Updated July 18, 2023
Fuel your people to do their best work. A meal allowance (also called a food allowance, meal stipend, or employee meal benefit) is a perk that all employees can appreciate.
Meal allowances, also known as food stipends, are a relatively old concept. Depending on a person's functional role within an organization, companies would give their people meal stipends to use when on travel and/or taking out customers or prospective clients.
Fast forward to today, the idea of a meal stipend has transformed quite a bit. Meal stipends are gaining traction because organizations that once catered in-office lunches or snacks for their people are now realizing their limitations. They are now implementing more inclusive ways to support their employees' food needs and give them the power of choice.
Here's what is covered in this guide:
First, a definition:
A meal stipend is a sum of money given to employees for them to use to purchase food.
They're also referred to as meal allowances or food stipends.
The stipend funds can be used for buying lunch for remote employees, or items like snacks, groceries, and beverages that will make their working experience more convenient, healthy, productive, and supported. Some even call them a grocery allowance because they're so flexible for your employee's food needs. It's easy to see why meal stipends are one of the best employee benefits.
According to a 2019 Talent Market Report, both small and large companies are likely to offer meal allowances with small companies offering them 17% and large companies 37% of the time when they're unable to match a candidate's desired salary. That has likely changed significantly in recent months, with COVID-19 making in-office food options a no-go for companies all over.
The graphic from their report below is below, highlights their research.
Other alternative incentives include customized benefits, profit sharing, cell phone reimbursement, a technology stipend, customized training and development, a work from home stipend, increased vacation, better job title, and more.
Below are a few examples of top companies supporting their people with food stipends:
MasterClass's employee perks include $120/month as an interim snack stipend (due to COVID).
Snapchat gives its people $16/day for food.
Depending on the office, SAP would provide in-house catered meals or a food stipend.
Webflow has not set a meal-only stipend, but they do have a "Remote Work Stipend" which includes the option to buy food, tech, and productivity-related items.
Lose It! gives their employees $100 to spend on lunch delivery.
Whether your employee is away for a few hours or staying for several days to attend a conference, it's likely they will incur meal expenses during their trip.
In such situations, providing a meal stipend to cover business-related meals such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner is a viable option. However, it's important to establish a clear meal allowance policy for employees to refer to before embarking on their journeys.
The federal Meals & Incidental Expenses (M&IE) rate serves as the standard benchmark for reimbursing employees for their business-related meal expenses while traveling. For the year 2023, the rate stands at $59 per day for most small localities in the United States.
Note that per diems are not considered wages and therefore are non-taxable.
There are plenty of benefits to offering your people a meal allowance. Below we highlight the most common five.
Your people will purchase the food they genuinely need to make their remote work life easier and more comfortable. When people can easily refuel in ways that satisfy their convenience, tastebuds, and dietary needs, they're happier and more productive.
Catered meals were a staple in many offices across the nation pre-COVID. However, how many companies have been able to continue this since COVID began? Not too many.
As this Protocol piece points out, people are mourning the loss of their free lunches and snacks. You can stand out against the crowd by adapting and offering a food stipend today so that your employees get support for their most basic life needs.
Today more than ever, people's diets are varied due to preferences, intolerances, and allergies. With a food stipend or grocery allowance you're able to create an employee lifestyle benefit that supports everyone, regardless of whether they're paleo, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and more.
If offering free lunches or meals to your people is a priority, this is one of the most cost-effective ways to do so.
Catered meals on-site are a thing of the past and it is also a time-consuming process to make sure the right amount of food is delivered, at the right time, while also ensuring people have the food they need (e.g. paleos, vegetarians, vegans), and the office space is cleaned up afterward.
Food allowances allow people to get the food they want while sticking to a budget, and without worrying about the time or costs of cleaning up.
If you want to see why they're so cost-effective, see how much you could be saving by using Compt to manage your meal stipend.
A food stipend is an easy and scalable way to set your people up with the food they want. Additionally, the right perk management software can also help ensure that taxes are accounted for, always.
Download the free eBook to find out why perk stipends and lifestyle spending accounts have become the most common new perk.
Setting up a meal allowance isn't a heavy lift for HR teams. Below we break them down into two steps.
Keep in mind, you don't need to offer a lot of money to make a big difference.
The most common ways to manage a stipend program include:
Managing the process manually.
If you choose this option, you'll need to set up a process to track employee food purchases, collect receipts, manage balances, process approval and paid-out food perks, as well as rejections or ones which need further review.
You might want to use Google forms to track submissions, excel or Google sheets to track progress, and create a process to track the nontaxable vs taxable (for IRS compliance). Yes, food perks are taxable!
Select an expense software to manage it.
Expense software solutions like Expensify and Concur are largely meant for business expenses which these are not.
If using this option, make sure every employee has an account with your company's expense software option and that you've also set up a way to track the individual employee food budgets (this prevents overspending), and work with your finance team to identify and execute on the best plan for accounting for taxes.
Select "perk software" to manage it.
Options for perk stipend solutions have grown tremendously over the past few years as more people turn to inclusive and flexible options for their people.
This kind of software can be especially helpful if it explains your food program details to your team members (and supports communication in remote teams), tracks their spending balances, and spending. Perk solutions should streamline your admin by having important information at your employees' fingertips.
Keep in mind that food allowances are a taxable benefit.
Whether it's selecting individual perks, vendor aggregators, discount platforms, debit cards, or stipends -- our goal is to help you select the best perks program for your needs.
At first glance, it might feel like you have to create a new budget for this, and while that might be the case, there are other options to find the budget.
If you've already decided this is an important endeavor for your company and its people, then you're set!
If using a perk solution, be sure to count this cost into the budget. Or if you're managing them manually, you need to find a way to quantify this cost as well since the cost of time and labor to manage these is often a more hidden cost that will fall on HR.
Offering on-site catering for your people is a thing of the past. If that budget is still available, transition this money into a meal allowance.
According to a recent SHRM report, about one-third of companies plan to extend the option for remote and hybrid work into the future.
To remain competitive for talent, companies need to evolve their fringe benefits and stipends to meet the needs of current and prospective employees. If you're looking for a way to serve your people in unbelievably meaningful ways, transition the "old perk budget" into a meal allowance, or even a remote work stipend or general perk stipend.
There are more stipends than just a meal allowance. Have you done an employee benefits survey to see what kind of perks your team may want?
Do a Google search for “top perks” and inside almost every list is a surprising number of perk stipends.
So what are the other types of stipends or allowances? Below is a list of a few more you can consider implementing.
Stipends or allowances make it possible for companies to offer more perks as lifestyle benefits with less money and while ensuring that they're personalized to meet the needs of their people.
Let's connect to see how a meal allowance - or any other flexible lifestyle benefit - can cater to all of your people's unique needs.