Healthful Eating

Eating healthful foods decreases risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers. Diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated fat and salt can make big differences in health. The US Dietary Guidelines recommendations include eating:

  • 5 – 9 servings of vegetables and fruits,
  • 3 servings of low-fat dairy products,
  • 3 – 6 servings of whole grains (half the recommended 6 – 11), e.g., whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole oats, and
  • Lean protein products, e.g., lean meats, poultry, fish and beans.

Worksites can help employees to eat healthful foods at work by making some simple changes. The following activities can make it easier for employees to eat healthful foods at work.

I. Improve Cafeteria Options

Have your cafeterias provide healthful, tasty food. This can be accomplished with changes in food preparation techniques and thoughtful purchasing practices.

The key is to make changes in all the menus so employees can easily choose many items that fit into a healthful diet. There should be at least one healthful entrée each day, and a range of healthful side dishes. In the best case scenario, most foods would fit easily into a heart healthful diet.

There are several resources for healthful quantity food preparation. Some were developed specifically for the worksite. The resources address food preparation and purchasing techniques that lower the fat content of foods without sacrificing taste. Resources include:

  • the Healthwise Quantity Cookbook (Center for Science in the Public Interest),
  • The Professional Chef's Techniques of Healthy Cooking (Culinary Institute of America), and
  • Stay Young at Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).

Contracted Services

If you contract-out for food services, you can work with the food service contractor to develop specifications for meals served (e.g., must follow the US Dietary Guidelines, or must have X low-fat options at every meal).

  • Meet with cafeteria manager/staff about current availability of low-saturated fat, low-calorie options.
  • Develop a plan for introducing new items (including promotion and taste tests).
  • Introduce new items, or items prepared in a new way. Give them a name that makes the items sound tasty. Just labeling something as healthy will not help it sell.
  • If possible, offer healthful items at a lower price.
  • Track sales of low-fat items.
  • Allow new healthful items to remain on the menu long enough for people to try them and consider ordering again. New items sometimes take a while to catch on.

Learn more about food labeling laws

II. Improve Vending Machine Options

Provide healthful options in vending machines. This can be done through work with a local, for-profit vendor, or by buying vending machines for your worksite and stocking them with healthful foods.

Key things to consider when working with a vendor:

  • The profit margin on soda is more than on juices and milk, so vendors tend to prefer stocking soda.
  • Beware of "fruit drinks" when you ask for 100% fruit juice to be added to machines. Fruit drinks may have as little as 5% real fruit juice in them.
  • Cold food machines must have a fast turnover of product due to perishable foods.
  • Profit margins vary with the product, but the vendor is looking for an average overall profit.
  • Vending machine companies will allow a 60- to 90-day test trial on products, so you MUST market items you are promoting and offer special incentives so they will catch on. Promotion is everything!
  • Some companies may be willing to subsidize a lower price on a low-fat item by charging more for a high fat item (e.g., the trail mix may be priced $0.50, and the potato chips $1.00 - and they might actually cost the vendor the same amount).

Key things to consider when purchasing and running vending machines:

  • You buy the products to stock and charge either your cost or include a mark-up to make a profit that can fund other wellness activities.
  • Healthier products available in vending-size packaging are: popcorn (low-fat), pretzels, low-fat granola bars, trail mixes, rice cakes, dried fruit, baked chips, low-fat crackers.
  • A refrigerated unit would expand the number of healthful options you could sell, e.g., low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, salads, yogurt parfaits, low-fat sandwiches.
  • If working with a vending company, request a list of items available for the machines.
  • Discuss with the vending company which items you would like stocked in the machine. If the selection is poor, ask if they are willing to add items to their list.
  • Conduct a taste test of the items you would like to start stocking, and allow employees to vote on the ones they would like stocked.
  • Consider servings per container when stocking the machine. Even a healthful item can provide unneeded calories if its package has two or more servings that would likely be eaten at one sitting.
  • Plan a promotion of the items and track sales (if possible) when the items are placed in the machine.
  • Subsidize healthful items by charging more for less healthful items.

III. Direct Marketing of Fresh Produce at Worksites

Organize a Farmers' Market at your worksite or coordinate a group to buy shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Contact one or more local farmers to set up stands just outside key buildings to catch people during lunch, breaks and after work. CSAs may be willing to make deliveries to a worksite if enough employees participate.

