If you work at an office, you’re probably no stranger to the cultural phenomenon known as the sad desk lunch. Its ingredients can vary by preference and by day: For some, the sad desk salad is a weekday staple, for others, it’s the sad desk sandwich.
At its core, any sad desk lunch is eaten at a person’s desk somewhat mindlessly while the person half-works. Those who routinely consume sad desk lunches are often misguided: They believe that working and eating at the same time is a productivity hack, but in reality, responding to an email while simultaneously preventing a grain of quinoa from becoming permanently lodged in the spacebar is the antithesis of efficiency.
If the scenario described above sounds familiar, consider the lunch club. How does a lunch club work? A group of people agree to rotate cooking meals for one another. The person cooking prepares lunch for the group ahead of time (just as they might prepare their individual lunch), and come lunch club day, the group gathers to enjoy the meal.
Food is a common denominator: As a topic of conversation, a discussion around food can be both impassioned and nonpolitical. Food can provide comfort, joy, and appreciation, and these are all great things to share with coworkers.
On a Monday in August, I brought in lunch for a group of my WeWork colleagues. We gathered, sans laptops, over a meal of Mexican quinoa, avocado, roasted sweet potatoes, and tortilla chips, and we talked shop, and also not. We shared stories about our own food rituals, cooking tips, and pet peeves, and agreed it was nice to break up the day by spending 30 minutes eating together. After testing it for ourselves, our group highly recommends starting their own lunch club to anyone who tends to eat lunch at their desk.
Four benefits of a lunch club
There’s plenty of research to support the benefits of eating home-cooked meals with your coworkers.
- A Cornell University study published in Human Performance found that firefighters who prepared and ate meals together had higher group performance, meaning they collaborated better together. “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work,” said Kevin Kniffin, a professor of economics at and an author of the study.
- Eating together can improve foster camaraderie, which can have long-lasting benefits that carry over to other areas. “The friendly tone set when colleagues eat together can support more intense conversations later in the day. By eating alone, workers miss out on the benefits of camaraderie, increased cooperation and performance,” workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman said on The Early Edition with Stephen Quinn. “They also tend to be less satisfied at work.”
- Taking breaks at work is essential: Researchers have found short, intentional breaks can improve productivity, creativity, and mental wellbeing. When you eat away from your desk with your coworkers, you’ll be actively breaking from your work, rather than holding a fork in one hand and scrolling through slides with the other.
- There’s plenty of evidence that homemade meals are more healthful than restaurant ones. The home cook controls the ingredients, and these meals tend to contain less sugar and fat.
A step-by-step guide to starting your own lunch club
Step 1: Round up some coworkers. You may already have a group of work BFFs who’d be down for a lunch club. If this isn’t the case, consider asking a few people around the office who you often bump into at lunchtime. Have you seen someone eating something delicious that they brought from home? Compliment their lunch, then tell them about this article to gauge their interest. When you’re first experimenting with a lunch club, you’ll want to keep your group on the smaller side. There are a lot of logistics to work out.
Step 2: Discuss dietary restrictions, food aversions, and idiosyncrasies. There’s no fun in lunch club if you can’t eat what your coworkers make. Everyone will need to be upfront about their preferences and dietary needs. And feel free to be open about your quirks: One member in my lunch club explained she is cilantro-averse (she says she has the gene that makes the herb taste like soap) and another absolutely loathes the taste of cooked peppers (OK, this person is me). When I was thinking about what to cook, I definitely took these preferences into consideration. I ended up making WeWork’s first lunch-club meal gluten-free and vegan; it would have been possible to include protein or dairy on the side, but the meat-free meal catered to everyone’s needs.
Step 3: Organize a schedule. How often your lunch club meets is up to you. Perhaps your group does a trial run, holding the club once a month, or maybe you’re all eager to get together every day. Know that there are no set rules, and the event is meant to bring more joy than stress. A tool like Doodle can help you organize who’s cooking when.
Step 4: Collect recipes. Cooking for any group can be overwhelming (I was a little nervous about ensuring everyone enjoyed what they were eating, but it turns out people are really appreciative of a free meal). You can minimize potential performance anxiety by swapping recipes that appeal to everyone. Create a Slack channel, a Pinterest board, a spreadsheet, or an email chain where you can drop in links when the mood strikes. “One pot” recipes tend to be simpler, and they’re often modifiable, meaning you can swap out ingredients that don’t work for your group.
Step 5: Meet and eat. On lunch club day, the person who cooked the meal should assemble the goods five to 10 minutes before everyone gathers to eat. You can ask another member to be your sous chef and help with setup, if needed.
Some tips for your lunch club group
- Make it eco-friendly. Hauling a four-person lunch to work isn’t ideal if you don’t have the right storage vessels. See if someone in your group owns a stash of containers they’d be willing to gift the club. Alternatively, you can all pitch in for some sturdy containers and canisters that you can rotate among the cooks. You may want to invest in reusable serving spoons, plates, bowls, and utensils to store at the office. This is a great way to ditch plastic and make your group meals feel a bit more upscale. Plus, you’re saving the environment from single-use takeout packaging.
- Share cleanup duties. You can rotate who cleans based on cooking order. The next person in line can take the containers home for a thorough wash before repacking them with their meal.
- Make it modular. It’s impossible to make a dish that everyone loves 100 percent of the time. Consider making your meals “modular”; you can pack certain ingredients separately so people can decide for themselves whether they want to include them in your meal. In our inaugural lunch club, I separate the potatoes and avocado from the quinoa in different containers, so my group could take what they craved.