Welcome to Low Stakes Hot Take, a regular column wherein one of us shares an impassioned opinion on a seemingly random topic that probably doesn’t matter much. Or—wait—does it?
As long as I’ve had a full-time job, I’ve been racked with guilt for buying lunch. When I was a personal assistant making $30K a year, I felt deeply ashamed of my three-for-$5 sushi roll habit, even on pay days when I worried it looked like I was throwing my hard-earned dollars away. And now, almost ten years later, I sometimes give myself such a hard time over buying a Sweetgreen salad that you’d think I just purchased a $500-dollar plain white T-shirt. But recently I’ve been wondering: What exactly inspired this decade of shame? Because in the time I’ve been employed, I’ve saved a considerable amount of money—not because I’ve earned a particularly impressive salary, but because I’m good at saving—and I’ve become adept at budgeting my home-cooked meals. So, why the dramatic lunch-shame?
As with most of my problems in 2019, I blame the internet. When I recently asked Google if I should buy my lunch, I got nearly 100 million results, and it was only on the ninth page that I found an article that even touched on the fact that packing lunch objectively sucks—and even then, it was about packing lunch for kids, which I’m sure double-sucks. Nearly every Big Lunch Opinion online speaks exclusively to the health and financial benefits of packing a lunch, but what about the joy of doing the opposite?
My job requires me to spend all day online, and so the walk to grab lunch—albeit only a couple of blocks—can be the only time I get away from my desk each day. This time is sacred to me; it’s my time to just do…nothing. If the weather were always nice enough to eat a packed lunch in the park, or my workload always allowed for a 45-minute lunch break, maybe I’d feel differently. But alas, sometimes, I need the guise of buying lunch to take a moment to circle the block and decompress. Most days, I value this 20 minutes more than I value the few dollars I might have saved had I packed my own sad desk salad.
It’s not just about stress reduction, though; buying lunch has also been the magic twine that’s bound and secured many of my dearest office friendships. In my experience, work friends are made over two things: common enemies (even if just in the form of aggressive AC) and lunch, and at a job where people eat at their desks, these friendships must be forged en route. To deny myself lunch feels like denying myself new friendships, fresh(ish) midday air, and an untethering from wilted Tupperware container lettuce. Even my best attempted at a packed lunch will never equate to sunshine, and will never taste quite as :italianchefkissesfingertips: as something I didn’t have to begrudgingly prepare for myself.
This is not to say I never pack my lunch—I do it once or twice a week. My issue is not with the culinary requirements, but with how little emotional sustenance these meals offer me. The same salad I enjoy as a wholesome warm-weather dinner always feels soggy and sad-faced when I fork it into my mouth in the office. I’d prefer to leave leftovers for dinner the following night, when they can be reheated on the stove or re-spiced or -sauced. For me, dinner has always felt more joyful to prepare than lunch. At home, I can make this chickpea pasta, I can fry an egg to have on buttered toast, I can use my beloved Instant Pot, or I can do what I did last night and defrost a $2.29 Trader Joe’s channa masala. At night I can be as healthy and as frugal as I need to be, because I have a fully functioning kitchen and the gift of time.
Buying lunch is a privilege. That’s something I’ve understood since high school, when I would save the $5 of snack money my mom gave me each week to buy a Coke and sausage roll on Fridays. Even as a teen, that lunch felt more special than a week’s worth of cheap snacks. Today, buying lunch costs me about $150 a month. It’s no small expense, but one I make room for in lieu of other things. What really surprises me is how seldom I see my approach championed as a reasonable option for the lunch enthusiasts among us. Few other things in the same price range give me as much joy.
As for those who disagree, I’m happy if you’re happy! We all have our thing, and for me, it’s lunch. It’s always been lunch.
Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.