  • Discuss possibility of a farmers' market or CSA with building management if you don't own the building
  • Contact CCE for names of small farmers or CSAs that might be interested in working with you.
  • Survey employees for interest.
  • Develop a plan for promotion.
  • Establish hours and season of operation.
  • Hold a kick-off event.
  • Conduct ongoing publicity of the market/CSA.
  • Provide recipes for items sold by the farmer, especially for unusual produce.

Important things to know about promoting produce at worksites:

  • In New York State, the Department of Agriculture and Markets regulates farm stands. There are regional offices that could be contacted for more information.
  • No permit is needed if a local farmer sells fresh produce at a worksite as long as the produce is not processed in any way and the farmer transports and holds the produce appropriately.
  • Cornell University and county Cornell Cooperative Extensions (CCE) are excellent resources for information on direct marketing of agricultural products. Local CCEs also have lists of farms in each county.

Learn more about CSAs in New York State

IV. Create Food Policies

Establish nutrition standards for food served at meetings, banquets, etc. Policies could address the following: 1) heart healthful alternatives at company-sponsored events, 2) the provision of low-fat milk and/or juice instead of soda at meetings, and 3) cafeteria foods that follow the US Dietary Guidelines.

  • Evaluate what is currently being served at company-sponsored events/meetings.
  • Establish standards around food options.
  • Develop policies and publicize enactment.
  • Distribute materials describing how to follow the new policies.

Learn more about food guidelines for meetings

V. Special Nutrition Promotions

Increase awareness about the importance of good nutrition by conducting campaigns around a specific food topic/group, e.g., low-fat milk and fruits and vegetables. The promotions should involve multiple channels (e.g., e-mail messages, bulletin boards, posters), and have a very simple message. For milk, the message is switch to low-fat (1%) or fat-free milk – they have all the taste, vitamins and calcium of whole and 2% milk, with little to no fat. For fruits and vegetables, the message is eating 5 – 9 servings a day or 4.5 cups.

  • Develop a plan for promoting the food/group.
  • Select and adapt or develop materials for the promotion.
  • Consider conducting the special promotion during a nationally observed health week/month (e.g., promoting low-fat milk during National Nutrition Month in March, or promoting fruits and vegetables during National Heart Month in February or 5 A Day month in September)
  • Include taste test events during the promotion. People won't believe they'll like something until they taste it.
  • Consider offering the foods promoted for free or at a reduced price. People are more likely to try something if it's at low economic cost to them.

Learn more about conducting a milk taste test

Learn more about promoting vegetables and fruits

VI. Local Restaurants and Other Food Purveyors

If your worksite does not sell food on-site, you can work with the local restaurants and food carts your employees frequent to provide healthful foods. Methods to increase healthful food options include: 1) preparing foods with less fat and salt, 2) featuring a heart healthful item as the special of the day, and 3) stocking specific healthful items, such as low-fat salad dressing, fresh fruit, and low-fat yogurt.

  • Investigate where employees eat off-site.
  • Meet with the restaurants/carts to see if something can be worked out.
  • Promote the availability of the low-fat options at the sites that agree to participate. Be sure the items are promoted as tasty and healthy. If just promoted as healthy, the items are not likely to sell well.

VII. Healthy Heart Taste Clubs

Develop healthy heart taste clubs to test heart healthful recipes.

  • Investigate interest in a tasting club.
  • Recruit members through e-mail, bulletin boards, paycheck stuffers.
  • Distribute heart-healthy recipes periodically (once a month, every two months).
  • Healthful recipes are available on-line from a variety of Web sites, in cookbooks, and from some government and voluntary organizations, e.g., National Heart Long and Blood Institute, American Cancer Society.

General directions for running the club:

In each group, one member signs up to prepare each recipe. Each group decides how they want to organize tasting. Groups can prepare one dish each week and taste it at coffee break, lunch, or a meeting, or they can have a "smorgasbord" where people bring dishes in on the same day for a festive lunch. Group members rate each recipe. The organizer compiles all the ratings and puts together a collection of the favorite recipes.

VII. Salad Bowl Lunches

When employees need to have a working lunch, instead of ordering out, each participant can bring a salad ingredient (e.g., lettuce, dressing, raisins, croutons, sunflower seeds, red peppers, pinto beans, etc.) in a serving container. Make sure there are low-fat dressings available. Shortly before lunchtime, some participants arrange the food on the table. People go through the line and build a healthful salad. The meeting can continue while people eat. This does require some coordination of ingredients, paper goods, and beverages. But it is generally worth the trouble. People are introduced to foods that they may not have considered adding to salads, everyone has a healthy, tasty lunch, each time it turns out differently, and it's cheaper than ordering out.