No one wants to collaborate with a bunch of "hangry" coworkers, but unlimited free snacks and lunches at the office can often lead to weight gain.
"You snack a bit, you eat the free meals, you stay a little late at work, and it kind of creeps up on you after a while," says Maxime Rieman, director of product marketing at CoverWallet. Rieman slowly gained weight at her previous job where a free lunch and dinner were offered daily and the kitchen was always stocked with high-calorie granola bars, crackers, and sweets. Since joining CoverWallet, Rieman has lost half the weight she gained because, she says, her new employer offers healthier choices such as nuts and string cheese.
Despite her weight gain, Rieman says free food at work is a helpful perk. "You don’t have to find a place to eat, order, then wait for your food, and come back to work." But, she says, the food needs to not only be healthy, but there should be options that people are interested in eating.
More companies are turning to free food as a way to attract younger talent. In fact, according to Jobvite’s 2016 Recruiter Nation survey, millennials reported they were more likely to get free snacks at work (35%) than to have medical coverage (29%), dental coverage (22%), or a 401K plan (21%).
"When you are given a benefits list and you see unlimited vacation or free food, it’s hard not to value them more" than health coverage or retirement benefits, Rieman says. Millennials often value the visible benefit of free food over health insurance, which is not as gratifying until you have an emergency, says Emily Farris, an office manager at Lucid Software, which offers its 170 employees two fully stocked kitchens with more than 100 items, including hummus, avocados, bananas, and a free catered meal on Mondays and Fridays.
Offering free food and meals to employees does come with a price tag. Lucid Software budgets just under $70 per employee each month for snacks and meals, Farris says. Here’s how several companies are trying to strike a better balance between free food and wellness, while still staying within a budget.
A number of companies have given up sending a staff member to a big-box store to pick up snacks and started ordering online from places like Boxed and SnackNation. Summit Consulting LLC spends about $650 per employee each year to have snacks delivered every two weeks, says Jennifer Folsom, chief of corporate development. The company surveys its 85 employees every six months to make sure they are satisfied with the choices, she adds.
Staff feedback like this can lead to a change in food choices. Initially The Penny Hoarder purchased all its snacks from a big-box store, but the staff said they wanted better options, says Erin O'Neill, the company's people and culture manager. The company tried buying more fresh food and non-packaged items, but, says O’Neill, they would either run out of items, or the food would go bad before the staff could finish eating it.
Over the summer, The Penny Hoarder’s founder and CEO Kyle Taylor was perusing Pinterest and saw how healthy meals could be created in mason jars. He decided to hire a staff member whose sole job is to shop for, prep, and create mini meals in mason jars. Popular choices include dry oats with fruit and nuts, yogurt and fruit parfaits, Mexican bean salad, chef salad, trail mix, and peanut butter and celery. "Now we are serving fuel instead of just food," O’Neill says. "Almost everything gets eaten and there is very little waste."
However, O’Neill admits they are still trying to figure out the cost of providing meals for all its 51 employees in mason jars versus shopping at Costco. The company budgets about $1,000 per month for food, she says, but that amount doesn’t include the salary for the full-time staff member who preps and creates the mini meals. And, she admits, as the staff grows, that food budget will also need to grow.
Although GetMyBoat offers free snacks and a weekly lunch, its marketing manager Jess Segraves says she’s lost weight because of the company’s focus on healthy living. Most team members order salads or healthier options for their catered lunches, she says. One of her colleagues started a running group that meets several times a week, and about half of the team works out at the same gym.
That leads to a lot of conversations about fitness classes and the best times to work out, says Segraves. "I definitely think that fitness helps us make better food choices," she explains. "Running six miles on candy, or lifting weights after work on a sugary granola bar, makes us rethink our choices." The company spends about $1,000 to $1,200 a month on snacks and meals for the 12 employees in its San Francisco office, Segraves says.
BLASTmedia offers its 20 employees a personal trainer, who is available five hours each day, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and again from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., says Grace Williams, director of accounts. Staff signs up through a shared Google sheet for 30-minute or one-hour time slots, and they are limited to two hours per week so that everyone gets an opportunity.
Staff also gets to request two or three specific food items every two weeks. Popular choices include sliced meats, carrots, hummus, yogurt, string cheese, English muffins, snap peas, and fresh fruit, Williams says. The company spends about $3,500 a month on its healthy living initiatives, including the personal trainer and free snacks, Williams says.
During its busiest times, FarmLogs brings in a personal chef to make breakfast and dinner for its 65 employees, says Kiersten Mutchnick, vice president of people operations. "We had a lot of work to get done in a short amount of time, and were really asking our employees to step up," she says. "We wanted to eliminate as many distractions and unnecessary decisions," Mutchnick explains, "so that basically all they had to do was to think about coming in and doing their job, and we'd take care of everything else they needed during the day."
FarmLogs budgets about $15 per day ($4 for breakfast and $11 for dinner) per employee for its in-house meals, says Mutchnick. By bringing in a chef, the team could eat healthy, home-cooked meals without having to worry about ordering food. "It also did a really great job of bringing us together as a team," she says, "because many of us sat down to eat breakfast and dinner together every day for two months." The company also spends about $400 per month on snacks.
Suprex Tutors Houston used to offer free snacks, but several of his eight employees complained about weight gain, says AJ Saleem, owner and academic director. Instead of taking away the snacks, Saleem told staff that they needed to put 25 cents into an honor jar every time they took a snack.
"This nominal charge does force employees to think about their choices and decide whether they should buy it or not," Saleem says. The honor jar helped to stretch the snack budget. When Saleem first offered free snacks, he was spending $50 on food every three months. Now, he says, $50 dollars worth of snacks lasts almost six months. "My employees were actually thankful about the honor jar," says Saleem, "because not only could I afford to purchase more snacks, but the healthier, organic snacks."