How to Manage All That Free Food at the Office

by Coach Stevo
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How to Manage All That Free Food at the Office

It’s there after every meeting. And on Fridays. And birthdays. And every day that the office manager remembers to fill up her candy jar. The two most dangerous words to the subconscious of someone trying to lose weight: free food.

But it’s never really free, is it? In the 1870s, saloons in New Orleans, New York and San Francisco started offering working-class men free lunches with the purchase of a single beer. The lunches seemed to be worth a lot more than the beer. Foods like corned beef sandwiches, all-you-can-eat salted peanuts, salami, pickles and pretzels were served. All of it was salty, so the men became thirsty and ordered more beer. And more beer. Until they had spent much more on beer than the food cost. Hence, “There’re no such thing as a free lunch.”

Free food gets digested in the gut the same way the food you pay for does, but “free” gets digested differently in the brain. Brian Wansink, PhD, studies mindless eating at the Cornell Food Lab, and he has actually tested free office food consumption. It turns out every time we see it — or get near it — we spend a little bit of our limited willpower resisting it.

And the 30th time you walk by that plate of donuts, you’re much more likely to say, “Screw it. I’m hungry!” It doesn’t even matter what the food is — in one experiment, Wansink left out trays of plain, 2-week-old popcorn and watched people reach for more as they walked by the tray again!

Tired of struggling with your willpower? Try these tips to avoid those free office snacks.


Wansink placed candy jars of chocolate in people’s cubicles for a month, then moved them a mere 6 feet away. Simply having the candy closer meant people reached for five more treats a day. That adds up to 125 calories daily, or 12 pounds a year. We often snack because it’s convenient, so taking the long way to the copy machine could make you less likely to grab that candy.


Every time you walk by the break room and don’t stop for donut is a victory. Treat it that way: Do a little spin, tell yourself, “Good job!” or hum a happy tune. By rewarding yourself (non-calorically) whenever you are externally triggered and don’t give in, you are actually creating a small habit loop that will make further resistance easier.


Instead of immediately popping that mini-Snickers into your mouth, carry it back to your desk and place it in an inconvenient drawer. At the end of the week, look at how much candy is there and think about eating all of it in one sitting without getting a tummy ache.


The most effective habit I teach people who want to avoid snacking is very simple: eat three or four meals a day. (Keeping in mind that a “meal” is when you sit down and don’t do anything except eat.) Since most people have no idea how many calories they are sneaking in between meals, this habit eliminates all of them at once, and puts all the willpower you have into three or four decisions. Sometimes it really can be as easy as that.

What’s your strategy for walking by free food? Share in the comments below!

About the Author

Coach Stevo

Coach-Stevo-Logo.pngCoach Stevo is the nutrition and behavior change consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and an MA in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. He teaches habit-based coaching to wellness professionals all over the world and he contributed to Intervention by Dan John in 2012. 



67 responses to “How to Manage All That Free Food at the Office”

  1. Avatar bravid says:

    I’m the guy who cuts 1/4 out of a donut and leaves the rest!

  2. Avatar Barbara Forbes says:

    Trying to visualize the word POISON with skull and cross bones.

  3. Avatar 123beaker says:

    If I plan ahead and bring healthy snacks (fruit, nuts, yogurt) then I can have that instead of the free junk. I feel better eating real food. Planning the day with my fitness pal helps (I don’t want to have to put a huge chocolate donut in my food diary!!!)

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  5. Avatar ta2kitty says:

    I look at my coworkers stuffing their faces and my hunger disappears…

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  6. Avatar tasty says:

    I learned from a “Winnie the Pooh” book this phrase, “you’re stronger than you seem”. I repeat this mantra to myself just before I snag that goodie. And I totally celebrate (by cheering myself on in my head) when I successfully avoid a tempting snack.

  7. Avatar Kfs says:

    Actually, it’s a no-brainier for me. As a celiac, I have a 100% gluten-free diet, so I can just turn down 99% of the office goodies on content alone. However, that being said, I don’t have an “easy button” that makes it any easier than anyone else. I just know the stuff isn’t good for my health and choose not to eat it. It’s a principle anyone can use.

