The complete guide to eating at your desk

Slow down. Enjoy it. This is “you” time.
Slow down. Enjoy it. This is “you” time.
Image: AP Photo/Yuichi Jackson Ishizaki
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Let’s get one thing straight: No one should eat at his or her desk. Desks are filthier than toilet seats. People who eat at them are more likely to wolf down whatever junk is at hand, and their overall productivity is lower. The French avoid it altogether.

And yet the trend is spreading. If online surveys are to be believed, only a third of Americans are taking a proper lunch. BHP Bilton had to ban eating “al desko” at its Perth office. Sad, lonely desk lunches have their own Tumblr.

So, as long as you’re going to do it, you might as well know how to do it right. Here are the essentials:

Be shameless

This is the number one rule of eating at your desk, and it informs all the rules that follow. Work requires effort, and food is fuel. Don’t be shy about eating at your desk: it’s just future work you’re putting into your mouth, after all. Coworkers don’t like the funk of spicy chorizo, aged cheese, or a strong curry? They can deal. That’s the smell of success.

Protect your work surface

Putting food into your alimentary canal is an intimate process, so you better protect the delicate, food-averse instruments you use for work. Keyboard covers are a good first step, especially for the clumsy. Just as important is a small armada of napkins spread across your lap—wouldn’t want to sully that business casual with a lap full of chili, after all. Don’t forget the “be shameless” mantra—if you’re so clumsy that you need a keyboard cover, a placemat, and a towel across your legs, just do it.

Choose your foods wisely

I’ll not hesitate to enjoy a four-course meal at my desk (energy bar, beef jerky, gogurt, gummy bears) but it’s important to choose your work food based in part on its edibility and its potential to wreak havoc on your desk. Mashing a Chipotle burrito into your face is, according to the fickle laws of desk-lunch physics, just asking for trouble.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is famous for keeping himself going on energy bars. For those who prefer a liquid diet, the complete, Silicon Valley-endorsed meal replacement Soylent costs just a few dollars a day and is shipping in “early 2014.”

Offer to share

Even if you doubt they will ever take you up on it, at least go through the motions of offering something to your neighbors. If, even out of reluctant politeness, one does take a tiny bit of a proffered item (“squid jerky… sure”) then, BAM, your neighbors are also eating at their desks. You are now the leader of the pack, not a pariah.

If ordering delivery, especially with other people, consider asking if neighbors want to join the pool. Few things create serious inter-office tension like exclusion from food that looks tasty.

Go big or go home

Grazing is fine, and snacks are the norm at places like Google, where the rule is that no engineer can ever be further than 150 feet away from a kitchen stocked with goodies. But if you’re serious about saving yourself time by eating at your desk, you might as well pack in as much food in the shortest amount of time possible. This chart of energy density by food from the British Nutrition Foundation (pdf) is a handy guide. By eating just from the most energy-dense column, we can surmise that the most efficient way to feed yourself during work hours is a warm melange of mayonnaise, nuts, shredded cheese and potato chip crumbs.

Enjoy it

Eating at your desk means everyone knows how hard you are working. So slow down. Chew. Wolfing it down is for uncomfortable lunches with clients that you just want to end already.

Clean up

Brushing crumbs onto the floor when you’re done eating isn’t enough. Oils from your food and fingers, not to mention a fine mist of saliva, are now covering your desk like those invisible fluids you need a black light to discover on hotel drapes.

Go ahead and break out a wet wipe or a damp rag. And for god’s sake don’t throw your leftovers in the bin by your desk. Get up, stretch your legs, and walk to the wastebasket in the communal kitchen, to keep those smells from lingering.

Wait to caffeinate

The UK’s National Health Service says energy levels are at their lowest point at 2:16pm, so that’s when you should wallop the afternoon doldrums with something peppy.

Pretend you’re Thoreau and this is your daily trip to Walden Pond

“Many jobs are highly, almost exhaustively social,” says Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic. “And I don’t want to be social every second of the day. So having lunch alone with a great article or video is a precious oasis from the constant feedback-office chatter-managing-writing cycle that fills the rest of my day. It’s not loneliness; it’s self-prescribed alone time that leads out of and into an otherwise social job and life.”

Cue up the right kind of work to do with your other hand

The number one rule to eating at your desk is planning out what kind of work you will be doing while you eat. The sad truth is that not all work goes with food. If you are trying to do the wrong kinds of work while you eat, it’s better just to close the screen and focus on getting the food down quickly and efficiently, then focus on your work.

Whether you’re eating a chabati or chicken caesar, long-reads are out. All that looking away and back again is going to triple your reading time, and seriously disrupt your comprehension. If you can, go through something that’s a list (but not a slideshow). Videos are good, but don’t try to take notes. The best are straight news pieces or round ups with regular typographic breaks to fit your rhythm of mastication.