Conquer Your Night Shift Cravings: A Clear Hourly Meal Plan


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Night shift workers who are scouring the internet in search of a high-quality meal plan are often sadly left disappointed. Though there are endless blogs and videos to digest about what to eat, the information is often targeted toward those who work a 9-5 job, leaving us guessing and scrambling for answers. But there is hope and it’s called Chronutrition, let’s chat about what it means and how it can help.

Chronutiriton being the relationship between food, digestion and our body clock helps dictate what we choose to consume before, during and after a night shift. Each stage has unique demands and making the right food and drink choice minimizes stomach pains, and nausea, boosts energy and improves sleep.

By the end of this post, you should feel confident going into your next night shift knowing what to eat and when. This will not only set you up for a great shift but an even better day’s sleep.

Chrononutrion, What is it and Why it Matters

Chrononutrition as discussed by the Institute of Functional Medicine, is a term that can help minimize dietry assumptions for night shift workers, by exploring the relationships between food, digestion, metabolism, and your circadian body clock.

Timed eating meal plans based on the science of chrononutrition as developed in 1986, by Dr. Alain Delabos. His research determined the correct types of foods to eat at the right times of day to achieve optimal metabolic digestion. However, his meal plans were designed around a morning, noon, afternoon, and evening time schedule, which doesn’t align so well with your night shift time frame.

Fortunately, by using the key principles of chrononutrition, you can create a timed eating schedule to fit your specific situation.

Night Shift Timed Eating Schedule

Instead of the four evenly spaced meal times of chrononutrition (breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner), night shift timed eating divides your day into three periods.

I’ve color-coded these phases so it’s easier to read.

Before Night Shift Meal

  • Eaten 1-4 hours before going to your shift
  • The largest meal of your day
  • Designed to load you up on fuel and stay powered until break times
  • It is most effective when eaten outside in the sunlight

During Night Shift Meals

  • Small portions of high protein-packed snacks
  • Easily digestible, low-fiber foods
  • Intended to maintain steady energy levels and keep blood sugar stable
  • Highly effective when small amounts of eating occur evenly spread across the shift

After Night Shift Meal

  • Ideally eaten 2-4 hours before going to sleep
  • A small meal of melatonin-rich foods
  • Complex carbohydrates and high-fiber foods
  • Dual roll of inducing sleep and keeping you feeling full as you sleep

Here’s an example of how timed eating looks for someone on the night shift.

Scheduled Hours: 9:00 p.m. – 7:30 a.m (2100 – 0730)

Before Shiftbetween 5-8 pmLentil, rice, and veggie bake, dark green leafy salad, and lightly toasted French bread with butter
During Shiftbetween
12 am-5 am
Protein balls and baked cinnamon pears (here are a few more snack ideas). Water and/or herbal tea
After Shift7.30 – 9amWarm oats drizzled w/honey, topped with chopped walnuts and berries

Here is another example;

Before Shiftbetween 5-8 pmGreen chicken and/or tofu and vegetable curry with brown rice. Fruit salad for dessert.
During Shiftbetween
12 am-5 am
Hummus with vegetable sticks, nut mix. Coffee until midnight then SuperGreen Tonik or Sneak Energy.
After Shift7.30 – 9amChamomile Tea or cherry tart juice with some sprouted bread such as these ones from Amazon

Before Shift Meal

Your first meal provides an opportunity to fully refuel your system with a well-balanced, hearty, filling, nutritious meal that’s a long-lasting energy source to keep you at your best during the start of the shift. This meal serves as your largest intake of calories and should include complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and high-fiber fruits and vegetables.

When possible, pair your before-shift meal with as much sunlight as possible. What a great time to enjoy dinner outside with your family before you leave for work!

Sun exposure helps your body maintain alignment with your circadian rhythm. Plus, natural sunlight triggers several hormones that release positive energy into your system. (Read more about the effect sunshine has on night shift workers by clicking this link.)

Your before-shift meal also has the potential to align with your body’s hunger clock. According to research from Harvard, your body’s peak of hunger and appetite occurs at 8 PM. It is at this time you feel most hungry. These feelings of hunger slowly fade overnight, bottoming out at 8 AM.

