Transform ‘cake culture’ with love and nutrition

Workplaces are notorious for having cake in break rooms. Maybe it’s doughnuts or cookies or candy, but the point is that dessert is everywhere at work. Ironically, worksite wellness efforts have skyrocketed in the last decade, encouraging nutrition, weight loss, prevention of chronic diseases, and so on. Still, we consistently come up against this “cake culture.”


As with any dilemma, we have a choice. We can ignore the issue, or we can get curious about it to figure out how we can make changes. Some may say, “Just ban desserts at work.” I don’t think that’s likely, nor possible or advisable. If we do something extreme like that, we become what I like to call “the wellness police,” and then nobody likes us. So, let’s consider other options.

My approach is two-fold. First, we have to figure out the benefits of “cake culture.” We need to ask ourselves, “Why do we do this?” With any behavior there are reasons why we do it — positive reasons; some may call them “payoffs.” Basically, we do a behavior for what we get from it.

Second, we have to consider these benefits when we decide on changes. There are tips for bringing healthy foods into the workplace, but if we don’t address the underlying motivation for the behavior, we won’t be able to change it.

So, first let’s talk about the benefits we are getting from our “cake culture,” and then let’s dive into some things we may be able to do to transform our workplaces.

The benefits of “cake culture”

Why does someone bring in doughnuts or pastries or candy? This can be a manager, a co-worker, or a vendor. They bring it in with a huge smile! Look what we brought! So, what’s the intention? It’s likely one or more — or all — of these reasons:

  • To give a gift;
  • To celebrate (maybe its someone’s birthday);
  • To say “job well done”;
  • To say “thank you;
  • To say “I value you”;
  • To be the fun one;
  • To be the “bad” one (in an exciting, rebellious way);
  • To bring pleasure;
  • To evoke good feelings;
  • To evoke smiles.


When we accept the gift of this food, and when we eat it together, it’s a way to:

  • Show acceptance and appreciation of the gift;
  • To say “thank you” to the person who brought it;
  • To be nice;
  • To fit in with others (do what others are doing);
  • To be a part of the group or culture (or create a social bond);
  • To connect with others in a shared moment;
  • To express whatever meaning is attached to the food (for example, if it’s a birthday, then you are expressing celebration).

In short, the easiest way to understand “cake culture” is to recognize that it is not about the cake. It’s about love and belonging. It’s about giving and receiving love (i.e., joy, pleasure, gratitude, celebration). And it’s about social connection and group cohesion.

Love and belonging

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, shared this concept through his “Hierarchy of Needs” model, where he explains that we have certain innate human needs that need to be provided before we can work on self-improvement. Love and belongingness is one of them.

Humans are social beings. Our survival depends on it. We have an innate urge to connect, bond, have friends and family, and to be a part of groups, which can be workplaces, churches, social groups, or cultures. We feel compelled to love and be loved, to be in relationship with others, to belong to a group or group(s), and to identify ourselves as such.

To show love and belongingness we often use food or drink, and do so as a ritual. All cultures do it. We bond over food. We bond while we are eating. Workplaces have created a ritual of bonding over cake/desserts. It is what we do as a culture.


Take away cake, take away love

I know this sounds extreme, but if we take away the cake/desserts, we are actually in essence taking away the ritual of showing love and belonging. The food is symbolic, carrying meaning and value. We can’t take symbols away without disrupting the social system that goes along with it.

An easier way to explain this is to think about birthday parties. What do we serve at birthday parties? Birthday cake! So, what if we said, “No more cake at birthday parties!” It feels wrong, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s not about the cake, it’s about what it symbolizes. It’s the same with our workplace foods.



Love in other ways

One of the biggest hurdles we are faced with is figuring out other ways to show love. Let’s pretend for a moment that desserts are not an option. How else can we show love, appreciation, celebration, and excitement?


5 love languages

Have you heard of the book “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman? It originally came out in 1992, but amazingly it’s still a top seller. It has continued to go viral every year.

