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Meal Hacks for Emergency and Healthcare Professionals

Meal Hacks for Emergency and Healthcare Professionals

firefighter preparing meal at home

A report from the USDA found that one of the greatest contributors to poor diet quality and overconsumption among US adults was eating out. The report also found that working long hours not only increased the likelihood of eating out, it was also associated with even greater reductions in diet quality and overconsumption than eating out while not working long hours.1 Due to the nature of their work, firefighters2 and medical professionals3 often report eating out and appear to be equally susceptible to the ill effects of this habit. What’s a working professional to do? Bring homemade meals to work. 

Not only can meals from home lead to healthier eating habits, they’re also less expensive. A recent survey featured in Forbes analyzed a popular recipe database. The survey found the average recipe cost per serving, based on the cost of ingredients at Whole Foods, to be $4.31.4 The same survey determined the average menu item at a casual dining restaurant to be $15.37 (not including tip) while another survey in Business Insider estimated the average amount spent per person at a fast-food restaurant was $5.62.5 Furthermore, the cost difference between meals out and home cooking doesn’t appear to be getting any better. According to the consumer price index, meals purchased outside the home have increased by roughly 2-3% each year over the past 5 years while groceries have remained roughly the same price.6

Healthier…cheaper…yeah, but nobody wants a soggy sandwich or wilted lettuce, and who’s got the time to prepare a meal (or 3) every day before work? Read on for hacks that even the busiest professional can use to find time to prepare meals for work at home plus tips to improve the freshness and quality of those meals.

While this article focuses on how to overcome common barriers to packing a meal, simply bringing food from home isn’t enough to improve your diet. The food should still be healthy. For ideas on what foods to bring, I recommend reading my article from last month on how to build a balanced and nutritious meal. 

1. Keep it simple.

Making or prepping a meal for work can be overwhelming when you have limited time at home between shifts. Focus on having meals or meal components ready so packing your lunch box is as simple as pulling a few items out of your pantry or fridge.

2. Choose the right foods and pack appropriately.

Some foods are just as good (or nearly as good) microwaved or stored in the fridge. Others are best left to fresh meals at home. Still, others can be packed in such a way to keep them fresh and tasty longer.

3. Use your days off.

A few hours on your day off can simplify meal packing for days or even months to come. Make your commitment to healthy meals a priority and schedule the time in your calendar.

4. Leverage gadgets and technology.

Our lives seem busier now than ever, but we also have more tools and services available to save time shopping and cooking.

As you start packing lunches from home, remember: it’s not all or nothing. Set a realistic goal and stick with it. Three or even one meal from home each week is better than none. If you’re too ambitious with your goal, failure becomes acceptable because success is impossible. If you do fall short on a given week or need to adjust your goal during a particularly tumultuous time, there’s nothing wrong with that. Acknowledge and learn from your experience and continue working toward your goal of bringing healthy and balanced meals from home.


  1.  Mancino L, Kinsey J. Is dietary knowledge enough? Hunger, stress, and other roadblocks to healthy eating. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Economic Research Report-62. August 2008.
  2. Dobson M, Choi B, Schnall PL, et al. Exploring occupational and health behavioral causes of firefighter obesity: a qualitative study. Am J Ind Med. 2013;56(7):776‐790.
  3. Power BT, Kiezebrink K, Allan JL, Campbell MK. Understanding perceived determinants of nurses’ eating and physical activity behaviour: a theory-informed qualitative interview study. BMC Obes. 2017;4:18.
  4. Priceonomics. Here’s how much money you save by cooking at home. July 10, 2018. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2018/07/10/heres-how-much-money-do-you-save-by-cooking-at-home/#3cee9f7735e5.
  5. Lutz A. How much it costs to eat at every major fast-food chain. September 4, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/cost-to-eat-at-every-major-fast-food-chain-2015-9.
  6. Bartash J. Cost of eating out is rising a lot faster than buying groceries (and cooking at home). July 11, 2019. Retrieved May 18, 2020. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/eating-out-is-getting-a-lot-more-expensive-than-buying-groceries-and-cooking-at-home-2019-07-11.

Ron Beckstrom, nutritionist, shares dietary strategies for shift workersRon Beckstrom is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and writer. As a retail dietitian, Ron advises on and writes about the latest food trends and products and has been featured on numerous local news outlets. Ron has worked in various settings as a health professional including hospitals, corporate wellness, and nutritional supplement R&D. Ron is also a member of the Utah National Guard where he serves as an operations officer.