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What your work lunch says about you

UK office workers are tightening their belts when it comes to lunchtime treats since the start of the cost-of-living crisis, according to new research. The study, conducted by online printing specialists, instantprint, involved interviewing 1,000 UK employees in the hopes of exploring staff’s eating habits as many businesses see a return to the office.

UK office workers are tightening their belts when it comes to lunchtime treats since the start of the cost-of-living crisis, according to new research.

The study* involved interviewing 1,000 UK employees in the hopes of exploring staff’s eating habits as many businesses see a return to the office.

Almost 1 in 3 (32%) of workers set the goal to make more homemade lunches in 2023, placing it in the top 5 new year’s resolutions, which also included eating better (48%), getting fitter (46%) and saving money (44%).

The price of a packed lunch
According to the survey, the average person spends £21 a week on their work lunches, which equates to £1,092 a year.

1 in 4 (24%) office workers buy a meal deal or lunch from a shop or café at least once a week, with 18% of us doing this multiple times per week.

2% of respondents admitted to buying lunch out every day.

If you’re currently buying a £3.50 meal deal once a week, this would cost you somewhere in the region of £182 a year.

The majority of employees have already cut back on their lunchtime spending – 40% of respondents shared that they’ve been spending less than usual since the start of the cost-of-living crisis.

In line with the general gender pay gap, the study found that men are more likely to buy lunch from a shop than women – 51% of men buy lunch from a shop or café at least once a week, compared with just 40% of women.

Age also played a role in our lunch spending habits. 35–44-year-olds spend the most on their lunch, averaging £29 a week, compared with just £4 for 18-24-year-olds.

However, a whopping 75% of 18-24 year olds admitted that they now spend more on their lunches following the start of the cost-of-living crisis. This could correlate with this age group rising through the ranks at work or gaining full time employment following higher education.

45–54-year-olds have cut back the most, with 2 in 5 of this age respondents sharing that they actively spend less.

Inspirational lunches
instantprint also asked their survey respondents for their top sources of lunch inspiration, and the following five came top of the list:

  1. Friends and family – 31%
  2. Availability of ingredients – 31%
  3. Social media – 28%
  4. Recipe websites – 24%
  5. Discounts in supermarkets – 22%

25–34-year-olds were found most likely to be inspired by social media (37.93%), compared with every other age group, who mainly got their inspiration from friends and family.

The rise of ‘FoodTok’ videos on video sharing platform TikTok could very well be linked to this. Whilst in lockdown, cloud bread and whipped coffee were on the top of everyone’s to-make list, but as of January 2023 the hashtags #lunch and #lunchideas have 15.6 billion and 2.6 billion views respectively.

However, the rise of impressive and inspirational lunches that we see online can have a negative impact as well.

Nearly 1 in 5 of employees (19%) feel judged on the contents of their packed lunch. Women are slightly more likely to feel judged on the contents of their lunch (20% vs 18% of men).

Older generations (55+) don’t feel judged at all, whereas 25-34-year-olds feel the most judged (38%) followed by 25% of 18-24-year-olds and 45-54-year-olds respectively.

What does your lunch say about you?
The survey also revealed the most popular homemade lunch options for workers. These were:

  1. Sandwich
  2. Fruit
  3. Drink
  4. Crisps
  5. Leftovers from dinner
  6. Salad
  7. Wraps
  8. Chicken
  9. Soup
  10. Pasta

To uncover what the type of lunch you choose says about your personality, the team at instantprint turned to Dr Suzanna Forwood, a Food Psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University.

1. Sandwiches & wraps
This choice is likely to be a mixture of people buying readymade items or making them at home.  The two will be very different types of people.

Those buying sandwiches are out for convenience, and work somewhere with access to shops – either on the way to work or at work.  The sandwich is the most popular lunch option in the UK from retail outlets and the meal deal is a value option for many of us who have access to shops for lunch.  The sandwich itself can be a good option, but the crisps and drink may quickly reduce the nutritional value of this as a meal option.  These are people who might struggle for time in the mornings or be willing to pay a bit extra for the convenience of not making their lunch for themselves.

