Does your company offer free food to employees? If not, now might be the time to start. When forward-thinking tech companies like Google first introduced food perks in the early 2000s, it was the new “it” thing to do. Now it’s commonplace, and food perks at your office could mean happier employees — especially millennials.

In a study conducted by online grocery retailer Peapod, 83 percent of respondents said having fresh, healthy snacks at work “is a huge perk.” Two-thirds of respondents between 18 and 34 years old said they would take a job “with better perks, including availability of snacks.”

Providing food and beverages can go a long way in keeping employees happy and healthy. The way we fuel and hydrate our bodies has a direct impact on the way we feel, the way we perform, the energy we have, our ability to focus, and our long-term health.

While free food is still considered a perk, many companies are taking it a step further. They’re starting to look at their food programs as strategic initiatives to promote health and performance. Here are four more benefits of providing free food at work.

Food can reach employees who may not engage in other offerings.
While your health programs work together, it’s the food program that provides the most touchpoints through the day. Just look at the numbers. Of the three most common offerings, wellness checks only happen once a year. On-site fitness centers, while a huge perk, might attract the most motivated employees three to four times a week for 150-200 interactions a year. In contrast, a food and beverage program, which involves interacting with employees two to three times a day for eating and three to four times a day for hydration, can lead to 1,750 interactions a year per employee.

Given this level of engagement, food is a good opportunity to kick-start healthy behavioral change and encourage employees to leave their desks for lunch. In a 2012 survey by Right Management, two-thirds of employees said that they aren’t always able to take a 20-minute lunch break, the minimum legal requirement for employees working six or more hours, while 28 percent said they don’t take any time for themselves during the day.

Depending on what you serve, food can either be a missed or a maximized opportunity to improve your employees’ health choices.

The way we fuel and hydrate our bodies has a direct impact on the way we feel, the way we perform, the energy we have, our ability to focus, and our long-term health.

Food can boost health and productivity.
Eating healthy food benefits the body in ways that can improve health and productivity. Research shows that a hydrated brain is more active; eating healthy food increases energy and focus; and people who eat more veggies, fruit, fiber, lean protein, and healthy fat are at a decreased risk of sickness and disease. A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that the more fruits and vegetables people consume, the happier, more engaged, and more creative they tend to be.

If there was one program that could improve productivity, happiness, health, and quality of life for employees, then why wouldn’t you invest in that program?

Healthy, accessible food options encourage employees to break away from their computers and have time to themselves.
Food for thought: Why not make the healthiest meal choices the most attractive ones?

A small study published in Psychology and Marketing found that people who ate the healthiest did so because a restaurant, grocery store, cafeteria, or spouse made foods like fruits and vegetables visible, attractive, and easy to access.

Food can help employees make better choices.
If employees are interacting with food almost 10 times more than any other service, shouldn’t there be a strategy around the experience? When our nutrition team goes into an organization and sees soda at eye level in a cooler (or soda at all), we ask ourselves why? It’s the same question that plagues us when morning meetings are loaded with bagels, croissants, donuts, and maybe a tiny bowl of fruit. It’s a missed opportunity. Of course employees have the autonomy to eat and drink whatever they choose. But when the best choice is the easiest choice, everyone benefits.

Companies spend an incredible amount of time thinking through talent acquisition and training, technology needs, software and tools, and workplace organization, but they often overlook the health of their employees, which can maximize their investment. Companies have a captive audience and the opportunity to help people make a positive investment in themselves every time they eat.

Food can be personalized.
A small study published in Psychology and Marketing found that people who ate the healthiest did so because a restaurant, grocery store, cafeteria, or spouse made foods like fruits and vegetables visible, attractive, and easy to access. At EXOS, we take this a step further by thinking about how we can personalize the food experience. What’s healthy for one person might not be the best for another. We work with a company’s culinary and/or food service team to develop their food program to a point that individuals will be able to pick and choose what they eat to fit their own needs (to learn more, check out our nutrition services).

For instance, we currently work with a client that was looking to provide a free food experience. After collaboration, we decided to split the program into two offerings — a free, personalized food experience or a healthy, not personalized buffet experience. Over the past 18 months, the company has been experiencing 100 percent employee engagement in the free food program, with 92 percent choosing the personalized experience. The results have shown that people often make the best choice if it’s the easiest choice. There’s been marked improvement in diet quality and better meal planning and choices outside of the work environment.

While you’re putting in the effort to perfect your business strategy, put a bit of that effort into your food program. By applying the same strategic rigor to your workforce’s health, you can create a happier, healthier, more productive workforce.

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