Food at Work: All Work and No Breakfast – Food as Fuel

breakfast food as fuel leigh wells

All work and no breakfast! To hell with food. Not worth the trouble, not worth the time. That’s been the pitch for Soylent, a meal-replacement smoothie said to contain all the essential nutrients humans need to survive. One of Silicon Valley’s most controversial innovations, it promises to spare you from ever having to bother with real food again. Its producers argue that food is inefficient. Promising whiter teeth and a stronger physique, Soylent will—wait for it—completely change your life! Just a few daily doses of the gooey, beige cocktail, and you can forgo food altogether.

The premise is, of course, concerning to start with: that you have to, not get to, eat three times a day. Imagine replacing every meal for the rest of your life with the same powdered liquid. Say good-bye to deliciousness as you know it. (In fairness, Soylent now comes in three “flavors.”)

The company has raised millions in venture capital and sold millions of “meals.” When they first started preaching the gospel of their beverage, Soylent’s founders hoped to raise $100,000 through a month of crowdfunding. They got it in two hours. In June of this year, Inc. magazine named them one of the “5 Coolest Companies Making Futuristic Foods.”

The foods we choose to ferry from our houses—or the nearest takeout spot, or the grocery store Grab & Go, or a gas station on the way to work—say a lot about us. And the environment at our workplaces—the office kitchen, everyone eating at their desks—says a lot about America. Among other things, it says: time is a priceless resource, and it is to be used productively, to accomplish goals and deliver deliverables.

Known around the world for our strong work ethic, today we are outworking even ourselves: about 200 more hours a year than we did in 1970. What with the working all the time, many in the United States have developed a rather utilitarian outlook on food. It reduces food to a balance of energy in and energy out. I imagine few would admit to holding this narrow view of food, and yet millions of daily actions suggest otherwise.

Take, for example, the disconnect between perceptions of breakfast and the actual eating of breakfast: 26% of Americans eat breakfast every day, yet 63% think skipping breakfast is unhealthy. And even though 80% eat breakfast sometimes, two-thirds of people eat one that’s portable. A yogurt here, a Kind bar there. Nearly 40% of Americans say they skip breakfast because of lack of time.

“We recharge our phones every night, and yet as a society we still grapple with the notion of recharging our bodies in the morning,” says Mandie Turner, co-creator of Cook Smart, a program offered by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation at Stanford University that walks students through the process of creating a well-rounded breakfast. “A delicious, healthy breakfast can take less than five minutes to prepare and yet pays important dividends throughout the day, particularly when it comes to grabbing unhealthy snacks in the name of convenience. In our program, we teach young people how to prepare a quick, healthy breakfast that will fuel themselves until lunch, avoiding that less-optimal mid-morning snack.”

Now, people can argue ad nauseam about whether breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, or just a plot to peddle sugar in disguise (see “The Dessertification of Breakfast” in my book Devoured, for instance), but the point is what skipping breakfast says about the relative value we place on food in daily life. Or rather, the relative value we don’t place on it.

Americans spend the least amount of time preparing food of any of the 34 major developed countries. We also spend the least amount of time eating: just one hour and 14 minutes per day. That’s 27 minutes less than the average across those countries.

As a result of working longer hours, we’ve brought food into the workplace. For many tech workers, that’s great news: free, chef-driven meals await. Often available three times a day, they’ll no doubt consist of top-notch, locally grown ingredients and inspired global flavors.

For the rest of us, it’s not such a pretty picture. Maybe we’ll brown-bag it, but we’re just as likely to skip lunch or cobble together miscellaneous packaged snacks from our desk drawers (or that birthday cake found in the break room), and call it lunch. Forty percent of us dine at our desks, participating in the national pastime known as multitasking.

This situation has the restaurant industry shvitzing. Marking the lowest level of lunch traffic in at least 40 years, only one in 10 lunches is now eaten at a restaurant, according to consumer insights firm NPD Group. That represents about $3.2 billion in lost business over the past year.

In an article titled “Going Out for Lunch Is a Dying Tradition,” a recent Wall Street Journal video* notes that Kimberly D. Elsbach, PhD “recommends you eat outside.” She’s a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management. ”But you’re probably not gonna do that,” the video goes on. “Because . . . SO MUCH WORK.”

Instead, food is the fuel to be shoveled, like coal into a steam engine, as quickly as possible into the worker’s mouth so the worker can continue to produce. The Digital Revolution might have more in common with the Industrial Revolution than first appears, because the office hasn’t come as far from the factory as we may think.


The other driver behind the food-as-fuel idea is our collective nutrient centrism. Tallies of grams and percentages. 

Alana Conner, PhD is a cultural scientist at Stanford University who directs a center there called Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions, or SPARQ. She has long noticed that we not only turn to products like Soylent but also increasingly dine alone. “It’s very peculiar in American culture how much eating we do by ourselves,” she says. “We have biologized eating, and made it about getting nutrients, getting or not getting calories. We’ve really turned it into this transaction.”

