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I'm interviewing at a company that has catered lunch (not a large free cafeteria, like Facebook has) every day. I don't have an offer yet, but I want to plan ahead. I'm going in for a final interview next week, which will be my first visit to the company's office. Catered lunch is, I gather, pretty common in the software industry. My recruiter pitched it pretty heavily as a perk, but personally I view it as a bit of an anti-perk, if forced:

  • I follow a somewhat restrictive diet, which tends eliminate many of the primary choices offered when catering happens. It's not exactly vegetarian, but let's go with that. In general, that's fine, my diet is my choice, no hard feelings if there's nothing for me, but while I'm sure they have a "vegetarian option", it probably won't match up with my macronutrient goals (mainly, protein). I've also found that going for "vegetarian options" tend to lead to a bit of othering.
  • I'm not sure that I'm morally comfortable with the company's management having direct influence on my diet.
  • I moved to one of the best cities for food in the world, and I want to get out and eat things!
  • I'm single, I like cooking with fresh ingredients, and I need to eat my leftovers to avoid (what I consider) immoral food waste. This also lets me control my macros well.
  • Sometimes I want to meet up with friends for lunch.

Anyways, I think that it's not really important why I might want to opt out. That's just to answer any questions people might have about my reasoning.

Now, none of these are an issue if I can just opt out some or most days. Maybe I'll bring something from home, or maybe I'll want to head out to a restaurant or lunch shop. But - I'm wondering, will this harm me at the company, and how can I determine that during the interview, as I'd imagine this might vary a bit between companies?

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    Are you new to the corporate world? Because you seem to be massively overthinking this. What gave you the idea that this would ever be "forced", even unofficially? – Lilienthal Jan 12 '17 at 7:07
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    how can I determine that during the interview - Ask what you've asked here, with fewer words. "About the catered lunch. I might be interested on occasion, but I usually prefer to bring something from home." For example, that may be all that you need to say. The rest will be them talking, where you can gauge their reaction. – Brandin Jan 12 '17 at 9:37
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    Regarding whether catered lunch is common in the software industry: not at all in the mid-Atlantic US. But then again catered lunches are fairly common in all industries in Los Angeles. It might be more regional or cultural than industry wide. As a person with unfortunate dietary restrictions, I almost never eat at food event, work related or not. For me it seems my career is vastly more influenced by my technical skills and customer service attitude than my lack of social skills or social participation. – Todd Wilcox Jan 12 '17 at 12:39
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    @Lilienthal I've been part of the corporate world, ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, for more than 20 years. I've never once been at a place where regular catered lunches was a "perk". In my experience, catered lunches were always for special events, and the first few I wasn't sure if it would be appropriate to go out for lunch instead. As somehow to whom a work culture where catered lunches is the norm is foreign, I think this was an absolutely valid question, and frankly, some of the comments here (not yours) seem inappropriately condescending and insulting to the OP. – Beofett Jan 12 '17 at 13:35
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    I guess I'm the only one who would worry that the company is paying for all this (comparatively) expensive food instead of just a bit more to salary... – Michael J. Jan 12 '17 at 19:23

11 Answers 11

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But - I'm wondering, will this harm me at the company, and how can I determine that during the interview, as I'd imagine this might vary a bit between companies?

I’m pretty sure it won’t harm you at your company and that this is actually nothing you should worry about. That said, while you may not want to eat the catered lunch, you should definitely eat your brought-from-home lunch with your new teammates as it is an opportunity to bond with them and get to know them.

If anyone asks you why you aren’t eating the provided lunch, you can always politely demur with any of the following excuses:

  • I actually packed my lunch today! Mind if I eat with you guys anyways?
  • I’d love to, but I am going out for lunch today with some friends. Would you care to join us?
  • I didn’t see anything that fit my diet (feel free to be vague), but don’t worry about me.

If you are really, really worried about this, just ask the recruiter or HR person directly, but politely:

I’m in the habit of bringing my lunch. Do you think anyone would mind if I bring that even though lunch is provided?

