Eating lunch at an eating-averse office
January 25, 2016 2:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm in an office where there is no kitchen to eat your lunch in and eating at your desk is not really a thing. Silently chewing a sandwich or drinking a yogurt is ok, anything requiring cutlery is tolerated but frowned upon. Most people eat out, but I'd like to minimize my eating-out budget. Also, I'm tired of sandwiches and even chocolate croissants get boring if you're eating them every day. Smoothies are cool but leave me hungry. So, any suggestions?

I do have access to a mini-fridge and water heater. The office is in a fairly fashionable/hipster part of town, so there are plenty of shops and grocery stores around, but sitting down on a bench somewhere and eating anything messy is not really an option. I can go out and buy food, I just lack the inspiration to think of things I'd like to buy and eat, given the constraints above. And it would be better for my budget (and waistline, probably) if I brought my lunch to work - but again, I lack the inspiration.
posted by gakiko to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
When you say frowned upon, is the issue noise, or food smells, or both?
posted by en forme de poire at 2:29 AM on January 25, 2016

I'm kinda in this situation, and I eventually found a large grocery store nearby with a kind of food court in it. They don't seem to notice or mind me bringing in outside food (though I often get a drink there as a precaution.) Maybe you could find something similar?
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:31 AM on January 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Both noise and smell is an issue.
posted by gakiko at 2:31 AM on January 25, 2016

My go to when I lack lunch inspiration is veggies and dip, because there's about a million ways to mix it up.
posted by peppermind at 3:25 AM on January 25, 2016

I would keep a set of plastic or wooden cutlery for the days when I needed it -- they won't make as much noise, especially in a (reusable) plastic lunch container.

Otherwise finger foods and things that aren't too loud/crunchy sound like they are the easiest, less stressful solution.

There are some good websites with lists of ideas for school lunches, which are designed to be eaten with your fingers and are healthy and varied. Get yourself a bento-style compartmentalised lunchbox and fill it with as many different-coloured foods as you can. Here are some ideas to start with.
posted by tracicle at 3:33 AM on January 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I used to take pita bread and humous to dip it in, but pita is best when toasted so just some nice crusty bread is an alternative.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:35 AM on January 25, 2016

You can't be the only one who has this problem. Maybe you could ask to use a conference room for lunch, and others might join you?
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:49 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

What about something like this chickpea salad? Chickpeas have enough protein to help keep you full. In a similar vein: orzo salad, quinoa salad, tabouleh. You'd have to use a Tupperware container and a plastic spoon or fork, but all that stuff can be made ahead of time.

Adult lunchables could also work, something like antipasto. Some crackers or a half-baguette, a bit of sharp cheese, salami, and some marinated artichokes, roasted red pepper, cherry tomatoes, olives. Maybe some form of pickle or some nuts. Throw 'em all on a plate and you can mix and munch and nibble.
posted by Diablevert at 4:11 AM on January 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is there a hospital near you? They usually have big cafeterias where no one would notice or care if you just brought your own lunch in. Some big office buildings have publicly accessible cafeterias. You could buy something there to go along with your lunch to assuage feelings of freeloading.
posted by lakeroon at 4:16 AM on January 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm kind of surprised that no one is questioning this work culture.

If the "frowning upon" is real and is coming from a place that could be to your detriment (a/k/a your boss), this is textbook messed-up. Maybe it's because I just saw "Anomalisa," but cutlery "noise" and food smells are part of life in the human world, and hyperfocus on those things, to me, is pathological.

If the "frowning upon" is coming from nonsupervisors that have nothing better to do than mind other people's lunch business, well, I wouldn't let weird office microculture get in the way of healthy, diverse eating. You're right: you shouldn't be living on chocolate croissants/smoothies, and sandwiches do get hella boring after a while. And I'm with you: I hate eating on park benches or someplace that's not really set up with tables et al.

If there are other aspects of this work environment that are as limiting, I would start putting together a resume and cultivating a network.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:29 AM on January 25, 2016 [35 favorites]

Quiet, non-smelly food (although some of them do require forks, but no cutting and I personally think a fork or spoon is less obvious than eating with your hands which can get messy):

- Soft fruit salad (ie mango, berries, melon, grapes)
- Cold pasta salad (ie penne, olives, salami, tomatoes, italian dressing)
- Quiche lorraine (I personally don't mind it cold)
- Cous cous salad with halloumi, harrissa, etc
- Quinoa with shredded chicken breast, avocado, tomato, etc
- Cold quesadilla with chicken, avocado and cheese
posted by like_neon at 4:39 AM on January 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Looking for food to take on an airplane might be helpful as there are similar requirements.

