Wherever we’re working, Brits are notoriously bad at lunch. Surveys over the past decade report that the most of us take a meagre half-hour for a meal that should power us through the rest of the day, while many of us don’t leave our desks at all (eating “al desko”). A Totaljobs survey of over 7,000 workers found that 56 per cent skip a midday meal, victims of “work creep”, who feel they’re too busy to break.
Even worse? When we do leave our desks, we do it to buy processed rubbish: meal deals, salty sandwiches, tempting but nutrient-void muffins and pastries. In a 2022 survey of 2,000 workers, Costa Coffee and M&S Food found that the pandemic compounded bad habits, with more of us eating alone and not taking screen or exercise breaks. Three quarters say they’d like to change this, and 52 per cent believe they’re less productive when they don’t take lunch.
Of course, Costa and M&S are trying to get us out of the office and into their shops, but even the most healthy-seeming lunch options at supermarkets and fast-food cafés are packed with unnecessary ingredients. When I ask French-Lebanese chef Léa Sednaoui about the UK’s problem with lunch, she says it’s more about attitude than what we eat day-to-day.
“Why are we bored and frustrated by the abundant offerings around? Food is a source of energy, and abundance. It is meant to energise and uplift us. A little reverence goes a long way, and does not need to be boring, tedious and ‘clean’. Quite the opposite!”
If you do have to eat alone and in haste, you can still major on satisfying meals packed with flavour with these easy – and great value – tips from our experts. Plus, as prices soar even on so-called lunch “deals”, why not splurge in the food shop instead of in Pret?
Dress to impress
“Clever dressings are a quick and easy way to liven up your lunchtime rota,” says Sarah Akhurst, food director at Sainsbury’s Magazine. She recommends making a batch of miso dressing (miso paste, ginger, soy, sugar, rice wine vinegar, neutral oil and sesame oil), which can be used for a range of tasty lunches.
“Toss through noodles with shredded raw veggies for a really easy, portable salad. Add prawns, chicken or tofu to boost the protein,” she says. “If you want a carb-free lunch, drizzle over roasted broccoli with some flaked poached salmon and finish with mixed seeds. Use it to dress leftover rice, or pep up scrambled eggs.”
For something with a bit more of a kick, Akhurst makes a batch of harissa dressing from harissa paste, tahini, lemon juice, smoked paprika and water.
Ben Slater of YouTube channel and recipe app Sorted Food whizzes up egg yolks, anchovies, mustard, a splash of water and a little salt before slowly dribbling in a 50/50 mix of good olive oil and vegetable oil, finished with loads of lemon juice and zest for freshness.
“I use that dressing over a week in various ways, like revving up leftover roast carrots from the night before, as a binder for shredded lettuce in a chicken sandwich, spread onto the outside of a grilled cheese before frying, and spooned onto shop-bought pea soup to add a little richness and depth. Four different lunches that would have been a little lacklustre without the investment of 10 minutes on Sunday.”
Use your noodle
Dried noodles are quick to make, cheap to buy, and can be adapted to suit any craving. Pippa Middlehurst, author of brand new cookbook Simple Noodles (Quadrille, £20, out 31 August) has a recipe for mackerel soba that unites gluten-free carbs (soba are made with buckwheat) with great-value tinned fish.
“For a simple, one-serving meal, throw the soba into a pan of boiling water with a handful of frozen peas (or frozen edamame),” says Middlehurst. “While they cook, mix 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce,1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil, 1/2 tsp maple syrup, and 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper together in a mug. Toss the noodles in the dressing and top with half a tin of mackerel (in oil or brine), then finely sliced spring onion and furikake, if you have it. You can eat this immediately, or put it in a lunch box for work.”
Middlehurst’s make-ahead noodle cup is really easy to make and transport to work. “Cook one nest of noodles (of your choice), rinse under plenty of cold water, then dress in 1 tsp of sesame oil (to prevent clumping). Into a mason jar, dollop 1 tsp of concentrated chicken (or veg) stock base, with 1 tsp of miso. On top, add frozen peas, grated carrot, and the softened noodles, then sliced spring onion and shredded leftover chicken (if you have it/want it).”
Leave your jar in the fridge until lunch, add 200ml of boiling water, stir, and leave for three to four minutes. “These homemade noodle pots are highly customisable,” she says. “You could add kimchi, ginger or garlic. For protein, add tofu or cooked king prawns.”
Though most routes to a decent lunch require a bit of planning, there’s still room to wing it if you have some condiments in hand, says Akhurst. “Do a quick audit of all those jars before you call Deliveroo. Sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, pickled chillies, mango chutney and kimchi are all great ways of really adding flavour to your lunch.”
Her ideas include stirring kimchi through scrambled eggs for a quick, punchy dish; adding pickled chillies to a cheese toastie or mixing with slaw and dolloping on baked potatoes; making a speedy salad with a packet of lentils tossed with sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, rocket and goat’s cheese; and roasting vegetables with garam masala and chilli to fill pittas, then stirring mango chutney through yoghurt as a topping.
Work your eggs
Ben Ebbrell, chef and co-founder at Sorted Food, recommends making the most of eggs. “They’re great vehicles for flavour and nutritious, too,” he says. “One day I might whisk a couple up and make an omelette with plenty of fresh herbs off the windowsill and leftover ends of cheese chunks. Another day I’ll scramble a few and sauté some mushrooms, then dump both on top of a slice of toast with a splash of Worcestershire Sauce.”
“Eggs also love spice,” says Ebbrell. “In a searingly hot pan (or wok if you have one), stir-fry some veg with plenty of garlic and ginger, then add in packet rice, a generous squeeze of sriracha, splash of soy and an egg… a real cheat’s veggie egg-fried rice to tuck into.”
Don’t jeopardise work relationships over a stinky lunch. “There are certain things that just don’t travel well and will render you quite unpopular in the office,” Akhurst points out. “A reheated fish pie is no-one’s idea of a nice office aroma, and eggs that have been in transit for any amount of time can pose the same problem.
“The worst offender is definitely cauliflower rice; at room temperature that odour can even break through Tupperware!”
She adds: “As with picnics, if you are taking salads to work, always take any dressing separately to avoid soggy leaves.”
While we’re all searching for speedy fixes to perennial problems, Sednaoui says that slowing down is likely to bring much better results. “Make meal time non-compromising, a source of joy and self care,” is her radical suggestion. “Community and the journey around what you choose to eat is as important as the final dish on your plate.”