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    @PlasmaHH The positive phrasing is a bit better: I'm in the habit of bringing my lunch. If you say I don't like that food, even nicely, someone might misunderstand and think you want a different menu choice (e.g. vegetarian), but actually you don't want that. – Brandin Jan 12 '17 at 9:30
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    @PlasmaHH Phrasing it positively is probably better in all cultures. For example, if you want to join them with your own food, even, "I'd like to join you, but I brought my own food. Would anyone mind?" It is simply a better communication tactic than saying that the cafeteria food is bad. – Brandin Jan 12 '17 at 9:40
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    @PlasmaHH Out of curiosity: Which cultures are you thinking of? Usually I assume that western cultures are more direct than most others but saying "I don't like that food" (particularly "that food") would definitely be construed as impolite in the US or Germany/France/UK. – Voo Jan 12 '17 at 13:48
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    @Voo: I don't have that much experience with similar situations, but even within germany within one group of people its fine to say "I don't like tomatoes" while in other groups you are expected to eat them even if you don't like them. In france I always feel like people would kill me if I told them to dislike anything they like. My experience in denmark was that all people accepted me being super picky about food, and the worst response I ever got was "oh really, its hard to imagine for me, thats my favorite, but everyone has a different taste" – PlasmaHH Jan 12 '17 at 15:21
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    An "I don't like that food" response is absurdly rude. – Lightness Races with Monica Jan 12 '17 at 15:24
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You are overthinking this. Opting out of catered lunch is perfectly normal and acceptable.

The best way to do it is depends on administrative details. In most places, you simply don't go. If it's also a social event, you can come and bring your own food. "I have some dietary restrictions" is a perfectly good explanation & excuse.

If they take head count and/or preference for food orders, just reply honestly. "No thanks" is perfectly acceptable answer.

  • I think this is the case for non-regular catering/delivery. We have it at my current company for birthdays and such, sometimes people opt out. But I think that it's different if it's a core "perk" of the company - something that happens every day. In this case, there isn't really "ordering", the food is just kind of there at lunch time. – glessier Jan 12 '17 at 3:42
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    @glessier In the one place I worked at for a while with catered lunch, you could just not pick up lunch. I always saw plenty of people with packed lunches, and we occasionally ate out at a nearby pub. Nobody minded. I'd be very surprised if there are particularly many places that are not like this. (And most people probably would view catered lunch as a perk since if it's a big city, it's probably a LOT cheaper than you can get on the street, so that'll be why they're emphasising it). – Muzer Jan 12 '17 at 9:26
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    @glessier to expand upon what muzer was saying, they generally include such things as perks because some people find it easier to due their jobs with such offerings. Not everyone will, but many will. Regardless though, I have never felt pressure to use any perks at any job I have ever held. They're just there if you want them. – Jake Jan 12 '17 at 14:02
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    "In most places, you simply don't go." -- be aware that in some workplaces, lunch is provided with the goal of getting some light work out of the employees (even if only in the form of ad hoc meetings) during their break. It may not be phrased exactly that way, it may be phrased as "saving them from having to go off out of the building alone when they could be bonding with the team" or whatever. You may or may not be OK with this, and if not it can easily be detected by the fact that "simply don't go" is frowned on as a response. If you're OK with it, fine: it's a lunch meeting, you must go. – Steve Jessop Jan 12 '17 at 14:59
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Unless the mere existence of this lunch, and the consequences you imagine from eating or not eating it, are enough to make you decline a job offer, I think you're overthinking this. My suggestion is that on the first day, you bring something non perishable but leave it in your desk and attend the lunch. This will let you see with your own eyes what is served and how. I know what you mean about the othering - at a conference in South Africa I was astonished to hear "the buffet table on the left is vegetarian and on the right is not" compared to the US situation of vegetarians having to pre-order and then go pick up a plastic box from a special desk. But this place may have a ton of stuff you can eat, all well-labelled, and all treated as perfectly normal. Or it may not.

Grab what you can, even if it's just a drink, sit with some people, and have a first-lunch-at-work. If you couldn't eat enough, when you get back to your desk eat the nonperishable thing. If you could (and I expect you will be able to) take the thing home with you and never mention it.

Also during the first day, you can observe whether there is 100% participation or not and what non-participants say or do. They may just head out the door at 11:55. They may say "I'm not eating here today, gang" or they may not. You will see both how common it is and how people handle it. This will give you the freedom to schedule lunches with friends, to bring leftovers from home, or to plan a noontime exploration of your foodie city - once a month, once a week, or even every day; you'll know how typical such behaviours are.

