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The Case for Eating Lunch at Your Desk — and Being Okay With It

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Last month, the New York Times took a look at the dining habits of American office workers, and concluded that eating at one’s desk is unspeakably pathetic, a grim reflection of lives led online, and not in person:

“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 workers eat single-serving yogurt alone, faces lit in the monochrome blue of their computer screens.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this lament. It’s been sounded before by slow-food evangelists, nutrition gurus and office-culture reformists. Eating at your desk is soul killing, they say. Wouldn’t you rather enjoy a freshly prepared, farm-to-table meal while relaxing with co-workers, instead of wolfing down that takeout burrito or nuked leftovers at your desk?

Well, yeah. Duh. Who wouldn’t want that?

But for most office workers, that’s not the choice we have.

Depending on your situation, here are your options:

  1. You work at Google, Conde Nast, or some other workplace utopia where they feed you a great lunch. Congratulations, you’ve hit the lunching lottery. Don’t read any more; this article is clearly not for you.
  2. You could organize a group of co-workers to coordinate their schedules, and all go out to a restaurant to eat. This is fun. I’ve done it myself. But that’s hard to do very often. And eating out at a nice place regularly is expensive.
  3. You can eat in the break room. More often that not, this is a grim, windowless space decorated with coffee pots and soup-stained microwave ovens. You can eat by yourself, which is lonely, or with whomever happens to be there, which can be horrible.
  4. You can go to your local food court or fast food joint. Or eat a sandwich on a park bench or—if you must—in your car. You’ll order your combo meal or salad, and hunch over your paperback, desperately trying to keep it propped open so the pages don’t flop back whenever you lift your fork. Or maybe you’ll scroll through Facebook on your phone, while checking your email to see see if your client has gotten back to you.
  5. You can eat at your desk in peace.

If eating at your desk sounds more viable than options 1 and 2, and preferable to 3 and 4, that’s because it is. Outside the occasional outings with colleagues or contacts, I’ve eaten at my desk pretty much every day for a decade. It is not unhealthy, antisocial or a sign of over work. Rather, it’s a reasonable response to the way we eat, work and live today.

Let’s consider the critiques:

“Eating at your desk is antisocial.”

In our open office, I sit just a few feet from my coworkers. I’m more social at my desk than I am anywhere else in the office. And I’m far more likely to talk with colleagues over lunch at my desk than I am sitting in the park by myself.

“You need to take a break from work.”

Here’s the thing: A computer is useful for stuff besides work. Yes, sometimes I catch up on job stuff while I eat, but I’m just as likely to read an article, play a trivia game or work on my fantasy baseball team. In 2016, most of what we do for fun is online. I do read books—that’s what my commute is for—but during work hours, I’m more comfortable having access to email. And digital pages don’t flop over.

“It’s unhealthy.”

Well, maybe. It’s certainly unhealthy to eat at your desk if you eat crap. But is technically possible to eat a healthy meal at your desk. And if you’re inclined to eat junk food at your desk, I suspect you’ll eat it in the wild, too.

“Crumbs end up in your key board.”

Fine, you got me. But periodically turning over your keyboard and shaking out the detritus can be strangely satisfying.

Next time you open your brown bag at your desk, don’t cower in shame. Take pride in being part of a modern generation of workers, liberated diners who are flexible enough to eat as they please, when they please. You understand the world has evolved, and our eating habits need to, as well. But if someone invites you out to lunch, by all means go.

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