Bartending schedules don’t always make regular meals easy: you’re often too harried before a shift to make something healthy, or too tired afterwards to care. But, getting the proper fuel during your day can make a world of difference in performance and energy levels, not to mention your waistline and long-term health. We spoke to nutritionist Molly Kimball in New Orleans about how to sustain yourself before, during, and after a shift so that your well isn’t the only thing in tip-top shape.
“The first thing I tell anyone is to eat throughout the day,” says Molly. “One of the worst things we do to our bodies is go long stretches of time without eating or drinking.” Eating every few hours will keep your energy levels steady and prevent you from entering the danger zone of “hangry,” when you’re more likely to overeat.
Molly specializes in teaching people how to integrate real-world nutrition into their busy, daily lives. Her key to healthy eating on the go? Pre-planning. “If you want to make better eating choices, you must take a little time to plan. The healthy stuff isn’t usually right there to reach for.”
There are lots of options for eating balanced, nutritious meals or snacks before a shift. Molly suggests whole grains and protein, especially before a shift, because they stick with you. Chili is a good option, with or without meat, because of its high protein levels. Another good before-shift meal is a wrap or sandwich, made with whole or sprouted grain bread and wraps. Use romaine lettuce, tomato and cheese, and you’ve got something that is easy to make and is full of protein, good carbs, a little healthy fat and fiber.
One often-overlooked resource for healthy, fast, portion-controlled meals? The frozen food section of the grocery store. Skip over the Totino’s and head for brands that offer high-protein microwavable meals in a variety of cuisines, like Evol, Kashi, Artisan Bistro and Tandoor Chef. Just be sure to keep an eye on sodium levels as you’re shopping — they can be fairly high in frozen meals.
If you’ve run out of time or food before work, Molly suggests heading to the nearest Subway, getting a six-inch sub on their whole wheat bread and doubling the meat. Chipotle also has a number of hidden healthy options beyond the queso and carnitas.
A common complaint among bartenders is having no time to eat while working, or having break time infringed upon. “If you’re someone constantly in the the public eye, whether you’re a bartender, a politician, or a doctor,” says Molly, “there are always options for something quick to eat.”
She suggests trying a ready-to-drink protein drink, such as Orgain, Muscle Milk, Pure Protein, or Iconic. Many can even be ordered on Amazon — just be sure to look for high protein and low sugar. If you need to be inconspicuous about what you’re drinking at work, put the protein drink into a to-go coffee mug or a solid water bottle. Protein bars are also enough to take the edge off of hunger, and are easy to eat quickly or in small bites over a period of time. Keep them in the wrapper and, if you have to put it away quickly, you can stuff it in your pocket without making a mess of your clothes.
For some, energy is needed immediately at the start of a shift. “Many people grab coffee on the way to work because they’re running late and want a boost,” says Molly. “but, nutritionally, that gives you next to nothing.” If you need a caffeine fix, keep cold-brew coffee concentrate (store-bought or homemade) on hand and add it to your protein drink for an energy boost along with the staying power of protein.
Nuts are another good option for mid-shift snacking. A handful (20-24) of roasted or natural unsalted almonds packs six grams of protein and less than 200 calories. Peanuts are also excellent, with slightly more protein per serving than almonds, and are always cheaper. If you don’t like plain, unsalted nuts, check out brands like Emerald and Planters for unique flavors from cinnamon sugar to smokey barbecue (just know that some may have higher sugar or sodium levels).
Forget the idea that you shouldn’t eat after a certain time in the evenings: that rule simply doesn’t work for bartenders. “The time of day is irrelevant to fat loss and gains,” says Molly. “You just don’t want to eat a huge amount of food before you go to bed. Instead, try to leave a two-hour window between [eating] a significantly sized meal and going to sleep.” If you’ve just had a snack, thirty minutes should be fine.
If you’re out to eat after a shift, search the menu for lean protein such as fish, chicken, or tofu, and vegetables, plant-based oils like olive oil, low added sugar, and no white carbs. If fast food drive-throughs are your only late-night option, there are still options. “At a fast-food joint,” Molly says, “you can often find a grilled chicken sandwich. Toss half or all of the bread.”
Even if you’re too exhausted to pick up food on your way home, a late-night bowl of cereal can suffice. Try Special K Protein, which is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates and sugar than most cereals, with an unsweetened vanilla almond milk instead of regular milk.
Don’t Just Diet
And, lastly, we’d be remiss not to mention that nutrition and exercise go hand-in-hand. Lindsay Wright, a personal trainer and gym manager in Oklahoma City, maintains that while diet is the most important, working out is still key to a healthy lifestyle. “Even in its most simple form—like walking the dog—exercise is a natural anti-depressant and stress reliever,” she says. And, it can be done at any time of the day. Check your area for a nearby 24-hour gym. “We get people in the gym at 4:00 a.m. who walk for 20-30 minutes on the treadmill just to wind down.”
If you’re already making healthy choices with food, you’ll have more energy and will be more inclined to exercise. “It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle,” says Lindsey. “If you’re working out regularly, you’ll be less likely to eat bad food because not only will you see physical results, you’ll realize how bad food makes you feel.” Which might just mean that you’ll find yourself reaching for the salads and sandwiches over pub grub or pizza.