If this is a possible deal breaker then you have no choice but to ask about it at the final interview. I would ask broad questions such as "how varied is the lunch? Is it always the same thing, or different each day?" "How many options are there on a typical day? Is it just a single dish, or one meat dish and one vegetarian dish, or ...?" "How well labelled is the food? If I have allergies or certain foods I don't eat, will I be able to know they are included?" "Does everyone eat the catered lunches, or about half the people, or ..." "Are the menus published in advance so we can plan where we eat through the week?" These open-ended questions aren't revealing you to be some sort of demanding special-diet-eating, lunch-bringing, friend-meeting snowflake (not that I expect anyone cares) but are just asking a little more about this perk. Since they are proud of it, they will doubtless be happy to tell you more about it, and pleased that you're interested.

  • Might want to be a tad bit careful on how to ask about the menu during the final interview. Word it wrong and you'll come across someone with really high culinary expectations... – Mehrdad Jan 13 '17 at 10:23
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Eating together is not only a perk, the company wants you to socialize and even (shock) continue to talk about work. So it may not be a requirement but nice if you can make it, and if you are not there you may miss something special.

How about:

  • Always taking part on certain days e.g. Monday and Friday?
  • Attending every day but bringing your own?
  • Asking the caterer about them making something just for you every time (if it's not too complicated; caterers can do this, it's what they are trained for and they enjoy the challenge)? Of course in this case you have to come, or cancel well in advance. You may not be the only one.

It's actually easier for the organisers too if they know how many bodies will be present.

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As the other answers already pointed out: preferring not to partake in the catered lunched is not that strange.

However, personally I would just tell management I'm a vegetarian, and that I'd appreciate some vegetarian options. In my experience as a vegetarian, people tend to be pretty empathic about this.

A significant majority of the population has some dietary restriction for one reason or the other (lactose intolerance, celiacs, religious, vegetarian, etc.), so asking for this is pretty normal.

Of course, be careful to actually ask it, and not demand it. The latter might give people the wrong impression.

  • [..] need to eat my leftovers to avoid (what I consider) immoral food waste.
  • Sometimes I want to meet up with friends for lunch.

I doubt the company will expect you to use the catered lunch every single day. I expect they have some mechanism in place to record when people are absent from the catered lunched for whatever reason. And if they don't: propose one.

  • I get that they'll have a vegetarian option, but if it's something like pasta, it doesn't fit my macros (the meat one probably would, since it's meat, but...). – glessier Jan 12 '17 at 3:38
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    @glessier Well, you mentioned "It's not exactly vegetarian, but let's go with that", so I went with that :-) At any rate, my point stands: why not try to discus you dietary restrictions before assuming there is no way to accommodate them? – Martin Tournoij Jan 12 '17 at 3:43
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    Yes that's fine. I just find the vegetarian options available to often be unsuitable for me, and obviously I can't have the regular one. – glessier Jan 12 '17 at 6:18
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    This post does raise another point: many people have health restrictions on what they eat, such as allergies, or doctor-prescribed diets. A company could not reasonably force employees to eat a catered meal, because that then makes them liable for everyone's health. – employee-X Jan 12 '17 at 21:18
  • @jpaugh: Right, but I think the issue here is those who have health restrictions would just tell their coworkers that and that will be the end of it. Those who don't will have an awkward time (not) explaining the details of it that everyone will eventually want to know about. – Mehrdad Jan 13 '17 at 10:25
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It's entirely normal for people to bring in their own lunch at any place of work, for any reason. There is no way that bringing in your own food could be seen as unusual, or even something to comment on.

If the lunch was free, it would certainly be more normal for people to find something in there which they could eat. Since the lunch is not free (thank you, Robert Heinlein ;) it is not at all unusual for people to prefer to bring in their own food.

As other people have said though, lunch is a useful social occasion. It lets you meet more people from the company than just those in your immediate team, and build contacts through the organisation. As a new hire, social opportunities like this are very useful to you in becoming part of the team.

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If they make an offer for you to have lunch with them prior to an offer. Sit down and eat with them. They want to talk with you informally too.

if they preference food orders, then i'm sure they can take your dietary requests into consideration. If asked just say that you follow a strict diet for health reasons.

If the food just shows up, partake or not as you please. Bring your own, I'm sure no one cares

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I am going to agree with the others and state that your probably over thinking this, but I do want to give a few points that you should consider.

