Desktop Dining

By Michaele Weissman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

You probably eat lunch at your desk. A sandwich, a wrap, a cup of soup. Perhaps a salad bolted down while reading e-mail. The food may be quickly forgotten, but crumbs and drippings linger, taking root in the crevices of your keyboard.

You're not alone. Most working Americans, managers as well as staff, eat lunch at their desks. Bonnie Taub-Dix of the American Dietetic Association reports that 75 percent of office workers eat lunch at their desks two or three times a week.

Blame it on the difficulty of juggling work and family, the speeded-up business cycle, the unintended consequence of technology or pervasive economic anxiety. Whatever the reason, lunch routinely eaten with colleagues or friends outside the office has gone the way of defined benefit pensions and other workplace dinosaurs. Few have the time. In America, says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, lunch is not a meal. "It's a fueling."

"People are working longer and harder," says Ian Simmons, a partner at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers in Washington, who more often than not dashes out to grab a sandwich and then works as he eats. With 12- and 14-hour workdays his norm and two young children he would like to see before bedtime, lunch is expendable unless it has a purpose. For Simmons, that means lunching with clients or associates.

The question is, do we lose something valuable when we eat alone at our desks?

Nutritionally, says dietitian Taub-Dix, there's not much difference between a piece of chicken, brown rice and a vegetable on a plate in a restaurant and a chicken sandwich on whole-grain bread with lettuce and tomato at your desk: "You can make healthy choices wherever you eat." What's at risk is enjoyment of your meal, she says, without which desk diners may be more vulnerable to the siren song of junk food.

Disease-causing germs are another problem. The typical desk has 100 times as much bacteria as the typical kitchen table, according to a study by University of Arizona researchers. Keyboards and telephones tend to be even dirtier than desks. "You have to clean these surfaces regularly," says Taub-Dix. "You wouldn't eat lunch at a restaurant that didn't wash its tablecloths, would you?"

What's at risk personally may be more profound -- the chance to connect with colleagues and staff. "Tremendous creativity can be released when people solving common or related problems get together and schmooze," says Jordan Goodman, chairman of the department of physics at the University of Maryland. "That's why contemporary research centers, including the physical science center we are building here at College Park, are designed with on-site lunchrooms and cafes."

Managers also may be losing opportunities to interact with their staff. As online management columnist Jill Geisler recently wrote: When managers "talk about helping people grow, or resolving conflicts or giving better feedback, or improved collaboration with colleagues across the organization, they often come up with a simple thought, 'You know, I should take them to lunch and get to know them better.' "

Even so, few people give lunching outside the office a high priority. "Lunch is energy," says Newt Pendleton, a Falls Church financial adviser. Between appointments, Pendleton dashes out to the nearby Whole Foods Market, where he fills a medium soup container -- to control weight, he limits his portion size -- with a mound of white rice topped with pork teriyaki. Like a lot of people who eat at their desks, Pendleton says he gets on "food jags" where he eats the same thing day after day. (Not a good thing do to, say dietitians; a varied diet is better.) Though he is close to the other partners in his firm, he generally eats alone.

Margaret Polski, an adviser in the Africa bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says she often eats at her desk. "By the time I think about lunch, I have missed it," she says. Often it is 2 p.m. before she races downstairs, picks up a tuna sandwich and returns to her desk to eat.

Melina Afzal, a self-employed social work consultant in the District, skips the midday meal entirely. Adrenaline is her appetite suppressant. "I have 101 things to do that are going to help me with my income," she says. "If I slow down, I will fall behind."

Professionals who bill for their time have another reason to eat at their desks. Delia Jones and Jennifer Downey work at ICF, a downtown consulting firm. "In consulting, we bill in half-hour increments. You can't bill lunch, so you want to keep it short," Jones says.

Jones and Downey do leave their offices to pick up some lunch. Running out gives them a few minutes for socializing, providing them with a compressed version of what eating together used to offer.

Even if they eat at their desks, most office workers spend upwards of $5 a day on lunch. Firehook Bakery and Coffee House owner and co-founder Pierre Abushacra says that at his eight stores (which sell sandwiches, soups and salads), most customers spend $9 to $10 for midday takeout.

You might think the high cost would encourage office workers to brown-bag it. "Not so," says Harry Balzer, vice president of the Chicago-based NPD Group, which studies where, what and how Americans eat. "Nationwide, we're seeing a clear trend at lunchtime away from sandwiches made at home."

Most days, Jeff Donahoe, director of fundraising communications at Georgetown University, runs out to Whole Foods or Safeway to pick up lunch -- typically, soup, salad or maybe a burrito that he heats in the office microwave. At the microwave, Donahoe enjoys the chance to chat. But then he retreats to the privacy of his own office, where his computer is his lunchtime companion.

He discourages visitors. "I leave my door open, but if people stop by I ask them to come back in half an hour," he says.

Freelance writer Michaele Weissman last wrote for Food about the sweets of Ramadan.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company