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On-the-Go Meals for Healthcare & Emergency Professionals

Eating healthy in the workplace can be challenging. Healthcare workers report numerous barriers to healthy eating, including limited or inconveniently located healthy food offerings, lack of breaks, and the expense of healthy foods.1 Similarly, in a survey among a group of firefighters and paramedics, respondents cited a culture of eating out, cost, and meal interruptions to answer calls as common barriers to healthy eating.2 Shift work3 or round-the-clock, on-call shifts4 may make healthy eating even more difficult. 

Bringing meals from home is a simple solution to eating healthier. Homemade meals are convenient, readily available, easily stored if interrupted by a call or short break, and often more affordable than eating out. With a little planning in your grocery shopping, creating healthy meals doesn’t need to be complicated. Packing your meal from home can take less than 3 minutes and is as simple as combining 3 essential elements: calories to fuel your activity and body processes, protein to support growth and maintenance of body tissues and chemicals, and fruits and vegetables to provide essential micronutrients required for proper function and health. 


Fat and carbohydrates are the primary sources of calories in your diet. The ratio of fats to carbohydrates will vary depending on your goals and lifestyle. Healthy eating patterns can range from the low-fat Ornish diet5 to the fat-heavy keto diet.6 A more moderate approach is typically suggested, however, with the Institute of Medicine recommending that 45-65% of calories be from carbohydrates and 20-35% from fat.7 A good rule of thumb is to eat about twice as many calories from carbohydrates as you do from fat. Individuals engaged in high-intensity sports or exercise may benefit from a higher ratio of carbohydrate to fat.8

Your caloric need is specific to you and varies from day to day depending on your activity level. There are many ways to estimate daily calorie need. Following your own internal cues is an effective method and leads to healthy eating patterns.9 Eat when you are just starting to feel hungry. Stop when comfortably satisfied. Avoid getting too hungry or overeating. For chronic disease, weight loss, or sport performance where eating according to your hunger or fullness may not be the most effective method, a registered dietitian can be a great resource to help determine an appropriate calorie target to achieve your goals.


Protein is also a source of calories, but its primary function is as a structural component in cells, hormones, enzymes, and other chemicals. High-protein foods include meats, dairy, soy, beans, and nuts. Some protein sources like nuts and some meat and dairy may also contribute calories from fat to your diet. Protein should be evenly distributed throughout all meals during the day. A good target is to aim for 20-40 g of protein at each meal, depending on your daily protein needs. While the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight for adults (roughly 1/3 your body weight in lbs), recent evidence suggests this amount may be inadequate for older people, those attempting to lose weight, or athletes. The below chart provides recommendations for each group.

g protein/kg body weight Formula Daily g protein for 180 lb person
Adults >18 yrs 0.8  10 Weight (lbs) / 2.75 65
Adults > 60 yrs 1.2  11 Weight (lbs) / 1.8 100
Adults Weightloss 1.2-1.6  12 Weight (lbs) / 1.8-1.4 100-130
Athletes 1.4-2.0  13 Weight (lbs) / 1.6-1.1 115-160


The USDA recommends making half your plate (or lunchbox) fruits and vegetables at every meal.14 It’s estimated that inadequate fruit and vegetable intake is responsible for 5.6-7.8 million premature deaths annually from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.15 The inverse association between fruit and vegetable intake and disease is often attributed to the numerous vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables.16 There is limited and contradictory evidence regarding the health benefits of consuming these nutrients from multi-vitamins17 or fruit and vegetable concentrates such as greens drinks.18 From the data available, supplements may modestly reduce chronic disease risk but are not likely a suitable replacement for adequate fruit and vegetable intake. While most vegetables are low in calories, starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash as well as fruits may double as a good source of calories from carbohydrates. Additionally, many dressings, sauces, or oils added to fruits and vegetables will contribute calories from fat to your daily intake.

Healthy On-the-Go Meals

To show you how to put this meal planning system to work, I’ve provided a sample chart of pantry staples to keep stocked and some ways to combine them into a complete meal any time of day. Be creative and don’t be afraid to stray from convention as you create your own version to suit your tastes. I was known in college for eating bell peppers like apples – just wash and eat whole to avoid the work of slicing. 


