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Six Ways to Prevent Work from Eating into Your Lunchtime

If you ask a child what her favorite subject in school is, you can expect an answer that hasn’t changed much since the dawn of time: recess.

Similarly, most of us adults would say our favorite part of the nine-to-five day is lunch, which begs the question: why are so many of us not making time for it? No self-respecting grade-schooler would miss a chance to soak up the sunshine with a PB&J, so why would grown-ups?

More than 45 percent of American workers say they bring lunch to eat at their desk once a week. Twenty percent do it every day, and about one-third skip a midday meal altogether, according to a recent study by research firm Datamonitor. And Americans aren’t the only ones glued to their desks: a June 2010 study by BBC News stated that one in four people in the UK work all day without taking a break; in Australia, 43 percent of workers said they didn’t have time to bring in lunch or go out for it.

If workers aren’t nixing lunch completely, they’re pulling the popular eat-and-work ethic of grabbing takeout, ordering in, or, perhaps worst of all, depending on the office vending machine for sustenance. Here’s a look at a few reasons why we might be missing the second-most important meal of the day and how we can help ourselves.

Problem #1. Time: It’s Not on Our Side
With most of today’s businesses built around the Internet, deadlines aren’t limited to five o’clock, as they were in the good old days. Now they continue throughout the day and night, particularly in international companies, and workers are competing to keep up with them, skipping breaks to meet the demands.

Solution: Divide and Conquer
If you’re so crunched for time that an hour away from your desk is cringe-inducing, talk to your boss about splitting your lunch hour up throughout the day. Rather than returning to forty-two voicemails after spending sixty minutes away, try taking fifteen minutes in the morning for a quick walk around the block, a half hour to sit outside midday and eat, and another fifteen minutes around 3:30 or 4 p.m. to stretch or grab another puff of fresh air. This will keep your body moving without pushing the message limit on your voicemail inbox.

Problem #2. Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
The recession: we all know we’re in it. Jobs are scarce and layoffs are aplenty. Even if workers can get out for a seat in the sunshine, who can afford to spend $12 on a salad every day? That’s $240 a month on lettuce-to-go.

Solution: Budget Those Brown Bags
Running to the vending machine doesn’t count as saving change (or as exercise). Eating chips and processed “health” bars every day may only serve to stack up your medical bills in the future, when your body breaks down from a lack of protein. Make a budget rule and then stick to it. For example, allow yourself one or two lazy days a week where you do grab that slightly overpriced salad. Then comfort yourself with the fact that you’ll bring lunch from home the other three or four. This will make you feel so much more deserving on the “lazy” days. Besides, the most important thing is getting away from your office to eat lunch, whether you pack it or buy it. Giving your body and brain a refresher from your cubicle is not only better for you, but also for your work.

Problem #3. A Little Ambiance, Please (aka All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go)
We’ve covered the importance of deserting your desk. Now we come to the next potential problem for workers: where do you go? If you’ve been budget-conscious enough to pack your sandwich from home, it’s hard to find a restaurant that will let you sit without purchasing. And then there are the torrential rains, blizzards, or whatever else unpleasant the environment throws at you. Due to the unpredictability of the great outdoors and the glares we’ll get bringing our brown bags to every restaurant surrounding the office, this can often be a selling point for just staying put.

Solution: Put Your Hands Up and Step Away from the Desk, Then Park It
In warmer climates, the best answer is to head to the nearest grassy area or park bench and eat up that sun-filled vitamin D. However, if you live where temperatures don’t exceed seventy degrees year round, the next best option is to hunt out a public indoor place. Libraries and museums aside, many cities offer areas for workers to sit gratis and enjoy an hour of non-cubicle respite. Research your area to find a location close to your building. At the very least, most offices are equipped with common areas near the lobby or kitchen where you and your coworkers can socialize outside of the realm of PowerPoint presentations. While getting a walk in the fresh air is ideal, again, the important thing is that you just take a break, both mentally and physically, by leaving your desk. Returning after an hour of food and break will invariably improve your afternoon accomplishments.

Problem #4. The Health Equation: Skipping Lunch Doesn’t Equal a Diet Plan
Studies show that women are more likely to eat a healthier lunch than men are. (Twenty percent of women munch on salads compared with 8 percent of men.) However, many men and women skip lunch altogether in an effort to cut calories.

Solution: Tread Lightly, Eat Lightly
Starving your body throughout the day will never be the solution to a weight problem. For one, as workers who most likely dream of keeping our jobs, there is no way any of us can expect to perform our best work while our stomach is growling. Our brains need nourishment not only to keep functioning, but to keep functioning well.

As far as the waistband goes, skip a heavy midday meal and proportion your eating throughout the day. Snack on almonds and yogurt in the late morning to keep your blood sugar boosted, then try a light salad for lunch, and a fruit or veggie around four. This will keep your brain and body satisfied (and also prevent that binge-fest on greasy Chinese food to ward off famine as soon as you get home).

As an aside to gym-goers, lunch is a great time to get your workout done; the lines at the treadmills are usually shorter at 12:30 p.m. than 5:30 p.m. Even if this means taking the occasional bite at your desk before heading out, at least you’re promising yourself the exercise your body needs after sitting all day.

Problem #5: Peer Pressure: But All the Other Kids Are Doing It
If we thought we could leave peer pressure back with grade-school bullies and cafeteria food, we thought wrong. Studies show that one of the top reasons workers don’t leave their desks is because nobody else does, either.

Solution: Pull a Ghandi: Be the Change You Wish to See in the World (and Workplace!)
Don’t let others quash your motivation to get out. We’re legally entitled to that hour. And we’re given that hour for a reason?we need it! And most likely, everyone else is waiting for someone to start the revolution. Lunch breaks are not only good for the individual soul, but for the whole team, as well. Take advantage of this time to deepen relationships with your coworkers, and enjoy the boost you’ll feel afterward.