When poking around the internet around the idea and practice of “eating with coworkers” brings up a variety of illuminating articles on common office food culture. We see people talking about how to avoid social, but pricy, out-of-office lunches, deal with annoying habits of other desk eaters, protect your lunch in the company fridge, and cope with the food habits of others that are sabotaging your dieting attempts.
I think these are all symptoms of a problem that is characterized by a lack of positive food culture at work. Food should be something that makes people satisfied and happy (food, shelter, water, and companionship are, arguably, all a person really needs), not be a source of conflict and resentment.
The Challenges of Creating a Positive Food Culture
A few weeks ago, based on my experience in cooking for large groups and as a way to add variety to our lives, we began weaning ourselves off of Costco’s extensive selection of prepared foods (although the chocolate-covered strawberries and as much fruit juice as you can drink have stayed). We started getting a CSA box and I began cooking dinners from the team.
With two Paleo-dieters, two more meat fiends, a carb lover, and an intermittent vegetarian, I have my work cut out for myself staying creative enough to keep everyone fed, body and soul. There needs to be enough animal protein, an optional grain, preferably a vegetable protein, and lots of veggies and greens. And, I’d prefer the dishes to complement each other.
But, once you beat those logistical challenges into a delicious pulp, you get to bring ingestible joy to Ridejoy!
How We Found the Balance
While eating meals in the office isn’t for everyone, it’s something we enjoy doing at Ridejoy. Our work hours and personal lives happen to make it convenient for us to eat together for dinner twice a week. When we sit down and share a meal together, we reify our commitment to working together, and getting along. Good food is a great way to share happiness with others. It’s also been a wonderful excuse to invite interesting people into the office!
Great meals don’t happen by accident, it takes some planning and coordination. Here are some of the steps I took to engineer happy group meals – if you’re interested in doing this at your company, maybe you’ll find them helpful! This can be applied to meals eaten out and meals catered in, not just ones made in-house.
- Sit down with the group
Starting a conversation about food will take time and you need to create a space for people to discuss openly. If it’s too hard to coordinate a group sitting, be prepared to get and send a lot of emails.
- Find common denominators and set common definitions
- Ask about food allergies, dietary restrictions, spiciness tolerance, and absolute deal-breakers. Keep any allergens out of the kitchen.
- Make sure your definitions match (does vegetarian mean “strict vegetarian” or vegan, or eggs and milk?).
- If only one person hates asparagus, just don’t have asparagus play a major role in any dish and keep it as a side. But if three out of five can’t stand asparagus, take it off the menu.
- Have everyone send you an example of their ideal meal and favorite flavors.
- Cook a few meals
Based on what you’ve learned, put some meals together and see what people think. As long as you follow what you learned from Step 2, the meals will be fine, and there shouldn’t be any disasters.
- Gather feedback
We post our meals on a spreadsheet and ask people for feedback. Takes notes on favorite flavors, themes, preferences of dark vs light meat, proportions of veggies/protein/carbs. Remember these notes, look at them all the time because they’ll help you stay focused and be creative (limits can be awesome).
- Mix it up
Once I got the hang of what people generally like and don’t like, I was able to start exploring new ingredients and dishes. Great places to find good recipes include Epicurious (for when you know what you want to make), Foodgawker (for inspiration & window shopping), and the many amazing food blogs out there.
- Be nice, don’t judge, and have fun!
The Payoff of Shared Meals
Everyone knows that home cooked meals are so delicious because they’re just chock-full of love. But, cooking for 5-8 adults who have traversed life on a path of their own dietary preferences can be more challenging than feeding picky toddlers. But, that is also why it’s so important that we eat together– to keep the common ground firm and well-packed.
When you make an effort to accommodate the food choices and requirements of others (including their other commitments to family or other friends), you break down some huge barriers to collaboration and satisfaction. Studies on why diets and dieters fail implicate the psychological stress of societal pressures. A lot of recent writing on workspaces and effective workflow arrangements emphasize comfort and ergonomics– your workspace should be a comfortable place for you, so you can concern yourself with your work.
If by cooking dinner for Ridejoy, I abolish some of the stress that gets in the way of great ideas, awesome. If I’m also creating a forum for friends and colleagues of Ridejoy to gather and talk shop, even better! There’s nothing holding anyone back from exploring the amazing culinary treasures of San Francisco, but if you’d like a hot meal before biking home, it’s here for you!
Want to Give it a Try?
Sharing a meal is a tried and true practice of building community. It’s been a trope of TV parents for decades– “Damn it, Junior, you will eat dinner at this table with this family!”– and a mainstay of diplomatic and business negotiations since the first early hominid handed an antelope leg over the fire to another. And here at Ridejoy, obviously, we’re all about sharing–sharing rides, sharing ideas, sharing stories, sometimes we share sweaters, and most nights we share dinner (then fight like cavemen over leftovers the next day)!
I hope this post has given you some ideas on how you can build a better office food culture. Obviously it’s more than just sharing meals – there’s establishing rules on the fridge, keeping common eating areas clean and more. But as you can probably tell, we think the rewards make the effort worth it.
Have any tips to share on your experiences with food at work? We’d love to hear them in the comments.
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