How to Promote Employee Wellness in the Cafeteria

Promote Employee WellnessIn the 30 years I have been involved in hospital Food and Nutrition Departments, I have seen many attempts to promote healthy choices in the cafeterias.  Over the last several years, there has been a more active attempt to provide wellness to hospital employees due to increase medical costs and to provide an example for hospital visitors.  There needs to be a consistent message in providing healthy meals to patients while also offering healthy options to the visitors and employees.

Pat Salzer, a Registered Dietitian for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield (and also my wife), was quoted in a local newspaper recently that “wellness is here to stay, and wellness is also very positive.  It’s about being the best you, and about having the energy and about feeling good.  So in the workplace, what can be done is some changes can be made to make the healthy choice the easy to make.”

Well, Pat, I agree this is an important subject but it is easier said than done.

In my travel across the country; I have seen many different ways to promote wellness to employees through their food service programs.

The first one I call the “stop light approach.”  The hope here is to educate (or guilt) employees from choosing the wrong food choices.  I have seen cafeterias have actual pictures of stop lights or color code their signage or tongs on the salad bar with red, yellow, or green.  While this is an easy approach to implement, the educational impact is limited.  Not too many people would be surprised that the cheeseburger with fries would be labeled red, but yet this is the most popular item in most employee cafeterias.  It can be also subjective to what gets labeled red, yellow, or green.  I saw a salad bar with red tongs on the olives due to their sodium content, but yet there is also nutritional value to olives. They are a good source of healthy fats.

The second approach is to post the nutritional content next to all menu items.  Again, this is easy to implement due to the availability of on-line recipe systems that include the nutritional information along with possible allergy concerns.  While this does have the same guilt tactic as the “stop light approach” but provides much more education.  Customers reading this information are able to make more of an informed decision on their meal choices.

The third approach is to steer customers to healthy alternatives through pricing.  A hospital in Update, New York recently adjusted their pricing up and some down.  To encourage employees and visitors to eat healthier, the cafeteria now charges less for many healthy options and more for less healthy choices.  This is again easy to implement, but may have a negative reaction to the staff as they may see this as a price increase.  Steering customer choices through pricing will not have an immediate impact on behavioral choices with individual’s food selection, but may encourage employees to try new healthier menu items.  In doing this type of approach, the pricing adjustments needs to be carefully analyzed to made sure there is not a negative financial impact.

A blended approach to increasing sales of wellness offering is the best approach.

  • Offer specials that promote wellness. Ideas include salad topped with baked chicken slices, quinoa salad, roasted or grilled vegetables.
  • When implementing price increases, increase less healthy items. Hold the line on healthy items and communicate the pricing strategy to customers.
  • Include the nutritional analysis on all posted menus selections.
  • Offer a larger variety of healthy drink choices and limit the selection of less healthy items. Both Coke and Pepsi continue to add to their line of flavored low calorie waters.
  • Instead of cookies and candy bars as an impulse item at the register, have apples, oranges, bananas. Make sure they are fresh and abundant.
  • Promote wellness activities in the cafeteria. Have posters of yoga classes, local fun walk/runs, exercise classes, etc.
  • Position healthy choices front and center in the cafeteria. Make them look fresh, abundant, and inviting.
  • Is it time to get rid of the fryer? You will have to ask yourself if this should be considered.  A hospital is a wellness institution and should set the example to both their employees and visitors.  Menu items can be offered to maintain satisfaction with-out deep frying.  One item could be baked french fries.

Catering is much easier to control wellness selections.  Early in my hospital food service career I worked at a major medical center.  Every morning we would send out several dozen catering carts with donuts and coffee throughout the medical center.  Today on the catering carts, I still see the pastries, but now included is some fruit.  But there is still room for improvement.  Catering menus should be limited to wellness items.  Add more salads to the lunch menu and eliminate the cookies for dessert and replace with fresh fruit (or skip the dessert entirely).  Soda should be replaced by iced tea and water.  For breakfast meetings offer fresh fruit, yogurt, water, juice, coffee.  There may be some unhappy customers in the beginning, but through proper communication and education, satisfaction for catering will increase.

Pat’s right.  Wellness is here to stay. Make the message positive.  We care about you and your health.  Bon Appetit!

About the Author:

Michael Salzer has over 30 years of healthcare experience specializing in food, environmental services and facilities management. His background as a financial analyst and in contract and operation management gives him a solid background in finding and achieving significant savings within his projects. His system based approach maintains effective results over time.