Workplace Meals and Snacks: Healthy Habits Can Help

Workplace Meals and Snacks:

Healthy Habits Can Help

Employees are spending more and more time at work these days, getting in early or staying late. As a result, people are eating more meals away from home, which can lead to poor nutrition decisions. Paired with an increasing rate of sedentary jobs, Americans are facing a lifestyle-based epidemic of too many “calories in” and not enough “calories out.” However, a little bit of planning and some mindful decisions can tip the scales back in your favor, even if you are stuck behind a desk 10 hours a day. Here is the first tip—do not sit all 10 hours!

Breakfast at home

Many people have breakfast at home before heading to work, often in a rush. An early starting time, paired with long commutes, leads to an even earlier wake-up time, often at 5 am or 6 am.  At this point, you may value every minute of sleep over a fussy breakfast.


Luckily, you can prepare many breakfast options in about 5 minutes, such as:

  • Whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk
  • Oatmeal—microwave in 2−3 minutes and serve with some cinnamon, banana, and/or nuts
  • Veggie omelet/scramble—cook some chopped veggies (spinach, onions, peppers, and mushrooms) with a bit of oil in small skillet for a couple minutes, crack in a couple of eggs or egg whites, season with some freshly ground pepper, cook a couple more minutes until the eggs cook through, and then serve
  • Peanut butter on whole-grain toast—nuts and grains are complimentary proteins and the crunch of the toast balances well with the smooth (or crunchy) peanut butter, plus you always can add some fruit and/or a glass of milk for a larger breakfast
  • Yogurt and fruit—to save money and eat less sugar, try buying plain, low-fat yogurt and:

–  Add your own fruit, whatever is available, on sale, and/or tasty, such as berries, banana, melon, mango, etc

–  Add a crunch by using a whole-grain cereal rather than granola, because granola can have up to twice the amount of calories (up to 200 calories in ½ cup (C) of granola vs 100 calories or less in many other cereals

  • Smoothie—if you do not like eating a big breakfast (or much of anything) in the morning, consider whipping up a quick, low-calorie smoothie (about 200−250 calories) in your blender with some fruit, yogurt/milk, a touch of water/juice, and some ice, or add a handful of spinach for an extra shot of nutrients 


Breakfast at work

If you are not hungry first thing in the morning and prefer to have breakfast once you get to work, consider these tips:

  • Bring something from home
  • If ordering a breakfast sandwich:

–  Choose whole-grain bread rather than a roll or bagel

–  Hold the cheese

–  Add vegetables, whenever possible

–  Consider substituting egg whites on occasion to save on calories and cholesterol 

  • Consider oatmeal, which is usually a cheaper option at most cafeterias/restaurants, and it is filling and a low-calorie option, depending on the amount and number of toppings:

–  Limit sugar, raisins, honey, and nuts

–  Try cinnamon for added nutrients and no extra calories 

  • Avoid fast-food chains, when possible:

–  Know that the average bagel with cream cheese is a whopping 550−600 calories, and many breakfast combos can top out at or more than 1000 calories, half of the daily caloric needs for an average adult

–  Avoid foods that are loaded with high-calorie extras, such as French toast or pancakes with syrup and butter, when you must eat at a fast-food chain

–  Order basic sandwiches (egg on English muffin) or cereals (oatmeal) 

  • Buy a morning smoothie or freshly squeezed juice:

–  Make sure it is not loaded with extra sugar

–  Ask if you can choose the ingredients yourself

–  Try including vegetables in your juice order, such as spinach


Make sure to eat something within 1−2 hours of waking to prevent the temptation of overeating at the next meal. Studies have shown that going without food for more than about 4 hours leads to a decreased metabolism. Consider the last time you ate before breakfast!


Lunch: To brown bag or not to brown bag?