Building Your Before-Shift Meal

Complex CarbsLean ProteinFiber
Whole Grains
Barley
Bulgur/Cracked Wheat
Farro
Millet
Quinoa
Whole-grain Cereals Whole-wheat bread, pasta, and crackers
Black, Brown, Red, and Wild rice
Oatmeal
Popcorn
(source)

Starchy Veggies Breadfruit Burdock root Cassava Corn Jicama
Lima beans Lotus root Plantains Salsify
Tapioca
Turnips
Water chestnuts White potatoes Yams
Yucca
Plant Protein
Beans
Broccoli Chickpeas Greens
Lentils
Nut Butter
Nuts and Seeds Peas Potatoes Quinoa Seaweed Soymilk Spinach Tempeh
Tofu
Veggie Patties
(source)

Animal Protein White-meat poultry such as chicken or turkey breasts Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, lake trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna Pork tenderloin Lean or extra-lean cuts of beef such as sirloin or round cuts, greater than 93% lean ground beef Eggs and egg whites Non-fat/low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk (source)
High-fiber Fruits Passion Fruit
Guava
Strawberries, Raspberries and Blackberries
Pear
Avocado
Kiwi
Blueberries
Oranges, Grapefruit, and Mandarins
Pomegranate
Banana
Apricot
Cherries
Mango
(source)

High-Fiber Vegetables Breadfruit Burdock root Cassava Corn Jicama
Lima beans Lotus root Plantains Salsify
Tapioca
Turnips
Water chestnuts White potatoes Yams
Yucca

To learn more about how to create a balanced meal that meets your body’s needs visit MyPlate and Eat for Health.

If you want some recipe ideas these posts will help;

VIDEO – Night Shift Eating Schedules Your Digestive System Will Love (this is one of my most popular videos which I think fits nicely with this topic)

During Shift Meal

The Harvard hunger and appetite study also confirmed that your night-time circadian appetite craves sweets, salt, and high-starch foods like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. Unfortunately, ingesting these types of food, when your digestive system has gone to sleep, results in discomfort and health issues. We have spoken about these on this blog under nausea and the other under bloating and also in this video;

That’s why what you choose to eat during your night shift is doubly important. You need food that satisfies your body’s natural cravings with healthy portions that are nutrient-dense and easy to digest.

In the late night hours, your digestive tract has slowed to a crawl. As a result, when you eat during this time, digestion takes much longer which can lead to bloating and nausea. That means you have to be extra careful of what you choose to eat when those salty, sweet, and starchy cravings come calling.

Some may find fasting overnight the best way to minimize pain and discomfort whilst others believe grazing throughout your shift is best. This means eating small quantities of energy-dense foods between the hours of midnight and 6 AM.

However, your work environment may not be conducive to grazing or you may be stuck with eating when you’re scheduled for breaks. Choosing easy-to-digest foods is the most important aspect of late-night eating. Let’s talk about what they are.

Easy to Digest Foods

According to Healthline, Cooked fruits and vegetables are easier on your digestive system than raw ones. Heat from cooking helps break down the fiber and this aids your body in absorbing nutrients faster.

Foods like baked pears or applesauce can be enjoyed even more with a sprinkle of cinnamon or a drizzle of honey.

Lean meats are lower in fat which reduces your risk of weight gain. Less fat also means less work for your sleepy digestive system. Choosing poultry, lean cuts of beef, and fish as your source of protein offers a vast array of healthy options from cold salads and sandwiches to hot soups and stir fry. Selecting plant proteins can also be a healthier way to satisfy cravings and combat your late-night appetite.

Toasted bread provides your body with simple carbohydrates that break down quickly. This quick release of glucose recharges your energy without the strain that occurs from complex carbohydrates. Add some extra flavor to your toast with a dab of your favorite fruit spread or a dollop of low-fat chicken salad for an easy-to-eat sandwich.

Eggs are an easily digestible protein that can add variety to your snacks and meals. When eaten in moderation, eggs can be a heart-healthy food choice that can improve your cholesterol levels. They can be used in oodles of recipes from simple sandwiches to light and fluffy souffles.

Gelatin can serve as a source of protein that’s easy on your digestion. Unflavored gelatin can be added to a multitude of recipes. Or you can add a touch of flavor to your smoothies and fruit snacks.

Soups and Broths are great fuel sources that are soothing to your stomach. Warmth from the soup helps reduce inflammation of your digestive tract, In addition, many ingredients contain immune-boosting nutrients.