The other group that takes sandwiches to work are those who are also preparing this for their children’s lunches – it is easier for everyone in the family to have the same option and takes less time to prepare.  It is also cost effective to buy large packs to be shared out.  These people live with children and take a practical approach to getting everyone fed.  They are probably quite organised in the mornings.  And they may have an eye on healthiness – there are lots of options to meet a range of food preferences and diets.

2. Leftovers from dinner
This choice of packed lunch suggests someone who is cooking dinner, probably from scratch, and in more quantities than one meal.  They have time in the evenings and resources to do this, or motivation and interest in cooking.  They may also be aware of food waste or want to enjoy lunch without the work of preparing something separate.  Some will plan this when cooking evening meals and chose to cook more, while others will be more opportunistic.  Those in a household of one might do this, as it is relatively hard to cook one-person quantities and this strategy can help with the extra food.

Everyone using home cooked meals leftovers for packed lunch will likely be getting a better balance of nutrients than the sandwich option – we tend to include more veg and nutritious foods when cooking meals from scratch.  Those using ready meal or takeaway leftovers will have a considerably less healthy option.  So, it depends a lot on what is in the leftovers!

3. Salad
This choice of lunch is very likely to be chosen by those watching their weight, and interested in something fresh.  It is probably more popular in the summer, when more options are available in the shops at a more accessible price.  But salads can be made all year round – they don’t have to be just ‘rabbit food’!  Some salad options can be surprisingly unhealthy – it all depends on what is included, and what sauce or dressing is used.  So, while these people might THINK they are eating more healthily, it is not a given.  For that reason, this might be the option for colleagues who want to look like they are healthy.

4. Soup
This option of lunch serves a variety of purposes for different people.  Soup is easy to prepare and eat (just drunk from a mug if needs be) so has lots of convenience.  It is warming and filling, so can be good for those working outdoors or prone to cold, or those wanting a reassuring warm moment in their day.  Some varieties of soup are very traditional and may appeal to those who want a simpler and predictable option.   While other soups are more exotic and unusual, and may appeal to those enjoying a wider range of flavours in their diet.

For these reasons, I suspect people who choose soup are people who know their own mind, and are not trying to make a point with their lunch.  They will have their reason for choosing it, and won’t be swayed by colleagues.

5. Pasta
As with sandwiches – this category is likely a mixture of those making it at home, or buying it readymade.  So, the same two categories of people are also here.  But pasta is more of a “proper” meal.  It can be hot, and hearty, and include both veg and protein without necessarily including butter, mayo or rich sauces.  I suspect pasta eaters have thought about their lunch – they may have explored a range of the other types of lunch and not found them to their taste.  Maybe they want something more sustaining than soup or salad, but healthier than a shop-bought sandwich.  Maybe they lack the time to make meals, so don’t have leftovers, but would like to have a meal for lunch and not a sandwich.

The final group, not captured by this survey, are those who choose different options each day.  Indeed, many of us are probably in this category because we know that repeatedly eating the same or similar foods can reduce the pleasure taken in eating them.  Unless we experience food neophobia, a profound dislike of unfamiliar foods, in which case the same foods feel like the only safe options.  Humans as omnivores prefer a varied diet, so we may have evolved a preference for variety in our diet.  This serves us well as it turns out the best way to a healthy diet is variety.

Laura Mucklow, Head of instantprint, commented on the findings:
“Encouraging your team to make healthier decisions about their lunch won’t only help make your employees feel better in themselves, but it can also make for a happier, more productive workforce. Anything you can do to encourage nutritious choices at work, such as adequate lunch breaks, free fruit and workplace-based cooking facilities the better. After all, food is fuel!”

*Research carried out by conducted by instantprint

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