Cheese and crackers. Bagged popcorn. Chips and salsa. Scrambled eggs with tomato, avocado and fresh herbs. One of these things is not like the other.
The first few? “Lunches” people like me — those of us who work from home at least part of the time — have on any given day. The last item? A lunch "Foodist" author Darya Rose is probably throwing together as we speak.
I turned to Rose because since becoming a full-time, work-from-home freelance writer I've struggled with lunches. For all that I'm an adult human being capable of meeting deadlines and caring for a home and creatures reliant upon me, every day around noon I flail helplessly about the kitchen until I land upon a granola bar or something. My excuse? A string of lamentations: I'm too busy. I can't stop working long enough to cook. This story's not going to write itself while I'm at the stove! I didn't go to the store. I went to the store but I didn't get anything good. I didn't plan ahead. I'm hungry and I don't know what to make so I'll just eat a piece of cheese while standing at the kitchen counter (aka my “desk”) working.
And I'm not alone. An informal poll among work-from-home friends and fellow freelancers turned up pleas for help and admissions of lunchtime noshing equally as unhealthy as my own.
The reason stuff seems harder than it should is because of habits. It's because of inertia.
Darya Rose, neuroscientist and author of "Foodist"
“I am the worst,” says Megan Winfield, an IT manager in the hospitality industry and mother of two in Lexington, Kentucky. Lunch for her is cold cereal, chips and salsa or “for a real treat, Amy's microwave burrito.” Stephanie Greene, principal of a PR and communications agency in Louisville, Kentucky, “stands at the counter eating the kids' Pirate's Booty and wondering how my life has gone so wrong,” she tells NBC News BETTER.
Others try, but consistency evades them. “On a good day, I open up a bag of salad that serves four and eat the whole thing,” says Robyn Davis Sekula, freelance marketing and public relations consultant and mother of three in New Albany, Indiana. “On a bad day, I skip lunch and ravenously eat crackers on my way to pick up my kids from school. Any sort of cooking mid-day is just not going to happen for me, which is a terrible habit.”
And that's the key here, Rose says. “The reason stuff seems harder than it should is because of habits. It's because of inertia. Whatever you do normally sounds easy because you do it all the time. What you don't do normally sounds like a lot of work.” Compounding this, she says, “when you're tired and hungry the last thing you want to think about is something brand new even if it's not hard.”
That could explain what I heard from Caitlin Kelly, a New York based writer and writing coach, who has a roster of healthful, easy lunches at her command including cottage cheese with fruit or a big salad with with pumpkin seeds, strawberries and protein such as egg or cheese. “[I'm] not sure why anyone would find it difficult to eat well at home,” she says.
And in fact, Rose says, those of us who don't have to go into an office have a massive advantage. I literally work in my kitchen! But what if I find it too hard to overcome this bad-lunch inertia; how bad is the damage? Can't I make it up at dinner?
Not so much. While one poor lunch choice isn't the end of the world, Rose says, “you're missing out on a massive opportunity.”
Think of a good WFH lunch as productivity boost
“I look at lunch on weekdays as a big win if you can nail it,” Rose explains. And we're talking immediate gratification. “Just straight up, tangible day one benefits are focus and energy,” she says. A low nutrient density lunch that spikes blood sugar “is a recipe for a crappy work afternoon,” she says.
So the looming deadlines I blame for my hurried and horrible lunches are no excuse, it seems. A much more productive and creative afternoon can be had after a proper lunch.
What's more, the decision we make at noon sets us up for the rest of the day's eating. Come dinnertime, “if you're starving because your blood sugar spiked and crashed, it's really hard to have a healthy dinner,” Rose says.
How to beat the sad desk lunch
So, the question of the day. What should we be eating? It sounds simple enough: “Where you want your head is a balanced meal of whole foods, not processed,' Rose says. “If you could get vegetables in there that would be amazing but at the very least a decent amount of natural protein like beans or eggs, some fat and fiber, so you can feel satisfied.” OK, but what does that look like?
For Rose on the day we spoke, it looked like a plate of scrambled eggs with what she found in her fridge: tomatoes and avocado. It took less time than heating up a frozen meal, she says. And this wasn't something she prepped in advance. While I heard remote workers who wrangle decent midday meals thanks to advance preparation, Rose doesn't like that advice. And I was relieved to hear it. If I haven't made myself devote a chunk of Sunday to slicing veggies or batching soups and salads by now, I don't think it's going to happen.
It comes down, again, she says, to habit, in this case the habit of keeping our kitchens stocked with some key ingredients. Think: eggs, beans, rice or grains, salad ingredients like pre-washed greens and veggies, and maybe some turkey bacon and smoked fish. And to make boring dishes spark, some fresh citrus or herbs.
A quick lunch for Rose might be leftover rice or grains with leftover roasted chicken (sensing a theme here?). “I'll microwave it for minute while I chop up tomato and cucumber,” she says, “and if I'm really hungry I'll throw an egg on top, and maybe some fresh herbs, olive oil and a handful of greens.”
Another staple is sauteed cabbage with scrambled eggs and a splash of soy sauce. “It keeps me full for hours,” she says, “And it costs a couple dollars.”
And these lunches never take more than 10 minutes, she says. “I don't think about it in advance. It's about being creative and being aware of with what I can do with what I have.”
Solo lunches are a great place to practice, for novice cooks especially, she says. “It's a perfect opportunity, if you've never played around with fat, salt, acid, and aromatics — which are the things that make food taste good.”
Changing entrenched habits may not be easy, but once you're there, you're there. “One of the reasons it's not hard for me,” Rose says, “is when I look through my kitchen I might have chips and salsa but in my mind that would never be an acceptable lunch, so what else can I do? What will make me not have a horrible day?”
“It might take a while,” she says. “You might have to have tried a couple meals of real food and then slip up and go back to chips and salsa to realize how crappy you feel.”
A 10-minute WFH lunch supply list
- Cooked chicken or meat
- Smoked or canned fish
- Fruit, including citrus for dressings
- Salad greens
- Fresh herbs
- Veggies: carrots, tomatoes, cucumber — whatever you like!
- Greek yogurt for dips, dressings and parfaits
- Turkey bacon
- Nuts and seeds
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