The Definitive Guide to Eating Lunch at Your Desk

Many of us are desk-eating experts, eating at our desks not once or twice or thrice a week, but every single day. Some of us even prefer it that way. But how do you desk-lunch better? Like so.

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Gather round, friends, and listen to a lunchtime story. Once upon a time, there was a person who wrote things on the computer by day, and she rarely left her desk for food. Once, while working on a very important (to that writer at that time) story, she found herself ravenous, having not eaten solid food in days. Quickly, she placed a meal order via Seamless Web. It was so easy, completed without even needing to move her fingers away from the keyboard which had become their home! But she made a mistake. In an ill-placed healthiness whim, she ordered salad. She kept working.

The food arrived. It was brought to her desk. She began to eat. Perched precariously to the side of her keyboard, however, and on a pile of books, the salad in its plastic container began to sway. Unbalanced further by a sudden draft and the voracious typing that continued, the salad fell to the floor and its container opened to release green leaves lightly coated with dressing across the wood floor, pointed little lettuce jabs. You cannot have it all! The salad said. Fortunately, no one noticed, or if they did, they said nothing. The writer kept writing, because one cannot stop when things are due. The nasty little salad lay ignored upon the floor for nearly 30 minutes until the writing was finished, and then, the writer sadly picked up her leaves and wiped the floor and threw her partially eaten lunch away. That was a dark day.

I am not the only one, though, who has made desk-lunch mistakes. Many of us are desk-eating experts, eating at our desks not once or twice or thrice a week, but every single day. Some of us even prefer it that way. Writer Katie Drummond admits, "I eat lunch at my desk as an absolute rule. There is no other way that I eat lunch. This applies to weekdays."

In the interest of service, I sought out a few of the best in the desk-lunching world, and asked them for help in compiling this definitive guide to desk-lunching, which may be applicable for dinner, too, depending on the extent of your workaholism.

Choose Your Food Wisely. Yes, we all know how we feel when someone heats up their broccoli casserole or brings in a tub of sprouts de Brussels and proceeds to consume them in the airless, windowless office in which we work. It's a long-held rule of thumb that one should only consume foods that do not smell like old sauerkraut or the subway in August when in close proximity to coworkers, and if you cannot adhere to this simple rule, you should probably start taking those meal-pills of the future that replace food entirely. Or—and this is crazy—you could take your Brussels sprouts outside, where at least in New York City, no one will give you a passing look, or whiff.

Beyond smells, though, there are other, more important concerns about what to eat. Like, salad. Don't order salad, or if you do, don't put it on a stack of books. Don't wait so long to eat that you can't imagine not eating for a second longer and when your chili-cheese panini arrives you shove it all in your face without savoring it. Don't let your soup go cold, but don't eat it when it's so hot that you spit it out across your keyboard, because cleaning that up will be soul-draining. The Cut's Maureen O'Connor told me, "My main advice is that things with forks are more conducive to working." Yet there are caveats even to that. Spaghetti and marina with a fork is likely to transfer tiny dots of red sauce to your keyboard. Pizza with a fork, while gauche, might actually be O.K., if you have your boss cut it into small bites for you first. The safest thing of all that one can possibly eat at one's desk is Jell-O, with a fork, because if it falls on anything it will remain pretty much a flexible solid, and it is relatively bland and won't do anything weird to your breath and no one will smell you eating it, but everyone will start to wonder why you only eat Jell-O. My advice: Get a sandwich, take the necessary precautions with it (see below) and eat.

Consider Placement (Different Formations for Different Folks!). This is where you take a moment and look long and hard at the configuration of your desktop. I'm a two-screener, so I have a monitor, a keyboard, and a laptop attached to the monitor all sharing space in the increasingly deficient space of the table I work on. Around me, there are books, as I've mentioned. So there is little space to actually set, say, a plate of fresh-caught, grilled and de-boned branzino, in front of me and also have room to work. There are some options, though. One can put their lunch in front of their keyboard, if one has a separate keyboard, and then attempt to type while simultaneously reaching over the keyboard, wrists twisted in an unhealthily twisted carpal-type fashion, to eat (not ergonomic). One can put their lunch to one side or the other (choose the side that is closer to your dominant hand). One can put lunch on their lap, though that is dangerous. One can sit on an exercise ball and imagine food instead of consuming anything. And one can clear a space, move the keyboard aside, and spend that time watching YouTube videos rather than working, if one is brave (it's research!). All of this will depend on you, your audacity, your personal preference, and the footprint of your lunch.

Make Your Lunch Aspirational. You know how you're supposed to dress to impress? Eat for the job you want, not the job you have! No one admires the sad-sack who brings in a cold potato, a bag of cornhusks, and a half-eaten Luna bar for lunch. No, you must try harder. Soy bologna on a piece of folded white bread simply will not do in public! "Aspirational" of course, is up to you and your colleagues who will, if all goes well, be jealous of your lunch and follow you around for the rest of the day whispering "she's so cool, how does she get her hair to do that?," but the point is, what do you want to eat, that they will want to eat, too? That's how you get started up the lunch-climbing ladder of success. Kale > peanut butter and jelly; cheese trumps all.

