Why Our Workplace Lunches Got So Sad, And How To Fix Them

Every day you come into work, boot up your computer, take a sip of coffee, and watch the emails tumble into your inbox as your eyes glaze over and you start thinking about what's for lunch. Lunch is the Jan Brady of our daily meals and we treat it as such; sometimes we look forward to spending time with it, and other times we forget about it completely.


Yet lunch was the first meal people started eating outside of the home. Midday food needed to be sturdy enough to travel and have the fortitude to withstand four hours of sitting around. In fact, lunch inspired much of the way we eat food today. Sliced bread, well known as the greatest thing since itself, was created for lunches. Ditto sliced cold cuts. And fast food? Workers needed somewhere to eat quickly on their breaks between the morning and afternoon shifts and with no access to a kitchen or an efficient way to get home.

The midday meal changed our food structure as we know it. So why is everyone sad about it?

A recent British study found the lunch break has shrunk to a mere 22 minutes. One in three Americans say it's rare they take a lunch break, or they feel they are unable to do so because of high workloads and performance pressures. There are crumbs in our keywords and greasy fingerprints on our desks. Lunch is the loneliest meal that we all eat together, separately.


Open your office fridge. How long has the yogurt been in the side panel? Is that hummus still in the back corner of the top shelf? You know, that hummus. The one everyone sees but no one wants to claim, because it's more fungus than chickpea now. It'll live in that back corner until the last Friday of the month, when everything in the company fridge seems to disappear.

Stop settling for this. Here are three tips and one reminder to help make lunches not so sad.

Tip 1: Don’t be a jerk

Earlier this year, we were blessed with a viral Twitter story about the office politics of lunch when a man live-tweeted a co-worker's saga of his missing food. Comedian Zak Toscani started live tweeting when a co-worker found his lunch not in the office fridge but in the trash.


The man had just bought shrimp fried rice and put it in the fridge so it could cool for the next half hour before he took lunch. During that 30 minutes, someone dumped his lunch in the kitchen garbage. The HR department allowed the man to view video footage of the cafeteria, which clearly showed another co-worker taking his lunch and throwing it in the trash, for no apparent reason.

Then the passive-aggressive emails began. HR reminded employees they should not throw away lunches that aren't theirs; everyone feigned shock, but everyone knew who that email was directed toward. No one came forward, but the entire office now knew there was lunch monster in a cubicle close by. How could anyone ever feel safe again?


I have a friend who still feels guilty about the time that she spied a leftover container on the counter in the "common" area and ate it. She thought it was fair game. Turns out it was someone's lunch that they had stepped away from momentarily. Never assume, especially when it comes to other people's food!

Random assaults of lunch dumping or stealing couldn't be very common, though, right? I emailed with Amy (last name withheld for employment purposes), a former receptionist for an upscale office in downtown Chicago, and asked whether there was ever any food swiping that caused workplace tension. She responded, "Catering for meetings was very popular at this place. Normally I'd order lunch for the group and set it up on a folding table outside their conference room. Other employees who weren't in the meetings would come out of the woodwork and steal sandwiches, salad, and chips and run back to their desk with their freebies, which would sometimes irritate those in the meetings who ordered the food."

Amy also explained that in her office it was the job of the receptionist to run the dishwasher and put away the dishes. She wrote, "There would sometimes be people who would eat at their desk, leave the plate in their office for weeks, and then put it in the sink to be cleaned after the food has been stuck on for days." Have a heart for your receptionist or office manager, guys.


Tip 2: Eat with your senses and keep that bread thick, baby

Lunch more often than not bleeds into the workday rather than being an event itself—which, if you do it long enough, makes lunch seems like work. Chef Karl Guggenmos agrees. He tells me, "We are rushed all day and when it comes to lunch we just make it part of the working hours, eat at our desk, work station, or in the car. To accommodate the rush, we make some rather sad-looking sandwiches or other quickly prepared meals and 'devour' them equally as fast. Not only is that unpleasant and puts us in a bad mood, it's also unhealthy."


Guggenmos recommends remembering colors and textures, and thinking about the health of your future self. He suggests eating a range of colors for your lunch to stimulate your visual sense. Packing fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal, but leave the leafy greens at home; they have a tendency to get soggy by lunch. With texture in mind, choose thicker bread slices that won't become damp before they're eaten. To help prevent this, you can also create a cheese barrier between the bread and any wet ingredient, mayonnaise, mustard, dressings... you get the gist.

Also, be mindful of your packing. If you are what you eat and you're eating a squished turkey sandwich and limp, sweating cheese, then you're not going to get that raise. It's called logic. Treat yourself right! Get that raise! Eat a hardy roast beef sandwich with a side of beets and carrots and sweet potatoes!


Tip 3: Play it safe

Workplace rapport and relationship building is a very real thing. You probably spend more time with the people in your office than with your own friends and family. Colleen Williams started a new job at a well-known beauty company in New York when she brought a potato for her lunch. She stabbed the potato with a fork, wrapped it in a wet towel, popped it in the microwave for two minutes, and walked away. When she came back, she saw the potato was on fire, at which point she started screaming. The CEO's assistant ran and got a fire extinguisher, opened the microwave, and put out one very hot potato (I had to, you guys, it was right there). It was quite the first impression.


Besides avoiding a reputation for being incendiary, you also don't want to be known as the stinky lunch kid. Chicago-based HR professional Sarelle Caicedo and Amy both told me that fish is a big pet peeve in an office setting. The smell permeates, so when one person in the office eats fish, it's like everyone is eating fish.

Reminder: The grass isn’t always greener

Rebecca (last name withheld) currently works in a co-working office in a fashionable New York City neighborhood. The space is beautiful, but there's no kitchen, no fridge, no microwaves, nothing conducive for actual eating. Plus, she's never seen anyone eat in the office. When given a tour of the space, it was strongly implied (without being stated outright) said that eating in the space was not looked on fondly; in fact, it's almost shameful.


When I said that maybe this was a good thing in order to get employees to leave the office and take time for themselves, Rebecca protested the fact that every day she has to eat out or find a space outside to take her lunch. "I would prefer to eat at my desk but that seems like it's very frowned upon. It's ableist, classist, and really sucky." She added, though,"I don't want to complain too much because I really do appreciate having an office," and then wrote, "I'm going to install a fucking mini fridge under our table." That'll show 'em.