Healthy Sweet Foods
Dried fruits – raisins, craisins, and tropical fruits
Baked fruits – peaches, apples, and pears
Fruit smoothie
Cinnamon popcorn
Fresh fruit with dark chocolate
Apple slices w/ almond butter and chia seeds
Chia seed pudding made with oat or nut milk
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Yogurt
Chocolate avocado mousse
Homemade fruit rollups
Apple crisps
Homemade granola
rolled oats
nuts
seeds
dried fruit
Protein balls
Roasted maple cinnamon chickpeas
Healthy Salty Foods
Stuffed dates w/nut butter
Salted macadamia nuts
Salted avocado
Nut butters
Deviled eggs
Parmesan crisps
Roasted Chickpeas
Popcorn
Veggie chips
Sardines
Sweet potato chips
Olives
Edamame
Goat Cheese
Healthy High-Carb Foods
Quinoa
Buckwheat
Sweet potatoes
Beets (can lead to kidney stones)
Chickpeas
Bananas
Blueberries
Raspberries
Grapefruit
Apple
Oranges

After Shift Meal

Your after-shift meal plays two important roles, induce restful sleep and keep you feeling full to stop you from waking at midday with hunger pains.

Since your circadian hunger and appetite levels have reached their lowest point you may not even feel hungry at this time of your day. If so, you may opt to skip this meal if your health won’t be negatively impacted and you think you won’t wake up hungry.

Otherwise, choose a small, melatonin-rich meal to help soothe you to sleep. Your meal should be eaten 2-4 hours before you plan to go to sleep if possible but this was often hard for me.

I’d make sure I eat before I shower to ensure my digestive system has a chance to break down foods in the stomach and pass them on to my intestines where your sleeping body can focus all energy on your digestive tract.

Melatonin-rich foods
Warm milk
Pistachios
Tart cherries
Fatty fish
Rice
Goji berries
Oats
Mushrooms
Corn
Bananas
(source)
For a full list of melatonin-rich foods and recipe ideas, this post will help.

Staying Hydrated

Without meaning to sound like a broken record – stay well-hydrated throughout your waking hours.

Studies have shown nearly 40% of people mistake thirst for hunger.

This misunderstanding of body cues can lead to several health problems related to dehydration and issues like overeating and weight gain.

You can combat both thirst and hunger by choosing healthy drinks like energizing fruit smoothies and invigorating juice tonics such as SuperGreen Tonik (which we drink and love) to start your busy day. Abstaining from caffeinated beverages and sugar-loaded energy drinks during your shift will help you in numerous ways.

You’ll avoid the jitters and crashes that accompany these drinks, plus, your kidneys and bladder will thank you. Sneak Energy is another product we use and love for delicious sugar-free, energy.

Your body quickly absorbs caffeine, going into effect within 5-30 minutes of consumption with its high-energy effects lasting up to 12 HOURS! Your heartbeat and respiration rates race while your alertness and energy levels soar. It also amplifies the amount of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, in your body.

Too much caffeine increases your feelings of anxiety and disrupts your ability to fall asleep. In addition, like other stimulant drugs, your body builds a tolerance to caffeine’s effects, requiring more and more consumption for it to work. This creates a risk of developing a caffeine dependency as well as experiencing withdrawal such as fatigue, irritability, headaches, muscle aches and anxiousness.

Thirsty? Try this recipe from The Healthy Shift Worker – it’s yummy. I received this recipe as part of the “Healthy Shift Worker Club” which you can join today by clicking here.

Meal planning doesn’t need to be fancy and complicated to be effective. You just need to understand how important the time of day is regarding what you eat. By understanding the science of chrononutrition, you can create a healthy meal plan that fits your schedule and meets your specific dietary needs.

Eating right does take some work on your part to ensure you’re properly prepared for your meals each day. Starting your day with a well-balanced and filling meal will build the foundation for healthy eating. Knowing what types of food you can eat during late-night hours will help you prevent personal discomfort from indigestion. And, eating a soothing meal of melatonin-rich foods after work will send you to a peaceful slumber, well-rested for what’s to come.

If you want to read more about meal timing on night shift, you need to read this book from Audra Starky. It’s a wonderful read and very helpful.

Lastly, have you heard of Naturecan? They have a whole range of impressive CBD products from protein powders you can take to work, to supplements and even oils and balms to help you sleep and relieve any aches and pains. I know we are talking about eating at night, but a little help in the pain and sleep department can’t hurt right? Check out Naturecan here.

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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