7 Tips for Healthy Lunches While You Work

Having lunch at your desk -- again? Here's how to enjoy healthy lunches even if you can’t leave the office.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 24, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Ellen Spencer admits it: She's a desk diner.

"I eat lunch at my desk three or four times a week," says Spencer, an executive assistant in Boston. "I'd like to eat away from my desk with my friends more often, or just get away from my desk for a while, but usually it's just too busy."

Sound like anyone you know? Some 70% of Americans eat at their desks several times a week, according to the American Dietetic Association and the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

The bad news is that this can lead not only to poor nutritional choices, but to food safety problems as well.

"The desk was not designed to be an eating place," says Rick Hall, RD, MS, a faculty member at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "So spending your lunch hour in front of your computer brings with it a number of issues."

What are the hungry and overworked to do? Can you still eat healthy lunches while you work?

Read on for some desk-dining tips from experts. But first, here are some reasons not to eat while you work.

Drawbacks of Desk Dining: Unhealthy Lunches and Weight Gain

One of the biggest drawbacks to eating at your desk is that you're not focused on your food. Instead, you're sending emails, answering the phone, shuffling paper -- the perfect recipe for overeating.

"Eating at your desk encourages mindless eating, and overeating," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "You're most likely multitasking and not paying attention to the amount of food you're eating."

Lunching at your desk also means that instead of sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, you're doing it for nine.

"Eating at your desk also prevents you from getting up and out of your office," Moores tells WebMD. "You need to get the heart pumping and the blood flowing again, and lunch is an important time to do that. If you're sitting at your desk eating, you lose that opportunity."

As if that weren't bad enough, dining at your desk can create a field day for bacteria, which can invade your healthy lunch during the long hours from 9 to noon.

"If you get called away from your desk, and then you have to put off eating for an hour or two, and then you pick at your lunch over the day, you need to be concerned about the temperature of your food and food safety," says Moores.

In other words, your room-temperature chicken salad sandwich that's been sitting out for three hours can easily become a bacteria feeding ground. But wait, it gets worse. (You might want to put that sandwich down now.)

"The desk, in terms of bacteria, is 400 times more dirty than your toilet," says Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "People turn their desks into bacteria cafeterias because they eat at them, but they never clean them. The phone is the dirtiest, the desktop is next, and the mouse and the computer follow."

To give your desktop the dirt test, Gerba says, "Turn your keyboard over and see how many crumbs fall out. The more of a snowstorm, the dirtier your desk."

7 Tips for Healthy Lunches While Tied to the Desk

Clearly, it's time to find a new place to dine -- like a restaurant or the cafeteria. But for those of us who just can't break away from that ever-expanding pile of work, here are some tips to ensure you still eat healthily:

  1. Watch what you eat. "Pay attention to what you're putting in your mouth when you eat at your desk," says Hall, who serves on the advisory board for the Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness, and Sports. "And don't overdo it by eating too much because you're too focused on email. For lunch, you want to pick a meal that's moderate in size but doesn't fill you up."
  2. Pack healthy lunches. "Lunch is a good opportunity to eat healthy," says Hall. "Bring a salad with chicken, nuts, beans and veggies -- you'll get some great nutrients, including fiber and protein." Avoid take-out lunches, which tend to be expensive, oversized, heavy in fat and calories, and lacking in nutrients. To keep your lunch safe, the American Dietetic Association recommends using an insulated lunch bag with a freezer pack to keep your food cold until you can put it in the office refrigerator. Still, don't let more than two hours pass before putting it back into a fridge.
  3. Walk when you can. "We're genetically designed to move," says Hall. "So spending lunch at your desk when you have a long day as it is, isn't a good thing." If you have to eat at your desk, look for ways to move during the day. Walk to the water cooler, from the farthest spot in the parking lot, to the copy machine -- anything you can do to move your muscles. Better yet, get some physical activity when you get up or at the end of the day to make up for your stagnant lifestyle.
  4. Disinfect your desk. "Wiping your whole desk area with disinfecting wipes once a day is enough to get it clean," says Gerba. "Paper towels don't work. They just give the germs a free ride around the office." Be sure to get your phone, your keyboard, and your mouse as well, and avoid touching those surfaces while you're eating, says Moores. "Otherwise, you're just contaminating your food over and over again." And while it shouldn't replace good old-fashioned hand washing, it's a good idea to keep some hand sanitizer in your desk drawer, too.
  5. Use a placemat. Give yourself some extra protection after the wipe-down. "Placemats are good because they create a barrier between your food and the bacteria," says Moores.
  6. Eat with a friend. "If you have to eat at your desk, invite an officemate over to eat with you," Moores suggests. "It's important from a productivity and creativity standpoint to get that break and interact with your colleagues."
  7. Don't make it a habit. "Sometimes I don't even realize I'm doing it -- it just becomes habit," Spencer says of eating at her desk. "But any time I can get away for lunch, I definitely take advantage of it. My ideal lunch is to just catch up with my friends at work, or relax and read a magazine in the cafeteria."
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SOURCES: web site, American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods Foundation. Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of environmental microbiology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Rick Hall, RD, MS, lecturer, Arizona State University, Phoenix. Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. Ellen Spencer, executive assistant, Boston.

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