This mind-set stems from a broader national value: our idolatry of innovation. In America, there is a deep underlying belief in the idea that we can always find a better way to do something. The idea that today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. Progress, ladies and gentlemen. Pew polls consistently reflect Americans’ confidence that science and technology can solve just about everything. We’ve put men on the moon, vaccines in clinics and personalized computing in the pocket of every tween from Cupertino to Cairo. I can’t imagine my life without traffic lights, Tupperware or texting. And thank God for lint rollers.

But we don’t often stop and think about whether it’s such a good idea to apply that same faith in innovation to our food. Rather than trust our intuition or common sense about what foods are good for us, we look to scientific solutions and magic bullets. I’m talking about the antioxidant pills, the dietary supplements and the protein shakes. Our faith in progress gives us the unshakable assurance that the holy grail of healthy eating is awaiting us in a lab somewhere.
If that’s all food is—the gas in our tanks, the efficient delivery mechanism for nutrients and calories—then no wonder many turn to meal-replacement bars and beverages amid the time constraints that so commonly define daily life. Working all the time frankly doesn’t leave much time for other things. And it most certainly doesn’t leave much time for perusing produce at farmers markets, scouring recipes with care or preparing or enjoying meals “mindfully.”

In nearly every industry, the ironies of overwork abound. Retail food and foodservice workers are paid so little they often must work multiple jobs and multiple shifts, leaving not enough money or time to eat decent meals. Medical students, interns and residents—providing care to help others be healthy—are so sleep deprived and starved of basic needs like showers and laundry, living off cafeteria fast food, that they’re often in need of care themselves. Management consultants work such long, grueling hours advising companies—on the road Monday through Friday, eating every meal out—they’d need to hire their own life consultants to get back on track. And employees at food and fitness start-ups and lifestyle publications—inspiring others to improve their quality of life—work so much they don’t have time to cook, garden or exercise themselves.


So, what do we do about all this? On an individual level, lunch breaks are one way we might increase the number of minutes per workday that we focus on food. More and more people are catching on to the productivity–lunch break relationship. Consider the movement called Take Back Your Lunch, where participants pledged to take real lunch breaks. They asked, Are we really going to be lying on our deathbeds wishing we’d eaten more of our meals at our desks?

Others join a “lunch bunch,” divvying up the weekdays to each pack one home-cooked, healthy lunch for fellow colleagues, and committing to taking 30 minutes to eat it together each day. Food52—a food community providing recipes, cooking guidance and kitchen tips and product reviews—even launched a “Not Sad Desk Lunch” campaign. It offered readers daily strategies for not succumbing to the scourge, such as “10 lunches you can pack in less than five minutes.” Beautiful photo streams have appeared on social media from people across the country, proudly displaying colorful jar salads in celebration of #mealprepsunday, another smart way to get ahead of the week and ensure a proper lunch gets had.

Personally, I’m sold on all of these ideas, in part because of that UC Davis professor, Dr. Elsbach. She says to go ahead and take the brain rest. Tease out my mental floss knot. (If not at least for the restored blood flow for my mean case of keyboard elbow.) Some research shows that even just 15 to 20 minutes away from my desk might sharpen my concentration, increase my shot at a jolt of creative genius and grease the wheels on my decision-making machine.

On a wider scale, entrepreneurs have launched commercial solutions like delivery dinner kits, on-site farmers markets, cooking classes and even vending machines selling salads in jars—stocked fresh that day, no less.

What’s a little scary, though, is that most of the innovations promising healthier food-at-work habits are solutions only to a very white-collar problem, not the daily realities of the working class or the working poor. Take transportation workers, for instance, who suffer by far the worst health outcomes of any job sector. For them, eating “at work” means eating on the road by definition, not by laziness or preference. Just imagine the opportunities that might surface should we apply the disruptive spirit of Silicon Valley to not only corporate lunchrooms but the work sites of construction crews, truck drivers, custodians and the 20 million Americans working along the food chain itself.

These solutions also take as a given that Americans will only continue to work ever longer hours—inevitably eating more food at work and on the go. They don’t begin to imagine an America that heeds the calls of groups around the globe: Work . . . less. (!)

Working less would leave everyone with a lot more time on their hands. More time relaxing with family, talking to neighbors, cooking from scratch. More sleep. More chewing before swallowing. More thinking and processing. Thinking before speaking. Thinking before e-mailing.

Radical? Absolutely.

Tempting? Clearly.

A good idea? In theory, but first you’d have to pay people more. Wages have been stagnant in the United States, and 40% of people can’t cover their basic expenses. A huge number of Americans have fallen out of the middle class. You can’t just say “enough with all the overwork.” People have to be able to afford to work fewer hours.

But there is one thing I can promise you: working less would sure as hell affect how we eat.

All Work and No Breakfast: Food as Fuel  was published in the Summer 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Illustration © 2016 Leigh Wells.

Adapted from the book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies–How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016).

Read the rest of Sophie Egan’s series on food at work:

Secular Church: Will Brunch Save Your Soul?

Food at Work: The Lifeblood of San Francisco’s Tech Boom

Food and Work: Are Meal Kits the Answer?