Blog | February 2024

How Food Preferences Have Changed Over the Years

With more emphasis on plant-based diets and access to a fresher variety of options, corporate food service has seen a significant shift toward whole-person health.

Ryan Bryant

Editor-in-Chief, Thought Leadership

For most people, food provides much more than simple sustenance. Time spent with family and friends often centers around meals, and what we eat conjures memories that can transport us to different times in our lives. In the context of the workplace, food also facilitates connections with our colleagues and helps organizations promote the whole-person health of employees.

Food programming is a critical component not only of attracting people to the workplace, but also for boosting their overall well-being. However, this perspective on how food can shape workplace wellness hasn’t always been so refined. Alongside the rise of awareness around food allergies and conditions like celiac disease, food programming has changed to be more reflective of the complex needs and desires of modern workers. 

“When I was young and just getting started in the culinary industry, food allergies and dietary restrictions weren’t really something we thought much about,” says Rick Green, a Regional Executive Chef for ISS Guckenheimer in the San Francisco area. “Since then, there’s been a massive uptick in awareness of food allergies, dietary restrictions, plant-based diets—these things have entered the mainstream and there’s now more of a focus on health and well-being through nourishment.”

This transition to more thoughtful food consumption has driven significant changes in individual preferences and service delivery, with everyone from the C-suite to frontline workers enjoying a greater emphasis on high-quality ingredients and more local, sustainable eating options. 

The Growth of Curated Cuisine

Sharing a meal has always been one of the key components of workplace connection. But over the past twenty years, what we eat in and around the office has shifted to meet the needs of a diverse workforce, offering people more options, new flavors, and accommodations for specific dietary requirements. Especially for food management organizations and caterers, food programs weren’t always so varied and centered around health.

“When I started culinary school in 2002, there was an inkling of the movement to provide healthier options and focus on dietary restrictions, but it wasn’t at the forefront and was mainly for nutrition students,” says Nicole Redd-McIntosh, a Los Angeles-based ISS Guckenheimer Executive Pastry Chef. “By the time I graduated, my first pastry job was at a plant-focused restaurant that didn’t use meat, poultry, refined sugars, dairy, or eggs. Now, I always include desserts that are vegan, gluten-free, and even keto—a lot of chefs are making a real effort to promote whole-person health.” 

In workplace foodservice delivery at present, food curation and customer well-being often drive the choices made by chefs in corporate kitchens. In previous eras, however, many of the meals available for employees were certainly focused on flavor and quality, but when compared to today, concerns around individual health and providing a variety of dietary options were virtually nonexistent. Especially after the pandemic, food and beverage programs act as a major incentive to encourage employees to return to the workplace, and different generations of workers have varying preferences and expectations for what the ideal foodservice delivery looks like. As a result, modern chefs are dedicated to delivering a variety of options in alignment with the growing diversity of the workforce and the desire to provide exceptional employee experiences.

These examples of corporate menus highlight how food options have shifted over time. The lunch and dinner menus on the left are from 2002, while menus on the right are from 2024. Notice the 2024 menus’ variety of international and plant-forward options, compared to the wide range of meat-focused comfort foods available in 2002. Menu info provided by Chef Rick Green.

Reducing Food Waste to Increase Sustainability

In addition to providing more choices for diners, many chefs now emphasize sustainability in their kitchens with a focus on waste reduction and offering a wide selection of plant-based foods. 

“Given how much food waste there is, anything you can do helps solve the problem,” says Brian Sarofeen, a Boston-based ISS Guckenheimer Executive Chef and culinary competition winner. He points to the uptick in technology use as a driver of modern corporate foodservice sustainability efforts. These systems utilize trash can cameras and machine learning to identify and track food waste, helping chefs reduce or eliminate the amount of garbage coming from their kitchens. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste releases the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. As a result, chefs have become more cognizant of how their work impacts the environment. Chef Brian says small changes and modifications add up over time to help make a meaningful difference in a kitchen’s carbon footprint.

“A lot of professional chefs are obsessed with sustainability,” he says. “But it’s something everyone can contribute to. It’s finding that extra 5% you can do, which adds up over months and years.” Reducing the amount of wasted food could feed more people and minimize methane emissions coming from landfills.

Local ingredients have also become more popular as foodservice grows increasingly sustainable. Given the energy needed to transport foods across the globe (and the nearly 250,000 tons of greenhouse gases emitted annually as a result), local food sources are not only better for the environment, but also give consumers access to fresher ingredients with lower risks of foodborne illness. 

Combining Quality and Convenience

With widespread access to these fresher ingredients and a growing interest in whole-person health, more people are interested in food quality than ever before. As individuals are exposed to new flavors and types of cuisines in a foodservice context, executive chefs learn to build menus and programming that align with what has proven to be popular with the employee base, which can vary depending on location or staff cultural representation. Corporate chefs also must consider the lack of time many employees face, necessitating speedy service, quick-moving lines, and technology that streamlines the process. 

“If employees are onsite, they may be in meetings all day with only a short period to go get lunch,” Chef Rick says. “Convenience and fast service play a big part, but it’s also about understanding what people need. Some want the interaction, the slower process—others need to be able to order from an app, grab their food, and leave. It’s creating the right balance between convenience, quickness, and customer service, and it all ties back to curating good nutrition and well-being.”

He also points to food as a primary driver of the success of return-to-office initiatives. 

We’re focusing on getting back to basics. We’re embracing people coming back and doing a deep dive into hospitality to remember why we’re in this industry. We want people to be excited about the food available to them and the service we’re providing, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”

The Evolution of Food at Work

Food will always be a vital part of the human experience. To help ensure people feel engaged with their jobs and appreciated by their employers, organizations now have vast opportunities to offer a variety of nutritious food that emphasizes the well-being and preferences of their workers. As corporate foodservice evolves, the emphasis on whole-person health will only continue to grow, driving a desire for fresher ingredients, more flavors, and meaningful engagement with the larger workplace community.


Ryan Bryant

Editor-in-Chief, Thought Leadership

Contact Ryanmailto:ryan.bryant@us.issworld.com?subject=Inquiry