Bacon, hard boiled egg, trail mix, baby oranges, and maybe a protein bar.
Cook the bacon ahead then wrap it in a paper towel and put it in an individual bag.
Boil the eggs ahead, peel, salt, and bag - I don't find the scent to be pervasive beyond a small area.
Trail mix is versatile - mine is usually nuts with a bit of dried fruit and maybe a few chocolate chips.
Oranges are scented though usually welcome.
You could pack five of these to be ready for the whole week.

Another option that does require a spoon though a plastic spoon would work is hot oatmeal with a sprinkle of toppings in a thermos that has been preheated with hot water so it stays warm until lunch.
posted by RoadScholar at 4:48 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding what sheydem-tants said. If it's not coming from above, screw 'em. Keep in mind, you're probably not the only one who feels this way. At my current job, before I started there was a strong tendency to work through lunch. But lunch isn't something I compromise on. I made a point of taking my full lunch break every day. Gradually, other people started taking breaks as well, and now it's pretty well-established that everyone, even the people who used to work through lunch, are going to be taking their breaks. I've even had people come up and thank me for starting the lunch thing because they would never have done it themselves.

I normally eat leftover Hamburger Helper for lunch, if I'm eating in. It's quite filling, but doesn't really make noise. Anything similar - spaghetti with meat sauce, chicken tikka masala with chunks of chicken small enough that you don't have to cut - would satisfy the sound requirements.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:59 AM on January 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

soup in a wide necked thermos - you can drink it while seated on a bench.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:05 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing the idea that the office culture seems to be skewed. You are allowed to take a lunch. If eating at your desk is frowned upon, ask about eating somewhere else.

I was a programmer / systems analyst right out of college. The owner of the firm insisted that we not eat or drink at our desks (because spilling something on the expensive computers was his worst nightmare). A group of us petitioned him to set up a "breakroom" of sorts where we could sit and eat. He hated it, but the alternative was for us to eat at our desks. One spill and his computers would go kaboom! He saw the light and relented.

Maybe the logic behind this story might be used in your case?

Legally, you are allowed a lunch. Would management be happier if you split for an hour every day, or if you were in the office eating (but reachable quickly in an emergency)?

You can win this, if you are willing to fight for it.
posted by Colonel Sun at 6:06 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Count me as another "this is not okay office behavior." That said, I make orzo salads all the time, like this one: Greek Orzo Salad - use whatever you have leftover in the fridge. This just needs a plastic spoon to eat, no reheating, no strong smell, and if you don't use crunchy veggies, no noise.
posted by lyssabee at 6:18 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There's no official "no lunch" policy; in fact, we're encouraged to use our lunch break. Managers are not around to frown upon eating, they're in another part of the office and usually stay away during lunchtime. It's just that there seems to be a tacit agreement between my coworkers that nobody wants to watch/hear/smell other people eat. I guess it's because there are so many restaurants around, it's presumed that everyone will go out to eat. Also, I'm rather junior here, so I don't want to ruffle any feathers.
posted by gakiko at 6:32 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

If everyone else goes out to eat then there must be a window of time when most people are out at lunch and you could eat at your desk with fewer people around to witness it? I would start paying attention to what time people tend to be gone and time my meal around that. That plus non-crunchy, non-smelly foods seem to be more than reasonable accommodations for the office culture.

My office doesn't frown on eating at your desk per se, but it's a cube farm and people tend to work quietly so I'm always trying to keep my eating discreet just so I don't feel self-conscious. I try to eat when my immediate cube neighbors are either away from their desks or are also eating, and I don't worry too much about people farther away. I LOVE grain salads: you can make a huge batch in advance, and there are zillions of combinations so you don't get bored (you can even store the grain separately in the fridge and add whatever mix-ins you feel like that day, if you want day-to-day variety). This question garnered a lot of recipe suggestions and ideas: Hit me with your best snack salad.
posted by mama casserole at 7:02 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

