With limited cooking facilities, pressure to take shorter breaks and knowing you should really avoid bringing in fish if you want friends after lunch, workplaces can mean restricted choices for food. If you’re not already back in the workplace at least one or two days a week, the likelihood is that you will be soon – the age of hybrid working is well and truly upon us.
Rather than seeing the odd day in the office as an exception to your routine, or simply accepting that busy work days mean your nutrition and wellbeing take a back seat, it’s important to establish a healthy routine.
Here are some practical ideas for how to prioritise your health in the workplace so you have plenty of energy throughout the day for maximum productivity, socialising and whatever you have planned post 5pm.
1. Meal prep
If you don’t do meal planning already, now is the time to start. Plan to cook once and eat (at least) twice by making double the number of portions you need. This will save you time in the morning (if you’re the kind of person who scrambles bits together just before you head out of the door), could save you time cooking in the evening (if you scale up enough) and mean that you have a nutritious, filling option for lunch the next day at work.
Planning ahead can also mean that your lunch options are well thought out, so there’s a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fruit and veg. This will give you a much-needed energy boost midday that will last longer than a few crackers or a quick sandwich. Oh, and home-cooked lunches are almost always cheaper than buying meal deals.
2. Find a space and time for lunch – and stick to it
It might feel like you’re being more productive if you eat lunch at your desk while reading an email or scrolling through Twitter, but your brain needs a break – and it requires a change of scenery to really recharge.
Apart from helping with mindful eating (see below), you’ll have more energy post 3pm if you’ve had a genuine break at lunchtime. Try to find a space where you won’t get pulled into work conversations, and ideally one outside (weather-permitting) or at least facing some kind of nature, as this can have a calming effect.
3. Eat mindfully
Do you tend to eat lunch faster when you’re at work? This can cause issues like bloating and a lack of satisfaction after your meal. Mindful eating can help digestion and also allow your brain to register enjoyment of the meal, which leads to higher levels of satisfaction for the rest of the day.
To eat more mindfully, make sure you’re sitting down at a table and avoid screens, including your phone. Another tip is to put your cutlery down in between bites, which will naturally slow you down, as well as chewing a little longer than you might normally.
Have a mid-meal pause to check for satisfaction and take note of your breathing: sighing is your body’s way of saying ‘I’m full’.
4. Don’t skip breakfast
Unless you are genuinely not hungry in the mornings, having breakfast is a great way to fuel your body for the day ahead and get in some important nutrients for overall health. If you don’t feel hungry, a mid-morning snack or smoothie can really help your cognitive function so you can focus more easily and be present in those not-so-gripping meetings.
Eating regular meals throughout the day is also a good way to regulate hunger levels and avoid feeling hangry later on.
5. Balance your snacks
Snacking is an excellent way to keep energy levels up. The trick is to balance your snacks, which means making sure you don’t just have a carbohydrate (like some crackers), but also a source of protein (adding nut butter or cheese).
This combination means you’ll feel satisfied and able to maintain productivity for longer. Some great combinations include: crackers and hummus, banana and nut butter, or oatcakes with tuna and avocado.
6. Navigate office cake situations
Firstly, if you fancy cake, have some! Feeling guilty is much less beneficial to your health than enjoying some cake. It might help to consider it as part of your lunch or a planned snack so you can enjoy it without derailing the rest of your day in terms of hunger and meals.
That said, if you don’t want cake, you can say no. It really isn’t rude: it’s your body and your decision. The social expectation to accept food you don’t want – and eat it – is ridiculous and needs reframing.
A simple “I’m OK, thank you”, or “I might have some later when I’m a little hungrier” should suffice, especially if said with conviction and steady eye contact.
Staying hydrated is vital for good health. If you become dehydrated, it can cause a lack of concentration, headaches, fatigue and light-headedness – exactly the opposite of how you want to feel at work.
While everyone needs different amounts of water, adults typically need at least 1.5-2 litres a day, which is about eight glasses. Teas and coffee count too; even though they contain caffeine (a diuretic that helps rid your body of sodium and water), the overall effect from the amount in a cup is hydration.
The easiest way to get enough is to have a large bottle or jug by your desk that you work your way through. Needing to go to the bathroom more might not seem ideal, but it actually means you’re breaking up the time you spend sedentary.
8. Be aware when eating out
You’re probably more likely to go out for lunch when at the office. This can be a nice treat and a great reason to get a walk in at lunchtime, but it also involves exposure to lots of tempting offers. Typically, hot meals may have more salt than you would use at home, so stay focused on water intake for the rest of the day or choose options that are light on stocks or sauces.
Prioritise a good source of protein – such as tofu, chicken, beans, lentils or fish – as this will help keep you satisfied all afternoon. Fruit can be a great palate-cleanser, while having breakfast or a mid-morning snack can help you decide whether or not you want or need an afternoon pick-me-up.
9. Manage the low-level stress
Work and stress are often synonymous for many people, but there are some ways to mitigate the low-level stress that can build and make you feel tense and unproductive. Regular breaks and movement are a great place to start, either around the office or at lunchtime.
Getting your heart-rate up in the morning will genuinely make a difference to your whole day if you can change your morning schedule to fit it in (commuter cycling, anyone?). You should also consider whether you really need those work emails to come through to your personal phone. Doing so mean you’re always ‘on’, be that at lunchtime, evenings or weekends.
10. Say no to lunchtime meetings
This one is so often overlooked, but the expectation that being ‘allowed’ to bring your lunch to a meeting makes it OK to work during your break is exploitative. It doesn’t matter how interesting the meeting is (except it never is, is it?), a lunch break is necessary, and legally protected. If the only time everyone is free is at lunchtime, it’s time to change up the schedules, or alter expectations.
If you don’t feel you can talk to your boss about this without seeming lazy, make a point of taking your lunch break beforehand so you’re not hungry during (and still get your break). More people will want to follow your lead, and it means you’ll be focused for the meeting without worrying about slurping or having spinach stuck in your teeth.
For more nutrition tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.