University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Top tips to celebrate staff every day

Sticky note reading "thank you"

We promised specific ideas on staff recognition, so get ready for a long list!


Regular thank yous go a long way when promoting a positive workplace.

  • One-on-one, you could say something like, “Thank you so much for helping me with inventory today. I know it’s rough when we’re short staffed and I so appreciate you filling in the gaps.” Or, “I just want you to know that I’ve noticed how welcoming you are to students coming through the line! Thank you so much for providing such great customer service.” Notice that these examples include something specific that prompted the thank you and something more general to tie it into the bigger picture of day-to-day operations.
  • It can also be helpful to thank or acknowledge staff in front of peers. They may get additional reinforcement from the group, and this can also encourage better job performance from the whole team. Many school nutrition programs have short meetings or huddles before meal service, which is a perfect time to do this. This can also be a team activity where staff can call attention to the positive things their peers are doing.

Building each other up regularly not only helps individual confidence and encourages “repeat” behavior, but it promotes a positive work environment. Plus, that positivity will be picked up on by your most important customers – the students.

Speaking of students, another way to build staff morale is to foster a good relationship with the student body.

  • Consider naming menu items after staff members like "Carol's Taco Casserole" or "Grandma Jean's Chili" Not only does it recognize your staff but it also may spark student interest in a food item.
  • If staff are comfortable, feature a team member on your bulletin board each week with a specific highlight about their work and silly facts about them. Believe it or not but students do read as they are standing in line. You don’t have to include a lot of pictures, but at least one for each staff member is helpful so students get to know who they are reading about. Students especially love silly facts about people they see every day. Not only does it recognize your staff, but it also creates a personal connection.

Birthdays are also a great time to show your appreciation and help the community get to know your team! When they are comfortable with it, share a photo and birthday message on social media or in your school newsletter.


Some milestones are suited to more formal recognition.

Examples include when someone receives an award, a major work anniversary (like 5, 10, 15+ years), or being recognized for something like employee of the week, month, or year if you have such a program.

These milestones can be acknowledged in many ways – on the website, social media, morning announcements, or the school newsletter. It might also be appropriate to host a celebration event for major milestones. Events can also be held simply for staff appreciation. These can range from fun and relatively inexpensive, like an ice cream social, pizza party, or potluck to a more formal catered lunch or dinner.

Tangible recognition items are often given out at more organized celebrations or other events.

  • Some ideas include small trophies, service pins, or even just a nicely designed paper certificate. These don’t need to be expensive and you can have fun with these, too! You might even make it a team effort to think up different award titles like “Best Customer Service,” “Funniest Line Cook,” or "Best Kitchen Dancer"
  • If you have the budget, it can be really special once in a while to splurge on small gifts like flowers or plants, fruit baskets, gift cards, cookies, or similar tokens of appreciation. But remember, to some people a sincere thank you is far more valued than something of monetary value, so don’t feel like you absolutely need to spend. If you do buy small gifts, though, everyone should be included.