How to Eat Healthy on an EMS Budget

Stay Strong  

Content provided by JEMS.

By Elizabeth Smith, EMT-B

One major hurdle for EMS personnel trying to eat healthy on the job is cost. Wages for the typical EMS provider are significantly lower than those of the average American. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median pay for EMTs and paramedics as of 2010 was $30,360 per year, or approximately $14.60 per hour.(1) Contrast this with the mean per capita income of Americans that same year: $39,937, based on data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.(2) This means that EMTs and paramedics make almost 24% less yearly than the national average. What does this mean to your efforts to purchase nutritious food? Short answer: You need to find ways to eat well on the cheap.

The good news is that healthy food doesn’t need to be any more costly than unhealthy food. There’s a common belief that buying fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy must be expensive. You know from experience that there’s a fast-food store on every corner selling cheeseburgers for a dollar and at that same restaurant, a salad costs five times as much. However, at the grocery store, nutritious options are frequently lower in price than their sugar- and salt-filled counterparts.

A recent study found that the average price per serving of fresh fruit is 28 cents, and a serving of fresh vegetables is even less at 21 cents.(3) Current dietary guidelines recommend about nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day, at a total daily cost of about $2.18. You can get all the fruits and veggies you need for less than you would spend on a fast-food breakfast combo.

For EMTs and paramedics working long hours and swing shifts, meal planning, smart shopping and a little bit of preparation are key to ensuring healthy and affordable choices. Devoting a few hours of your day off to preparing food for the rest of the week can make the difference between a week of healthy, low-cost, home-cooked meals and a week of scrambling to grab five-dollar sandwiches between calls. Try the following tactics to stretch your budget without stretching your waistline.

Plan ahead. Decide in advance which meals you’ll cook for the week based on sales and specials. Consider what produce is in season. If local stores have loyalty cards, use them to your benefit.
Don’t be overly choosy. You don’t necessarily need all fruits and vegetables to be fresh. Frozen options are virtually identical in nutrition to fresh, and canned ones are similar if you’re careful to select low-sodium products. For all types of products, don’t fear store brands. Most are of very similar quality to name brands, and they cost significantly less.
Stick to your list. When you go grocery shopping, buy only the things you need for your planned meals and snacks. Avoid the temptation to buy unhealthy chips and sodas just because you see them. If they aren’t right at hand, you are much less likely to mindlessly munch on them.
Prepare produce ASAP. As soon as you get home from the grocery store, wash and slice as many of your fresh fruits and vegetables as possible. Cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces and place them into plastic bags. Pull grapes off of the stem and put them into small containers. If healthy snacks are clean and prepared, you can easily toss them into your lunch box or grab them for breakfast as you’re walking out the door. If they’re still dirty and need chopped, chances are convenience will win out and your good intentions will remain sitting in the produce drawer.
Batch cook. Cook large batches of favorite meals, then divide them up into small, individual portion sizes. Buying in bulk is often cheaper than buying small amounts, and cooking once for several days will save you time and energy on days when you’re busy and tired.
Eat appropriate portions. Food will last longer if you only eat what your body needs. Eating too much will hurt both your calorie budget and your grocery shopping budget.
Put it in the box. After going to all the trouble to prepare your healthy meals and snacks, don’t forget the most important step of remembering to bring them to work. Invest in a quality lunch box with a thermal lining that’s big enough to hold the number of meals you need to pack—one, two or even three, depending on the length of your shift. Buy a good reusable ice pack that will keep your food cold. Use your judgment about storing your food in the refrigerator: if you go the entire shift without seeing the station, having a lunch box full of food you can’t access won’t do you any good. Keep things in the truck to munch on, and you will be better prepared to avoid the temptation when your partner stops for ice cream or fried chicken.
Take advantage of freebies. Many hospitals provide fresh fruit or low-calorie granola bars as part of their standard EMS room fare. Don’t hesitate to choose one of these snacks. They’re provided for your benefit! Just make sure you’re selecting a snack that’s good for your health and not taking junk simply because it is free.

The bottom line is to make healthy choices more affordable and convenient than unhealthy choices are. Do the best you can to prepare and package things in grab-and-go containers. When in doubt, purchase foods in their simplest form. As a general rule, the less commercial preparation a food has undergone, the cheaper and healthier it is. It will have more fiber, less sodium and fewer chemical preservatives. In addition, you don’t have to pay for the packaging and labor that you would with convenience foods. If you’re uncertain how to prepare something, never be afraid to ask. Produce clerks, butchers and bakery staff are great resources for any questions you may have. The Internet also has a wealth of information. For example, search “How do I clean an artichoke?” or “what can I do with frozen broccoli?” for countless videos and articles with step-by-step instructions on how to use your grocery purchases.

For more information on general low-cost eating, check out the resources provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA Recipe Finder allows you to search a database of recipes by ingredient and each recipe provides nutrition information and cost per serving.(4) also provides a thrifty seven-day menu plan that outlines a full week’s worth of meals with a total cost of $6.65 per person per day.(5)

1. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (March 29, 2012). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition: EMTs and Paramedics. In Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved  Aug. 27, 2012,
2. University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research. (March 8, 2012). Per capita personal income by state. In Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Retrieved Aug. 27, 2012, from/http:/
3. Produce Marketing Association. (September 2010). The cost of the recommended daily servings of fresh produce. In Produce Marketing Association. Retrieved Aug. 27, 2012,
4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Oct. 8, 2012). Recipe Finder. In U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved Aug. 27, 2012, from
5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (June 2012). Official USDA food plans: cost of food at home at four levels, U.S. average, May 2012. In U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved Aug. 27, 2012,