Eating well at work
Different working situations present different healthy eating challenges. HFG nutritionist Claire Turnbull has advice on how to keep on track with healthy eating, whatever your work routine.
Office or retail job
Eating well when you’re working a nine-to-five job with limited time for breaks can pose challenges. The availability of tempting unhealthy food around you, limited cooking facilities to make healthy lunches, and the need to grab something quick at lunchtime can mean it is easy to end up eating more kilojoules each day than you need.
Work out roughly how much food you need to eat during your working day then take it with you. If you have lunch and two snacks at work, your daily food should include one or two pieces of fruit, one or two serves of veges, some healthy carbohydrates (grainy bread, crackers, rice, pasta, leftover roasted veges) and some protein such as meat, chicken, fish or eggs. Most of us need one or two serves of dairy at work, too – try a trim latté, low-fat yoghurt or a slice of reduced-fat cheese.
With a little forward planning you can make sure you have tasty things to eat at work. Cook a little bit extra at night to make a tasty lunch the next day. Transform a roasted chicken dinner into the following day’s lunch: add leftover chicken to a big handful of spinach or rocket and roasted veges for a salad. Leftover mince from a chilli or bolognese? Have it for lunch on a slice of grainy toast.
If you regularly forget lunch or snacks, have a desk drawer or locker stash of emergency foods. Store nuts, seeds, canned soups, ready-made pasta packs, two-minute rice cups, canned tuna and salmon and tubs of fruit. Include a jar of chutney and a low-fat dressing, to add flavour.
Keep a box of cereal at work to ensure you don’t miss breakfast.
At morning tea shouts, remind yourself you will see cake again – you don’t have to eat it just because it’s there. Try having a healthy snack before you go to the morning tea so you are less hungry or have just one thing rather than trying everything.
If snack boxes are your weakness, move them out of your eye line. Out of sight…
Working late can mean takeaway food is your only option, in which case choose a stir-fry style meal if possible such as steamed rice with lean meat or fish and veges. Even better, if there is a freezer at work, place your own ready meals or leftovers in there in a bag with your name on it.
If you often buy your lunch, look online to see if you can find the nutritional information for your favourites. Aim for lunches with less than 2000kJ and 10g fat, and a snack with less than 600kJ and 5g fat. Include as many vegetables and fruits as you can.
If work lunches are part of your job, the mentality that someone else is paying often means we feel the need to make the most of it. But extra food is not free. When you arrive at the restaurant, order water at the table and have a glass before you drink any alcohol. Try sparkling water instead of wine and order an entrée-sized meal with a side of vegetables or a salad to get a little more balance.
Working shifts can be hard on your body and mind so eating well is really important to stay feeling well. It can be tough to know what to eat at what time of the day, and with ‘junk’/ high-fat food often the easiest to access, maintaining a healthy balance of foods requires a little bit of thought.
When you are working odd hours, don’t get hung up on the time of day but think instead about how you will get all the nutrition you need into your body over 24 hours. In a day, this is what to aim for:
ONE breakfast-style meal, eg.
- cereal with trim milk and fruit
- porridge with trim milk and fruit
- smoothie with trim milk, low-fat yoghurt, fruit, nuts/seeds and oats
ONE light meal including some veges, healthy carbohydrate and lean protein, eg.
- couscous with chicken and salad
- vege soup with grainy toast and cottage cheese
- eggs or beans on toast
ONE main meal, eg.
- spaghetti bolognese with veges
- chicken curry with veges
- roasted lamb with roasted veges and greens
- stew or casserole
- fish, kumara and salad
ONE OR TWO small snacks, eg.
- fruit and low-fat yoghurt
- crackers with hummus and vege sticks
The order of the meals will vary depending on the type of shift you are doing, but as long as you get them in over the 24 hours, you know you will get the nutrition you need.
Sit down for 10 minutes each week with your shift pattern in front of you and look at the week ahead. Make a rough plan of what you might eat and what you need to buy, so it is easy to shop, even if you are tired.