  • If your restrictive diet is religion based say so. I know a few Muslims that instead of saying that they want a "Muslim friendly meal" will just say there veterinarian because it's easier for them. At my wedding for example, they told the catering service they were vegetarian, and they got a vegi meal. Then at the wedding they saw other Muslims eating the "Halal meal" and were kinda disappointed that they missed out. Point being, if there is a religious reason behind the restricted diet (or any other common reason) you may be surprised at what is offered. If the reason is personal, or you don't want to share, then don't. -- Side note, I know almost nothing about Muslims or their religion so I am not sure I explained this very well.
  • You will be expected to socialize. Lunch can be a social activity. There is no reason that you have to always go to "group lunch". But don't expect to be able to opt out 100% of the time either. If your team decides to go to lunch together today, and 9 of them want the free lunch because it's free.... You need to be ready to go.
  • There could be instances where it would be bad for you to decline the catered lunch. For example if the owner says "Hey let's talk about your future plans here at Foo Widgets," then goes to the catered lunch, but you decide to opt out, on this visit. Well, it may not go well. Specially if this owner/boss is the one that pushed for the catered lunch.
  • Don't be rude or snobby about it. If you decide not to take part that is 100% fine. But if you start saying stuff like "The food at the lunch just isn't up to my standards." or "They just don't have enough fresh ingredients for my tastes." etc., you will ruffle some feathers. Just be polite when declining. "That's ok, I'm just a picky eater. I prefer to eat what I brought from home." or the like should be fine.
  • +1 One issue with ordering (say) a Muslim meal is that it can be a little bit of a gamble. For example, if you order one on an airline, you might end up getting some spicy Indian food, whereas if you order vegetarian you might get pasta or something. Now, either you're lucky and don't mind the spicy, or you're not so lucky in which case you'd have preferred the safer option of vegetarian... – Mehrdad Jan 13 '17 at 10:31
  • Or you might get really unlucky and find that you're seated next to some jerk who realizes what you ordered and suddenly starts bothering you. Sure, the powers-that-be will eventually have to take care of it, but in the meantime you'd have a problem. Muslims don't always want to make their religion obvious. – Mehrdad Jan 13 '17 at 10:37
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As many others have said, no one will care whether you eat the company's catered lunch or bring your own lunch from home. But there's more to it than that. Based on your statements:

  • I moved to one of the best cities for food in the world, and I want to get out and eat things!
  • Sometimes I want to meet up with friends for lunch.

... maybe I'll want to head out to a restaurant or lunch shop

The subtext of your question is:

I frequently want to leave the company premises during lunch, is that okay?

There's no one-size-fits-all answer here. It depends on you, and it depends on the company culture.

Don't muddy the issue with talking about macronutrients, or almost-vegetarianism, or food morals, or bringing your lunch from home sometimes--no one is going to have issues or questions about that.

Figure out what the company's expectations are, decide how often you'll want to leave, decide how important your lunchtime breaks are, and try to gauge whether you and the company will be a good fit.

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This is an answer from a UK based person. Over here the idea of a company catered meal is a bag of crisps (chips) and a chocolate bar from the vending machine.

  • If you have a restrictive diet and they can't cater to it then I would expect them to encourage you to opt out of the catered lunch. Not having to make food for your diet will be cheaper and that's all managers really care about at the end of the day.
  • Management will have influence on lots of aspects in your life and your diet isn't really a big thing on that list.
  • You want to go out and eat, but management want you to stay on site, so you are available to work while you are eating. Going out while cut into the amount of work they can get from you and this may be seen negatively.
  • Rather than concerning yourself with left overs, cook less. :)
  • You are in the software industry now, friends will soon vanish. :)

Seriously I think opting out will have a negative impact on your career. You will miss out on the chit chat, the office gossip. You won't be fraternising with the senior managers and directors (VPs??) that could help you climb the ladder. It really depends if you give a toss about promotion.

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There is most likely no need to "opt out" in any way; you just don't go to catered lunch, but somewhere else. You don't need to tell anyone, you're just somewhere else. The disadvantages don't come from the "opting out" directly, but from what happens next.

One, your lunch break will likely take longer. At one place, I walked one minute to the cafeteria, one minute queuing for food, one minute walking back. Got a decent meal with 30 minutes away from my desk. Try that if you go to a restaurant, or pick up takeaway food.

Two, eating at your desk may not go down well, especially if it smells.

Three, you miss out on talking with your colleagues during lunch break. If you are in a team of six, and five have lunch together without you, you are going to miss out on things. It won't help.

Four, just because you are not with your colleagues at lunch makes you look less sociable.

Five, some of the things that you are saying make you look weird to most people. Including me. You have the right to behave as you like, doesn't change how others see it. And your question was "will it be taken poorly". Some of the things you said will.

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