  8. Avatar shermesmeier says:

    I send an email out that there are treats, that quickly gets rid of them as my hungry co-workers soon polish them off and out of temptations way 🙂

    • Avatar Connie says:

      Good ideas. The best plan is to get those temptations out of sight.
      I am a sweetaholic diagnosed long ago. I love oatmeal raisin cookies. Could eat a dozen at one sitting. I love IceCream & over indulge so for my plan of resistance is to keep these types foods OUT OF MY HOUSE. I have poor disiciine despite best of intentions. Thanks for sharing❗️❤️

  9. Avatar Mandy V says:

    Such great suggestions! Love the mindful eating at meals where you do nothing else but sit and eat.

  10. Avatar Jill says:

    I try to tell myself that these foods are not some rare, exotic thing that I will never see again, nor have the opportunity to consume. If I could get them any day, the appeal is lessened.

    That said, if the offering really is a delicious, unique, once-in-a-lifetime food, I’ll take a serving and make it work in my day.

  11. Avatar Aaron Dear says:

    I find that most people can silence this habit of snacking with two steps:

    1) Make the decision that you will stop snacking
    2) Keep it away from you, and don’t look at it

    When that doesn’t work, and you actually need to overwrite the habit, try to envision what kind reward you get from the snack, then replace it with something else (e.g. coffee, or water + a quick stretch). Some replacements such as those can mimic the reward you get, despite not even being remotely similar in nature.

  12. Avatar JSNSR says:

    Sugar is poison, Repeat until convinced. Otherwise, you’re stuck.

  13. Avatar stickerbrick says:

    My brain actually tries to convince me that not eating free food is the same as throwing away money … But my experience with defeating other addictions has taught me to consciously recognize that my thoughts are not necessarily *ME* and to recognize when my brain is straight up lying to me.

    • Avatar Bob says:

      You have no idea how anatomy works do you

      • Avatar Andrew Vardis says:

        You have no idea how to use the English language, do you? Oh… can I say that you also have no idea about how to treat people with respect. If stickerbrick has shared that she overcame addiction, and if, in her understanding, that was achieved by her simplifying the neurological processes that take place in terms that she understands (and in ways that ultimately helped), then who are you to condescend her and put her down? You should keep your judgement and opinion to yourself… or is this a habit of yours that has already pushed people away?

        • Avatar Lisa says:

          Judgment, no “e,” dear. What an idea!

          • Avatar @Korisnik says:

            Judgement is also widely used in formal and informal discourse.

          • Avatar Becky Ellen Collins says:

            Ya’ll need to calm down. Can we all just agree that passing up free office food is a big old challenge and unite behind our struggles and victories overcoming it? Jeez Louise…

            *sits back and waits for someone to inevitably critique this post*

          • Avatar Andrew Vardis says:

            Well… in Australia we generally spell it with an ‘e’…

          • Avatar Mari Grant says:

            Judgement in British English. Judgment in legalese and North American English.

  14. Avatar Jenn says:

    Using an alternative is the easiest way I have found. As a nurse, sometimes it’s hard to turn down those free donuts in the breakroom because I have just been run off my feet for 7 hours straight, so my brain turns the ‘free food!’ into a reward for hard work. I’ve been trying instead to bring my own snacks that I love and being like ‘Instead of that donut, I will eat this delicious homemade protein bar’ etc and that does seem to stave off most of the temptation.

  15. Avatar GyrlSmylee Ireland says:

    This woman at work brings a giant sugar filled cake loaded with gluten and sends an email out to the diabetics, the ones with celiac disease and those with other food allergies that her daughter made her cake again. I have tried it before, and it is good, but I don’t need it. When she brings it in, I just walk past it. I feel like her cakes are disrespectful to my co-workers ailments so I purposely snub it.

