It’s long been an adage that the way to peoples’ hearts is through their stomachs. It seems so simple; order food, eat, enjoy. And yet, the many pitfalls on the road to happy, healthy, employee meals can leave us stranded instead of bonded, annoyed instead of restored, and even hungry instead of sated.
To help you more easily plan the perfect team meal, let's first identify what often goes wrong:
People don’t participate because there’s nothing they can eat. Watching coworkers chow down on a hearty lunch while others scan the table for anything that meets their dietary needs (that lettuce garnish? The bags of prepackaged chips that came with the sandwiches?) can leave team members feeling hungry and excluded—the opposite of what a team meal should achieve.
Team members fill up a plate, bring it back to their desk, pop on their headphones, and avoid spending time with their colleagues all together. If the purpose of the company meal is to increase camaraderie, strengthen relationships, or build community, when everyone shovels food into their faces solo at their desks, the point of the meal is missed.
Mountains of food go to waste. Stacks of bagels in the trashcan, whole pizzas going stale in their boxes, and that salad that no one touched gently melting into a single brown-ish color are the all too familiar aftermath of many company meals. The expense adds up and the meals look like a frivolous add-on instead of a culture-building necessity.
How do we fix company meals? With clear planning, team input, creativity, and awareness of your company values it’s possible make team meals memorable and satisfying for all involved. It’s also critical for your business. For many, relationships with co-workers are one of the ways they find motivation at work, and one of the reasons they stay at a job. Here’s how to ensure you are serving your cultural goals while dishing out meals at the office:
Team meals should include everyone
Yes, they should include your colleagues that keep Kosher. Yes, they should include your vegan and vegetarian friends. Yes, they should include folks with nut allergies or gluten intolerance or any other less-common dietary requirement. Does this make ordering potentially more complicated? Yes, but the effort ensures everyone in your office feels welcome and like they are an equal part of the team.
Ask directly instead of guessing about what your colleagues do, and do not, eat. Consider including a field about dietary needs in your employee onboarding survey or sending out a company-wide poll so you have all the information you need to menu plan upfront. This way, you don’t have to to single out specific individuals to understand your team members’ needs.
Another solution is to enable everyone to place their own lunch order with a group ordering app such as Seamless or Doordash. This may only work in large cities and with small groups, but it provides maximum flexibility. Choose vendors with wide ranges of options, set a budget, and let everyone customize their order. If someone’s needs are not met, let them order from a different vendor and expense it so they can still join in the fun.
At after hours events, such as holiday parties and team celebrations, make sure you have non-alcoholic beverages available. An end-of-day beer or a glass of wine to unwind might be a welcome perk to some employees, but not everyone can or wants to drink. Think about women in your office who may be pregnant or nursing, staff members who don’t drink for religious reasons, recovering alcoholics, or people who may just prefer not to booze it up on the job.
Keep the overall purpose of team meals, community and bonding, at the center of your planning so that meals become a mechanism that help people feel part of your organization.
Taking food back to your desk ≠ bonding
One goal of company meals is to bring your team together, but they can also provide a respite from a busy schedule and enable your employees to feel renewed when they return to work. Research overwhelmingly shows that breaks are an essential component of productivity. Returning to your desk with a plate of food to gobble while you refresh your email isn’t the kind of “refreshing” you need.
How can your company meal function as both a break and a bonding experience? Considering adding an activity that facilitates learning about your co-workers. You could play “musical chairs” and switch seats twice during an hour long lunch to encourage people to talk to coworkers they don’t know. You could watch a short documentary or TED Talk and then lead a discussion about it. What about an employee book or “article club” that gets folks chatting while they nosh? You could even set up board games, LEGOs, or puzzles for a sillier way to relax over lunch. Is the weather nice? Is there a park within walking distance? Or a patio or picnic tables? Sometimes fresh air is the best medicine.
The activity itself can vary widely, but consider what your goals are with your company meal, and align your lunchtime practices to support that goal.
Align your meal planning and company values
How and from whom you order and serve company meals makes a value statement to your team. Considering the environmental impact and who your vendors can add another layer of meaning to your meals, and save you money.
Before you place your order, think about quantity. Work with your caterer to help determine how much of menu item to order based on the number of people eating. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that about 31 percent of food in the United States is wasted. Don’t let your stale bagels and wilting salad add to that number.
If your office has a dishwasher, decline the paper and plastic that come with your order and use reusable dishes. If you need to request the dishware from your caterer, many companies now use recyclable materials, so ensure that you recycle properly. In addition, encourage employees to fill water cups from a water cooler or Brita filter pitcher to cut down on waste produced from bottled drinks.
The values question doesn’t end with plastic forks and paper plates. From whom are you ordering? Have you tried ordering from local vendors rather than major corporations? For small restaurants and food vendors, corporate catering orders can make a huge difference to their business. In addition, local restaurants are often immigrant or women-owned. Your catering order can be the start of a conversation with your team—tell them where their food came from and who made it. If they love the tacos you ordered, they should know how to continue to patronize that business.
Lastly, what are you doing with your leftovers? Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution for donation when you have a pile of leftover hoagies, as food pantries generally do not take unwrapped food. There are a few workarounds, however. Startups like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine have been popping up, and they work with pantries and shelters to place your leftovers in the hands of people who need them. Do some research on food salvaging and donation options in your city to see if there are feasible solutions.
If you can’t find someone external to make use of your food, make sure it gets eaten at your office. If your team meeting ends with a mountain of munchies, spread the word! Razorfish, hacked together a “free food in the cafeteria!” button that alerted all staff via Twitter and Slack that there were leftovers. You can even invite employees to take some home in tupperware if it’s available. Better to get eaten later than never to be eaten at all.
Planning a great meal means knowing your employees well, considering their needs, and ensuring the way you source, serve, and wrap up your meal aligns with your company’s values. Imagine the employee who gets invited to every staff birthday party only to find that yet again there’s a giant sheet cake that she can’t eat. What if one day she walked up to celebrate her co-worker and found, in addition to the sheet cake, there was a gluten-free cupcake *just for her*. It may take a little more effort to bring your staff meals to the next level, but for employees who spend a third of their waking hours working with and for you, it can make all the difference.
Photography by Julia Robbs