My first part-time office job was as a tiny temporary drone for the State of California while I was still in school. Although there was a lot I liked about it (stable income, my own desk, an aisle full of very nice co-workers who mistakenly thought I dressed stylishly), it was a pretty gray, unforgiving place. Five dollars a week got you access to the coffee, while $10 got you unlimited water from the luxurious cooler rather than the inevitably spitty fountain.
Such is how I hear it is with most workplaces: you and they maintain a grudging, if respectful, relationship built on meticulously maintaining one’s time sheets and taking naps under copies of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” against the window in the eleventh floor cafeteria.
I was never exactly happy to come to work, but I was never that bummed, either. It was just, you know. Contract consolidation.
By contrast, when on the first day of my current job they opened the fridge to show me rows after rows of gleaming soda cans, it was like being touched by Chemical Jesus himself. I swear, for the first month I worked there I heard a heavenly choir ring out every time I cracked the door.
As someone nursing a pretty serious (think, like, seven cans a day) Diet Coke problem, it was kind of mind-blowing.
And the soda wasn’t the only thing. Peanut butter pretzels. Jellybeans. Those olive oil Triscuits that I can easily go through a box of if someone sets them down within smellshot. I’ve pretty much never had snack food so readily available to me, so I wanted it constantly.
Even though it was summertime and I was therefore really craving nectarines and lemons, I would still eat handfuls of Wheat Thins on the daily, more or less just because they were there.
After a while, naturally, I started to feel lethargic and shitty. I was falling harder from the Diet Cokes, which had begun to leave a weird, bloody taste in my mouth unless I practically froze them.
I was mostly eating simple carbs and fatty peanuts for my calories, instead of the stuff my semi-anemia was begging me to put in my system (read: spinach). And I’d grown a little belly paunch, which is not normally where I tend to gain weight. The culprit, of course, was the Snack Cabinet.
It was partially a social issue. Personally, I have a hell of a hard time hanging out with my work-bros in the kitchen while everyone is eating pistachios without suddenly looking down to find my claw half-submerged in salty goodness.
Like any good primate, I’d see one co-worker eating Jolly Ranchers and then decide I had to have some too. I don’t even like sweet food that much. Multiply that by the dozen people or so on my team, and it was corn syrup central for my digestive system.
It was also a really straightforward coping mechanism for any physical or emotional discomfort I felt during the day. Pissed off? Snacks. Falling asleep on keyboard? Snacks. Crying over a YouTube video of a blind cat playing with his first toy? Gonna be choking and wailing about it through a mouthful of snacks.
Just last week, one of my supervisors confessed to going straight for the candy bowl every day at 2 pm just to stave off her inevitable circadian slump; meanwhile, I have to physically steer myself away from slipping back into an aspartame frenzy every day around three.
I’ve never been much of a stress eater, but if Taylor Swift had channeled as much thought into her boyfriend choices as I do about food when I’m tired, either she’d have like 10 more Grammys or we’d have never heard of her.
And, finally, it was the fact that the snacks are there, and they’re free. As I’m sure most people who grew up in not-super-wealthy homes can attest, you don’t look a free meal-horse in the mouth unless you’re trying to see whether it’ll fit in your own.
Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, told the Chicago Tribune recently that free food is tough to resist, “In part because of what the gesture means to us and because everybody likes a bargain."
Wansink found that by moving a Hershey’s kiss bowl six feet farther away from a sleepy office worker’s desk, he reduced their daily candy intake by 125 calories, or 5 kisses. As someone who has eaten entire sheets of seaweed like an absentminded brontosaur while fighting off a post-coffee binge, I can confirm this. Sometimes, you just want to eat it because it’s there.
Free office food has even further reduced the mindfulness involved in my eating. I already get super-bored while putting food in my mouth, since I’m a knee-jerk multitasker and time spent staring at nothing feels a bit like time wasted. But doing it at work even further exacerbates the sheer rote quality that cramming quasi-nutrients-in-gob was already taking.
It’s not even a binging issue, really. But after a day of spaced-out handfuls of trail mix-and-almonds-and-Triscuits-and-Jolly-Ranchers, it starts to add up. Work-snacking has become like bad driving for me: Though it should probably be something I’m actively concentrating on, it’s way too easy for me to zone out for a second and end up halfway through a bag of Tostitos 40 miles south of Mountain View.
This bugs me, because I’ve really tried recently to be more “present” (barf) in whatever I’m doing. And if I’m just eating food because it’s on my way to the bathroom, that’s not really food I want at all.
However, it’s a lot easier said than done to resist the inexorable call of Snack Cabinet. A New York Times writer suggests introducing healthier snacks into the office pool, but you try advocating for celery sticks instead of Cheez-Its and see what happens. I want to whale myself in the face with a juicer even thinking about it.
So in lieu of actually bringing in my own food, I’ve been making more of a point of asking myself whether I’m really hungry before I stick my whole face in a box of granola bars. If I am? Awesome. Thanks, job.
If I’m not, I’ve started trying to trick my snack-urge by drinking nerdy teas or, occasionally, a Diet Snapple. This is a surprisingly tricky system, and it’s still not perfect (curse you, fake sugar), but it's better than carrying around two pocketfuls of jellybeans like I’m Jack and the Eventual Insulin Crash.
This is not to say I’m ungrateful. My company provides us food because they want us to feel comfortable during the day, which is seriously awesome of them. It’s not their fault they employ a bunch of Vitamin Water hoarders with poor impulse control.
But as more and more companies try to show their love for employees through caloric provisions, it’s going to become increasingly important for all us space-cadet-eaters to learn how to Say No to Free Snacks, for the sake of our physical health and emotional independence from Nabisco products.
Unless it’s those olive oil Triscuits. Seriously, zero regrets on that front.
Kate is making hot, sweet mouth-love to a bowl of chickpeas at @katchatters.