We should all be lunching like Europeans — it's better for your mind and body

Put down your sad desk salad; experts explain why a real lunch break is better for your mind and body

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 26, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Parisian Restaurant in Latin Quarter, Paris, France (Getty Images/Pawel Libera)
Parisian Restaurant in Latin Quarter, Paris, France (Getty Images/Pawel Libera)

The morning had been an intense morning of lessons and group work on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. We had covered terrorism and violence, from Palestine to Ukraine — but it was now 12:30, so we were going to go do the next important action item on our agenda. My classmates, facilitators and I were going go to downstairs for a three-course, hour-long meal. Because this is Europe, and people still eat lunch here.

We need your help to stay independent

In my regular American life, lunch is an afterthought, almost an embarrassment. The majority of my friends and colleagues, like me, only leave their desks for a proper midday meal a few times a year. I have a publishing executive friend who I meet up with occasionally for an early breakfast; by her own admission she hasn't actually eaten a weekday lunch in years. And this is all somehow taken as normal and productive. A 2021 survey by the hygiene brand Tork found that even with more of us working from home, 39% of respondents said they "occasionally, rarely or never" took breaks during the workday. Nearly a quarter admitted they "feel guilty or judged when they step away from work midday." A 2019 survey from the California Walnut Board & Commission found that two in three millennials responded that they often skip lunch to "get ahead" at work. And even when we do take a break, it's not for long. The recent Compass Group's Global Eating at Work Survey found that the average American lunch break is just 30 minutes long.

In other countries, though, it's understood that the rhythm of the day requires an ebb and flow. In France, eating your desk isn't just a strange idea, it's against the nation's labor laws. Food-culture historian Martin Bruegel told NPR last year, "People are just simply happier when they take some downtime during the workday. It's good for their well-being."

And well-being is both a physical and psychological investment. "In the fast-paced world of work, it's easy to overlook the significance of pausing to nourish ourselves, but doing so holds numerous benefits for our overall health," says Marissa Moore, a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer at Mentalyc.

Stopping for lunch, she explains, "provides your body with the necessary nutrients and energy to sustain productivity throughout the day," while "skipping meals can lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar, affecting mood and cognitive function." It sounds simple, but really, there's a cure for being hangry and it's called eating something. But lunch is also about giving your brain a break, Moore says, noting that "stepping away from work tasks and engaging in different activities can lead to cognitive rejuvenation, better problem-solving, and increased cognitive flexibility." 

We Americans aren't just skipping lunch to prove how productive we are. Inflation has made eating seem like a luxury for many of us. An April survey by Clever Real Estate found that nearly 40% of respondents admitted they'd skipped meals to meet their housing payments.

Yet even if you can't afford to eat in the middle of the day or don't like to — and those $30 takeout salads are a real racket — you can and should absolutely still find a way to step away from your desk and get a chance of scenery. "There is this idea that it's a weakness to take a break, it's a weakness to need to eat lunch," says Natasha Feldman, author of "The Dinner Party Project: A No-Stress Guide to Food with Friends." But a lunch break doesn't always need to involve eating lunch. Feldman acknowledges, "Our culture and our agriculture aren't built around the people as much as the profit. One of the ways that you really can combat that is just, is there a park? Is there a bench? Can you sit with another human?" 

It doesn't even have to be at lunchtime. 

"Maybe you can just say, 'Hey, I need one hour within the day,'" says Feldman. "Even if it's at 4 pm, I need a break." Likewise, while certified RDN Melissa Baker of the recipe guide Food Queries does encourage everyone to "refuel with the nutrients you need to power through the afternoon," she also acknowledges it's important to just "give your mind a rest." As she says, "Chat with some coworkers, take a walk outside, and just relax for a bit. This gives your brain a chance to recharge so you can tackle the rest of the day with focus."

"There is this idea that it's a weakness to take a break, it's a weakness to need to eat lunch."

We glamorize overworking and we privilege isolation, as if eating food and meeting up with friends or coworkers are just weekends and nights things. But the pandemic only served to diminish our free time and extend our workdays — while disintegrating that buffer transition time that commuting can offer. In related news, we're burning out in record numbers. A worldwide poll from the Future Forum released this spring found that over 41% of American desk job workers said they feel burned out at their jobs, defined as having "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy." Women and workers under the age of 30 were likelier to report burnout. A similar US-specific 2022 survey from Aflac found that 59% of respondents reported "experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout."

It's clear that running ourselves into the ground doesn't work, either for the forces of late stage capitalism or our basic human nature. Jovana Durovic, the Serbia-born editor of the coffee enthusiast site Home Grounds, observes, "In my country, lunch is the main meal of the day, while dinner is a much lighter affair. I was really astounded when I moved away to study and realized that not everyone has the same eating habits. I was shocked to see my peers eating at their desks, or only eating a small amount to sustain them throughout the day. After a while, I found that my own behavior had shifted to accommodate this."

Eventually, she says, "Changing my mealtimes was having a detrimental effect on my energy, concentration, and digestion. Eating later was stopping me from sleeping properly, and I learned that this is because, instead of resting, your body is working to digest your food. I was struggling to focus, and experiencing headaches. I learned a new phrase, 'hangry,' and this definitely applied to me." But now, she says, "I eat a proper, nutritious lunch, and take the time to eat mindfully. I still go out for dinner with friends, but order a smaller portion, or take leftovers home. My energy levels are back to normal, and I can concentrate better."

"I was shocked to see my peers eating at their desks, or only eating a small amount to sustain them throughout the day."

Most of my regular life days, I have sat in front of my laptop chewing uninspiredly through some microwaved leftovers while answering emails and catching up on the horrors of the day in my newsfeed. But while I've been spending a few weeks in Switzerland, I have been doing things differently. On weekends, I have idled in cafes, reading books and watching shopkeepers close their doors for their own daily sabbaticals. On weekdays, my colleagues and I have sat together around a long table, consuming plates of pasta followed by fresh sorbets or salads chased with bony fish filets, rarely if ever even looking at our phones. On one recent class day, I savored some pork knuckle over white wine risotto, followed by chocolate mousse. What is this strange feeling, I wondered as we climbed the steps back upstairs afterward for continuation of our work. Then I realized, I was satisfied. I want to hang on to that sensation. I want to stop trying to run on fumes, and lean in to being nourished.

"All we do as Americans is try to fight off our natural urges," observes Natasha Feldman. "If we just allowed ourselves to like exist as normal humans and take the breaks that are needed, and have these meals where we're not shoving food in our face as quickly as possible and going back to work, we would actually I think save a lot of time." 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Europe Explainer Lunch Mental Healt