If you do not like bringing breakfast to work, odds are you probably do not want to bring lunch either. However, lunch is the one meal that can set the tone for whether you feel energetic or sluggish at 3 pm and whether you overeat at dinner. The best way to make healthy decisions on what you eat at lunch is to make it yourself! However, preparing lunch can feel like a chore the night before, especially if you have to get up early the next morning. 


Time is not an excuse if you use some of these quick, healthy brown-bag options. Consider packing:

  • Your favorite sandwich, plus baby carrots and a piece of fruit
  • Leftovers from dinner
  • A sweet potato (poke holes in skin with fork and cook 5−7 minutes in a microwave, turning halfway through), served with low-fat yogurt and a dash of cinnamon
  • Whole-wheat tortilla wrap of hummus, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, feta cheese, and black olives, plus a carton of fat-free vanilla yogurt and berries
  • Whole-wheat pita stuffed with vegetarian refried beans, salsa, lettuce, and shredded cheddar cheese, plus apple slices with peanut butter
  • A green salad loaded with canned chunk tuna (lite), carrot strips, pepper slices, tomato wedges, red beans, and dried cranberries topped with balsamic vinaigrette, plus 1 C of low-fat chocolate milk
  • A peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread, plus a piece of fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt
  • Whole-wheat tortilla roll with sliced turkey, sliced low-fat mozzarella cheese, red pepper strips, and a lettuce leaf (chill and slice into bite-size pieces), plus a fruit salad and a glass of skim milk


If you choose to get lunch from your company’s cafeteria or a local vendor, consider these tips in order to get exactly what you want—no extra fat and calories, no fewer nutrients:

  • Ask the cook to use cooking spray or very little oil when preparing your food at pasta, omelet, or stir-fry stations
  • Avoid ordering prepared salads if you can, and instead try adding the raw ingredients and then your own dressing afterward to avoid unwanted calories
  • Try to go with a soup/salad or sandwich/salad combo, because salads are a great way to get full faster for fewer calories
  • Know what is on your sandwich:

–  Stay clear of creamy dressings, oil, cheese, and bacon, which can lead to extra calories

–  Choose one “indulgence” for your sandwich each day, rather than two or three, then rotate

  • Take a smaller portion if you are wanting a less healthy food, such as pizza, and get a side salad with it
  • Split the meal, if portions are big, having half of the food for lunch and saving the other half (in a refrigerator if perishable) for a mid-afternoon snack to prevent that “stuffed” feeling after lunch and to avoid a mid-afternoon crash 


Dinner: Staying late

If you are working a typical daytime job, odds are dinner is not one of your to-dos at work. Unfortunately late nights happen, and they usually are stressful. Increased stress often can lead to emotion-based eating decisions and poor food choices. Creating a dinner contingency plan and keeping it at your desk will keep better decisions a short reach away.


Try these suggestions:

  • Avoid unhealthy social eating situations, if you can:

–  Say “no” to colleagues who ask you to go out for a bite to help you “feel better,” because this usually means ordering high-calorie or greasy foods

–  Stick to your plan of going home and having a healthier meal

–  Suggest a healthier alternative to the group, such as sushi, if you want to go out 

  • Know what to order when eating out or attending business meetings that include food:

–  Get menus from local establishments, so you know what to choose, unless your company is paying and ordering the food for you

–  Review menus, even those from fast-food establishments, to find the healthiest choices, such as a slice of pizza loaded with vegetables and a side salad from the pizza shop or steamed chicken/shrimp with vegetables, brown rice, and sauce on the side from the Chinese restaurant

–  Choose “grilled” items

–  Ask for fewer toppings, such as no cheese or mayonnaise

–  Do not order fries or order the smallest size

–  Get a healthy side, such as a baked potato, yogurt, fruit, or side salad

  • Stop working while you eat, because you are much more likely to overeat when you do not pay attention to your hunger and satiety signals:

–  Realize that there is no point of buying “feel better” food, if you cannot even enjoy it