Make sure the meal you have before you start your shift is packed with as much nutrition as possible. If you are working a night shift this will probably be a healthy dinner, then take a light meal and light snack to work and have breakfast when you get home. If you are working an early morning shift you might want to try a smoothie before you go, take a main meal and a snack and have a light meal or bowl of cereal when you get home.
As tempting as it is to dose up on caffeine, overdoing it isn’t helpful. Keep your fluids up with green tea, peppermint tea, chai and water.
If you find yourself picking all night, take sugar-free chewing gum or drink water. If you can, brush your teeth in your breaks which can help break the cycle of eating out of boredom.
For those who have active, physical jobs, it can seem quite normal to feel tired all the time. There are the challenges of being out all day, working over mealtimes or being stuck on site with limited cooking facilities and easy access to junk food and sugary drinks.
The easy option is grabbing things on the go. But eating that way makes it harder for your body to do what it needs to do and it is far more likely you will end up crashing out when you get home from work. To avoid fatigue and get the most from your day, eating right is essential.
Pack a chilly bin or bag full of healthy supplies for the day:
- one or two bottles of water
- two pieces of fruit
- a healthy lunch – leftovers, sandwiches, frittata, meat loaf, wraps, stuffed mini pita pockets, leftover stir-fry
- one or two healthy, filling snacks such as fruit buns, cereal bars, fruit biscuits, soups, hard-boiled eggs, dried fruit and nuts, one or two pottles of low-fat yoghurt.
Keep these at hand, at work:
- a bag of oats and a packet of sultanas – if you have access to a microwave, porridge is a great super-healthy breakfast or snack to warm you up in winter
- a box of cereal – if there is milk available on site, have a bowl of Weet-Bix or muesli
- cans of tuna, salmon, sardines, baked beans, spaghetti and soup
- tubs of fruit in juice
- cans of creamed rice – a high carbohydrate, low-fat snack.
If you do have to buy food, head to the supermarket and get ingredients to build your own sandwich: bread rolls, shredded chicken or lean meat from the deli, and a handful of salad leaves. Or try ready-made tabouli or a low-fat potato salad or roasted vege salad from the deli section then add shredded chicken.
At the bakery, choose something bread-based over pastry: it is likely to be lower in fat. Go for a filled roll or sandwich with grainy bread.
Water is fine for most people. Watch out for sugary drinks. Sport drinks are only for those doing very heavy labour who heavily sweat (particularly in the summer months). Sport drinks can have as much as 14 teaspoons of sugar in a bottle and as many kilojoules as a chocolate bar.
If your job is very physical, you are likely to be burning lots of energy every day. Healthy, high- energy snacks which might help:
- nuts and dried fruit
- One Square Meal bars
- liquid breakfast drinks
- fruit bread (to toast at work)
- high-fibre bran muffins.
Tips for truckies
Eating pies every day when you’re in a sedentary job is a recipe for weight gain and heart problems. Like shift workers, you need to avoid the temptations of unhealthy food on the road by planning ahead and taking enough food for your journey. For those days when the plan falls apart:
- At the service station buy low-fat yoghurt, chilled fresh fruit or cheese and crackers.
- Keep a pack of muesli bars and other healthy snacks on hand (but out of sight).
- At the bakery choose filled rolls or wholemeal/wholegrain sandwiches and step away from the pies and cakes.
Being at home with kids can sometimes make you long to be back in the office! With little people constantly needing your attention, it is not surprising many stay-at-home parents feel like hitting the ice-cream tub and chocolate bars after a long day. Add to the mix the challenge of getting to the supermarket with little ones, and it can be impossible to even remember to eat something yourself, let alone work out what to eat.
Having the right food on hand is a great first step. See if you can work out a routine with a friend or a family member to look after each other’s kids for an hour a week to allow you to get to the shops.
Remember you need to eat well too – as a parent it can be so easy to put your kids first and forget about yourself. Kids also learn a lot about food and eating habits from watching the way you eat. As you are prepping food for the kids, make yourself something at the same time, even if it is just a sandwich or getting some soup out and putting it on the bench to remind you to eat it later.
