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April 16, 2018

A Survival Guide to Food at Work

Rosie Robinson

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©© GettyImages/Chalabala

Do you grab a snack at your desk, or are you a "foodie," savoring every bite?

We each have our own unique relationship with food – but one thing we share is that, sometimes, we have to eat at work. And it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have your personal eating habits on public display, especially if you're watching your weight or trying out a new diet.

There's the guy who can't resist remarking on his vegan colleague's "rabbit food." Or, on the opposite end of the scale, the know-it-all who tells you, just as you bite into a bacon muffin, how processed meats can lower your life expectancy. And were you just imagining those raised eyebrows when you took a second croissant at the morning meeting? But what you eat is your own business, and being in the office shouldn’t change that.

So, here's our guide to the dos and don'ts of office food etiquette – how to feel good about what you eat, and how to make sure your co-workers feel good about it, too.

Do… Be Sensible About Food

If you're trying to eat more healthily, the increasing amount of free food at work can be a mixed blessing – especially if it mostly consists of biscuits, cakes and other tasty treats. Exercise some self-control: sit away from the cookie jars, or ask that they be moved to the break room so that you can avoid temptation. And be sure to bring your own healthy snacks from home to satisfy your hunger and distract you from the sugary alternatives.

And, if you're working with someone who's on a diet, be respectful of his or her choices. You may not want, or feel the need, to measure your own food intake, but there's no need to flaunt it. Be considerate. You might appreciate the same treatment further down the line.

Do… Be Kind to Yourself Around Food

Now, I don’t just mean that you can forgive yourself for the occasional calorific slip-up – although, let’s be honest, the odd cookie doesn’t have to derail your entire diet. But, more importantly, look at your mindset. The trouble with negative self-talk around food is that it can leech into other parts of your life, including your job. It can make you feel low, which can impact the quality of your work. It can also make you feel out of control if your diet lapses.

The best way to keep in balance is to set realistic goals around food, and to enjoy what you eat. Dietitian Aisling Pigott argues that living by moderation rather than deprivation is the way to go. As soon as you start to deny yourself certain foods, she says, you will feel “hard done by” and therefore more likely to rebel. So, try to make sure that eating remains a positive experience for you.

Be kind to your co-workers, too. Whether or not you consider that they need to lose weight, keep those thoughts to yourself. Try not to encourage them to have “cheat days,” but don't judge them if they do.

Do… Plan Ahead

Why wait until lunchtime to work out what you’re going to eat? Bring in your own food instead! Tasty packed lunches are a great way to eat healthily at work. Research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that people who cook at home "consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar and less fat than those who cook less or not at all – even if they are not trying to lose weight." It’ll save you money, too.

Try making extra dinner the night before, and bring in the leftovers the next day. Or, if you’re feeling super organized, use your weekends to prepare meals for the week ahead. A supply of frozen home-cooked meals also makes for a great shortcut on those “lazy” evenings.

If you're having a team lunch, do your best to find a restaurant that caters to everyone's requirements. And, if you often have food in your meetings, try to choose healthier options. They'll benefit everyone, not just your diet-conscious colleague.

Don't… Snap at People

Imagine it's you who's on a diet. As much as you might like to scream at Grace from HR for offering you a slice of her birthday cake, remember that you're at work. Keep a cool head – you don’t want to be thought of as some kind of monster because you shouted at the new guy for handing around a box of chocolates. Come to think of it, have you even told your colleagues that you're counting the calories?

On the other hand, if you've been on the receiving end of your manager's diet-fuelled tantrum, try not to take it to heart. Rather than flying into a rage, consider the cause of your boss’s short temper. But, if it becomes a regular occurrence, or it escalates into something more serious, such as extreme rudeness, don’t be afraid to speak up.

Don't… Try to Convert People

So, you're making great progress with your new diet. You feel great. And you want everyone to know about it so that they can feel great, too. But remember, what works for you won’t necessarily work for everyone.

