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Healthy Eats: How to Overhaul the Worksite Cafeteria

Imagine a salad bar fully stocked with fresh produce from the local farmer’s market, including ripe reds, verdant greens and zesty yellows. Consumers can almost taste the sweetness of the carrots, the crisp tang of the peppers. They can’t wait to grab their bowls and dig in.

Does this sound like a trip to the average worksite cafeteria? Unfortunately, no. But it is possible to create this kind of healthy food environment with a little research and reorganization.

Why It’s Important

The sad truth is that many people do not take the time to plan for and prepare nutritious home-cooked meals during the week. This means that if they don’t have access to a healthy and appealing cafeteria selection at work, many will find themselves eating out each day at lunchtime.

Commercially prepared foods are higher in calories and lower in nutrition than meals prepared at home. According to a 2008 study in the Review of Agricultural Economics, eating lunch at a sit-down restaurant can add an extra 184 calories to a meal than if that lunch is brought from home. Even food items that might seem "healthy" at first glance are often actually full of sodium, calories or excess sugar, and employees might consume these unknowingly, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “health halo.”

Unfortunately, if nutrition information isn't readily available, people are more likely to choose an unhealthy option. A 2009 study at the University of Arkansas showed that the unhealthier the food item is, the more likely consumers are to underestimate fat, calorie count and sodium levels.

Change the Menu

So how can organizations ensure that employees are eating nutritiously during the week? Start by offering them healthy, tasty alternatives to the fast food options they find outside the workplace. Entice them to stay!

Start by fully stocking a colorful salad bar with a variety of steamed, stir-fried or sautéed vegetables (make sure that the vegetables are cooked with a small amount of healthy oil so that extra calories and unhealthy fats aren't being added).

Experiment with whole grains by using a combination of white and brown rice, or by using wild rice instead. Trade white flour pasta for whole wheat couscous or whole wheat pasta. Whole wheat pasta is much higher in fiber, vitamins and minerals than white flour pasta, and many people find that they can’t even taste the difference.

Consider teaching employees how to compose a “healthy plate” by offering them sensibly portioned, prepackaged meals that are 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25 percent whole grains and 25 percent lean protein. Not only does this make it easy for employees to grab lunch quickly, it teaches them healthy proportions of each food group for their daily diet. Such preplanned meals can encourage your employees to begin to think of meat as a side dish rather than as the main entrée.

Teach Healthier Choices

Just as organizations can begin to teach their employees how to think about portions differently, they can help them make healthier choices. How? By deciding to rid the cafeteria (and vending machines) of sugary snacks such as cookies, muffins, and other empty-calorie options that so many employees fall prey to when feeling especially hungry, tired or stressed. Consider implementing changes slowly (no one wants to face an employee rebellion over cookies!), introducing healthier options alongside choices that are not as healthy. And enlist the support of management and employees alike, perhaps through a volunteer committee.

Everyone knows that an apple is healthier than a cookie, but what happens when an employee is faced with the choice between an apple or a fruit salad? Someone who is trying to make a healthy decision might decide to purchase the fruit salad, with the idea that a variety of fruits will be healthier than sticking to one type of fruit. However, what if the fruit salad was doused in sugary syrup? Even those who have the best intentions can often fall subject to the “health halo,” which can only be addressed with education.

To help stop health-conscious employees from falling into this trap, publish nutritional information so that employees have a clear understanding of what their choices are. Give them easy access to such information by posting it online or in the cafeteria itself (or preferably both).

Some organizations like to differentiate between “healthy” and “healthiest” food options by setting up a caloric scale. Visually identify "healthy" and “healthiest” food choices by creating a color-coded key or logo and post it on the cafeteria menu and on the products themselves. Everyone likes to feel like they have choices and providing these kinds of qualifiers will allow employees to make decisions based on their personal dietary needs.

Provide Financial Incentives

Another way to encourage employees to make healthier choices is to employ a financial incentive by lowering the prices of healthier foods. In one study, it was shown that by increasing fruit and vegetable choices in the workplace by 30 percent and by reducing the cost of fruits and vegetables by 50 percent, fruit and salad purchases increased by 300 percent (An Environmental Intervention to Increase Fruit and Salad Purchases in a Cafeteria, by Jeffrey, French, Raether, and Baxter, in Preventative Medicine.)

Offer Them Support

In addition to revamping the cafeteria, provide employees with a supportive environment that encourages healthy behaviors on all levels:

  • Draft healthy food policies for the cafeteria and expand them to include restocked vending machines.
  • Consider the catered events and meetings that the organization hosts, and draw up guidelines for those as well, compiling a list of vendors that specialize in healthy choices.
  • Promote physical activity throughout the day by creating a positive stairwell environment that encourages people to take the stairs, or help organize an employee walking group.
  • Offer stress management seminars and endorse opportunities to socialize.

By educating the workforce about the importance of their choices and by providing a supportive environment in which to practice healthy decisions, employees are learning to live healthier today and for the rest of their lives.

Sandi Kaplan, MS, RD, is associate director of clinical development and support at Free & Clear Inc., a provider of evidence-based programs to promote healthy behaviors. She is a dietician with an extensive background in education and is an accomplished speaker and writer for a range of audiences and publications.


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