At a coffee group or with a group of friends, make up a two-week menu planner. Work out a routine of dinners and lunches you could do for two weeks and write a shopping list. If someone types it up, you can all use it until you get bored with the meals. Then when you next catch up, swap a few recipes in and out, tweak the shopping list and you are set for another fortnight.
Online shopping can be a godsend if you just don’t have time to go to the supermarket.
When you do get to the shops, buy things which will make yourself a quick and easy meal: canned or fresh soups, eggs to have on toast, as an omelette, or boiled for a quick snack, cottage cheese to have on crackers or toast, low-fat yoghurt to have with a chopped piece of fruit and a few tablespoons of muesli.
While making dinner, have a think about the next day – what do you have on? Where will you be? Prepare a few extra veges to munch on or pack to take out with you. Place the things you want to eat the next day at the front of the fridge where you can easily see and grab them.
When the kids are having their afternoon tea, prepare yours at the same time and sit with them to eat it – you will be less likely to pick at theirs.
Edamame beans are a great snack – take them from the freezer and zap in the microwave. Homemade popcorn is fun, low in kilojoules and great for kids, too.
Keep up your fluids – it can be easy to forget about drinking when you are super-busy. Set yourself a goal to help make sure you are drinking enough. Try having one drink each hour or every time you go to the kitchen, or have a water bottle you aim to refill two to three times each day.
If you find yourself wanting a chocolate fix at the end of the day, try a low-fat chocolate mousse, chocolate dairy food or a low-fat hot chocolate. Or for a different sweet treat, blend a handful of frozen berries with low-fat yoghurt and a splash of milk – it’s like a mini sorbet with less sugar.
Balancing a tight budget with a fluctuating workload, study and exams can mean it is easier to opt for the two-minute noodles and toast option, than to plan and cook a healthy meal. But when you need your brain to work at its best and you want to feel good about the day ahead, eating well is a real priority. It is about finding quick, easy and cheap solutions which work for you.
If you are flatting and share cooking, encourage flatmates to plan meals for the week together – planning ahead can save you heaps of money and time.
Start a flat cookbook. Bored with eating the same five meals every week? Make sure at least one person who cooks tries a new recipe (see this website for heaps of recipes under $3.50/serve). If the recipe is a hit with the whole flat, add it to your flat cookbook. After a few weeks, you will have a variety of tasty, cheap recipes which you know work for everyone. This makes planning your meals and writing your shopping list for the week a lot easier – and cheaper.
When you are studying for hours on end, it’s easy to get the munchies and start picking at food in the cupboard or reaching for sweet treats. Rather than sitting at your desk nibbling away on junk food, try a healthy snack:
- a bowl of Mini-Wheats or Mini-Bix with trim milk
- a low-fat yoghurt with a tablespoon of muesli stirred through
- a banana blended with trim milk and a teaspoon of honey.
Keep well hydrated. When you are bored it can be easy to eat when you don’t need to. Get in the habit of putting the kettle on instead for a cup of tea, green tea or herbal tea.
If you are studying and can’t concentrate, rather than reaching for a coffee or energy drink, get some daylight and fresh air for 10 minutes. A short brisk walk is enough to clear the brain fog and help you focus – far better than loading yourself with unnecessary sugar and stimulants.
Oats are cheap and make a great breakfast or snack when you are super-hungry. Add oats to smoothies – to make them more filling.
Rather than reaching for deep-fried noodles, try couscous. It is as easy as boiling the jug. Stir through a can of flavoured tuna or salmon and a chopped tomato or two for a quick, cheap, healthy snack.
Buy canned fruit in juice when it is on special. You will always have something for a healthy breakfast or snack.
Eggs make a great meal or snack – boiled, scrambled, poached on wholegrain toast or made into an omelette or a frittata with veges.
Check out the frozen section. Frozen veges, low-fat oven chips and fish can make a quick meal.