Whether you’re now a seasoned homeworker, or have been travelling in every day throughout the last year – we’ve all got to eat lunch. And undoubtedly, it can get monotonous… be it sandwiches and crisps, a toastie, a microwaved bowl of soup, a cold and congealed supermarket pasta salad, maybe a tray of takeout sushi or noodles as a ‘treat’ on a Friday.
Making lunch feel fun or interesting, or even just slightly different to yesterday, tends to be a Herculean feat of ingenuity, forward planning and having eons of time to play with. You can see why we so often resort to plastic-wrapped stuff, or yet another cheese and tomato bagel – it’s stress-free and eaten in moments. No fuss, no palate worries, but also, no fun.
Lunch is boring 🙁
— kate 💭🧸 (@katieherronn) April 19, 2021
For picnic king Max Halley, author of Max’s Picnic Book, the whole culture around lunch has gone askew, especially when it comes to buying it out and eating ‘al desko’. “You’ve got to go buy your sandwich in a pharmacy and get a free bag of crisps and a bottle of coke with it to call it a meal,” he says, incredulous. He believes something really funny has happened, where we say: “‘Do you remember the days when you used to have to buy olive oil in the pharmacist?’ And now you’re going to a pharmacist to buy a sandwich for lunch?! That’s fundamentally weird,” he adds.
Of course, we could look to Europe for inspiration. Particularly France, where long weekday lunches – complete with wine – are practically mandatory, expected, the norm. Productivity dips don’t appear to be a widespread concern – in fact, taking a proper break surely increases productivity? That one glass of red may boost focus? Whereas here, boozy lunches went out with the Eighties and Nineties (arguably we overdid it slightly…).
Mary Berry, whose latest book, Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts, saw her visit Paris, doesn’t quite buy into the French lunching style. “I think long lunches at the weekend,” she says. “During the week, for me, lunches are quicker. Everybody’s different, but lunch is something quickly put together.” She’d rather devote more time in the evening to cooking and eating. “Many older people like to have lunch as their main meal. It’s a personal thing, but long lunches like the French, with friends, with family, at the weekend,” is her preference.
So, where does that leave the humble weekday lunch? Stuck between cellophane and the dream of cafe dining on a sun-filled piazza? We’d start with morphing expectations and small tweaks. The best lunches, in our opinion, always involve leftovers. Half a tub of chicken tikka masala heated up with handfuls of fresh coriander and eaten with triangles of pitta, a dollop of yoghurt and some grated cucumber; cold sausages squished between thick slices of ketchup-drenched white bread; last night’s peanutty noodles crunchy with wedges of radish.
Then there are the days when repetitive sandwiches are necessary – but these deserve zhuzhing up. Pack your own sides and condiments: a jar of pickled jalapenos, a crumble of feta, if you need crisps (and some of us really do) vary your packet of choice (honestly, Monster Munch are making a comeback).
Eat outside whenever you can – scientific evidence suggests eating outdoors automatically makes food taste better, which is an easy win, whatever’s on the menu. And is an option, whether you’re still at home, or back to the commuter grind.
A certain amount effort will likely be required, whether you prep a puff pastry tart the night before to carve into wedges, or you decide to walk and buy a burrito from the good burrito stand. But maybe the most amount of effort should be directed towards recognising that lunch is worth a little more energy than our pre-pandemic selves might have given it.