–  Stop and take 15−20 minutes to eat—stop working and enjoy the taste

–  Take a break so you can enjoy your food, socialize with co-workers, and gain better awareness of your hunger and satiety signals, which will help you focus better when you return to your desk

  • Treat your dinner like lunch, rather than some huge, unmanageable meal, especially if you have a good lunch plan—a  good salad/sandwich combo is just as satisfying at 7 pm
  • Consider the rest of your evening, realizing that a big dinner is not needed if you plan to sit at work and then immediately crash once you get home
  • If you plan on going to the gym after working late:

–  Have half of a dinner when you order it

–  Save the other half and eat it about 1−2 hours before your workout or just have a small snack, such as a piece of fruit, before your workout to provide a quick boost of energy 


Snacks: Filling in the gaps

The human body needs fuel every 3−4 hours. However, people structure their eating habits around their 9 am to 5 pm (or 8 am to 6 pm) schedule on most workdays. Breakfast is typically between 6 am and 7 am, lunch is around noon to 1 pm, and then dinner is served after work at 6 pm to 7 pm. That is about 6 hours between meals! No wonder so many people are famished by mealtime, overeat, and then feel extremely full for the next hour, only to do it all over again at the next meal. Studies show that people make worse food decisions when they are very hungry.


Small, sensible snacks between meals can stem the tide of hunger and help people make more sensible food decisions. So what makes a good snack? Consider it a “mini-meal” and include a little protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, whenever possible. 


Here are some great snack ideas:

  • A small box of whole-grain cereal with fat-free or low-fat milk
  • Low-fat yogurt, sprinkled with high-fiber cereal or a few almonds
  • Low-fat cottage cheese with canned fruit (in juice, not syrup) or fresh fruit
  • A piece of fruit and string cheese
  • A small cup of edamame (boiled soybeans)
  • One handful of your favorite nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, etc)
  • A small whole-wheat pita spread with hummus
  • Half of a turkey or peanut butter sandwich
  • A small 3-ounce can of tuna with four to six low-fat crackers
  • Two rice cakes spread with peanut butter
  • Apple slices or celery sticks with peanut butter
  • Whole-grain, soy, or whole food-based granola or meal replacement bars, such as Larabar®, Kind Bars, Kashi® TLC Bar®, and SOYJOY®


Even if you do not want to pack meals for work, consider keeping some healthy snacks on hand for those mid-morning and mid-afternoon hunger pangs. Also, think about whether you are actually hungry or maybe just dehydrated. Instead of eating something, try having something to drink, which often will do the trick for many fewer calories. A good way to tell if you are truly hungry is to drink a glass of water and wait 15 minutes. If you are still hungry, then it is hunger! 



References and recommended readings

Golden L. How long? The historical, economic and cultural factors behind working hours and overwork. In: Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar; 2006:36-57.


Greeno CG, Wing RR. Stress-induced eating. Pyschol Bull. 1997;115:444-464. 


Holland K. Working long hours, and paying a price. Available at: Accessed August 20, 2011.


Louis-Sylvestre J, Lluch A, Neant F, Blundell JE. Highlighting the positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on metabolism and weight management. Forum Nutr. 2003;56:126-128.


Ma Y, Bertone ER, Stanek EJ III, et al. Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free-living US adult population. Am J Epidemiol [serial online]. 2003;158:85-92. Available at: Accessed August 20, 2011.


Nishitani N, Sakakibara H. Relationship of obesity to job stress and eating behavior in male Japanese workers. Int J Obes [serial online]. 2006;30:528-533. Available at: Accessed August 20, 2011.


Parker-Pope T. Workplace cited as a new source of rise in obesity. Available at: Accessed August 20, 2011.


Zelman KM. Cheap and healthy brown-bag lunch ideas (for grownups): 10 workday lunches that will save you time, money, and calories. Available at: Accessed August 20, 2011.



Contributed by Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS


Review Date 10/11



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