Paper Towels Are Your Friend. One source admits, "My keyboard is DISGUSTING from spills." In fact, all of my experts were in agreement that eating at one's desk is an action prone to go awry, cleanliness-wise. My own keyboard has a strange sheen to it, and while I am loathe to consider it, when I do, I wonder how many forms of virulent infectious bacteria are currently plotting on my desktop to rise up and contain me in their clutches, someday. Yet, in the full awareness of this, none of my desk-lunchers told me they planned to stop eating at their desks. In fact, Gizmodo's Sam Biddle confessed he fears the behavior will continue so long as there is fear itself. "I only eat at my desk because I'm afraid to not eat at my desk," he says. "I'm pretty sure we're allowed to eat away from our desks, but we're all too worried to be the first one to make a move. So we eat at our desks for mutual protection. If one person ate out, we'd probably all start eating outside the next day. It'd change the entire order. I don't really want to imagine that." Indeed, lunches would be chaos! Order is a good thing, and there is a certain comfort in sitting at one's desk, chomping on things, thinking, holding one's mousepad in one's fingertips gently, like a baby hamster. It's like watching reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 while taking down an entire sheet cake on a Saturday afternoon. It's just, you know, human.

Thus, one must only consider what one can do to make one's desk-lunch better. The answer: Paper towels. If you have none handy, napkins may suffice, or perhaps a regularly laundered towel. "Put a paper towel between you and your computer," says Drummond. Take it from her, if not from me. Use more than one, even. Go paper-towel wild!

All Lunch and No Play Makes All of Us Bored. "Pick some favorite websites that you only get to look at during lunch. It becomes a treat!" explains Drummond. Or, maybe you want to make lunch less a treat, and more an Escape from Work Mountain. An anonymous Internet source says, "I often use the desk lunch as an extended excuse not to work, but to stare aimlessly at my automatically-refreshing Twitter feed, which is how I'd rather spend the rest of my day anyway." You must, it is true, look at something while you eat, lest you accidentally find yourself staring at your coworker, because even if you don't mean to, that can get awkward, and they never really understand even when you do your best to explain.

Eat in Joy, Not in Fear. There are going to be people who say, Oh, pshaw! You should get outside during lunch and take a 10-minute walk and breathe fresh air and feel the joy of life boiling within your veins, trying to get out! But I say that's bunk. Drummond confirms my view: "Seriously. I would PREFER to eat lunch at my desk and peruse the Internet than eat at a table either alone (boring) or with other people (awkward!)."

If you are content with your inner desk-luncher, don't be afraid to like to sit on your butt in front of your computer and get the business of food-intake over with. Not only should you not be afraid of it, you should, if you want, fully embrace and love it. A good desk-lunch can be a thing of beauty, just you and a slab of cheese and a loaf of sourdough, a ripe tomato (cut it in the kitchen) and a scattering of pure Himalayan sea salt, with a piece of the finest Mast Brothers chocolate (wipe your fingers on your jeans if it gets melty) to finish off a very solid meal. If people are looking at you, it's only because you're behaving in a highly aspirational lunch fashion.

Own Your Grossness. Biddle goes there: "We're all pretty disgusting, because desks aren't made to be meal tables. I have a keyboard, trackpad, laptop, and external monitor, along with a gross heap of cables, chargers, business cards (mine and others), receipts, like fifty fucking USB cords... etc. So it's a mess before you even add food to the equation. Right now I have an empty coffee mug, juice glass, and Orangina bottle at my desk. All empty, all sticky. There are sticky rings all over my desktop." Well, he almost goes there, before retracting into crumb-dusting mortification: "There are crumbs almost everywhere—I sweep them into my hands at the end of the day because otherwise I'd be ashamed to look the women who clean our office at night in the eye."

Take a Shame-Check. As Biddle indicates, there are limits to everything, including freeform desk-lunching. Where bacteria begins, one's life might take a turn into unhygienic situations. If you're not done with your lunch, don't think about how your "work area can carry 400 times more dangerous bacteria than the average public toilet seat." (That's desk-lunch fearmongering at its worst!) But it's true, where one's lunch begins, another's might meet its too-soon end. "If you have an office, close the door," says Drummond. "No one wants to SEE you eating at your desk." Think of yourself, yes, but think of others, too. Eat freely, but, maybe, use a knife and fork, if you must. Spray everything with Windex fortnightly.

There is, of course, a time to admit you've gone too far, this thing has gotten out of hand, there is a watermelon tree growing out of your keyboard from the juice you accidentally drooled there once while in hysterics over that video of goats screaming like humans. (There must have been a seed in that bodega-melon container, fertilized, perhaps, by the splashings of Kombucha you're always taking one sip of before tossing into the overflowing trashcan by your desk because is it supposed to taste like that?). Stay self-aware, encourages Biddle. "When all you're thinking about is RSS and jokes and traffic and Twitter burns, it's easy to ignore how vile you are. It's not just me—we're all disgusting. Not just at Gawker. Everywhere. I've been to other offices. Everyone is a pig-monkey-dinosaur," he says. "Writing this is making me feel disgusting and bad about myself, my parents raised me better than this."

Hey, it's not your fault, it's the world's fault. Wipe your hands, too, and pick up a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer the next time you leave the office, and use it, now and again. But eat your lunch first. The greatest shame of all is not eating lunch.

Images via Flickr/Alyson Hurt; Flickr/Daniel Nguyen; Flickr/John; Flickr/lgckgc; Flickr/Cliph; Flickr/K Latham. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.