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Why You Hate Bringing Your Lunch to Work

Credit - Illustration by TIME

Jeff Moriarty was once the guy who always brought his lunch to work. Pre-pandemic, he dutifully meal-prepped for the week on Sundays, and when he worked from home during the worst parts of COVID-19, he whipped up healthy feasts between meetings. Grilled chicken salad? Coming right up. Scrambled eggs in the afternoon? “They’re not just for breakfast,” he says.

But Moriarty, 44, who lives in Bolingbrook, Ill., and works in e-commerce, hasn’t packed a lunch since going back to the office a year ago. “Lunch has turned into my great escape,” he says. “It’s my daily mini-vacation from the world of spreadsheets and conference calls”—an opportunity to burst out of the office doors, smell deep-dish pizza instead of stale office air, and think about what’s on his plate in a literal rather than metaphorical sense. Plus, it’s easier than the alternative. Moriarty feels “older and busier” than he used to be, and who has the time and patience to think about lunch the night before?

He’s not alone: U.S. workers who are back in the office at least a few days a week say that lunch has taken on a “magic hour” quality. Instead of diligently slipping a peanut butter sandwich or apple slices into a brown paper bag, many are choosing to venture out and buy something instead—in pursuit of a change of scenery, a meaningful break, or even just some chit-chat with the guy making made-to-order hoagies.

While it’s impossible to know how many people have given up on taking lunch to work, some psychologists say that it comes up in sessions quite often—and they’re not surprised by the trend. A smorgasbord of factors have made buying lunch more appetizing than ever.

The pandemic killed the lunch-making habit

Before “COVID-19” entered our vocabulary, most of us worked full-time outside the home. That meant following the same evening and morning routine all week—and consistency promotes habit development, says Jolie Silva, a Long Island, N.Y.-based clinical psychologist and chief operating officer at New York Behavioral Health. “Maybe you checked the weather and picked out your clothes the night before, or made sure you had something to read on the commute, or got up at the same time and made your lunch,” she says. Over time, these learned behaviors became automatic.

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Then the pandemic abruptly shattered routines. Suddenly, we were taking conference calls from the kitchen counter and whipping up gourmet meals at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. Now we’re out of practice—and even those who returned to the office are often following a hybrid schedule that deters habit formation, Silva explains. “You have three days a week where your morning routine is different, and so you have to really think about what you’re doing,” she says.

Planning ahead can feel exhausting

People are tired, anxious, and stressed right now. Prepping lunches is just one more addition to already too-long to-do lists, says Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker in Skokie, Ill. “Meal-planning feels like a thing of the past,” she adds. “People don’t go to the grocery store once a week anymore and go, ‘I need 2 pounds of turkey. I need a loaf of bread. I need to make sure I have my condiments. Do I want a tomato on it?’ There’s so much thinking involved, it’s exhausting—versus stopping at the market on the way home and picking up some broccoli and pasta.” We’ve shifted to a more impulsive approach to meals that centers what we’re in the mood for at that specific moment, Zakeri believes—and that makes us more likely to grab lunch on the go.

We’ve gotten serious about taking breaks

Many of Zakeri’s clients have stopped taking lunch to work. The subject tends to come up when they describe their desire to pause their back-to-back meetings or endless emails. “People are listening to their mental health more and taking intentional breaks,” she says—and walking or driving out for lunch presents the perfect opportunity to decompress. Research suggests it’s a smart idea: In one study, people who took a lap around a nearby park during their lunch break were able to concentrate better in the afternoon and had lower levels of strain and fatigue than those who stayed at their desks.

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We crave a distraction from monotony

Much of the reason why many people don’t feel like taking food to work anymore “has to do with breaking the mold of monotony—people don’t want to be in that ‘Groundhog Day’ cycle,” says Elisabeth Crain, a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles. A packed lunch might be practical, but it often contributes to the “same-old” feeling of the work day, she points out. That’s especially true if you eat at your desk while staring at the screen you’ve already been looking at for hours.

The pandemic made us feel so cooped-up that now we’re more eager to step outside during lunch and experience new sights, sounds, and cuisines, Crain says. “Changing your environment changes your mental landscape,” she explains, and going out for lunch offers “low-stakes excitement” that can improve the overall work-life experience. “It can enliven or galvanize us,” she says.

Buying lunch feels more social

Silva’s clients often tell her they feel isolated, especially when they’re working from home. “You don’t have social interaction in the same way, even if you’re on Zoom calls,” she says. Work days feel lonely in a way they didn’t five years ago. As a result, “people are craving the interaction they might get from grabbing a sandwich with a colleague, or even standing in line with someone at Starbucks,” she says. Hybrid workers are especially likely to embrace the opportunity for a more social lunch on days when they’re in the office, she says.

We want—and deserve—a treat

What’s the point of working hard if you don’t enjoy those paychecks? That’s the post-pandemic mentality many people are adopting, Zakeri says. Clients might tell her, “I deserve DoorDash because I’m working my ass off.” Splurging on lunch out, or a fancy latte, feels like a reward for toiling away all day. After several long, pandemic-filled years, it’s tempting to live in the moment and eat what you want, when you want.

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How can you get back into the routine of packing a lunch?

Spend some time weighing the pros and cons of taking lunch to work versus buying something, Silva advises. While there are certainly benefits, like a built-in impetus to socialize or go for a midday walk, there’s also a financial factor to consider before springing for a $20 salad. Food prepared at home also tends to be healthier than what you buy from a restaurant.

If you’d like to get back in the habit of packing lunch, experts recommend setting yourself up for success by creating a schedule, like going to the grocery store at the same time on the same day and stocking up on everything you’ll need for a week’s worth of meals. Then leave out visual cues: bread on the counter will remind you to make a sandwich; your insulated lunch bag will be waiting for you next to the coffee maker. “Visual cues are key to new habit development,” Silva says. You’ll be back to worrying about who grabbed your hummus from the work fridge, and whether your colleagues down the hall can smell your curry, in no time.

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