At the end of a long shift, when you’re feeling exhausted in more ways than one, the last thing you probably feel like doing is going home and cooking. It’s really tempting to pick up something on the way home or have dinner delivered once you get there—and that’s fine to do on occasion. But if you have the right foods on hand, you can put something together in just a few minutes that’s probably a lot healthier, and costs less, too.
With a little planning when you make your grocery list, you can stock your pantry and fridge with prepackaged, precut and precooked foods (along with some staples and standbys) that will give you plenty of healthy options throughout the week.
Healthy hacks from a nutrition expert
We reached out to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for some tips that busy nurses could use to rustle up a nutritious meal in a hurry.
“The key, really, with any convenience-type food is to choose wisely,” says Amy Kimberlain, RDN, LDN, CDCES. “Look for whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits and veggies as the key ingredients, and aim to keep sodium and added sugar in check.”
Check out a few of Kimberlain’s favorite healthy hacks.
Keep hummus on hand for snacks, sandwiches and salads. Hummus is made with chickpeas or other types of beans, which are a great source of protein, fiber, B vitamins and healthy fats. Try using hummus as a spread instead of mayo on sandwiches, or in wraps (with greens and your favorite protein). It also makes a delicious dip for fresh vegetables—think cucumber slices, tomato wedges, celery and carrot sticks, or whatever other garden goodies you like.
For a heartier dish, you can add hummus to a grain, like quinoa or farro, serve it over a bed of greens and add protein on top, such as a hard-boiled egg, salmon or leftover chicken. Top it off with a splash of lemon vinaigrette and dig in!
Kimberlain points out that the grain can be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator to use throughout the week. Just sprinkle a little water on it when you reheat.
Add prewashed spinach to canned soup. This healthy hack works best with lentil soup, since lentils are full of fiber and protein, but minestrone, vegetable, tomato, and other soups will work as well. By tossing in a green leafy vegetable, you’re boosting your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, not to mention making the soup taste better.
Kimberlain notes that while soups are typically high in sodium, low-sodium options are available. You can also take into consideration what you eat the rest of the day and look at your overall sodium intake for the day.
Start your day with ‘overnight’ oats. This is a simple breakfast that’s fun to prepare, and it’s a healthier alternative to the instant packets of oatmeal that can be high in sugar and sodium. Because they’re packed with protein and healthy fats, they’re also more likely to keep you full.
In a small jar or bowl, combine 1/2 cup of rolled oats, 1/2 cup of milk of choice and 1/4 cup of plain yogurt. Add a tablespoon of nut butter, a tablespoon of chia, hemp or flax seeds, and fresh or frozen fruit (to sweeten your oats naturally). Stir, cover and refrigerate a few hours or overnight. It can be made a couple of days in advance, and can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Dress up pre-washed salad or slaw. Consider this your new go-to when you’re hungry and in a hurry. Start with pre-washed salad or slaw available at most grocery stores and add fresh veggies, such as cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots and onion. Toss in some nuts or seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, flax, and/or hemp, to name a few). Add avocado slices along with some marinated baked tofu or a packet of tuna. Top with cheese, toss with dressing, and dinner is served.
But, buyer beware: As with any prepackaged food, check the nutritional facts. Bottled dressing can contain a lot of sugar and sodium. With salad kits, in particular, watch for added sugar and fat from dressings and toppings. To keep it simple—and healthy—dress your salad with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar or avocado oil and citrus juice.
Revisit the frozen food aisle. Frozen entrees have come a long way from the days of TV dinners. There are many brands creating healthier options these days. These can be a great option for nurses to have on hand in the freezer, in case they get busy on the floor and maybe aren’t able to eat whatever they brought that day. Aim for the sodium to be about 500 mg (or less).
Having a well-stocked pantry and fridge is key to being able to grab a few items and throw together a meal. “Sometimes we make meals seem more complicated than they really need to be,” Kimberlain says. “Sure, it takes a bit of planning (so you know what you’ll eat for the week), but that little bit of planning can save you time in the long run!”
Lisa Wilhelm is a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based writer and editor with nearly 30 years of experience across multiple industries, including healthcare. She has a BA in journalism and mass communications from the University of South Carolina.