    • Avatar Louella thinskie says:

      I completely agree that bringing something like that to a place where people have food intolerances etc is really rude and thoughtless. I like the idea of snubbing the cake

  16. Avatar Lillybelle says:

    When I walk by free food- in the grocery store or at work I just remind myself that a lot of dirty/ germy hands have touched it or sneezed in the vacinity. I’m a nurse so it’s easy to imagine where my co workers hands have been. It turns me right off !

  17. Avatar Kg says:

    i couldn’t even walk by the picture in the article.

  18. Avatar carolinmonmouth says:

    chew sugar-free gum

  19. Avatar Honica2000 says:

    Be a food snob: only eat home baked cakes. In my office that cuts out 95% of free cakes and the one cake you do have is worth having (well, if you have good bakers…)

  20. Avatar Alice says:

    I try to replace the craving with a piece of fruity or sour sugar free gum…I still get to chew something and I’m enjoying it 10 minutes later when the donut would already be strapping itself it my butt and I reward myself in my head knowing that I did good.

  21. awesome suggestions, both here and in the comments. I try gum, mindful eating etc. I love the saying “you are stronger than you think! “

  22. Avatar Dude says:

    I reward my resistance with a beautiful, delicious donut, or two, or ten.

  23. Avatar Greg Dahlen says:

    only eat when you’re hungry

  24. Avatar Sandy says:

    I tell myself that the donuts or cake are dry and flavorless, and have that weird waxy icing. Totally not worth it.

  25. Avatar Deborah says:

    I’ve recognized that if I skip the free treat then I will indulge later on in the day in privacy. So unlike many here, I will have a VERY small amount, thank and get to know the giver, and choose to skip maybe something else later that day like a scoop of ice cream after dinner. Then I have no regrets. If I’m truly not hungry or interested I will pretend to take some anyway to be kind and throw it in a bathroom trash or some other trash you can’t retrieve it from secretly. Does anyone else do that?

  26. Avatar Christine says:

    I try to think ahead about the ensuing sugar crash and how awful it will make my body feel. If I can’t resist I cut a small piece off and that’s it.

  27. Avatar Hollie says:

    My office literally had Krispy Kreme today! This article was prefect timing. I literally entered it into my food diary and read the stats out to the office. Then decided I would rather have a full size salad with veggies and be full rather than 1 little (KK donuts are smaller than normal places) donut and still be hungry! It helps that I have 1 crossfitter in the office who sits at the desk next to me. He always days, “strength in solidarity!” So we resist together!

  28. Avatar Julie says:

    It’s a better idea to bring healthy snacks so you aren’t left hungry and have donuts or cookies in front of you and no healthy alternatives.

  29. Avatar B South says:

    My rule is simple, “If you’re going to eat a doughnut, make it a good one. Not some cheap grocery store or pre-packed doughnut. But one of those gourmet ones, in the $3 range. The same rule applies to cupcakes.

  30. Avatar Maven Whiskey says:

    I Tell myself I am allowed to have it. Just not right now, come back later. In reality, my office is full of millennial vultures and they will Hoover it in an hour if I leave it alone, and there won’t be any for me to eat. But by not denying myself at all, I’m short cutting the negative feedback loop.

  31. Avatar Huseyin says:

    I use the myfitnesspalapp calorie limit as my virtual budget for the day. I no longer thing in monetary terms, just calories so now everything has a cost and nothing’s free

  32. Avatar 21kRunner says:

    I don’t participate in office potlucks. So when asked if I want a plate I can reply that I forgot/didn’t contribute plus I brought my lunch.

    When I don’t contribute I don’t feel entitled to the food. That’s not free food, that’s someone else’s lunch.

  33. Avatar Lori Davis says:

    Please consider not putting photos like this on your blog that feed through our app. It doesn’t help motivate to see this when I login first thing in the morning. Use different healthy images or non food images that communicate the same thing. Thank you!

  34. Avatar Jerome Barry says:

    I like the calories I plan to have at home more than the calories offered here at work.

  35. Avatar Frendi30 says:

    I look at the progress I’ve made on my weighloss and it makes me happy do know what I’ve achieved thus far. I pat myself on the back and say “Way to go me!”

