner), you might consider eating smaller meals to help keep yourself sustained throughout a long period.

Pack meals that are small and easy to eat during the few minutes of free time you get. This will help give you the right energy to keep your body and mind sharp for the remainder of the shift.

Keep in mind that protein is the key for keeping your body feeling alert and awake. While carbohydrates are not entirely bad, they are not going to do great things for your ability to feel alert or awake on your shift. Too many carbohydrates will lead to a drowsy feeling and even a crash after so long.

After your shift, you will probably want to eat something before it is time to head to bed and rest up for your next night shift. However, it is important to remember that what you eat before you go to bed is going to affect you for that sleep cycle.

Ideally, you should eat your last meal after your night shift has ended but still several hours before you go to sleep. You want to make sure that your body has ample time to digest your food while your metabolism is still running high from the work you have done for the day.

There are some foods that I recommend to eat prior to going to sleep as they are naturally high in melatonin. Inside this postOpens in a new tab. we explore what they are along with meal suggestions you can try.

Did you know cherries are packed with Melatonin?

12-Hour Shift Meal Plan Recipe Ideas

In order to help you reach your fullest potential, we have included some simple recipe ideas that are packed with protein, fruits, and vegetables to power your body for a long shift.

Of course, if you need more suggestions, get creative in the kitchen and feel free to share your ideas with our community in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

Breakfast Foods

Breakfast Muffins:

Making high-protein breakfast muffins are a great way to ensure that you are prepared for the week ahead.

All you need is a muffin tin, eggs, and your preferred veggies and spices. Scramble the eggs with whatever veggies you like, sprinkle some cheese (non-dairy – give it a try) and bake at 350 for about 14 minutes. Yum!

Breakfast Smoothie:

A breakfast smoothie can be a great way to start your day off with a high source of protein and fruit.

Pick your fruits (fresh or frozen), add in some nut butter (almond butter is great), a slash of skim milk or almond milk for a base, and finally add protein powder if you are really feeling like an extra kick. Presto!

I also sometimes add in some oats, chia seeds, dates and or honey if I have those ingredients around.

Greek Yogurt Parfait:

A Greek Yogurt parfait is another great way to make yourself a healthy breakfast. Take your favorite fruit, oats, and some Greek yogurt (add honey if you want some sweetness) and mix it up for a delightful breakfast.

Lunch & Dinner

Chicken Salad:

Using mashed avocado instead of mayonnaise, make your favorite chicken salad recipe. Chicken salad is a great idea for lunches because it keeps really well and can be served in a variety of ways. Try it on crackers, as a sandwich (remember the carbs), and even in a bowl by itself.

Tortilla Wraps:

Tortilla wraps are excellent choices for easy lunches or quick dinners. You can even find tortillas that are made with extra fiber as opposed to a bunch of carbs. Load your tortilla with protein, cheese, and veggies to make sure you balance the meal with plenty of proteins and nutrients.

12-Hour Shift Snacks

Homemade Trail Mix:

Grab a few of your favorite nuts (avoid highly salted or honey roasted blends), throw in your favorite dried fruit, dark chocolate and even one type of cracker. Voila! You have made your very own signature trail mix.

Buffalo Chicken Dip:

Take one can of chicken, 8 oz of cream cheese, half a cup of ranch dressing, and half a cup of buffalo chicken dressing. Combine these ingredients and bake until bubbling. This dip is great when served with celery sticks, and best of all it is incredibly low carb for a snack.

Summary: You Should Meal Plan When Working 12-Hour Shifts: Here’s Why

No matter what your goals are, finding a proper balance for your meals during your shift is a crucial part of your success at work. Ultimately, your success will be up to your own devices, but one thing remains true for each and every shift worker: carbs and sugary foods should be avoided.

Preparation is key when it comes to successfully eating for health and mental awareness during a night shift.


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Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

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