Desk lunches can be bad; then again …

Desk lunches can be bad; then again …


THERE’S A popular children’s book in my house, in which a mother witch lovingly orders her too-good daughter: “Go out! Get dirty! Come home late!”

I think of that book whenever a colleague tells me to get up from my desk and out of the office for lunch.

“Eating at your desk again?” I hear.

Most of us adopt this lunchtime habit for the same reason we open mail while we talk on the phone, or fold laundry while we watch TV to increase our efficiency. It might begin as a one-time aberration on an extra-busy day. But soon every day is extra-busy.

If the two-hour, three-martini lunch was once the norm, this is its antithesis.

And it’s a popular choice.

At Wisconsin Gas Co., workload keeps corporate communications director Sue Riordan at her desk many days for lunch. “I might be in the middle of a project and want to keep going on it,” she said. “So I run up to the cafeteria and grab something that isn’t too messy. It limits your choices no sweet-sour pork/Chinese food when you’re eating at your desk.” Lots of people around her at the utility do likewise.

The phenomenon of lunch-with-a- purpose is also driven by dual-career families. “There’s the feeling that, if I’m at work and the kids are at day care, every minute I’m at work ought to count,” said Mark Mone, associate professor of business at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

Others, such as Marion Gehl, marketing director at Deloitte & Touche accountants, use the time to pay bills or catch up on the paper between bites of a bag lunch. There is an employee lunchroom, but TV soaps don’t appeal to her.

While no one in her office cares, some employers frown on the desk- turned-dining-table. The half hour of unpaid time employees get should be used to “get out of the department, get off the floor, talk about something else, do something else,” said Pat Martin, vice president of human resources at West Allis Memorial Hospital. That goes for nurses as well as office staff.

However, she doesn’t always practice what she preaches. “I’m notorious for sometimes eating at my desk,” Martin said. “I really try to make sure I get out. Yesterday was a bag of pretzels. I know it’s more nutritional when I go to the cafeteria.”

For people who operate machinery in factories or deal directly with the public (bank tellers, clerks), lunch on the job isn’t even a possibility.

And at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., it apparently isn’t even a wish. “I don’t know anybody in this company who would want to eat lunch at their desk,” said Lynn Heimbruch, public relations specialist at Northwestern, widely known for its daily free lunches for employees. It might be different if workers were allowed to take that free food out of the cafeteria.

State law does not require employers to provide meal breaks for adults but recommends a 30-minute period, said David Blaska, public information coordinator for the State Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations.

Blaska himself never eats at his desk.

“I get out every chance I can. I spend 10 hours a day in this office; the lunch hour is not one of them.”

Intuitively, we know there are good reasons not to eat at our desks besides the risk of spilling soup on our VDT or an important document. Corporate America spends upward of $200 billion a year on stress, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Regularly working through lunch could be seen as one stop on the road to burnout.

In fact, the wellness program at Wisconsin Gas encourages employees to get out at lunchtime and take a walk, Riordan said.

Nutritionally, we’re not doing ourselves any favors, either.

No. 1, “You’re setting up a behavioral cue that working and eating go together,” said Jill Camber, a registered dietitian in Madison and spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Dietetics Association. “So whenever you sit down at your desk, you automatically look for something to eat, whether you’re hungry or not.”

If you must eat at your desk, Camber suggests pushing your work aside so you can focus on what you’re eating.

To save time, you can split lunch into two parts, one at noon, when you can spare 10 minutes, and the other later, when you can take another short break. Or eat two mini-meals, one at 10 and the other at 2.

Her final suggestion is to take food with you. Impulse meals assembled from the vending machine are almost guaranteed to be bad.

Nancy J. Stohs is food editor of The Milwaukee Journal.

Copyright 1995

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