The Case for a Better Lunch

Let your brain forget that work exists for a little while. You’ll come back from your lunch break fully refreshed — and with a little pity for your past self, eating a salad at her desk.

On vacation last August, while dining with an Italian friend in Ascoli Piceno, I asked if she ever eats lunch at her desk. Milena is a civil engineer, tasked with planning repairs of the medieval city’s millennia-old streets — i.e., she has a full plate. But her response was swift and firm and maybe tinged with a flash of pity that I’d even ask.

“I wouldn’t eat at my desk,” she told me. “To stop for lunch and have good food is really, for an Italian person, a way of enjoying your life. Not just your day, but your life.”

The Italian riposo is an afternoon rest that usually entails an unhurried lunch and, Milena tells me, always ends with a coffee. The longstanding ritual is well-documented and, depending on whom you ask — say, a native participating in said ritual or a tourist trying to do any business during the hours when seemingly every shop in the country is closed — either highly civilized or infuriating. But whatever the stance, it’s just part of Italian culture, as deeply woven into the fabric of the country as spaghetti pomodoro or Catholic guilt. And even though Italy was hit hard in the early days of COVID, the riposo is still the norm. Here in the U.S., though, where the working lunch was already an accepted part of our culture, the pandemic further muddled the lines between work time and break time. 

Since March of 2020, when COVID-19 uprooted a swath of America’s labor force from office buildings to WFH, lunch has been a mixed bag. Whatever traditions were in place pre-pandemic — maybe dining with co-workers at a coffee shop, or wolfing down microwaved leftovers at your desk — have been upended. While workers are trickling back to the office, at least for a few days a week, the numbers haven’t fully rebounded. As of September, Philadelphia’s downtown foot traffic had bounced back to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent report by the Center City District, but only 57 percent of office workers had returned. 

In a very unscientific survey I conducted of Philadelphians who now work from home, more than 76 percent reported that their lunchtime rituals have changed since the pandemic. Some reported that they now use the midday break to squeeze in household chores that would have been impossible to do from the office, like laundry, while others say they exercise, run a short errand, read, nap, or help with childcare. And while more than half of my respondents report liking their new lunch situation more — the freedom and flexibility, the savings from skipping $14 takeout salads — some long for the old traditions. 

“I miss the way lunch broke up the day,” says Scott Cloney, who works in the finance industry. “A change of scenery. A meeting with friends or colleagues. A funny encounter with strangers at a sushi place.” 

Even some of the most fervent WFH devotees say figuring out lunch can feel like the day’s one weak spot. Ren Kedem loves working remotely. The Fishtown resident appreciates when their dog encourages them to spend some time outside during the day and loves to explore the city by working from a new coffee shop. “Lunch is the only thing I drag my feet on,” Kedem says. “Every Sunday, my fiancé has to encourage me to get groceries, but I often end up just ordering from the deli or Suya Suya.”

Maybe it’s the monotony of having to plan and shop for and assemble yet another meal. Maybe there was comfort in the knowledge that spending your lunch break washing last night’s dishes simply wasn’t an option from your Center City office, meaning you could fork up that $14 salad while scrolling Twitter guilt-free. It feels easier to fritter away time when the Mount Everest of dinner plates and cereal bowls is all the way across town instead of directly in your field of vision from your kitchen-table-slash-desk. 

In fact, even with all the benefits of working from home, one big drawback is that whatever wall existed between work and home life has dissolved like a saltine in a bowl of soup.

“The challenge that we’ve had during the pandemic has been this complete boundary-bleed,” says Lily Brown, a psychologist who directs the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “As a society, pre-pandemic, we weren’t great at respecting our own boundaries, and we weren’t great at respecting other people’s boundaries, either.” 

And working from home has only further loosened those boundaries. Some managers have a bias about remote employees not working hard, leading high achievers to do more to prove they’re doing enough. A common consequence of that, says Brown, is forgoing lunch breaks. And when we do, mental health suffers. “It’s really common for folks to report that they just start to lose their zeal for life when everything becomes a slog,” she says. 

A study published in August by the journal Public Library of Science, titled “Give Me a Break!,” examined the impacts on mental health and productivity of building in small interruptions, including for lunch, throughout the day. “The study found that the breaks are essential — they’re associated with reducing fatigue at work as well as improved overall performance,” Brown says. 

The good news is that even if you’re mired in a WFH rut, setting firmer boundaries can help. Brown coaches her patients to imagine themselves six months down the road. Is the current norm — pausing work at 3 p.m. to eat leftovers while standing in front of your fridge — sustainable? What’s the impact on your job performance? Or your level of burnout? Brown suggests collecting data by recording the time you take off and how you use it. Track the daily impact of that time, perhaps using a zero-to-10 scale, on your mood and productivity. Pay attention, too, to your level of social connection — are you spending time meeting up with a partner or friends, or are your closest relationships built on trading GIFs in the office “Just for Funsies” Slack channel?

“Try the lunch break away from your desk by yourself, try it while you’re actually scheduling a social connection, and then see what the impact is on you,” Brown suggests. “Each week, you can try a new experiment to get more data about what works for you. Think about what builds meaning in your life.” 

Of course, even a quick lunch break can feel impossible when we operate with an “always-on” mentality and the fire hose of office notifications continues around the clock. After conducting your own (non-) scientific study, though, chances are you’ll find it pays to be more purposeful in breaking for lunch. 

Either set the “Do not disturb” on Slack, or just close your laptop and walk away. “Lunch-ghost,” if you will. Start small — breaks as short as 10 minutes have been shown to reduce stress and boost productivity. It’s harder to skip lunch if you make a plan, so add the time into your calendar — whether you use it to take a short walk with a friend or read a novel you’re excited about. In most cases, your office can wait, and it’s worthwhile to build up stronger boundaries — even if your boss can see your bed in the background of your daily Zoom. 

Maybe Americans will never embrace the full riposo. But we can start with 10 minutes. Step away from those bedroom desks and Sisyphean home chores and over-the-sink snacks! Connect with friends or family. Let your brain forget that work exists for a little while. You’ll come back fully refreshed — and with a little pity for your past self, eating a salad at her desk. 

Published as “The Case for a Better Lunch” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.