You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again: Why Working Lunches Don’t Work

“Why don’t we just order something in, and we can keep going?”

“We’re running a little behind, so let’s grab lunch quickly and come back. Maybe we can make up some time.”

“I’d love to give Smitty and Muffy a chance to brief us on the new initiative. We have a packed agenda, though. Maybe we can just have them present to us over lunch?”

“Do we really need a full hour for lunch? If we just have sandwiches and chips, I’ll bet we could cut it down to 15 or 20 minutes.”

“I hate that you don’t get a lunch break, but could you take notes for us for the lunch time session? We can have Darcy fix you a plate.”

When work and lunch compete, at least in the US corporate culture, work often wins. Whether we are eating at our desks, shoveling food down so that we can continue an oh-so-important conversation, shortchanging lunch in order to accommodate an already-overlarded agenda, or pretending that everyone LOVES to listen to another presentation while they eat, we have devalued lunch in the workplace to the point where it is viewed as a waste of time and the enemy of productivity.

Why do we hate lunch so much? I happen to love lunch. In fact, it’s one of my favorite meals of the day. While breakfast is allegedly the most important meal of the day, I’m not really a breakfast person. I don’t wake up hungry, and more often than not, I have coffee, some toast or a breakfast bar, and maybe some fruit and yogurt just to get me going. I am a big fan of dinner. However, according to recent research, we are supposed to ingest more of our calories earlier in the day when we are active. Moreover, we aren’t supposed to go to bed on a full stomach. A lighter dinner is, according to the experts, healthier.

That leaves lunch. We should be eating a healthy, satisfying, and substantive lunch. And we aren’t…at least in work settings.

Let me clarify: there is the quality of the lunch food itself, and there is the quality of the lunch time. I’d argue that the quality of the lunch food is sometimes woefully lacking, especially when it’s apparent that the hosts have not put a lot of thought into the menu nor the hospitality that goes into hosting a lunch. (Caveat: My friends at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA know how to do lunch. It’s fantastic.) My grievance here is more about the lunch TIME and how it has been compromised, eroded, and even ignored as a necessary part of the work day.

1.) Working lunches denigrate the role that eating and food play in our lives.

We need to eat. Ideally, we need to eat healthy, nutritious food. Some of us have access to it. Many of us don’t. Being a conscious and ethical eater means a lot of things: What am I putting in my body? What happens in my body when I eat while being stressed, preoccupied, and tired? Who produced it, and how did it get to the table? Whose labor made it possible to eat this food? Who doesn’t have access to this food, and what systems perpetuate the lack of access?

Maybe many of us don’t think of such things when we eat. Maybe we should. Conscious and healthful eating is good for us, good for other people, good for understanding social and economic justice, and good for the planet. When we don’t pay attention to the food we eat and treat it as an afterthought or annoyance, we perpetuate those systems of “unconscious eating.”

Recently, I led a workshop on professional and personal development. I created the agenda. I procured the supplies. I kept in contact with the participants. I ordered the food. I ordered the food with a local vegan/vegetarian caterer because a number of my participants had said that they had particular food allergies, sensitivities, and dietary habits. The food arrived earlier than I expected. We were in the midst of a conversation when the food arrived. One eats when the food is ready, though, right? So, we ate. We took a full hour for lunch, we enjoyed the food, and then we resumed our day. When one is welcoming others, we ask what they like to eat. When one is hosting others, we eat when the food is warm. No trouble, really. It’s just making an adjustment to the agenda while making room for the food. And eating. And socializing while eating.

Eating and food are inherently social. In Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and other Romance languages, the word “companion” is rooted in “to share bread with.” A common greeting in China is “Ni chi fan le? (Have you eaten?)” When I have worked in China and in Europe, the lunch break has been anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours. We have enjoyed good food. We have enjoyed the good conversation that happens over sharing food. We have had time for a brief walk after lunch, which is good for digestion. We have had time to be with each other in a setting that is not only about “the work.” Plainly put, other cultures do a much better job of honoring the food as well as the social time that happens when we share food together. US corporate culture (and I indict US nonprofit organizations, as well, for perpetuating this) completely ignores the role that healthy eating and healthy socializing over food play in our overall wellbeing.

2.) People need time to “digest.”

When I say “digest”, I don’t just mean the processes that happen in the alimentary canal, but those are important. As I wrote before, eating while stressed, rushed, or tired can have deleterious effects on our bodies. We may not eat enough. We may eat too much. We may choose to eat what’s quick and efficient, not what is healthy and nourishing. We may not chew enough, which makes us feel a little sick later if we are wolfing down big chunks of food. In addition, when we eat too quickly and don’t chew, we miss out on some of the nutrients in our food. Truth be told, when we are eating while relaxed, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, it’s our “rest and digest” system. Simply, we digest better when we are at ease while eating, not when we are “on” and doing work…AND…

3.) People would rather have food than content for lunch.

