Meal Hacks for Emergency and Healthcare Professionals
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.
- Let your grocery store do the work by purchasing fresh-cut fruits and veggies, premade salads, rotisserie chicken, or any number of ready-to-eat options.
- Buy single-serve packages or pre-portion larger packs into smaller bags or plasticware.
- Prepare extra portions whenever cooking a meal and store leftovers in single-serve containers to bring to work later.
- Keep stocked so you always have options even when life gets hectic. Canned lentils, tuna pouches, microwave rice, frozen veggies—there are plenty of options that can be bought in bulk and stored in your freezer or pantry for months.
- Group meals with like-minded coworkers might be a suitable fit for some work environments. Individuals can take turns preparing a meal for the rest of the group to alleviate some of the meal preparation burden.
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.
- Assemble individual ingredients at mealtime rather than at home. Keep your bread separate from the condiments and fixings to avoid a soggy sandwich. Don’t mix dressings with veggies. Keep items that need to be warmed up separate from the cold items (think warm beans and cold veggies on a taco). A bento box can be a great way to keep your meals organized and ingredients separated.
- Find suitable substitutes for foods that just don’t stay fresh or reheat well. If your baby greens get wilted, try subbing for cabbage or kale. If reheated cheese sauces make your pasta rubbery, try a sauce with more water content like marinara.
- To keep your salad crisp, try a mason jar salad. Pour your dressing in the bottom of a mason jar. Next, add any juicy ingredients, like tomatoes. Then finish with your other veggies. Reserve any croutons, cheese, or other toppings in a separate container. Keep your container right-side-up with the dressing on the bottom so it doesn’t get on your veggies. Once you’re ready to eat, either shake your salad or simply dump it out in a bowl and let the dressing permeate through.
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.
- Stocking your fridge and pantry should be your priority.
- Chop produce and store for 2-3 days. A little lemon juice can delay browning of fruits like apples and avocados. Storing celery and carrots in water can prevent them from developing a white film. A damp (not soaking) paper towel at the bottom of plasticware can help keep other cut produce crisper.
- Make large batches of rice or pasta and use within 4-6 days. Keep your repertoire fresh with creative combinations like Italian sauces, veggies, and canned meat, or look for Indian entrees like madras lentils or Punjab eggplant, which you can often find ready-made in pouches.
- Roast a chicken or cook a beef or pork roast. Portion this into individual containers and use within 3-4 days.
- Make meals in bulk and store in a microwave-safe container in your fridge for 3-5 days or freeze for months. Try making your own healthy frozen burritos with beans, roasted peppers and onions, cheese, or meat. Store in freezer bags until you’re ready to use.
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.
- Online shopping and automatic shipments can be tremendous time savers. Shop whenever, wherever and set a schedule for regular pantry staples so you don’t have to worry about running out of them.
- A sufficient supply of quality food storage containers can help you plan and portion for meals in advance. Make sure the container is appropriate for its intended use. Microwave-safe containers and plasticware with spill-proof lids for liquids are helpful. Produce storage bags and containers can also extend the life of both chopped and whole produce in your fridge or pantry. Insulated bags, thermoses, and other containers can keep food hot or cold for hours when microwaves or fridges aren’t available.
- If your workplace doesn’t have a fridge or cupboard, consider investing in one for your personal workspace. Keep foods stocked at your workplace to avoid the need to bring anything from home.
- Purchase useful kitchen gadgets for work like a crockpot, toaster oven, air fryer, blender, or even an old-fashioned knife and cutting board. This is especially helpful for professionals who have some downtime at work. Anyone, however, can throw some prepped ingredients into a crockpot at the start of their shift or toss a few fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables into a blender for a smoothie.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.