Emma Heilbronner started eating the same lunch every day back in 2017 when she entered the workforce. “It works for me now because it takes the thought out of what I’ll be eating for lunch,” she says. “It’s one less thing to make a decision about.”
For the 24-year-old Boston-based public relations manager, workdays do not look the same, but her lunch does. She sticks with a meal for a few months, and then switches it up and sticks with that one for the next several months. “Having a reliable, standard meal that keeps me full and balances my blood sugar is really the most important thing when it comes to my eating — especially during the busy workday,” she tells NBC News BETTER. Currently, Heilbronner’s lunch is a sandwich with sprouted bread, turkey, avocado, cucumber and lettuce.
Brooke Van Sickle, a 29-year-old digital marketer based in Des Moines, Iowa, started eating a turkey and hummus wrap with a cheese stick when she was working as a property manager. “I needed something quick and easy to make in the morning when I was rushing off to work,” she says.
Now she works from home, but continues to make herself the same lunch.
“Decision-making, even simple decisions, require us to exert energy — and I would rather save that energy for more important things,” says Thomas O’Toole, a 41-year-old consultant based in Seattle, Washington. For lunch, he eats a spinach salad with crushed almonds, a hard-boiled egg, Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of dressing, every day. He says it helps him make healthier eating choices.
“I no longer have moments where I think about maybe having pizza for lunch because I already know what I’m having,” he says.
How many people actually eat the same lunch every day isn’t a readily available figure. But a bit of searching will suggest there’s a devoted number of people, including the author of this article, who do it (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with carrot sticks, if you’re wondering).
Several people revealed their same-lunch routines in an article in The Atlantic in March. And a couple of previous surveys conducted by food manufacturers in the U.K. estimate the number to be between approximately one in six and one in three adults, The Guardian reported last year.
“I consider lunch kind of annoying, actually,” says Mark Rust, a 62-year-old self-employed musician living in New Paltz, New York. He eats a sandwich (honey turkey and mayo on whole wheat bread) with a few sweet pickles and a couple of glasses of fat-free milk on the side every day. “Knowing what I’m having, making it, and eating it takes no thought or energy, so I can get right back to what I’m doing.”
For the most part, yes, eating the same lunch every day can offer some benefits and still be healthy, says Kari Anderson, an eating disorder specialist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Sometimes it really works to eat in a structured way,” she explains.
But there are a few things consistent lunch eaters (and those considering it) should know.
Yes, eating the same lunch may help you boost productivity
The fewer decisions you need to make on days when you want to be most productive the better (in terms of how much you can actually get done), Anderson says.
Studies show, for example, that having to make decisions throughout the day tends to decrease our physical stamina, reduce our ability to persist in the face of failure, makes us procrastinate more, and decrease our ability to accurately make arithmetic calculations. It comes down to decision fatigue.
Other research suggests that a brain that is stressed by too many inputs — the email you’re in the middle of writing, that presentation you have to give later in the afternoon, that nagging feeling you’re supposed to call your mom back, and whatever else — starts to function more emotionally and reflexively, rather than more intentionally and rationally.
Being more distracted tends to make it harder for the brain to be able to operate in its executive functioning, deep-thinking state, Anderson explains.
In a Harvard Business Review article about managing overload, psychologist and productivity expert Edward Hallowell, MD, explained similar brain processes. He says one of the most important things you can do to avoid the overload effect is: “Create an environment in which the brain can function at its best.”
That’s not to say that having to decide between tuna and turkey is going to bring your productivity to a screeching halt. Neither of the aforementioned distraction studies looked at eating lunch, per se.
But, for the days when you just want to keep pummeling through your to-do list, having a go-to meal option that is going to satisfy you, keep you nourished for as long as you want it to, and help you stick to an overall healthy, balanced diet counts as one less decision you need to make, Anderson adds.
“It’s about decreasing distraction,” she says. “It means you don’t have to spend a lot of time deciding what you’re going to eat.”
Yes, it can be part of an overall healthy, balanced diet (if you're doing it right)
Planning ahead, whether you’re batch cooking at the beginning of the week or just sticking to the same lunch prep (or choice) on a daily basis, means you can make those decisions about your food choices at a moment when you’re more likely to make a decision that’s more aligned with your overall eating goals, Anderson says.
