How to Start a Lunch Club

One group of coworkers takes brown-bagging to a new level.

Every day, when Sue Nechanicky heads to her office lunchroom, she finds a smorgasbord of healthful yet satisfying options: zesty New Orleans-style chicken sandwiches; savory strata with bacon, tomato, and cheese; and veggie-filled lasagna, to name a few.

The tasty spread clearly beats your typical office fare. But it isn't brought in from a nearby restaurant or prepared by cafeteria staff. Instead, Nechanicky's colleagues cook lunch, acting as members of the Healthy Lunch Club, a group of nearly 30 people who work at the Minneapolis-based furniture retailer Room and Board. The other 130 people who work at Room and Board's headquarters brown-bag their lunches, resort to a vending machine filled with pre-fab food like burgers, or drive to fast-food restaurants or a nearby supermarket for prepared foods.

"Before the club, I'd bring in a yam and bake it in the microwave, or I'd bring in packaged soup," Nechanicky says, while eating with colleagues in the office lunchroom. "It was healthy, but it wasn't a well-rounded meal."

Club member John Schroeder, the company's national market manager, confesses he had less wholesome lunch habits in the past. "I got a fast-food restaurant burger as many as three or four times a week," he says.

Like fast-food restaurants, the club offers quick, economical meals-with healthful food available down the hall, not down the road.

We developed recipes based on the Healthy Lunch Club's guidelines for nutritional balance. Each of the recipes in this story can serve at least 10 people. We also know the importance of convenience, and kept this in mind by offering dishes that you can make the night before and easily transport to work. They might just inspire you to form your own lunch club, and make your workplace both healthier and tastier.

Top 10 Tips for Starting Your Own Club
Launching a lunch club is a great way to escape the typical lunchtime quandary-deciding where to eat and keeping it healthful. Consider these 10 tips from Sue Nechanicky, one of the founders of Room and Board's club:

1. Make sure your workplace has a few basics: refrigerators large enough to fit a daily feast, a counter that can be used for food prep, and a couple of microwaves. Room and Board also has a kitchen sink, two dishwashers, a slow cooker, two toaster ovens, glass plates and cups, silverware, and serving pieces. Your company may not offer the same amenities, so members of your club might have to provide what they need. For instance, each member could bring in his own plate, or you could decide to purchase paper plates as a group.
 

2. Use slow cookers for buffet-style dishes. Cuisinart spokesperson Mary Rodgers says to reheat food in her company's slow cooker, use the high setting to bring the food to 140° in under two hours, then set to "warm" to hold the food through lunch.
 

3. Decide on dietary guidelines. Help people follow them by assembling an informal library of health-conscious cookbooks and magazines, including Cooking Light.
 

4. Name a point person. She should create a schedule, enforce the guidelines, and coordinate new groups as interest grows.
 

5. Set hours. At Room and Board, dishes are available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
 

6. Display dietary information for each dish. Include fat and calorie counts and the serving size (so latecomers don't go hungry because others have taken too large a share). Cooking Light and many cookbooks provide that information.
 

7. Measure serving sizes. Provide a measuring cup when serving soups, stews, and other dishes that aren't already divided into servings to help avoid confusion over serving sizes.
 

8. Place a membership list at the table. Have people check off their names when they take their lunches, so people can better gauge how much food is remaining.
 

9. Have a backup plan. Inevitably, someone will call in sick or have a last-minute trip. For such occasions, club members order in a vegetarian pizza with half the cheese.
 

10. Snack smart. Remind people that if you choose a 500 calorie limit on meals, as Room and Board does, it may not carry them through the day, so they should keep healthful snack foods at hand.

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