‘I’m an ICU Nurse Who Works 12-Hour Shifts on My Feet—These Are the Foods That Give Me Enough Energy and Mental Clarity Throughout the Day’

Photo: Getty Images/Mark Edward Atkinson
Working 12-hour shifts can be exhausting, especially for nurses tending to hundreds of patients in one day (or night). It's no secret how physically and mentally demanding nursing can be, and while loading up on caffeine may be one way to stay energized, it'll only help for so long. For that reason, it's important to fuel your body with energy-boosting meals that can fight off brain fog, feelings of hunger, and exhaustion.

However, before searching the internet for meal prep ideas, it may be helpful to know other nurses' go-to meals to see what may be helpful to implement in your meal rotation. We sat down with two Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses with over six years of experience working three 12-hour shifts a week to see what nurses eat during the workday to fight off fatigue and stay alert.

Experts In This Article
  • Mateusz Solarczyk, CCRN-N, A Registered Nurse of 6 years, podcast host, and embodiment coach. Like many, I was excited to finish my BSN and start my career. However, after more than four years as a nurse I was starting to feel restless, like...
  • Piotr Findura, BSN, I am a man of many ventures but not enough time, currently an ICU nurse, podcast host and fitness enthusiast. I entered nursing with the goal of helping others physiologically. Working all those years in the ICU and speaking to...

What nurses eat: 7 foods that help two ICU nurses gain energy and mental clarity during a 12-hour shift

Nurses can work day or night shifts—night shifts are done between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., while day shifts are between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. When working night shifts, Piotr Findura, BSN, an ICU travel nurse who currently works night shifts and co-hosts the Cup of Nurses podcast, prefers meals high in protein to stay full during the late hours. "My eating pattern looks a lot different when working night shifts versus day shifts, so I try to have a high-protein diet with minimal sugar to feel my best," says Findura.

Mateusz Solarczyk, CCRN-N, an ICU travel nurse who works day shifts and also co-hosts the Cup of Nurses podcast, focuses on eating well-balanced meals for long-term energy. "There are four main categories I think of [when planning meals]—a form of protein, both vegetables and fruits for great sources of minerals and vitamins, and nuts or seeds for the healthy fats," he says. The bottom line is that both nurses try to eat balanced meals to ensure they're fueling their body with the necessary energy required to stay alert until the end of their shift. Ready to learn more about what nurses eat? Read on.

1. Overnight oats

If cooking in the morning isn't your thing and you prefer an easy-to-prep breakfast before or during your shift, you can opt for overnight oats. "Usually, as a nurse, you're constantly on the go, so [preparing] overnight oats ahead of time can be an awesome meal or snack for busy shifts," says Solarczyk. Just like traditional oatmeal, overnight oats are a great source of fiber and protein and are full of essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and magnesium. And everyone knows how key eating breakfast is for boosting energy levels.

"I also like to add oats, water or milk, peanut butter, berries, toppings like nuts, chia seeds, or flax seeds to store overnight," Solarczyk adds. But before loading up on the toppings, try to save them on the side to avoid them from getting soggy in the fridge.

2. Protein-rich salads

Time is key when working a 12-hour shift, which is why both Findura and Solarczyk opt for protein-rich salads during busier shifts. Salads provide convenience and easy meal prep, and they're a great way to add nutrient-dense ingredients to an already versatile meal.

"I typically add protein such as chicken, steak, or turkey, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and avocado for healthy fats," says Solarczyk. Findura, on the other hand, likes to make a bacon and broccoli salad with a salad dressing made with mayonnaise, vinegar, and honey.

3. Protein with a side of veggies

Findura works night shifts that typically begin around 7 p.m., so when planning his lunch for the day, he prefers a high-protein diet. Prioritizing protein in his meals also helps him full for the remainder of his night shift, which typically ends around 7 a.m.

"I go with about a pound to a pound and a half of some kind of meat such as chicken or beef steak, with vegetables like spinach, kale, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, collard greens, bok choy, and a side of a fruit," Findura adds. "Certain carbs, like rice, don't tend to sit well with me when working, so I try to limit them to avoid digestive discomfort."

In addition to chicken and turkey, Solarczyk considers North Atlantic salmon as a staple to his meals and tries to eat it once a week. Salmon is considered one of the best sources of vitamin B12, which is a great protein source that can help reduce fatigue and increase energy levels.

4. Tacos

Tacos during lunch are always a great choice (especially on Tuesdays), but they can also act as a quick meal that offers protein, carbohydrates, and fats. "I like tacos with ground beef for my protein, tortillas, salsa verde or veggies like mushrooms, broccoli, bok choy with quinoa on the side," says Solarczyk. Quinoa provides slow-release carbohydrates and amino acids that can provide sustainable energy, especially on busier days with less downtime.

Tacos are also quick to assemble during shorter lunch breaks, making them easier to fuel your body in less time. Similarly to overnight oats, having your toppings on the side may be helpful to avoid them getting soggy by your break.

5. Yogurt parfaits

Yogurt parfaits are easy to make and act as a great snack or light breakfast. "I prefer to mix Greek yogurt, granola, chia seeds, and fruit like cherries for an easy snack," shares Solarczyk.

The protein in the Green yogurt can help you stay full until your next meal, while the fruits can provide great antioxidants and vitamins needed to help you feel alert and focused. You can prepare your own yogurt parfaits or purchase premade parfaits to take on the go.

6. RxBars

In an ideal world, there’d always be time for a sit down lunch, but that’s not always the case as a nurse. For that reason, Solarczyk and Findura try to keep RxBars on hand for an easy snack that’s made with simple ingredients and packed with tons of flavor. Each bar offers 12 grams of protein and five grams of fiber, making it an easy snack to save for lunchtime or a mid-shift snack to help you stay alert.

7. A protein shake

In addition to protein-rich meals, Findura also enjoys protein shakes for days when his meals have less protein. "This is an easy way to get protein to hold me off for the rest of my night shift when I know I won't get a break in for a few hours," he says. "I reach for whey protein with a complete amino acid profile, high protein content, low carb content, and no preservatives."

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