Having a lunchtime plan also lessens the chances you’ll make a poor, impulsive, or emotional decision when it comes to what’s for lunch, Anderson says.
Studies have shown that people actually tend to make higher-calorie meal choices when ordering from a restaurant menu just before eating lunch compared with when they order a meal in the morning several hours before eating lunch.
Shopping, prepping and cooking foods ahead of time is a strategy Anderson often recommends for people who have a lot of anxiety around food choices or tend to have trouble sticking to the types of eating behaviors they want to follow, she says.
What about variety? Nearly all dietary guidelines (including the most recent ones published jointly by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture) say variety matters when it comes to eating healthy.
Eating the same lunch every day can still be healthy, as long as you’re eating a variety of other healthy foods throughout the rest of the day — “and if the lunch meal is healthy,” explains Jerome Sarris, PhD, professor of integrative mental health and deputy director of NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University in Westmead, Australia.
You want to be getting a variety of both macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats) and micronutrients (the vitamins and minerals you’ll find in fruits and vegetables), Sarris says. He suggests sticking to the same components (whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, deep sea oily fish, and lean meat or a vegetarian protein substitute), but mixing up the particulars (opt for whatever produce is in season and rotate your protein source).
Sarris says he typically eats a similar lunch every day, which is steamed deep sea fish, organic vegetables, and a whole grain (such as spelt or kamut pasta), dressed with some mayonnaise and olive oil, he says.
If your lunch contains fruits and/or veggies, whole grains, and heart healthy fats, eating the same lunch everyday can be healthy and cost efficient, adds Amy Shapiro, RD, CDN, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. She recommends having a vegetable at every meal. “Bring a side of baby carrots and grape tomatoes,” she says. “Easy!”
Her advice: Make sure your carbohydrate sources are whole grain or 100 percent whole wheat breads, and for protein add nuts, seeds, avocados, lean proteins, or other dairy sources. She recommends skipping processed deli meats (which tend to be high in sodium and are linked to higher incidence of some cancers).
Watch out for warning signs that your routine is too rigid
Anderson’s other caution about eating the same lunch every day is to watch for signs of too rigid or restrictive eating, which can be an early sign of or a gateway to disordered eating.
- Take note if you start to dwell on and have anxiety around questions like: Am I eating too much? What’s the calorie level of this food? Is my body the right size?
- Notice if you start to eliminate foods or components from a lunch that used to work for you (for example, even though you used to enjoy a tofu and grain bowl with avocado everyday, you decide you should cut back on the fat and calories and skip the avocado).
If you start to make those decisions based on cutting back on calories or food groups, rather than with regard to how does this food make me feel and what does it do to my digestion and energy levels — “those would be signs that you’re restricting and not necessarily eating for vitality,” Anderson says.
Another red flag is if you’re so committed to your lunchtime routine that it stops you from joining a group of friends or coworkers who decide to go out to lunch, she adds. “If you can’t be flexible or spontaneous, that’s a warning sign there’s a problem,” she says.
A better way to eat the same lunch everyday
If you do eat the same lunch every day, here’s what the experts suggest for keeping it good for you and for your overall health.
1. Mix up the details when you can
Anderson and Sarris both recommend: Keep the base the same, but change up the contents. If your go-to is a sandwich and a piece of fruit, mix up the type of fruit you eat on the side or the veggies you put in your sandwich. If you do a salad with nuts and beans, mix up the greens you choose or experiment with different nuts and seeds.
2. Make sure you’re getting variety throughout the rest of the day
If you’re sticking to the same lunch, get some variety at dinner when it comes to both micro- and macronutrients, Shapiro says. Eat different colored fruits and vegetables so you’re getting lots of antioxidants. If chicken was the protein in your lunch, choose fish or beans as the protein for dinner. If you had a sandwich for lunch, choose a grain or potato for your carbohydrate later on. “Variety is good,” she says.
3. Pick a lunch that works for you and your body
We’re all different when it comes to what works best for us to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat, Anderson says. It’s most important to find the foods that are going to provide you the nutrition you need, the energy you need, and fit your lifestyle.
“Be mindful of what foods work best for you in terms of giving you mental clarity and allowing you to be your best self,” she says. “Figure out your owner’s manual to your body.”
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