As an employee retention tactic, few perks satisfy like free food. Complimentary gourmet meals have long been a hallmark of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. While companies with more modest budgets can’t compete with sushi Thursdays and daily pizza stations as an employee perk, businesses across a wide spectrum of industries now offer high-quality snacks to keep their employees happy and productive throughout the day.
Food isn’t just a feel-good perk — it has a measurable impact on employee satisfaction. In a study financed by the staffing agency Spherion, 30 percent of employees surveyed said that availability of food throughout the day contributes to their workplace happiness. Peapod, the grocery delivery service, conducted a survey where half of respondents said they’d consider perks like free food when looking for a new job, while 67 percent of full-time employees who snack on the company dime are either “extremely” or “very” happy with their current job. Snacks are not everything, however. While millennial workers were more likely to say they wished their office offered more snack options, workers in their age bracket were more likely to get free snacks and meals at work than health insurance.
Snacking at work can also lead to poor nutritional choices, as can be attested by anyone who has sworn they are only going to have one Girl Scout cookie. Constantly consuming processed foods, vending machine junk food, and even convenience snacks touting a “healthy” label are enough to undo even the most thoughtful workplace wellness plan.
Don’t despair yet, office snack lovers. “Snacking is a healthy way to meet our needs and not eat three huge meals in a day,” said Dr. Janice Blythe, PhD, RD, a nutritionist and professor of Child & Family Studies at Berea College, but between-meal noshing should be “aligned with a person’s needs for the whole day.”
How can employers help keep their team healthy and satisfied when it comes to snacking? Dietitians shared these six guidelines to keep in mind when stocking the office pantry.
Think Whole Foods
A concept distinct from the grocery chain of the same name, lower-case whole foods are ones that have undergone little modification before reaching your mouth. Think entire apples or raw nuts as opposed to protein bars or chips.
This idea can be a key to healthy snacking, said Judy Simon, RDN, CD, an instructor at the University of Washington and a clinical dietitian at the school’s medical center. “Keep it simple,” she said. “Raw fruits and nuts, or a bar with fruits and nuts, and maybe a little cinnamon.” Yogurt, cheese, seeds and whole-grain crackers or pretzels are also relatively simple snacks to keep around the office. Popcorn is also okay, said Simon, but look for varieties with no butter, salt or seasoning added.
The simplicity factor makes for an easier, more accurate measure, especially because some food companies slap labels on their packages to imply nutritional benefit. “Non-GMO, organic or low-fat doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” said Simon. “Dried kale chips are really, really salty.”
Individually wrapped servings are your ally
Portions are important when snacking. “A snack means 100 to 200 calories,” said Dr. Amy Mobley, PhD, RD, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “Go above that and it looks like a meal.”
While few people know off-hand the calorie count of a banana—or the amount of peanuts that fill the palm of a hand—many groceries offer seeds, nuts, fruit cups and other healthy nibbling options in prepackaged snack serving sizes, ideal for a 3 p.m. pick-me-up.
Invest in a decent-sized refrigerator
Refrigeration greatly expands a workplace’s healthy snack options. It opens up the possibility of cheese slices, yogurt and—most importantly—vegetables, like carrots and cauliflower florets, with dips.
“Fresh vegetables are very low in calories and provide a lot of vitamins and minerals,” said Blythe. A small tray with chilled vegetables with cheese could make for a filling snack, high enough in fiber to keep a worker going until 5, she said. Mobley recommended keeping hummus on hand as a dip for carrots and other veggies.
Turning your workspace into a sorta-cafeteria carries some health and safety concerns. Blythe said that any space where food is kept should have a sink with hand sanitizer. Keeping specially made veggie washes on hand to clean fruit and vegetables is also a good idea and will help make those options more attractive to snack-seekers.
Avoid mindless eating cues
Mobley said that at her last office job, she frequently took sweets from the candy bowl, despite knowing better as a nutritionist. “It’s an instant stress-reliever and you stop thinking about it if it’s always there and everyone’s doing it,” she said.
Sources of junk food and empty-calorie items, like candy dishes and vending machines, are particularly tempting on the job, where work takes over people’s focus and willpower can be lost in the bustle. Even the most health-minded employees often eat such items as a reward for completing a task or to deal with workplace stress. To cut down on mindless grazing on sweets Mobley recommended removing from the office snack repertoire and to reserve them for special occasions so that cookie or cake truly feels like a reward.
Don’t forget about beverage choice
Encouraging healthy consumption habits should extend to drinks. “A lot of calories come from beverages,” said Blythe, citing an oft-forgotten fact. If an employer is going to fill a fridge with drinks, she recommended fruit juice with no additives, lemonade, and limeade, in addition to a supply of purified water. As for sweeteners for your coffee, make sure to pick up stevia—it has fewer calories than sugar.