By: Emma Hickey
New York City invented lunch. Kind of. Lunch emerged as a regular, daily meal in the midst of the city’s industrialization when it became clear that workers needed to eat during the workday. Lunch is the solution to that problem. It’s the product of the city that never sleeps, that never has time to rest, that doesn’t even have time to satisfy basic human needs. No wonder only one out of every five American workers take a proper lunch break! Lunch is a haphazard urban invention and we deserve better, especially in the modern age when the line between work-life and personal-life is already so blurred by technology. We have to overcome lunch’s origins as a pit stop in our workflow and take it for what it should be—a break in our day to rest, recharge and refuel. We deserve our lunch breaks, and we have to start taking them.
The history of lunch is tied up in the history of New York City, so much so that in 2012 the New York Public Library featured an exhibition on the history of lunch. The exhibition describes the origin of lunch as we know it like this:
Colonial American mealtimes were originally based on English rural life, with a main meal known as “dinner” in the middle of the day. The word “lunch” referred to a snack that might be eaten at any time of the day or night, even on the run. But during the 19th century, under the pressures of industrialization, this meal pattern began to change. Nowhere was the change more dramatic than in New York, the burgeoning center for trade, manufacturing, and finance. Employees were given a fixed time for their midday meal, often a half hour or less. So, dinner was pushed to the end of the day, and lunch settled into a scheduled place on the clock between the hours of twelve and two.
From meals eaten at home during our agricultural days, to meals eaten near the office during our industrial days, to today’s digital age, when meals are typically eaten in the office, lunch has always adapted. It was in 1850 that lunch became one of the three core meals of the day. In 1898 the first cafeteria opened up, and fast food was invented in 1902. These two developments helped define lunch as a meal that was eaten out of the home and it was the first time in American history that people were regularly eating meals outside of the home. As the American economic landscape changed over time, our mid-day meal changed with it—and that’s how we got ourselves into this mess.
We’re living in the digital age and technology has made employees more accessible to their teams and managers than they’ve ever been. It’s an on-demand culture and as a result the expectation is that questions will be answered immediately and requests will promptly be fulfilled. These expectations make it difficult for employees to step away from their desks for lunch and they made it difficult for bosses to encourage employees to step away from their desks for lunch. It’s this culture that made working lunches the status quo in America, and it’s this culture we need to pushback against.
June Jo Lee, an ethnographer who works with big food companies to better understand how people eat, went on record to say, “the way people eat at work is sad.” She’s right. According to the New York Times, 62% of professionals say they normally eat at their desks and millennials overwhelming say they prefer to eat alone. Fifty-five percent of American lunches are consumed alone on average, versus 32% of dinners. This way of eating isn’t healthy, neither physically nor emotionally. Office desks are rarely clean, meaning your lunch table is often a breeding ground for bacteria and germs. People are also much more likely to snack when they eat lunch at their desks because it doesn’t feel like a delineated lunchtime. Eating at your desk allows the end of lunch to blur into the rest of your day, which increases snacking. Research shows that the average worker consumes 476 calories worth of snacks at their desks. Desk lunches are also bad for office culture. Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab told the New York Times the following:
Beyond any health risks, the desk lunch detracts from our sense of the office as a collaborative, innovative, sociable space. It is hard to foster that feeling when works eat single-serving yogurt alone, faces lit in the monochrome blue of their computer screens.
As the New York Times notes, it’s also true that eating lunch at your desk is no longer a sign or great dedication to you work—often times, people are just surfing the internet.
Taking a lunch break is also important for your mental wellness. You need your lunch break. Our bodies operate in cycles and rhythms. Most of us are familiar with circadian rhythms, which dictate our bodies’ sleep-wake cycles, but our bodies also operate under ultradian rhythms. Ultradian rhythms are the bodies’ natural cycles of activity and rest. After 90-120 minutes of mental activity, our minds become fatigued and we need 20 minutes of rest. When you ignore your body and these signs, your cognitive functions become depleted. Taking your lunch break will help your brain re-energize and allow you to be your most productive during the day. The very act of getting out of the office and away from your desk also restores your cognitive functions. Creating boundaries between the space where you work—your desk—and the space where you eat and relax—anywhere but your desk or in front of your computer—is important to keep yourself sane and productive.
The chaos of New York City created lunch, and the demands of the digital age have made it what it is today—a bunch of individuals quietly eating or snacking alone at their desk without much consistency or human interaction. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Workers have to take their lunch breaks. It’s better for every aspect of our well-being and it creates better company culture. On your next lunch break, think twice about eating your leftovers at your desk and take them to kitchen—or better yet, a park—instead. You deserve it!