Random Ephemera

The Care and Feeding of a Nurse Working 13-Hour Shifts

A typical lunch for my wife.
Photo by Jef Rouner
A typical lunch for my wife.
I wrote a while back about the unique challenges of living with a night shift worker. Luckily, my NICU nurse wife was able to transition to a regular day schedule and now lives mostly like a normal human. That doesn’t mean that my role as a caregiver has ended.

If you were to ask me what my greatest fear was I would say “sharks getting in the swimming pool” because that’s how irrational fears work. My second greatest fear is that my wife, who works 13-hour shifts, will not eat enough. I obsess over this constantly. So today, I decided to pass on what I’ve learned feeding someone like a hospital nurse or other extremely busy person in hopes it will guide the way for others with spouses on such schedules.

1. Snacks. Always Snacks
My wife has a big fuck-off lunch bag. I have legitimately taken smaller bags on tour than she takes her lunch in for a single shift. What’s in this bag? Snacks. Lots of snacks.

Peanut butter crackers. Hummus. Chocolates. Bananas. Babybel cheeses. I keep a running list in my head of what she can scarf on the go. Anything to make sure she’s getting the calories she needs. This addition to whatever her proper lunch actually is. Speaking of…

2. Calories! Calories! Calories!
My wife’s current preferred lunch is Amy’s Mac and Cheese. If Amy’s Mac and Cheese is not available, she’ll have their spinach enchiladas or their cheese ravioli. Before that, I would pack her slices of spinach quiche or homemade turkey burgers.

Again, the goal here was to get calories into her. My hatemail has proven to me that people do not necessarily understand the difference between “nutritious” and “healthy.” The former is concerned with caloric intake (an important aspect of life), the latter is concerned with a host of dietary rules regarding fat, vitamins, etc. Calories are the means of energy for people in high-impact occupations.

3. The Importance of Front Loading
A pretty typical schedule for my wife is two or three days on, a few off, and then repeat. We know that it’s unlikely she’s going to have anything like a leisurely meal in the middle of those shifts.

That’s where Chuy’s comes in with their stacked enchiladas. Or sometimes I’ll make a many country family dinner starring chicken and all the carbohydrate trimmings. It’s the bodily equivalent of keeping the car gassed up before a storm hits so that you have reserves to draw on when supplies are low. Marathon runners will tell you the same thing.

4. But You Have to Think About Health, Too
It’s all well and good to focus on the coal in the engine, but it’s very easy to get into the bad habit of convenient, not-so-healthy food. The microwave stuff is fine, but it contains a hell of a lot of salt and not nearly as many vegetables as might be desired.

You can get around that without sacrificing ease with a few options. Breakfast bars and nuts are good for adding fiber to the diet, and that will aid the intestinal tract in sucking up the good stuff. Dried fruit snacks like banana chips or go-tos like celery or carrot sticks can help maintain vitamins in the field until your spouse returns home for dinner. Portable vegetable juices like V8 are relatively healthy as long as you remember that they are losing most of the fiber in the juicing process. Helping a busy spouse stay healthy sometimes involves taking nutritional potshots to help get at least some good stuff in the breaks between demanding tasks.

5. Keep Comfort Food Ready to Go
I like to have a nice, hot meal ready for my wife at the end of her shift, and I keep a little log of all the meals she likes and how long it takes to prepare them from the time she leaves work to her average drive home. It’s a nice thing to do, and an excellent method to put a healthy end-cap on a series of shifts.

If things are rough at work though? That’s when the emergency store comes into play. These are simple, filling things adults aren’t supposed to have for dinner but can be as calming as a back rub for a busy spouse after a long night. More mac and cheese, favorite brands of frozen pizzas, a big plate of nothing but instant homestyle buttery mashed potatoes, fixin’s for grilled cheese sandwiches etc. Depending on how rough a shift is, your spouse might want to just collapse into bed without supper. Being able to whip up a favorite delicacy in minutes can help convince them that a few bites is worth the effort before they rest and get back to work.

The sticker on my car from Penzey’s Spices says, “Love people! Cook them good food!” That’s a personal motto of mine. When I send my wife out into the world to save babies, I do my part to keep her fed while she’s doing it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.