The original intention of the book was to assist romantic partners with communicating and expressing love/appreciation with each other. However, quickly after reading the book you realize that these principles can apply to any (or at least most) relationship(s).

Chapman’s stance is that there are five “love languages” and we each have a primary and secondary one. He explains that if two partners have the same love language, they are typically OK. However, if two people have different love languages, then they tend to miscommunicate. One feels like they are expressing love, but the other does not feel loved.

The 5 love languages (how we give and want to receive love):

  1. Words of affirmation
  2. Physical touch
  3. Giving/receiving gifts
  4. Quality time
  5. Acts of service

We can use this as a framework to think of other ideas to show love and belonging at the workplace. Here are some:

  • Words of affirmation (or positivity)
    • Thank-you cards or emails
    • Create a gratitude wall and write “shout outs” to employees
    • Create a positive quote wall and everyone can write quotes in daily or weekly
    • Email jokes (joke of the day)
    • Email positive quotes (quote of the day)
    • For meetings, start and end with something positive
  • Physical touch (body or body-language) NOTE: I know this is a touchy subject for the workplace. Pun intended. We cannot encourage things like physical touch, hand holding, or hugs in the workplace. However, we can do things with our physical body that express love and belongingness in a platonic and social way.
    • Have morning huddles for team togetherness
    • Give someone your full attention when talking with them
    • Give eye-contact when talking to someone
    • Uncross arms when talking to someone
    • Give fist bumps
    • Give high fives
    • Create a team handshake that everyone does (for fun)
    • Do “power poses” together (for fun)
  • Giving/receiving gifts
    • A flower for everyone
    • Flower bouquets in common areas
    • Put “fidget toys” on meeting room tables
    • Put adult coloring books in break or lunch areas
    • Pay for employees to go to an external training or a conference
    • Gift cards or gas cards or coupons
  • Quality time
    • Mindful listening during conversation
    • Going for walks together
    • Schedule outings together for team building
    • Create a picture collage wall and take/post fun pictures
    • Create a “theme of the week” and do an activity or dress a certain way
    • Have a “fun sock” week (where everyone wears funny socks)
  • Acts of service
    • Music in work areas (if possible) or break areas or lunch rooms
    • Give employees an extra hour (or more) off for the week, on paid time
    • Get everyone’s cars washed in the parking lot while they are working

Can we swap cake with carrots?

Here is an analogy: Imagine you have a glass and you put an ounce of red food coloring in it. You can drink the red food coloring, but it’s healthier to drink plain water. So you ask, how do we get rid of the red food coloring so we can replace it with water? Imagine that you cannot pour it out. The answer? You can just keep adding water until it dilutes out entirely. It’s the same with desserts and healthy food. Just keep adding more healthy food and the desserts will minimize on their own over time.


Ideas for infiltrating healthier foods into the workplace:

  • As a gift (something you are bringing in)
    • Fruit baskets
    • Veggie trays
    • Specialty coffee (e.g., Starbucks, Collectivo, Ancora, etc.)
    • Various teas
    • Fruit-infused water (in a jug with a tap)
  • As a team-building activity
    • Have salad bar potlucks
    • Have healthy recipe potlucks (where people also exchange recipes)
    • Do nutrition challenges together (eat the colors of the rainbow)
    • Celebrate National Nutrition Month every March


  • In your vending or cafeteria
    • Work with vendors to offer healthier options
    • Label foods with calorie and nutrient content
    • Make pricing of all foods equal (so healthier items do not cost more)

For more ideas, here is the American Heart Association’s Healthy Workplace Food and Beverage Toolkit.


We have a societal “cake culture” at our workplaces. Instead of fighting this, understand it and work with it. Know that underneath the cake is an innate human need to love and belong. Focus your efforts on expressing love and belongingness in other ways that do not include food and beverages, and if you do choose foods and beverages, choose healthier options. Make healthy eating something you talk about, do, and are! Infiltrate it any way you can. Encourage it. Make it fun. Make it exciting. Slowly, you will shift your culture!

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