Think of content in the same way as you would three or four Thanksgiving dinners in a row. Yes, I know that you think of your content and work as bountiful feasts on which we should feel grateful to partake. I’m sure it’s delicious content prepared lovingly and thoughtfully. Of course, it is. I could have gorged myself on that sales goals presentation or the scintillating “generational differences in the workplace” prezzie as if it were a dish of green bean casserole that I ate all by myself! Yaaassiree. A feast! A bounty! Well done, mate, well done. Still, sometimes people need a break from the steady diet of content, work-related tasks, and the unrelenting demand for productivity. They need to “unlisten” for a bit so that they can come back refreshed and nourished for THE MEETING, THE AGENDA, THE PRESENTATION, and/or THE WORK. Too much content and people will likely feel as bloated and uncomfortable as a foie gras goose. Give them a break. At lunch. Let the people eat in peace. Or, at least, to eat and do whatever they need in order to come back sated, relaxed, and refreshed.

4.) Multi-tasking, continuous partial attention, whatever, are overrated. Ultimately, some tasks are prioritized over others.

“Continual partial attention” gets a lot of play in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, as I’m sure it does in other locations. The demands of our work, our technologies, our networks, and our incessant need to be connected mean that we can’t do it ALL all the time, but we can keep up this rhythm and cadence of giving PART of our attention to all the people, all the time. Shouldn’t we be able to eat and talk and think and ideate and collaborate and innovate and partner and interrogate and obviate and bloviate and pontificate and facilitate all at the same time?

Nope.

When you make lunch just one of the many things you need to “get through” during the day, you make lunch just one of the many things you need to get through during the day.

I would argue that lunch — and eating and recognition of food and nourishment — is not a task. Lunch is one of the ways in which we connect with food, with our bodies, our sense of wellbeing, and with others.

LUNCH. IS. NOT. WORK. It occupies a different place, a different time, a different purpose, a different priority. It isn’t work! It’s taking care of ourselves, nurturing ourselves, and being present with ourselves. It’s a biological and social need! Would you dream of telling people that they can’t use the bathroom unless they’re working on a PowerPoint or developing an artificial intelligence (AI) strategy? Would you ever say, “No off-topic or relational conversations allowed unless they are strictly work-related!”? Would you say, “Hydration is only permitted if you are getting water while also thinking about our KPIs for the next quarter?”

That’s what you are doing when you make lunch a workable moment. You are taking biological and social needs and making them “tasks” and “agenda items.” Eating is not a task. Eating is fundamental and what keeps us healthy and alive.

5.) When you have a “working lunch”, who doesn’t get to eat?

A lot of the time, it’s people like me. That’s why I am writing this article. I want lunch. As I said before, I like lunch. Whether I am in the role of facilitator or visual scribe, I have to be “on” if there is a working lunch. People are usually pleasant about it…or at least sympathetic. “Oh….you didn’t get to eat.” “Oh, can I get you a plate of food?” “Oh, we have a little break after the lunch time speaker. Make sure that you get some food.”

Thanks….and um…bleah. I don’t want sympathetic looks. I want lunch. You totally sold me out. You just made it clear how you value me in this system. I don’t get to eat a proper lunch because the agenda and the content are more important than my nutrition and moment of rest. Lunch may be my only time to eat. Or pee. Or breathe. Let’s be honest. I need “lunch” if only in the abstract. So do other people.

It’s not just about me, though. How many times have you said to your colleague or to the facilitator of a meeting, “Let’s huddle at lunch so we can re-jigger the agenda for the afternoon?”

There’s also: “Let’s talk at lunch so we can add those slides to the PP presentation?” “If we can, let’s take some time at lunch so we can map out that meeting next week?” “Hey, could you print that out for me over lunch?” “I need to take a call. I guess I’ll do it over lunch.”

Lunch is the time when we do the work that we couldn’t do while the meeting is in session. Lunch is also the time when some people have to continue working while the other people have lunch. Who is working while others eat? How does this instantiate a pyramid of power? Are a lot of people running around to ensure that others get to eat? Is not eating considered a virtue? Are you one of those people who doesn’t eat so you can get things done? Poor you. Poor hungry you. Pay attention to that…and take stock of whether or not that is okay with you. If it is, I’m not sure I want to work with you. If you are an enemy of lunch, who DOES want to work with you? Maybe you’re the kind of person who hates “weekends”, too.

Yep, I’m paid while I work during lunch. Others are paid while they are working during lunch. Is it really about that, though, or is it more a question of asking people to ignore or delay their nutritional, biological, social, and psychological needs during lunch so that the all-important meeting, workshop, work session, or conversation may continue unimpeded?

In many cases, the answer is “yes, we are prioritizing ‘the work’.”

…and I’m saying “no.” I want lunch. I want a fucking proper lunch.

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