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  • Writer's pictureFred Ormerod

#1 Planned and Prepared

Nutrition planning for shift work series

Working a shift pattern can be difficult at the best of times. Unsociable hours, long working days and altered sleep patterns can wreak havoc with the physical training, social lives and health of those who labour under them.

However, this series looks at a few ways to plan ahead and structure your eating to help yourself in the gym, on the training field or even just in the times you’re at the coal face or indeed avoiding it.

“Fail to prepare, prepare to feel peckish”

Planning and preparing meals ahead of time is a great way to make sure you’re fed throughout a shift. Particularly if you work somewhere where you get regular breaks. It is also associated with greater meal variety and lower risk of obesity[1] in adults.

Planning meals ahead can also save money buying foods in appropriate bulk or time throughout the week cooking and preparing meals. Studies show, unsurprisingly, that spending more time on preparing meals often lead to fewer take away meals and improved diet quality including more fruit and vegetables.[2]

The beauty of prepared meals is that you can prepare both for days/nights when working and also when you’re not. This will help you stay on track and reach your goals all the better/sooner. This system can work particularly well on shift patterns where you might actually have time away from work to prepare the meals as well.

Enjoying your food

Having meals prepared throughout a working day, provided it’s something you actually want to eat, can be something to look forward to if you’re having “one of those f***ing days”.


Research tells us that meal preparation varies widely from region to region, culture to culture and person to person for all sorts of reasons: social influences, financial costs, tastes and time factors[3]. All too often the social implications of preparing meals can get in the way of actually having a good meal.

We’ve all sat in a work canteen or similar and watched Judy from accounting nibble at a Ryvita (other crackers are available) and lettuce leaf because she’s trying to “be good” only for her to have a hypoglycaemic bitch fit when the printer runs out of ink at about 3 o’clock. Equally there’s always a Dan in marketing who claims to be dirty bulking or just getting some caffeine in with his two litre bottle of coke and subway foot-long (again other foot-longs are available… innuendo intended). Both of these “hypothetical” characters have fallen victim to social influences on their meal planning.

Instead having a meal that is prepared around a nutrition plan you or a coach has designed should leave you energetic throughout the day and not raging at inanimate objects or feeling bloated and stuffed with 12 inches of deli meat, piling on the pounds.

So… How to go about actually planning and preparing your meals?

First of all, it’s a good idea to know what your nutritional requirements actually are. Nutrition coaching can help with this but it’s actually not rocket science to work some of it out for yourself.

There are probably a hundred BMR calculators out there in the inter webs. BMR is simply (and I mean simply) the number of calories you burn throughout the day. If, for a period of time, you eat too many calories you will increase in body weight. Equally if you eat fewer, again over time; or else there would be no such thing as a fitness industry, you will lose body weight*. Preparing meals that fit in, under or over this number as required is the starting block to know what to put into your prepared meals.

*note the intentional use of the words body weight not body fat

Macro considerations

If you want to take it a step further it’s probably worth calculating how much protein, carbohydrate and fat you want to ingest. Each of these are used by the body as fuel sources but each has different properties that your body can use them for as well. Each also has a different calorific content. This is the crux of “tracking your macros” see the table below.

Again there are hundreds of food tracking apps available, industry standard is MyFitnessPal (insert another disclaimer) each should tell you the macro content of your foods which you can work out before you make and eat the meals. This should give you the confidence that the meal you’re about to eat will leave you heading towards whatever nutritional goals you might have set yourself.



Finding the balance of macro nutrients that suits you is really a case of experimentation and this is where meal variety can be fun kids!

If you like to eat steamed chicken, broccoli and brown rice then fill your boots. However, if that sounds boring (which it is) it’s definitely worth spending some time looking for different recipes that might fit into your nutrient plan.

Weighing scales are important here as well, so you can be sure that you’re getting enough or not too much of one thing. It’s very easy to fill a Tupperware with cooked rice and to think that one chicken breast or slice of salmon is enough when in fact you might be massively under/over feeding your protein, carb or fat demands; leading you to destroy yet another piece of company property as you circle the drain of either “hangriness” or digestive lethargy.

If you’re looking to go to superhuman levels of meal preparation, there are also micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to be considered but this is a minefield this article doesn’t have time to traverse. Suffice it to say that if you’re eating lots of varied fruits and veggies you’re probably doing a good job (6-10 ‘portions’ per day is recommended).

A question of sport

If you’re training for a sport, looking to lose weight or looking to improve your energy throughout the day then increasing protein intake to roughly 2g per kilo of body weight is a prudent idea. This is dependent slightly on the sport/activity of choice.

If you’re of a cardiovascular persuasion (runners or cyclists for example… ew) then considering 5-7g of carbohydrate per kilo of bodyweight is also a good idea.

Fats can make up the rest of your calories and if it really has been “one of those f***ing days” you might even allow yourself an alcoholic beverage at the end of it**. Have a look at the table above for a guide to calorie intake per gram of each nutrient.

**with obvious considerations for not drinking at work, or being hungover for work and for how unhelpful drowning ones’ sorrows in alcohol actually is both mentally and physically.

All the gear, some idea

The potential drawback of this nutrition method is in the amount of kit and space it might require. Not everyone has a gigantic fridge or slow cooker to help in prepping and storing their smorgasbords. However, it isn’t all bad news. Meals can be prepped for as many days in advance as is required or you have space for and if you can freeze them you’ll find space for even more. Here’s a kit list to help you out as well if you’re really stuck:

1. Tupperware-

· this can be anything from luxury Pyrex to the cheapest recycled takeaway containers. They are good for controlling portion sizes, if it doesn’t fit it might be too much to eat in one sitting...

· They will help you save time and can be grabbed on the go and slung in a microwave as you need.

· They can usually be nicely stacked in the fridge.

2. Slow cooker/air fryer

· Chuck in ingredients and let the rest happen.

· Other things can be prepped while this does its thing.

3. Sandwich bags

· Make yourself a trail mix of treats you like, choc chips, nuts, fruit etc, for snacking on.

· Can also be used to leak proof your Tupperware.

4. Decent kitchen utensils

· Knives.

· Spoons, slotted or otherwise.

· Pans.

· Box grater.

· Travel spork.

· All of these have their place at home or at work and it’s really handy to have ones that work.

· Learning how to use and look after them properly is a massive time saver as well. There’s an almost infinite source of tips on youtube, though I would suggest that classic tools are often better than over engineered trinkets that “seem like a great idea” (not a play on the word on grater…no) but actually end up taking up more space than they're worth. A good knife will perform most tasks in the kitchen.

5. Spices

· Using spice rubs can transform what would otherwise have been a boring meal.

· Start off buying for new recipes and soon enough you’ll have an enviable collection to add flavour to all your meals.

· Pre-made rubs or flavourings are a quick and easy way to change things up also (the only difference in my “Chinese” chicken and my “Italian” chicken is whatever the packet says, the rest is all the same).

Food glorious food

At the end of the day, or at any time really if working in a shift pattern – after all it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, meal preparation should be about eating food you really like. If you don’t like to eat salad then don’t bother preparing salad, if you like burgers try making your own burgers so that you know what’s in them. It’s a case of being sensible with portion control and nutrient balance. You’ll start to reap the rewards of your efforts sooner than you think. If only because you can look down on Judy and Dan with a warm, smug, meal prepared glow.

As always if you have any questions feel free to drop a message on the contact page.

Stuck for ideas?

Here’s a couple of recipes to get you started on your meal prep mastery journey!

[1] [2] [3]


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