On being lame: bringing lunch to work

When I first moved to Boston, I had this silly image of myself as some hot, high-powered career bitch, probably wearing a pencil skirt with some incredible heels, but maybe with some hipster glasses to show people that I have a (not-so-)secret life as a writer. I hate Starbucks coffee, but I’d still get a cup every morning. I’d go out to lunch with my work friends every day and eat salads with expensive and hard-to-pronounce cheeses on them. I wouldn’t even look at the bill when I got it.

As it turns out, I’ve pretty much given up on wearing heels to work and sometimes forget to change out of my snow boots into flats. I wear long underwear underneath my work pants. I can’t afford new glasses. I bring breakfast, coffee, and lunch to work almost every day to save money. While most of my other coworkers do the same, I think I’m the one who does it the most, even in the new building with a relatively inexpensive cafeteria just one floor above.

Generally, it’s not a problem. We’re all on different eating schedules, and everyone is usually too busy to see straight anyway. But I notice that, in the city, people go out for lunch way more than I’m used to. I admit—it’s tempting. There are tons of good restaurants within walking distance. Packing your lunch and hauling it with you for your commute is not a fun time. I went out frequently for the first few weeks of work, and then I decided I wanted to be able to afford rent.

The problem was, I also wanted to make friends. Every now and then, I don’t mind saying that I brought lunch and am going to eat at my desk. And with the new cafeteria, it’s easy to bring my lunch and eat with the people who want to buy theirs. But what to do when you brought lunch, especially on a Friday, and everyone wants to go out? The salad I brought won’t be good the next day, so then I will have spent more on a lunch out and wasted money throwing out expensive produce. And I’ll probably choose a not-so-healthy option. (I don’t like going out to eat and getting a salad unless it’s a really amazing salad. Why would I pay someone to make something I could make at home with iceberg lettuce that has about as much nutritional value as water?) On the other hand, how many times of me saying, no thanks, I’m going to sit at my desk and eat, does it take before people stop inviting? I’m not sure I want to find out.

Here’s what I have discovered: people don’t like it when other people are eating healthy. I catch myself doing this all the time—at a birthday party, or at the bar. If someone says no to a piece of cake or another drink, I usually call them out. “Why not? Give yourself a treat! Live a little!” I selfishly need them to participate in the bad decision in order to validate my own. On the one hand, it’s a really sad life if you don’t ever let yourself eat cake. On the other, why does the other person’s decision need to reflect my own?

You think that I would be more understanding, because I’m a hypocrite: I don’t like when others do the same thing to me. If I say I brought a salad, I don’t like it when others roll their eyes or tell me that they know I went to the gym that morning, so why shouldn’t I come out now? I think the dilemma comes from the fact that eating is at the same time a very social activity and a deeply personal one. When you make plans to meet with a friend, isn’t it usually to eat or drink? Many people I know (myself included) don’t want to eat dinner at a restaurant by themselves. Yet, at the same time, food choices are immensely personal, reflecting individual tastes, things you love and things you can’t tolerate. And on top of everything else, what we eat is affected by social pressure. When I’m the only one at the table who orders dinner, or who orders chicken strips and fries instead of a salad, I feel the need to say that I did go to the gym this morning, or that I ate healthy all week. Or, the only girl who orders a salad needs to counter and say that she is trying to eat healthy. And then everyone either responds with a chorus of “Oh, I should be eating healthy, but I’m not!” and taking a bite of the hamburger, or “But you look great!”

As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that I’m only speaking about women. Men, I’m wondering: do you have this kind of tension when you’re eating? My guess is no, but perhaps you have just as many insecurities as we do.

So, I’m stuck with a catch-22 and lots of unanswered questions. Does eating lunch at my desk while others go out make me unsociable, or frugal? Is wasting a lunch to spend time with work friends really so bad? And, most of all, why do women (and maybe men too) feel they need excuses for the way they’re eating (whether it’s healthy or not so much)? While brown-bagging it to work might be more sensible, it makes it easier for me to read at my desk. Perhaps there is a reason why eating is our go-to social activity.

In the meantime, I am leaving the airport with a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich for my dinner. And I will pretend not to care what you think.

3 Responses to “On being lame: bringing lunch to work”
  1. Jess says:

    I run into this problem a lot of work, and I have a tough time turning down social time! What I usually do is agree to go out to lunch, and then order something small – a bowl of soup, an appetizer to share, whatever – and then have my brown-bagged lunch when I get back to the office. I’m too lazy to watch what I eat, so this may be more difficult for someone trying to limit portions, but this way I eat my food and it doesn’t go to waste, and I get to spend time with friends. Or for a salad, maybe take it home and have it with a smaller portioned dinner? Might also be a good idea to try to ask earlier in the week if anyone is planning on going out for lunch during the week – that way you are being social and you can plan ahead a bit.

  2. cd says:

    Where I work, it’s either bring your lunch or eat school cafeteria food. School food is not bad if you are starving. Almost any thing is better. Lately, due to food allergies and my laziness to pack a lunch the night before and loving staying in bed until the last possible moment, I have started a food cupboard (hoarder?)of almonds, healthy fruit and nut bars, flax cereal. Of course, I drive to work so I have more options. I also have a fridge that I fill up on Monday with groceries such as salad makings along with lunch meat or tuna or a large bowl of homemade soup. So it is nice to just get ready for the weeks lunch on the weekend and then I can sleep as late as possible all week. Bad habit or guilty pleasure?! We cannot go out to lunch. It is called a working lunch!! That means grab a bite when you can!! Most times that means 20 minutes to munch while working at computer. On the rare occasion, I will take a whole hour to relax!! Shhh! Don’t tell. However, another beast that must be tamed at my work is the potluck, birthday cupcakes and multi-cultural breakfast.,etc,etc, As you stated, saying ‘No, thanks’ is usually met with someone feeling it is their personal duty to feed others or it is an offense. I have found in this case I take my own food to the gathering and no one notices once they are already eating.

  3. cd says:

    However, that bag of potato chips I had yesterday for lunch doesn’t count.!

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