What’s for Lunch? Choice and Health in the Modern Work Environment

The thing about food is that we all eat. It’s not like smoking or alcohol, substances that can be quit cold turkey. Quitting food isn’t an option and unlike smoking that has laws governing where people can light up, food is everywhere. From the fast food restaurant on the corner to the cheap vending machine and the company break room exploding with cake at every birthday, it has become increasingly difficult to stay healthy in the modern work environment. So what tactics can employees take to avoid overindulging in the guilty stuff, while still satisfying the urge to snack?

The foods we eat, when we eat, how often and how much we eat are governed in large part by our psychology and can be hard to rewire. Our food habits begin early in life as a product of our environment – the foods our parents give us, the communities and cultures we live in, and the socioeconomic status of our families. For instance, a child raised in a low-income minority community by a family that needs food stamps will have a very different psychology around food than a child raised in a high-income white community by a family that doesn’t need to worry about where the next meal will come from. A child raised by a family that values eating together will have a different food relationship than a child whose family eats individually or on-the-go.

As we grow our eating habits form into second nature. By the time we reach adulthood we can easily predict what a person will eat on any given day by simply looking at what they ate the previous several days. Changing food habits that have been developed over the course of decades is challenging but not impossible. If you’re serious about wanting to change those habits, it requires a hard look at your relationship with food and a willingness to try something new. Building new, healthier habits can especially be challenging in the workplace, but there are numerous small steps that can lead to change.

5 Ways to Eat Healthier in the Workplace

1. It’s all about choice.

By increasing the food choices in the workplace, we have more of an opportunity to snack healthy. Even if we decide to have that piece of cake instead of veggie sticks and hummus, having those options available means we can always choose healthy next time.

2. Everything in moderation.

No food is technically bad in and of itself, so there’s no real point in getting hung up on needing to make the “healthy” choice every time we lift a fork. The important thing is moderation. Restricting intake of certain foods because we feel they are “bad” can backfire as the cravings grow. If you want to indulge in a guilty food pleasure, go for it! Just use portion control. This will also help to develop will power over time. Try eating a healthy snack or drinking a full glass of water before eating an unhealthy food so that you’re fuller and less inclined to overdue it. Learn to listen to your body’s cues as you’re eating and recognize fullness. This is all about rewiring our relationship to food.

3. Gather support.

Talk to coworkers and agree to have a day (or several) where people bring in a healthy snack to share. Discuss your plans for making changes and the challenges faced. Engaging in healthy choices has been shown in research to be easier when we utilize a social network, especially for women (Kayman, 1990). Readiness to make changes is also higher in those who have the support of coworkers (Sorensen, 1998).

4. Prepare.

Once the workweek is over the weekend arrives and it’s sweet freedom. Then Monday rolls around and we’re back to the grind. Busy schedules take over everyone’s lives in the modern world and having the chance to prepare for anything in advance is a rarity. Nevertheless, preparing ahead can also free up much needed time later and help us to stay healthy. Cooking meals for the week ahead is one way to fill the lunch hour with healthy food choices instead of fast food. Try cooking your lunch meal on Sunday for the entire week ahead. Crock pot meals are simple to fix and often easy to freeze. Some people might not like eating the same food for lunch everyday, but it gives you the option of having something good for you without having to wait in line and scarf down your meal to get back to work in time.

5. Talk to your company about workplace health.

The number of companies offering some kind of workplace wellness program is growing. The Affordable Care Act is providing further incentive to encourage small businesses to offer health programs to their employees. Employees are essential to the success of workplace health initiatives. Talk to your human resources department or company executives to let them know that workplace wellness is important to you. If you’re really passionate about it, offer to help form a committee with your coworkers to come up with  policies you’d like to see enacted, such as having healthier choices available in the break room.

The Centers for Disease Control provides a toolkit for developing workplace health programs.


The modern work environment is built for efficiency. Our jobs have become increasingly sedentary at the same time that our foods have become increasingly caloric. Working in any industry shouldn’t require sacrificing health and the ability to make healthy choices. While our relationship to food plays a huge role in the choices we make on a daily basis, there are several tactics that employees can use to start changing the way they engage with food in the workplace. While we may never get rid of cake in the workroom (and who really wants to), we can work to rewire our relationship with food and ensure that healthy choices are available and easy.

Picture of Kate Hoppe

Kate Hoppe

Public Health Sociologist,
Consultant, Writer

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