My solution to the office-eating dilemma is this much-beloved and super useful lunch crockpot. I love this thing: I keep it inside of a cabinet (routed the cord along the edges of my cubicle to plug it in). It doesn't smell at all while it's heating because of its two covers, and as long as I use plastic spoons or forks it's not at all loud to eat from -- but using metal cutlery makes some scrapey noises (I have misophonia so I'm sensitive to eating sounds). I use it to heat up leftovers: anything from soup to casseroles, and I'll even fold up pizza or burritos or foil-wrapped sandwiches in there to heat up. I put the food in it anytime between when I arrive at work and 11ish, and it's ready to eat at noon. I keep the crockpot stored at work and just bring the food to work with me in plastic containers like these, then just transfer it into the crockpot. It's a gentle heat so your food can stay in it for hours and I've never had it overheat. My office has a break room, but I started using the crockpot at my desk because I don't like eating around my coworkers or waiting in line for the microwaves. It's been fantastic.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 7:03 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, also using the crockpot has saved me major time & money too, not just from keeping me from having to go to the cafe next door for a sandwich, but you can put frozen food in it. I made a habit of freezing foods in those 16 oz containers (I fill them while cleaning up after dinner & just chuck 'em in the freezer). Then when I leave for work grab a frozen dish from from the freezer & when I get to the office I pop out the frozen food-brick directly into the crockpot bowl, turn it on & ignore it till lunch time. It's almost zero work. (Except for washing it afterward, but if you have a bathroom sink with soap & paper towels that won't be a problem.)
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 7:40 AM on January 25, 2016

I guarantee you if you decide to just sit at your desk and eat whatever you goddamned please others will eventually follow. Right now no one is doing it because no one is doing it. You can lead the charge. The weenies who have a problem with cutlery noises can learn to suck it up and deal with the fact that they live in a world with other people.
posted by phunniemee at 7:55 AM on January 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

Is there a conference room or other small meeting room you can book for your lunch? That way you're not at your desk and other people who might be ticked off by lunch smells/sounds.
posted by brookeb at 8:09 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Came here to suggest booking a conference room for yourself, brookeb beat me to it. Hi, brookeb!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:35 AM on January 25, 2016

I guess it's because there are so many restaurants around, it's presumed that everyone will go out to eat.

That sounds very expensive -- 5 restaurant meals a week v. bringing your own is a significant cost difference. If you do decide to break the pattern, let it be known around the office that you're "saving up to buy a house."
posted by JanetLand at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to break the pattern, let it be known around the office that you're "saving up to buy a house."

Or just "eating out for 5 lunches a week is a waste of money." There's nothing shameful about being frugal. People who drop $150-200 a month buying lunch out are making dumb choices.
posted by phunniemee at 10:33 AM on January 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I agree that your office sounds rather strange...

If it's just the noise cutlery makes, can you do a non-smelly bento? All the food is already small enough to be eaten with chopsticks, and you don't have to eat it up.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:47 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mod note: We can probably take the this-office-culture-seems-idiosyncratic aspect as given at this point, maybe focus on just answering the question asked going forward.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I was going to suggest wooden chopsticks or other wooden utensils to keep noise down. Anything you don't heat up should probably be better for keeping food aromas to a minimum (e.g. chilled roast chicken and steamed veg, or a cold bean salad); just be rigorous about food safety since you won't be killing any bugs in the microwave. Quiche is good cold, too. If you get bored of hummus, there are other bean dips for vegetables you can try: black bean, cumin and lime for example.

The most annoying eating sounds IME tend to be rustling, scraping, and "wet" mouth noises (slurping, smacking, etc). If you try to be mindful of those and keep them down to a minimum, and avoid excessively garlicky, fishy, or sulfury food, I think reasonable people, or even somewhat neurotic people like me, will be able to deal.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:23 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have any parks nearby? What I would do is keep a picnic blanket in the office and sit on the grass whenever the weather allowed. Maybe you can get some coworkers interested in your pleasantly "eccentric" habit...
posted by danny the boy at 5:57 PM on January 25, 2016

I've worked in a number of offices, and I've found that with almost every job change my accustomed lunch routine deviates from lunch culture in some way. Just do you; unless your lunch is especially smelly, I promise you that people won't notice if you just eat at your desk.

With that said, getting away from your desk is a great break in the day. In my present job, where office culture is to eat at one's desk with the door closed, I go to the gym and then eat while working.
posted by mchorn at 9:14 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is there a conference room or an unused desk a little further away? I bring lunch and if there was no other place reasonable to eat my lunch, I'd just eat at my desk and ignore any unwritten weirdness. Bringing lunch has been a huge money-saver, and the nutritional quality is better, so accommodating it is reasonable.
posted by theora55 at 6:40 AM on January 26, 2016

Lots of good ideas above - plastic cutlery, slow-cooker/thermos, public caf/food court are good ideas.

But eating hard-boiled eggs at your desk is evil. You definitely need to be smell-sensitive. My old workplace was laissez-faire about eating at your desk but I had a coworker who detested the smell of Swiss Chalet (for non-Canadians, rotisserie chicken. Canadians will understand SC is one of the most divine smells ever; I was amazed this was not universally agreed)
posted by raider at 2:03 PM on January 30, 2016

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