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by Jacq Carly | March 10, 2009

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You've got deadlines to meet, reports to finish and phone calls to make. There's no time to leave the office - so it's back to the company cafeteria. After all, your employer has an incentive to provide nutritious, power-boosting meals for optimum performance, right? Well, that doesn't seem to always be the case. I looked at five company menus to compare and rate based on nutritional content, plus, for comparison, an elementary school menu and a prison menu. You might be just as surprised as I was with the results.

Only two of the five companies list breakfast on their menus, Level 3 Communications and Ameren. As the first meal of the day, breakfast should be just enough to give you an energy boost and hold you over for a few hours. Level 3 Communications' breakfast selections would do a lot more than hold you over, they'd fill you up and make you want to crawl right back into bed. Their choices consist of 1) a bagel sandwich with choice of bacon or sausage, 2) short stack with bacon or sausage, butter & syrup, 3) ham steak, two eggs, hash browns, toast, 4) grand biscuit sausage sandwich and 5) chorizo breakfast burrito "smothered" with green chili sauce. Ameren doesn't offer an impressive selection either (bagel with cream cheese, breakfast quesadilla, French toast with bacon) but its fare is slightly lighter than Level 3's. I found it interesting, though, that neither offered any fruit, oatmeal, yogurt or cereal, all of which are healthier and a snap to serve.

Level 3 Communications: Grade D
Ameren: Grade D+

Now it's time for lunch. Our first stop is Time Inc.'s "Cafe Time". Their menu is quite extensive, offering vegetarian pasta dishes, weight conscious meals called "right appetite", soups, sides, and specials. While I was happy to see vegetarian pasta dishes, they were also laden with a lot of cheese and a lot of fat (three-cheese lasagna, cheese manicotti, baked cheese tortellini in tomato cream sauce.) Alternatives might be a tomato herb sauce or even garlic & olive oil. (I found it a little excessive that they offer other pasta dishes as sides as well.) Their "right appetite" menu had healthy selections such as mahi-mahi, tarragon honey grilled chicken, and vegetable bar-b-q burrito, all great choices. The meal I'd do over would be the breaded chicken, smoked bacon, provolone, crispy onions & ranch dressing (now, that's just crying for a makeover!). I'd make the chicken grilled (no breading), nix the bacon, keep the provolone, saute the onions and get a fat-free ranch instead.

Time Inc.: Grade C

ABC offers a great vegetarian dish of fresh spinach, zucchini, red onions and eggplant, goat cheese with balsamic vinaigrette (with a side salad). For the meat eaters, there's Creole braised marinated pork chops with succulent peppers and onions in a rich tomato and herb broth (fancy shmancy!). They seem to have a nice variety on most days, though it probably could be better if they focused less on being fancy and more on consistency. I'd take off the grilled ham steak with orange raisin sauce and roast carrot chutney. Something about it just doesn't sit well.

ABC: Grade B-

~"Cafeteria" is Conde Nast's mess hall. I was quite impressed with the amount of seafood on their menu. Out of all the menus, this one appealed to me the most. The chef's table offered grilled shrimp and calamari, grilled swordfish, and black angus rib. The sides menu had a wide variety of vegetables (something missing from the other menus) such as sauteed string beans, braised Swiss chard, and spinach with sun dried tomato. There are even fresh vegetable juices for the hard core health nuts.

Conde Nast: Grade A

For contrast, I looked at two non-company menus, one from a school, another from a prison.

The lunch menu for all public elementary schools in Marshfield, Mass., is mapped out for each day of the month. It's my hope the parents took advantage of the advance notice to plan out alternative meals for their kids. Seven lunches out of the month were called "Pizza Party," which included a variety of toppings, pasta salad and chilled 100% fruit juice. The pizza doesn't bother me as much as the combination of pizza, pasta salad, and sugared juice (I'm sure they're not shelling out the bucks for organic or freshly squeezed.) The pasta salad could easily be replaced with a leafy salad or sauteed veggies, and rather than the juice, serve a piece of fruit and get these kids to drink some water!

The other unhealthy menu items consisted of fried chicken, "loaded nacho's" [sic] (chips, taco meat, and cheese sauce), roast pork and steak & cheese. Geez! What happened to veggies, fruit salad, PB & J, tuna-, chicken-, turkey salad, BLT, rice, turkey burgers? Why not grilled instead of fried, nachos with ground turkey meat, salsa and a low-fat cheese, or pasta with mixed veggies? It's no wonder there is such a high level of childhood obesity in this country.

Marshfield Elementary Schools: Grade D-

I'm sure you'll all be thrilled to know that the prisoners at Nashville Tennessee's Metro Davidson Detention Facility are eating extremely well. The prison menu is carefully planned Monday-Sunday, each item broken down to specific portions. Truthfully, I don't have any suggestions on what to change, because I think they are eating very well. It may be no frills, but from a nutritional standpoint, they're eating better than the kids. This menu has a nice balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats prescribed for them. It's like a cafeteria-style version of deal-a-meal.

Metro Davidson Detention Facility: Grade B+

Jacq Carly is a Manhattan-based nutritionist.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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