Recent studies show that “diet response is highly individualized.” In other words, your diet may help you to ditch those pesky pounds, but your co-worker may actually gain weight on the same regimen. If someone asks for your advice, by all means offer suggestions based on your experience. But take care not to impose your views where they’re not wanted.

Don't… Take It Too Far

The workplace isn’t the best place to experiment with a new crash diet. Restrictive regimens such as cleanses and fasts can severely impact your energy levels and mood. They can be a shock to the system – and a shock to your colleagues, if you suddenly become grumpy and irritable. So, before you jump on the next "miracle diet" bandwagon, think about the practicalities.

Also, remember that some "fad diets" can pose risks to your health, so it's always best to consult a doctor or trained health professional before you make any big changes to your diet. And some diet plans have been criticized for identifying certain foods as inherently "bad," an attitude that can have harmful consequences for people who are susceptible to eating disorders.

If you think that a colleague has a serious issue with food, take cautious action. Speak to them in private – but remember that food can be a highly sensitive subject. At the very least, many people won’t take kindly to being criticized for their choices. So, tread carefully, and if you’re genuinely worried, but unsure how to broach the subject, speak to their line manager.

Have you ever struggled to change your eating habits at work? Or, do you have any tips or advice on office food etiquette? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section, below.

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6 comments on “A Survival Guide to Food at Work”

  1. I don't do more than take a cup of tea when I arrive in the morning. But my colleague eats cooked breakfast, lunch and snacks all through the day which is quite offensive considering the odour which is out of harmony with office environs. Besides it is unhygienic to eat in the office. The office is not a dinning area. There is a table-setting for every meal - breakfast, lunch, afternoon/high tea and the purpose is to ensure decency, safety and convenience. Foods other than tea should not be eaten in the office where papers are littered and guests may pop in at any moment and you begin to hurriedly scramble every thing out of view.

    1. Thanks Lekwa for sharing your thoughts about eating in the office. Some companies have a room where employees can take breaks, and eat their food. Could that be arranged in your workplace?

  2. Any advice on how to deal with a co-worker (a man in his 40s) who continually and loudly eats at his desk in a cubicle environment? He stuffs the food in his mouth like he is afraid he will never eat again and chews with his mouth wide open. I have asked him as politely as I could on a few occasions to please chew with his mouth closed, and it only works at that time; subsequent meals are eaten without regard. He favors mostly "loud," unhealthy food--crunchy potato chips, heaping sandwiches, hard cookies, etc. If he hears or sees another co-worker eating, then he too, must eat, regardless of how long it's been since the last snack/meal.

    When I and another co-worker mentioned this to our boss, his solution was to get us white-noise machines and access to the company's guest WiFi so we could listen to music at our desks. He won't tell the co-worker to stop eating at his desk because we all do it.

    This is really starting to affect me in more ways than it should--I have altered my eating habits and my schedule to avoid eating anything in front of him or witnessing his lunchtime smorgasbord. I have tried to set a good example by only eating soft food at my desk, and I cut my food into toddler-sized pieces, but it doesn't seem to make an impression. I can't get up and walk away every time he eats or I'll never get anything done. Keeping my headphones in for 8 hours makes me seem anti-social. Any suggestions??

    1. Sorry to hear about the situation in the office with the co-worker. One thought might be to go back to the boss to discuss again letting them know what strategies you have tried. It might be a case where this employee has their own issues which they are dealing with through food, and perhaps those issues are what needs to be addressed.

  3. I just want to say that if you have decided to eat healthy good for you. Whenever I mind my business and go on a diet. Everyone gets so angry like I'm leaving the junk food club. I never treat anyone differently or ask them to join at all. That would be rude, but can I be afforded the same respect? Don't get upset if I'm tired of carrying around a tire on my waist. I don't blame anyone if I lose self control so please stop terrorizing office dieters.

    1. For me, it all comes down to respecting the other person and their choices. Food and weight can be sensitive topics for people so I tend to simply support them in their decision rather than trying to force them (or terrorize them!) to have what I am having! Where is there respect in that?

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