In the busy CBC Calgary newsroom, one corner of Tracy Fuller’s desk houses an impressive condiment collection: soy sauce and sriracha (labelled “communal,” because everyone can benefit from a squirt of sriracha), cinnamon for her morning oatmeal and grinders of peppercorns and pink Himalayan salt, all neatly stacked on a miniature wood cutting board, ready to revive anything that’s been sitting in the lunchroom fridge or hastily grabbed from a lobby kiosk.
At one time, lunch was considered the main meal of the day – having worked up an appetite over the course of the morning, a substantial sit-down meal was in order to fuel up for an afternoon’s labour – but in this work-anytime and-everywhere age, solitary cubicle lunches have become de rigueur. Most lunches are taken to-go, eaten in offices, on park benches and in cars. A 2017 Dalhousie University study showed that almost 72 per cent of Canadians prepare lunch at home and bring it to work, 66 per cent report buying lunch or eating at a restaurant at least once or twice a week and almost 40 per cent (almost 50 per cent in the Atlantic provinces) say they eat lunch at their desks. And yet changing cultural attitudes about food and the act of eating has elevated our expectations of both the eating-in and dining-out experience, even when the meal in question comes from home via a paper bag.
“With access to so many diverse ingredients that make up our modern pantries, the idea of lunch has really transformed into something that can be so many things to so many people,” says Allison Day, author of a new cookbook called Modern Lunch. “Our palates have changed. I grew up having a sandwich for lunch and now I want to create those flavours I get in restaurants at home.” A more culturally and nutritionally savvy population with access to unlimited ingredients and ideas via cookbooks, print and digital publications, cooking channels and social media has elevated possibilities and expectations around our daily meals.
But beyond the menu itself, mealtimes are opportunities to step away from the screen and interact IRL. Rather than isolating ourselves with lunch for one, sharing a meal with the people you share a workspace with can strengthen relationships that not only lead to a more positive and productive work environment, but an improvement in long-term health. Myriad studies have shown that regular personal interactions contribute significantly to our physical and psychological well-being and longevity. Some progressive companies and tech startups build fancy lunchrooms or hire private chefs to feed their staff, viewing it as an investment in office relationships and the overall health of their employees, but the vast majority of us are on our own.
Some who work away from home, such as Fuller, take charge of their own lunch destinies by tucking mini-fridges under their desks and turning desk shelving into tiny pantries. A box of crunchy Maldon salt, a bottle of good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, even a bowl of lemons on your desk or in the lunchroom can elevate mediocre takeout, or anything that has dulled during transport – including your mood.
Then there are those who collaborate with co-workers on arrangements that relieve everyone from lunch duty on most days while ensuring the group is always well fed. Grade 7 teacher Janice Grajauskas has a lunch club with eight other teachers and assistants at her Calgary school. “There are three in a group – one person brings the main, one person brings a salad and the other person brings a dessert, and then you don’t have to cook for the next two weeks. It’s the favourite day of the week for us,” she says. There’s a long-running salad club at Roxanne Dubé Coelho’s office in Edmonton – everyone brings one green and one other salad ingredient on Tuesdays, and they all eat it for two or three days. When they worked at the same Calgary school, teachers Stephanie Jones and Ashley Frampton took turns making a casserole on Mondays to bring to the staffroom for both of them to eat all week, and Sheena Abboud McKenzie’s Calgary workplace has a soup club every Wednesday. “There are 13 of us, so I only cook once every few months,” she says. “It’s the best.”
Across Canada, weekly slow-cooker clubs, lunch collaborations and spontaneous office potlucks keep lunch interesting, with social media fanning the flame, reminding us of the many ways to reclaim those midday hours. Bonus: People are often inspired to put more effort into cooking for others than they might otherwise do for themselves.
Turning lunch into a more social event can lessen the drudgery of prepping portable lunches, which can be an unwelcome early morning task. Day encourages repurposing leftovers, even planning for extra when preparing dinner and devoting a little extra time to prep ingredients to streamline the process. A few new packaging ideas – from insulated totes and thermal containers to reusable beeswax wrap and vintage thick glass jars – promise to keep food the texture it’s meant to be. Outside office hours, Day encourages those who work from home, are retired or on parental leave, or even off for the weekend to take some time to socialize mid-day over a more casual and affordable meal than dinner tends to be.
She also dedicates an entire chapter of Modern Lunch to the concept of the lunch club – how it works and why you should start one, along with menu suggestions, recipes and tips for success (set a budget, be consistent, make it a Monday – the lunch club is more likely to work when the people cooking have more time to cook). “It’s a time of day we’re not necessarily with our families – we’re with our friends or our colleagues,” Ms Day says. “Creating a little social club during the day introduces you to new styles of cooking and to different cultures in a really easy, fun and economical way compared to going to a restaurant. It pushes our boundaries a bit in terms of what we consider food we want to eat.”
Breaking bread together is one of the most basic, primitive social interactions: Think back to the lunch breaks of our childhoods, that precious social time was spent catching up with friends, connecting over topics unrelated to school. Even the new Canada Food Guide points out the benefits of eating with others and recommends seeking out opportunities to do so – not only with family members, but with neighbours and co-workers, which can particularly benefit those who live alone or with young children, or miss eating with their families due to shift work.
“Making friends is a good thing – and can be hard when you’re an adult,” Ms Day says. “Everyone wants to talk about food. And sharing lunch is a great way to connect with our outside communities.”
In Modern Lunch, Day suggests that grain bowls and modern salads, ones that can incorporate lettuce, but don’t have to, are perfect for lunches. A bit of advance prep or planning for leftovers when making dinner the night before can mean having the building blocks at the ready in the fridge to assemble quickly. For jar salads, she suggests dressing on the bottom, ingredients layered from heaviest to lightest. For a container salad, dressing packed on the side, ingredients tossed or layered from heaviest to lightest. Shake or toss and eat.
Here are some combos to try:
- Baby arugula + cubed roasted sweet potatoes + diced celery + cubed roasted chicken + Parmesan + balsamic vinaigrette
- Boiled new potatoes + shredded radicchio + sliced grilled steak + orange segments + green goddess dressing
- Shredded romaine + halved cherry tomatoes + chopped bacon + cubed roasted chicken + creamy Caesar dressing
- Rehydrated rice noodles + kimchi + chopped steamed broccoli + cubed smoked tofu + toasted cashews + sesame orange vinaigrette
- Cooked penne + sliced grilled steak + baby arugula + Parmesan + toasted walnuts + sun-dried tomato pesto, olive oil + lemon juice dressing
- Canned lentils + pre-cooked beets + chopped radicchio + roasted almonds + chili-spiked balsamic vinaigrette