By TERRY STAWAR
— For the past several years, I have been taking my lunch to work a couple of days a week. It’s surprising how quickly food smells can travel in our building. When the hallway has the ambiance of a movie theater, everyone knows that someone has been making buttered microwave popcorn.
Last month, the whole building reeked of chili and shortly thereafter, somebody must have bought fish sandwiches for all their co-workers, as going downstairs was like stepping aboard a trawler.
I must confess, however, that I am not entirely blameless. The leftover Polish sausage and sauerkraut I had last week created quite a stench and still sort of hangs in the air. In an article titled “Brown-Bag Lunch Etiquette,” Food Network blogger Victoria Phillips suggests that if you have an especially smelly lunch, you should eat in the lunchroom or preferably outside at a picnic table.
She also advises you not to eat your messy Reuben sandwich at your desk, where it can drip 1,000 Island dressing all over your keyboard or phone. She also cautions against leaving uneaten lunch in the office refrigerator and throwing pungent food into the wastepaper basket under your desk.
She must have worked in our office.
Today’s sluggish economy has motivated many people to look for savings wherever they can find them. According to a study published by the marking company NPD Group, “Eating Patterns in America,” more than 8.5 million Americans routinely take their lunch to work.
A number of people have found that they can save anywhere up to $2,500 a year, simply by eating lunch at work. One writer did the math and figured out that a 22-year-old typical New Yorker could have an additional $650,000 in his or her retirement account by age 62 just by taking their own lunch everyday.
According to Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst at NPD, “There are a number of factors adversely affecting the midday meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them.”
About half of the people who frequent restaurants for lunch say that they now do it less often due to the expense. Besides the cost savings (about an 80 percent average reduction in expense), taking your lunch to work can give you more variety, healthier choices and save you time.
Also, don’t forget to add in the savings for gasoline each week.
According to the NPD Group’s 2009 eating survey, people spend more time eating and drinking at lunch than any other meal. At the same time, lunch is the most frequently skipped meal (13 percent of the time compared to 10 percent for breakfast, and only 4 percent for supper).
Men are responsible for the most lunch meals prepared at home and about 40 percent of these meals include a sandwich, although this trend has been dropping in recent years. Classics like bologna, ham and peanut butter and jelly are still the most popular sandwiches in brown-bag lunches. Turkey also is growing in popularity, but seems to fluctuate a bit with its price. For women, fruit is now more popular than sandwiches for their lunches made at home.
For almost 40 years, my father took a black metal lunchbox and Thermos to work each day. He left so early for work that I never actually saw what he took to eat at work. Both of his parents were from Eastern Europe and he grew up during the Depression, so he was used to eating things like blood sausage, headcheese and pigs feet.
I always assumed that his lunch box contained something equally unspeakable. My father was an electrician for a steel mill and each night when he came from work his lunchbox was empty, except for a metal can containing a single roll of electrical tape. He used the metal cans to store things like screws and nails, but I was never sure what he did with all that tape. I think he considered it a tip from the company for his good work.
Except for field trips and a brief period when I owned a Roy Roger’s lunch box, I always ate in the school cafeteria. My lunch box eventually fell apart despite my father’s valiant attempt to repair its handle with electrical tape.
When I reached high school, I took my lunch money and bought a Hires Root Beer and Butterfinger candy bar from the vending machine most days for lunch. To add a little color and variety to my diet, I would occasionally eat a Snickers Bar and a Nehi Orange soda for its vitamin C content.
My wife Diane told me that for end-of-the-year school picnics her lunch consisted of a bologna sandwich, chips, maybe a banana, and for dessert, the iconic Hostess Cupcake. Ironically, that is about the same menu that was served in most county jails for most of the 1960s and ’70s.
It was pretty much the same thing I would always take on school field trips. The threatened demise of the Cupcake and Twinkie, since the Hostess Bakery went bankrupt, would leave a huge gap in the traditional brown-bag lunch if some other bakery doesn’t save the brand.
For some reason, my mother started making me ham salad sandwiches for my lunch for the annual school picnic (it was actually bologna salad, since it was never made with real ham). This picnic was always held at an amusement park and was the highlight of the whole school year. All of those positive associations with field trips and school picnics probably accounts for my garlic bologna addiction today.
When I was in college, I stayed at a dorm that had a food plan. If you were going away for the day or had classes too far away to return for lunch, the dorm cafeteria prepared box lunches that you could take with you.
My friends and I always took them and stashed them in our dorm room refrigerator if we didn’t plan to eat them that day. They were classic bologna sandwich and banana lunches, but they often had excellent home-baked cookies included. On warm days, the mayonnaise would sort of curdle and the banana would brown a little, but the cookies were always good and perhaps even better with melted chocolate chips.
Brown bagging at work is also a good way to avoid eating at a restaurant alone, which many people dislike. I remember reading somewhere that the average office desk has more germs on it than the average public toilet seat. Be that as it may, there is still something kind of fun about eating at my desk.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com