Avoid these mistakes with your healthy food program

Make healthy choices appealing to employees

When it comes to healthy food programs, occupational health managers face opportunities and challenges, says LuAnn Heinen, director of the Washington, DC-based Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity.

"We know that only about 10% of employees going to lunch are consciously seeking healthful meals," she says. A growing number of employers are cutting caloric and fat content across the board by offering healthy choices and controlling portion sizes, says Heinen. "It's becoming standard to offer half sandwiches with fruit or salad on the side, instead of fries as the only option," she says.

Here are common mistakes that can hinder your healthy food program:

  • "Segregation" of healthy food.

Labeling foods as the "healthy choice" instantly makes them less desirable to most employees, says Heinen. Instead, she recommends making these choices visually appealing and integrated into the array of offerings.

"Enlightened companies are promoting good-for-you meals and side dishes, and placing candy selections in less advantageous or visible locations," says Heinen. "You won't find candy bars at the register anymore. You'll find baskets of fruit."

  • Failing to explain changes to employees.

A common mistake is taking away certain foods without communicating the reason to employees, says Heinen.

"Take responsibility for educating employees about all the healthful offerings and what's in it for them, and how they benefit from these new choices," she advises.

Encourage employees to take advantage of the new and healthy options to increase your chances of success, says Heinen. "Often the changes go through a pilot or study phase. If they do not succeed — if sales are poor — then it becomes harder to advocate for continued change," says Heinen.

  • Overlooking collaboration with food vendors.

It can be a challenge to "sell" cafeteria changes even to your food vendor and to whoever "owns" that business relationship within a company, says Heinen. "Often it is a facilities or operations role, and the occupational health team is treading on someone's turf," she explains.

Many objections can be raised, including concerns about profitability and maintaining cafeteria revenues, since in many locations employees have off-campus choices such as nearby fast food restaurants to choose from, says Heinen. Ask these questions of your food vendor, says Heinen:

— How can you help us increase sales of healthier items using pricing, placement, and promotion techniques?
— Can you work with us to develop incentives for employees to choose healthier entrees?
— What type of labeling do you use to designate nutritional content?
— What type of training do you offer food service workers on calorie content and portion sizes?
— Can you reduce the calorie content of all entrees across the board by 10%?
— Can you develop "light" versions of some of our best-selling entrees?

In 2006, Unum's food services vendor did an overhaul of four cafeterias, so that 25% of food offered on a daily basis is healthy choices. A Healthy Options Assessment tool was developed by the food services vendor, which is audited by a quarterly basis. The number of healthy food items is measured in 12 categories, including breakfast, entrees, beverages, and express "grab and go" items. "The 'must do' for the café is to add 73 healthy items within those 12 categories to be compliant with the criteria in the Healthy Options Assessment tool," says Mike Booth, health programs manager. As an added bonus, there are 22 additional items the café can add to increase the number of healthy selections.

For instance, whole wheat breads can be offered instead of muffins on the catered menu. The food vendor also collaborates with the company during wellness events, adds Booth. "If we are doing a kickoff to a walk or health program, they provide healthy selections for us," he says. Ask to see sales of candy, salad bar, burgers and fries, and healthy entrees over time, says Heinen. "The vendor should be responsible for making and promoting healthful choices so that sales over time reflect a healthier mix of items sold," she says.

  • Forgetting to assess and obtain input.

Heinen recommends using a survey tool or a committee representing key departments to obtain input on the cafeteria from all the stakeholders. Going through this process can help identify and overcome potential barriers to making changes, she explains.

The goal is to assess the healthfulness of your dining, vending, and catering offerings by obtaining input from the people who use these services, advises Heinen. "Results of the assessment can help drive change" she says. "Even once changes are made, it is an ongoing challenge to monitor and evaluate the impact." (To obtain a survey tool, see resources at the end of this article.)

  • Failing to educate food service workers.

Training guides for food service workers can help them understand calorie content as well as the importance of labeling and adhering to ingredient and portion size specifications, says Heinen.

"We've learned that food service workers tend to serve larger than ideal portions to be friendly," she says. "It is human nature."


For more information about ensuring success of healthy food programs, contact:

  • LuAnn Heinen, Director, Institute on the Costs & Health Effects of Obesity, National Business Group on Health, 50 F St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20001. Phone: (202) 585-1825. E-mail: heinen@businessgrouphealth.org.
  • Promoting Healthy Weight Through Healthy Dining at Work includes tools to assess dining facility, vending, and catering, negotiate a contract for healthy dining, and train food service workers about healthful dining. The toolkit is available free of charge to National Business Group on Health members. The annual cost of membership is $8,500, which includes access to all publications and materials, webinars, and summits. For more information, send an e-mail to healthyweight@businessgrouphealth.org.
  • San Diego-based Healthy Dining offers a free on-line tool, which can help employees to choose healthy options when dining out or on the road. The tool can be accessed at www.healthydiningfinder.com. Click on "For diners" and then "Search for restaurants."
  • The Nationwide Nutrition Network of the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association is a national referral service that links employers with registered dieticians in their geographical area to hire for assessing food services or giving education to employees. The referral service is free of charge and can be accessed on-line at www.eatright.org/findanRD.