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

Lunch Club
Credit: John Christenson

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. Here's how it works: Every day three members each prepare enough lunch to feed 10 people. They follow a few guidelines. Each member's contribution should have no more than 500 calories and 15 grams of fat per serving, and should contain whole grains and at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. Once members have cooked, they take two weeks off from kitchen duty while the others take over. Most people spend about $40 to $50 to create the meals, which range from sushi to chicken chili and lasagna.

Room and Board supports its employees' healthful lifestyles. The company has a free gym with treadmills, weight machines, yoga and Pilates classes, and a court for basketball, indoor hockey, and volleyball. In winter, employees can strap on snowshoes for a walk in fresh, cold air. An on-site masseuse helps soothe tension. And the company's fitness director, Sandra Swami, who offers personal training sessions, often goes to large meetings during breaks to lead people in stretches. But because the company has fewer than 200 employees at its headquarters, an on-site cafeteria isn't practical for Room and Board. So a few years ago, Swami tried to bring in healthful lunch options from a vendor. But with soup-and-salad combos running about $9, most people didn't buy.

That's when Nechanicky hatched the lunch club plan. Swami loved the idea, and added the healthful guidelines. The Healthy Lunch Club began in March 2004 with nine people, and membership has since more than tripled. "Convenience is a piece of this. It's a relief to know your lunch is taken care of. I don't have to scramble every morning now to bring a healthy lunch," says Nechanicky, a product information coordinator and mother of a young son. On many days, she spends the bulk of her lunch hour working out in the gym, then grabs her club lunch and eats at her desk.

Many members, like Schroeder, joined the club after personal training sessions with Swami. "I worked out diligently, but my eating habits were poor," he says. Swami convinced him that he needed to eat better to increase his energy and maximize his workouts. "I'm learning so much about healthy food. When I cook for the group, I take great care. I know I'm accountable not just to myself, but to nearly 30 other people."

How to Start 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 tips from Sue Nechanicky, one of the founders of Room and Board's club:

  • 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.
  • Slow cookers often prove handy 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 degrees in under two hours, then set to "warm"to hold the food through lunch.
  • Decide on dietary guidelines and help people follow them by assembling an informal library of health-conscious cookbooks and magazines, including Cooking Light.
  • Name a point person to create a schedule, enforce the guidelines, and coordinate new groups as interest grows.
  • Set hours. At Room and Board, dishes are available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
  • Display dietary information for each dish on a sheet of paper. 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.
  • Provide a measuring cup for soups, stews, and other dishes that aren't already divided into servings to help avoid confusion over serving sizes.
  • Place a membership list at the table and have people check off their names when they take their lunches, so people can better gauge how much food is remaining.
  • 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.
  • 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.