I Love Lunch

Photo credit: jeffreyw, CC BY 2.0.

Lunch has always been my favorite meal — but eating lunch during a busy workday isn’t easy. My former Clark Kent job as a harried administrative assistant nearly destroyed my otherwise excellent relationship with my favorite meal. It took a career shift to restore my love of lunch and save my family’s budget. Let’s go down memory lane so you can understand how much this meal means to me.

The Lunch Table Crew

Long before therapy was a viable option, I found my first space for emotional release during lunchtime conversations with my friends. We were a small yet mighty group of ’90s latchkey kids who dubbed ourselves the “lunch table crew” (LTC for short) and would come together to talk about everything. We shared secrets and squashed rumors over square pizza. We dreamed about the future, groaned over teachers/parents/any breathing adult, argued over the best rapper alive, and anticipated the final bell on Fridays during chicken nugget Wednesday. Outside of extracurricular activities, lunch was my primary place for social interactions with my peers. My LTC crew rocked together until we received our high school diplomas and I still love them to this day.

College Chefin’

As I transitioned into college life, those daily lunches with my friends were replaced by occasional meetups with classmates in the student union. The food was better (and no longer $.40 a meal), but I spent more time eating it alone. But it was all good! Lunch was my time to reorganize my thoughts, update my MySpace page, and gather intel about campus events. I lived off-campus and developed some solid cooking skills — flatbreads, spaghetti, meatball subs, grilled chicken salads, veggie casseroles, and fruit medleys — but I wasn’t above a Ham’s $2.99 cheeseburger meal. I was ballin’ on a food budget and you couldn’t tell early-20s me NOTHING.

All Day I Dream About Lunch

Post-college lunch took on a different purpose. I would occasionally commiserate with coworkers, but the primary goal was to hit my body’s refresh button to get through my afternoons. It was my cherished reprieve from monotonous tasks and office politics, especially during those periods when I loathed my job. I learned my lesson (or so I thought) about the financial and time costs associated with eating out. I was the person with an entire homemade spread for lunch and I’d think about it from the moment I clocked in for work. I rarely had time for happy hour due to mommy duties, and I skipped breakfast, so lunch was still MY meal.

Breaking Up with Lunch Is Hard to Do

My last job gave lunch a gut punch. It turned my beloved afternoon escape into a high-pressured juggling act as I shoveled a sandwich or the Wendy’s I bought during my (depressingly short) 15-minute afternoon break into my face while responding to phone calls and emails. I was so tired, I no longer cared about packing a decent lunch for work. I was a one-woman show, desperately struggling to check off items on my infinite to-do list. Lunch had become another thing to squeeze into my workday. I put it on my Outlook calendar in all-caps so I would remember to eat by 3 p.m. IF I wasn’t too busy. I watched employees from other departments head off in pairs as I miserably closed my door and typed while drowning my nuggets in barbeque sauce.

Fix Your Own Life, Tai

I had been juggling my administrative job with a freelance writing career for over four years. My job had become overwhelming and it was affecting my already fragile mental and emotional wellness. I have suffered from depression/anxiety for most of my life and I could feel myself spiraling into a deeper hole. And, as trivial as it sounds, I missed LUNCH. It was one of my happy things.

I decided to find a part-time, remote job to cover my core expenses while freelance writing to bridge the gap. I started to crunch the numbers and took a hard look at my spending habits. Hmmm. I was so desperate to get away from work for 15 minutes of fresh air that I was spending around $80 a month on Wendy’s combos. But I still managed to save some money. I used Qapital to save approximately $200 per month for the past 1.5 years, and I did the 52-week savings challenge to stack away another $1,378. I was also diligent about throwing unexpected cash into savings.

I made a solid spreadsheet of the core bills I was responsible for, along with wildcards like travel expenses, geek conventions, school project costs for my oldest daughter, haircare products, doctor’s visits, and occasional babysitting fees. For example, I currently spend around $610 a month in before/afterschool care and preschool care for my kids. My third grader can ride the bus to/from home, which saves me $210 per month. I paid off a small $1,000 credit card and called the credit card company to get an APR reduction on my larger credit card. I got rid of several subscriptions like Massage Envy ($60-80 monthly!) to eliminate unnecessary costs.

The final push to make this career transition came from my husband, who could see I was unhappy. We aren’t wealthy, but he is able to pick up some slack if I fall short and I am grateful for his support.

Return to Lunch Break Living

Now I’m working from home and mending fences with my midday meal. My part-time gig REQUIRES me to take a lunch during my shift and I look forward to the mental break. I build a schedule on my freelance days that focuses on taking the time to nourish my body and reset my mind during the day. I plan and successfully execute a lunch of AT LEAST 1-hour each day and I’m doing it the old-fashioned way — eating it away from my desk and unplugging from everything. Who knew silence and slow chewing could be so therapeutic?

Eating an uninterrupted lunch may seem like a small task, but my anxiety levels are down and I am having fewer digestive issues. Stress made my body crave every fried food in a 10-mile radius. And, instead of hate-eating last night’s dinner because I didn’t get to savor the flavors, I look forward to leftovers.

I also have more energy and time to cook at home instead of opting for fast food. My family’s eating-out budget used to run at around $250 a month, and now it’s been knocked down to $75 per month. We are working to get the grocery bill down from $160 to $80 per week through meal planning. I plan meals that make a great next-day lunch instead of driving to a nearby fast-food joint because I don’t need a smoke break from busyness. My cravings for unhealthy foods have decreased, so I choose to fuel up on more fruits, veggies, and lean meats. I’m also preparing to start a small herb and tomato garden.

My husband knows how much I love lunch, so he treats me to a weekly lunch date. I’ve also budgeted for lunch (no more than $10 including tip) with a couple of local friends biweekly to get out of the house. Those lunches uplift my spirits and force me to check my impulse spending so I stay on my financial track. The monetary payoff from boycotting Wendy’s is great, but the balance I feel from allowing myself to have a lunch date is better.

Ohhh how I’ve missed you, lunch. We’re reunited and it feels so good.  

Tai Gooden is a freelance writer, mom, and Doctor Who fanatic who spends too much time on Twitter. Her work can be found on Syfy Fangrrls, The Learned Fangirl, VICE, Paper Magazine, Bustle, The Guardian, Geek & Sundry, and many more websites.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Food Series.

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