Past The Breaking Point: The Evolution of the Modern Lunch Hour

By Shannon Connor Winward

LunchLifestyle(PCM) When you think of a lunch break, what comes to mind? Conversation over crisp salads? That takeout box in the fridge with your name on it? PB&J and love notes in brown paper bags, or boxes featuring your favorite childhood heroes? Whatever you prefer for your noontime nosh, lunch is for most people a chance to put down your work, pick up your sandwich (or yogurt, or pizza slice) and refuel. Yet anywhere from one-fifth to one half of today’s workers skip their lunch break unless they are required to take one. Are the days of the lunch hour gone for good?

The naked truth is, lunch is a relatively recent chapter in the history of eating. Before the nineteenth century, most people worked from dawn to dusk and took their main meal in the afternoon or early evening. Unless you were rich and had nothing better to do, “lunch” tended to consist of, say, bread and cheese, or maybe just a quick mug of ale (the original power lunch!) But all of that changed with the Industrial Revolution. As the modern workforce moved from the fields to the factories, the need for a quick, cheap mid-shift meal led to the lunch break as we know it today, along with cafeterias, lunch counters, food trucks, fast food restaurants, and many of our modern lunch foods.

The sandwich, for example, is credited to the eponymous Earl of Sandwich in the 1700s, but its popularity rose in the early twentieth century due to advances in automated food production, storage and service (not to mention sliced bread!). Sandwiches in all forms, from ham and Swiss on rye to craft paninis, are still favorites today, along with other handheld lunchables like California wraps, gyros, quesadillas, or hand pies.

Thanks to the advent of industry, the three-meal day is now the gold standard for a balanced lifestyle, with lunch holding court right in the middle. But a lunch break isn’t always a given: the federal government does not require employers to give you down-time. Some States do, but not all, and there are exceptions depending on what industry you work in, what job you do, and how many hours you work.

While in some businesses, breaks are discouraged by employers who feel it’s unproductive or distracting, more and more workers are voluntarily giving up their lunches, for a variety of reasons. Lunch breaks are often unpaid time, and with the pace and pressures of today’s workplace it can be hard to keep up. Many people feel they can get more done by working through lunch, or at least get the job done sooner.

If you decide to just keep working while spooning your noodles, you should know that you might actually be setting yourself back. Studies show that taking a lunch break improves worker productivity by boosting concentration, creativity, and emotional health. But human nature being what it is, reversing the trend away from a formal lunch hour might be like trying to take the mayo out of your tuna salad.

If you ARE going to work through lunch, here are some things to keep in mind:

Make sure you are still taking regular, active breaks throughout the day, even if only for a few minutes to get out of your chair and walk around. Sitting for long periods can lead to all kinds of problems – heart disease, diabetes, circulation and digestive issues, neck, shoulder, and back pain – even if you get regular exercise outside of work.

When eating at your desktop, tend towards lunch options that are less likely to make a mess. We’ve all seen the damage that spilled soup or soda can do to a computer, but think of the crumbly chaos or sticky spoils that accrue on your keyboard after all those hours of multi-tasked eating. Compact sandwiches, non-juicy fruits and vegetables, and chunky, sauce-free foods that you can spear with a fork, like salads or grilled meat, are probably your safest bet.

Finally, never underestimate the importance of keyboard hygiene. From food particles to skin oils and errant coughs and sneezes, your keyboard is a smorgasbord for bacteria that can make you sick. Canisters of compressed air or even a handheld vacuum can help remove crumbs and grit, while disinfecting wipes or a bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab are ideal for surfaces.

Check your product manuals for more specific suggestions, or consult your favorite IT guy. Maybe even, once in a while, take him or her out to lunch. After all, in today’s high-tech, sandwiches-over spreadsheets-world, the folks who keep our computers humming are the greatest thing since – well, you know.

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