Cortney Berling - At first, it seems like a pretty great perk of the modern workplace: free meals and snacks. Everybody likes to save a little money instead of buying food, plus there’s the convenience factor. Offering free food as part of the everyday workplace could even attract top employees to a company, and many millennial workers expect bonus snacks throughout the week. It all seems like a good idea in theory, but in practice, having an unlimited ice cream cooler or pizza and beer every Friday could be doing staff more harm than good. Combine snacking free-for-alls with sedentary desk culture — research has shown that sitting for long periods of time can wreck your body — and this could be one perk that comes with a hugely unhealthy disadvantage.
Like it or not, the free food perk is here to stay — but it’s up to the workplace and staff to make smarter decisions when it comes to healthy nutrition choices. Here’s our rundown of what’s going wrong with the current system of snacking, and what both employer and employee can do differently:
A Perk for Morale – Not for Your Health
It starts off as an innocent necessity: getting a long meeting catered, for instance, or putting out a breakfast spread for an early-morning seminar. But lately, the office free food perk has expanded into everything from free breakfasts or lunches on certain days of the week (if not every day of the week) to snack baskets that get passed around to help prevent the afternoon energy crash. Brainstorm sessions come equipped with sugary candy and cookies, to “help fuel” creativity.
To be fair, there are typically a few healthy options included; apples or other fruit are common along with nuts, but on a whole, the junk food can seem more appealing – particularly if you’re working on a deadline and need some quick energy.
Despite best efforts, unhealthy snacks in the office are also difficult to avoid, particularly if there are tasty baked goods and small treats easily available next to the coffee machine or on a conference-room table. If we can see junk food, chances are that our brains will be triggered to want it. You could start out with a bagged lunch and good intentions to stay strong in the face of the free snacks, only to succumb to the “see it, want it” sensation later on. Before you know it, even the few handfuls of chips or chocolate throughout the day could add up to bigger numbers on the scale by the end of the year.
Aside from the eventual weight gain, there’s the issue of energy spikes and crashes that employees go through as they snack the day away. If the free food is destroying productivity and making employees irritable, it isn’t much of a perk. It’s more of a stealth wrecking ball.
Like any bad habit, unhealthy snacking needs to be curtailed, or at least done in moderation. But is it possible to instill self-control when the unhealthy food is free and readily available?
How to Improve
The good news is that you don’t have to do away with the free-food perk altogether.
The first thing that can be done is to provide better options, or even do away altogether with snacks like candy and chips. The survey, completed by online grocer Peapod, found that almost half of office delivery orders were made up of fruits and vegetables, and other popular items included portion packs of snacks and granola bars. It’s a good time to jump on this trend and start promoting better choices to fuel healthy minds and bodies in the office — not ones that need to be propped up with sugar, only to crash an hour later.
If there’s no getting away from the sugar and salty carbs, then another solution is to put it in a less convenient spot. The aim here is to make it psychologically difficult to want the snacks. As mentioned earlier, if we can see junk food, we’ll likely start craving it, and if it’s right there in front of you — for free — you’ll probably take it. Instead, place fruits or vegetables front and center, and move the chips to the back. Make the cookies harder to reach, or put them in a box.
Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to poll staff on what kind of snacks they’d prefer — and you can even volunteer to send out a survey if you’re an employee yourself! You might just find that your staff or colleagues are just as sick of pizza and soda as you are.
Better Fuel for More Benefits
Whether you’re in charge of providing the office with free food or just a willing participant, the wise choice is to go with the snacks that provide healthy fuel that will keep you going throughout the day — not the kind that give you a rush before leaving you feeling sleepy. It may not be as “fun” to do away with the ice cream freezers and walls of candy, but better nutrition means more focused staff — and knowing that their employer cares about their health is just as valuable to top employees as free lunches.
Cortney Berling is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California.