Desk lunch: How can you make it a bit nicer?
- 7 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
The lunch break is under threat with 54% of office workers regularly spending it at their desks. But if you have to eat lunch in front of a computer, how can you improve the experience?
A BBC Breakfast poll suggested more than half of British office workers feel there is a widespread culture of working through lunch. It's a pattern repeated across much of the Western world.
With a culture of workaholism, the one-hour sit-down lunch is little more than a dream. British workers are typically legally entitled to at least a 20-minute break away from their workstation.
But if you do find yourself chained to your keyboard, here are five ways to reclaim the desk lunch.
1. Set the scene
Food always tastes better eaten off a proper plate rather than plastic packaging, says William Hanson, an expert in royal dining etiquette.
"If you use proper cutlery and tableware it feels more like you're having a proper break."
The paper napkin is also a big faux pas says Hanson who recommends bringing in your own linen napkin to improve office hygiene.
"A lunch napkin should be 17 inches square whereas a dinner napkin is 21-28 inches square and it goes on your lap folded half way with the crease towards you.
"Make sure to dab your mouth after eating, don't wipe - remember it's not a flannel."
If you are leaving your desk in-between bites, the proper etiquette is to leave your napkin on your chair, says Hanson.
"A soiled napkin should never be left on a table, or even a keyboard for that matter."
If this level of prescriptiveness sounds like Downton Abbey transplanted to your office, how about just bringing your own metal knife and fork? And perhaps one plate? If office rules allow.
Workers should also mind their manners even if chained to a desk, says Hanson.
"People are always observing you in an office environment. So if you have poor table manners at your desk then how are you likely to behave taking out clients?
"It could be the difference between getting a promotion, especially if your boss is watching."
2. Plan ahead
While many people buy their lunch from canteens or sandwich shops, Alison Clark, a dietician at the British Dietetic Association recommends people concoct a healthy lunch at home.
"Bulgur wheat is a healthy and convenient option if you're stuck at your desk," says Clark, who does healthy eating demonstrations at offices around the UK.
"Simply add hot water to your bowl of bulgur wheat, put the lid on.
"Then empty a tin of salmon with nuts and seeds and raisins if you like and serve with natural yoghurt."
You can also try flavouring it with herbs and spices, says Clark. Coriander, basil, cinnamon or even curry powder could be used.
Foods such as bulgur wheat have a low glycaemic index, explains Clark, which allows for a slow release of energy to keep you going in the afternoon.
3. Consider your neighbours
A survey last year suggested that 57% of Britons find noisy eaters to be the most annoying colleagues.
In addition, 26% of workers said they couldn't stand their colleagues' smelly food while trying to work.
"Don't bring anything to eat that smells," says Hanson.
"Fish can be controversial so if you want to eat it, salmon or tuna fish might be OK but sardines can be offensive to other people."
"If you don't know how to eat noodles elegantly then don't buy them for lunch."
It is also better to take smaller mouthfuls when eating to avoid bloating and distension, says Clark.
"Take your time eating and eat with your mouth closed.
"Not only is it nicer to your neighbours, it also means you take less wind down when chewing which helps with digestion."
If you do decide to eat with cutlery, take a rest every four mouthfuls, advises Hanson. "The proper way to do it is to place your fork over the knife and to pace yourself.
"Remember we eat with our eyes first not our mouths. Make a meal of it - dining is an experience after all."
4. Round off your meal
Traditionally, diners in posh settings might drink a digestif such as a creme de menthe after eating heavy meals.
For an alcohol-free alternative, you could eat a peppermint cream or drink a cup of peppermint tea instead, says Hanson.
"If drinking coffee after a meal, it should traditionally be drunk out of a demitasse cup.
"The sugar always goes in after the coffee, brown for coffee and white for tea."
Stirring only clockwise is also a mistake, advises Hanson, as it prevents the sugar from dissolving.
"Physicists will tell you that coffee dissolves better if you stir backwards and forwards, 12 till 6.
"It's much more elegant - remember you're not trying to create a whirlpool."
5. Some sort of mini-break
Anybody wanting to maximise a tiny break could always try out some "mindfulness" techniques.
Research at Rice University in the US found a positive relationship between mindfulness - a Buddhist-influenced attempt to increase awareness - and job performance in service industry workers.
A growing number of companies in the UK such as Google and the Home Office are now offering mindfulness training to staff, hoping it will improve concentration.
Juliet Adams, whose firm A Head For Work teaches concentration techniques, says 10 minutes or less of mindfulness training can help workers return from lunch refocused and refreshed.
Taking a "three-minute focus break" or going for a "mindful walk" can improve mental clarity and productivity at work, she says.
"By bringing our attention back to the present moment, we can see things more clearly and make wiser decisions."