  • Bread/tortilla
  • Crackers
  • Microwave rice/quinoa
  • Microwave frozen potatoes/squash
  • Oatmeal
  • Cereal
  • Granola bar


  • Hummus
  • Avocado
  • Olives
  • Dressings/sauces

  • Lunch meat
  • Chicken/tuna pouches
  • Boiled eggs
  • String cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • Milk cartons 
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Canned beans
  • Edamame beans
  • Bean crisps or chips
  • Protein bars
  • Protein shakes

  • Whole fruit/vegetables
  • Fresh-cut fruit/vegetables
  • Microwave frozen vegetables
  • Prewashed lettuce
  • Salad kits
  • Pickled beets
  • Seaweed
  • Dried fruit
  • Freeze-dried vegetables
  • Kale or beet chips
  • Cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juice

Sample breakfasts:

  • Granola, Greek yogurt, and fresh berries for a parfait
  • Bagel, boiled eggs, and sliced melon
  • Cereal, milk, and celery filled with peanut butter
  • Oatmeal with almond butter, a glass of milk, and cold-pressed orange juice
  • English muffin, egg salad, ham, pre-washed greens, tomato, and avocado for breakfast sandwich

Sample lunches:

  • Crackers, cottage cheese, and salad kit 
  • Tortilla, avocado, sliced turkey, and prewashed lettuce and tomato for a turkey wrap with an apple on the side
  • Bread, peanut butter, and honey for a sandwich with bean crisps and sugar snap peas
  • String cheese, carrots and hummus, and cold-pressed fruit juice
  • Granola bar, protein bar, kale chips, and dried fruit

Sample dinners:

  • Naan bread, canned lentils, and cherry tomatoes with grapes
  • Microwave rice, chicken pouch, and frozen vegetables in sauce combined in a bowl
  • French bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a salad topped with thick-cut turkey slices, canned garbanzos, and cheese 
  • Microwave squash, edamame beans, and cup of pomegranate arils 
  • Crackers, protein shake, cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juice

Make a goal to bring food from home every day and within a matter of weeks, you’ll be a pro. You’ll discover new foods at the grocery store and find your own efficient ways to pack your meals. Work with your manager or a worksite wellness contact if you encounter any environmental or cultural barriers. Don’t forget, once you’ve mastered the art of easy meals from home, share your newfound love with friends and coworkers.


  1.  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. Published 2017 May 9. doi:10.1186/s40608-017-0154-4.
  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. doi:10.1002/ajim.22151.
  3. Amani R, Gill T. Shiftworking, nutrition and obesity: implications for workforce health- a systematic review. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2013;22(4):505–515. doi:10.6133/apjcn.2013.22.4.11.
  4. Haddock CK, Poston WSC, Jahnke SA. 2011. Addressing the epidemic of obesity in the United States Fire Service–A report prepared by the National Volunteer Fire Council. Greenbelt, MD, Center for Fire, Rescue, and EMS Health Research, National Development and Research Institutes, LLC, National Volunteer Fire Council.
  5. Dansinger ML, Gleason JA, Griffith JL, Selker HP, Schaefer EJ. Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2005;293(1):43–53. doi:10.1001/jama.293.1.43.
  6. Ludwig DS. The Ketogenic Diet: Evidence for Optimism but High-Quality Research Needed [published online ahead of print, 2019 Dec 11]. J Nutr. 2019;nxz308. doi:10.1093/jn/nxz308.
  7. Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.
  8. Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance [published correction appears in J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):146]. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501–528. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006.
  9. Hazzard VM, Telke SE, Simone M, Anderson LM, Larson NI, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010-2018 [published online ahead of print, 2020 Jan 31]. Eat Weight Disord. 2020;10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4. doi:10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4.
  10. Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.
  11. Traylor DA, Gorissen SHM, Phillips SM. Perspective: Protein Requirements and Optimal Intakes in Aging: Are We Ready to Recommend More Than the Recommended Daily Allowance? Adv Nutr. 2018;9(3):171–182. doi:10.1093/advances/nmy003.
  12. Phillips SM, Chevalier S, Leidy HJ. Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016;41(5):565–572. doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0550.
  13. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. Published 2017 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8.
  14. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
  15. Aune D, Giovannucci E, Boffetta P, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Int J Epidemiol. 2017;46(3):1029–1056. doi:10.1093/ije/dyw319.
  16. Slavin JL, Lloyd B. Health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(4):506–516. doi:10.3945/an.112.002154.
  17. Blumberg JB, Bailey RL, Sesso HD, Ulrich CM. The Evolving Role of Multivitamin/Multimineral Supplement Use among Adults in the Age of Personalized Nutrition. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):248. Published 2018 Feb 22. doi:10.3390/nu10020248.
  18. Lorenzoni G, Minto C, Vecchio MG, et al. Fruit and Vegetable Concentrate Supplementation and Cardiovascular Health: A Systematic Review from a Public Health Perspective. J Clin Med. 2019;8(11):1914. doi:10.3390/jcm8111914.

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.


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