Five ways to make sure you take a proper lunch break
2020 was the year when employers realised how surprisingly well businesses could run with their workforce based at home. Far from everyone using it as an opportunity to watch a sneaky box set and knock off early, research shows most people have ended up working longer and harder, often skipping lunch.
If that sounds like you, now’s the time to make a change for the sake of your health: take a proper lunch break, make something good to eat and vow not to look at a screen for an hour (unless it’s for fun or fitness). Your body will thank you for it, and your mind will be sharper as a result.
We got advice from experts and have laid out strategies for using the time well – not forgetting quick recipes to inspire your midday pick-me-up.
So, read on and #reclaimyourlunchbreak!
If you’re one of the millions of people who haven’t travelled to an office since March 2020, the dream of working from home may have faded. Unstructured days, overtime and limited real-life contact with colleagues have cancelled out some of the benefits. As for proper lunch breaks, you’ve probably forgotten what they are.
One recent survey found that during lockdown, most British employees worked longer hours at home than in the office, and more than a third struggled to separate work and home life. Another poll revealed that almost 80% of employees ate lunch while they worked, and two thirds skipped it altogether. These figures highlight how easy it is to stay at your ‘desk’, especially if that means the kitchen table or sofa. But taking a break and reclaiming your lunch hour has big benefits, say experts. It can improve productivity, as well as physical and mental wellbeing.
With so much fear about redundancy, it’s tempting to try to prove your dedication by working longer hours, but this can have the opposite effect. “Employers can begin to expect a constant 110 per cent – and they won’t increase resources because you’re plugging the gap,” says Dr Gregory Warwick, a counselling psychologist at Quest Psychology Services. “This in turn compounds your stress, as demands increase.”
Stepping off the treadmill without the usual structures or the camaraderie of colleagues is easier said than done. So we’ve put together a five-point plan to make 2021 the year you work – and relax – flexibly… and enjoy an altogether healthier, happier working day.
Your five-step strategy to ensure you take a proper lunch break
Step one: Establish a routine
Remember work-life balance? It used to mean leaving the office and switching off, but it’s harder to separate professional and home life now. Instead, you need to give your day structure. Make lists of things you need to accomplish and reward yourself as you tick off each one. This can be as simple as making a cup of tea or spending a few minutes on social media, says Dr Warwick.
Scheduling in a lunch hour is a vital part of this process because at home we don’t have the same “visual cues” – colleagues grabbing their coats, for example – as we do when we’re in the office to tell us it’s time to take a break. Block out a lunch hour on your calendar, turn on your away-from-keyboard notification and leave your work area. All these things will help to reinforce the idea that this time belongs to you for non-work activities.
“Guilt is a large factor in keeping us working past when we’re supposed to,” Dr Warwick says. “Aim to take your lunch break at the same time every day to help make the process easier. If you have the luxury of multiple rooms, designate one as your break room.”
Make lists of things you need to accomplish and reward yourself as you tick off each one
Step two: Swap your location to eat
Moving away from your work area for lunch isn’t just about getting a change of scene, though. It has dietary benefits too, says Linia Patel, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. When having lunch al desko you don’t focus on what you’re eating and are likely to consume more calories. Why? “Mindless eating means you’re less likely to be in tune with your natural hunger and satiety cues,” she says. Eating something wholesome rather than relying on sugary snacks for an energy boost is important too. These quick fixes play havoc with blood sugar levels, which leads to the dreaded afternoon slump.
Step three: Make a plan for your time out
Do something in your lunch hour you find fulfilling (find a few ideas, below). It may sound counter-intuitive but this can involve a screen if that’s how you want to spend your time. “If the most relaxing and enjoyable use of your lunch hour is to hop from working on the laptop to a video game then that’s likely to be the best thing for you,” says Dr Warwick. “For others, mastering a skill or learning something will be valuable – there’s no right or wrong in these situations. Whether it’s reading, meditating, exercising, watching TV or playing games, do what’s right for you personally.” Doing something that makes you happy can help prevent those sugar cravings too. “The aim of the game is to find non-food related ways to de-stress,” says Patel. “Find five minutes of joy each day doing something that is just for you – and not even for Instagram.”
Step four: Move!
No matter the activity, research shows moving your body during your lunch break, even for a few minutes, can help reduce stress, maintain good mental health and make it easier to sleep. “Whether it’s a short exercise class or a quick walk around the block, moving your body can improve mobility and release muscle tension,” says Austin Wilks, a trainer with online fitness platform InstructorLive. “Your posture gets reset, your mind is allowed a break and your mood is most likely enhanced, all of which will help you feel better for the rest of the working day.”
To keep motivated, Wilks suggests doing the activity before you eat lunch. “This will give you an incentive to get going as soon as your break starts,” he says. “And remind yourself that when it’s cold and dark, it’s better to exercise at lunch time because it frees up your evening for more homely, cosy things.”
Remember your lunch break is yours to do with as you wish, so there’s no reason to feel guilty about reclaiming it
Step five: Ditch the guilt
Remember your lunch break is yours to do with as you wish, so there’s no reason to feel guilty about reclaiming it. In fact, stepping away from your desk is likely to help you do your job better, benefitting your mind, body and soul in the process.
Brilliant podcasts for you to try
Listening to a compelling bit of audio is a sure way to get your mind off work worries. We love all of the following…
This American Life: Fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.
Off Menu: Comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster talk to special guests about their favourite meals.
Fortunately… with Fi and Jane: Hilarious behind-the-scenes chat and interviews with broadcasters Fi Glover and Jane Garvey.
The Mindful Podcast: Long and short sessions to help you practice mindfulness, a simple form of meditation.
Popcast: Exploration of all things pop music, with interviews, music and discussion, from The New York Times.
Fitness videos for you to try at home
- There’s a great range of free fitness videos for all abilities on the NHS website. Search ‘fitness video’ at nhs.uk
- Yoga with Adriene, the YouTube channel of Texan yoga guru Adriene Mishle, has been popular for ages – but you couldn’t do it in the office… Find hundreds of free videos here
- Try Rahul Kumar’s fun Bollywood dance moves on his Instagram channel
Recipes that make the most of your lunch break
Rather than scrambling at the last minute and throwing together an unappetising desk-lunch, why not take the time to put together something you (and whoever you live with) can really enjoy? Tuck into one of our homemade sandwiches, or create a batch of homemade soup. If you’ve got the time, spend your break making up one of our best-ever salad recipes that put all boring salads to shame.
Or if you often hit that 3pm afternoon slump, why not use your lunch break wisely and create a sweet treat that the afternoon version of yourself will be eternally grateful for… Nigella’s 4-ingredient chocolate biscuits always go down a storm.
If you’re more of a dinner person, why not use your lunch break wisely and prep dinner for the evening, so that you’ve got plenty of spare time to dedicate entirely to yourself after you finish work? We love this slow-cooked chipotle chicken for the ultimate taco night.
And if you want to share what you’re doing, remember to use #reclaimyourlunchbreak – we’d love to see.