  36. Avatar Karen says:

    One day I just said to myself- I’m going to be the person at work who “never eats that junk”.. people would comment that I ate “so healthy” and it made me feel good about my decisions. I also realized on certain days if I went in by the cookies I was going to eat 5 of them so I just didn’t go in the break room. I’d take a walk at lunch instead…and guess what- Im also the person at work who’s lost 70lbs. Now I couldn’t care less about that junk. Let everyone else gobble it up and complain they are “so tired” and “can’t lose weight.”

  37. Avatar britches says:

    I work in a bakery, and some days it is torture! I tell myself that the sugar, bread, etc. might be delicious, but it is poison (bc it really is)!

    I pack healthy snacks for when all else fails and I want to cave. It might not be AS delicious, but I can still have something pretty delicious and it distracts my brain from obsessing about the sweets/bread I shouldn’t have.

  38. Avatar Jackie says:

    I always have trouble staying away from the unhealthy food at the office…does anybody know if there are companies that have healthy vending machines for things like smoothie bowls??

    • Avatar Samantha says:

      I haven’t heard of that but love the idea! My main problem is always the ease of those unhealthy snacks, as long as it was healthy and fresh ingredients I would rather a fruit smoothie bowl than chips

  39. I log it first. If I have the calories to spare then I eat it. If I don’t, I walk away.

  40. Avatar Bob says:

    Yeah ok ill definately go through the trouble of putting a quarter size snickers in an inconvienient drawer. Fucking eating disorder behavior.

  41. Avatar Geral says:

    Count EVERY SINGLE CALORIE! That works for me, you ate a snickers? Add it to the “snacks” list. You drank a Starbucks? Add it to the “snacks” list. Use the snacks list for everything you were not able or did not consider eating that day. At the end, before going to sleep count the unnecessary number of sugars and calories you took by just eating snacks. Get traumatized, next day start changing your habits and reconsider whether you should eat that snack or not.

  42. Avatar Jimmy NoChit says:

    I learned this when I quit smoking a decade or so ago. I am not giving up treats forever, but just for this minute. I make it past this craving, and if I want I can have a donut later. Later comes, and I do the same thing, just worry about making it past this craving. I dont think about giving up donuts ‘forever’, just for right now.

  43. Avatar jilldelrio says:

    Work treats- choose a small first bite and rate it. If it isn’t worthy of taking 200 calories out of your day, throw the rest away, or return cut off portion to the tray.

  44. Avatar jilldelrio says:

    Stay hydrated! Drink 2 big glasses of water and wait 30 minutes.

    Keep a favorite low or non caloric drink handy. Tea, flavored coffee, fizzy water, hot or cold. The savory of a fave can fill the need to munch.

  45. Avatar Gideon says:

    Some of these replies are so savage and mean. It’s about you and your body – I just remind myself that it’s not worth it. You could snack on that 100 calorie cookie and be left starving in no time, or have something with more nutritional value, like fruit, and be left fuller, longer.

  46. Avatar Melissa Calton says:

    My boss brought everyone gourmet sugar cookies for Valentines today. I just offered it to someone I know would love to have mine.

  47. Avatar Amber says:

    Keep a handful of fruit close by, that way you are choosing the healthy option and still getting to snack here and there. Not only on “free food” days but when ever you are getting a little hungry.

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  48. Avatar Marina says:

    I think of the dresses that won’t look good on me if I keep eating like that every day. That’s the most important for me. It’s okay to give in to temptation from time to time but not as a habit. I find that the less crap I eat, the less crap I want to eat. Knowing that I’m not gonna feel good later while training also helps.

  49. Avatar Felix says:

    Fortunately, I am gifted with being not amenable for temptation from any kind of food.
    I only eat, what and how much I consciously want to eat. 🙂

  50. Avatar murrayzz1 says:

    I used to think, “That looks irresistable” when I saw tempting food. Now I just say the word, “Resistable” to myself. It’s amazing how much easier it becomes to resist when you do this.

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