Two coworkers, a woman and a man, socialize over lunch.

7 Ways to Optimize Your Lunch Break

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
May 25, 2023

Have you ever eaten at your desk so you could work straight through lunch or mindlessly scrolled social media while gulping down your midday meal? You’re not alone. A 2017 analysis notes that the concept of taking a lunch hour is becoming increasingly rare, whether you’re voluntarily using the time to get ahead on work, receiving pressure from your boss or coworkers to prioritize work over breaks, or simply feeling guilty for wanting a break.

But skipping out on the natural work pause that taking lunch gives us isn't always the best approach. “Taking breaks is key for optimal performance,” says Larry Marks, Ph.D., staff psychologist at the University of Central Florida Counseling & Psychological Services in Orlando. “The mental break from work is important, as well as taking time to have a healthy lunch.”

Get the Most Benefit from Your Break

If your lunch breaks are a blur of mindless activity, you might need to be more intentional about your lunchtime. The optimal lunch hour may look different from person to person. Implementing these strategies can help you find what works best for you.

Think About Your Day as a Whole

For some people, working through lunch helps them prioritize their life outside of work. “If you're trying to get as much work done because you aren't able to extend your work hours into the evening, then I don't think it's a bad thing,” says Cassie Holmes, Ph.D., professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and author of Happier Hour. “Once I had kids, I started working through pretty much all of my lunches, because it's so important for me to be available to my family in the evenings.

Use Your Break to Foster Work Friendships

Talking with your coworkers instead of focusing on your phone can have a big payoff. In a 2022 Gallup Poll, respondents who fostered personal relationships with coworkers said they experienced improved job performance and reported being generally happier at work.

But the same poll found that only 2 in 10 employees report having a work best friend. “If you spend your lunch break actually investing in cultivating that true sense of connection, it can have really beneficial effects,” Holmes says.

Choose Your Mid-Day Meal Wisely

Quickly grabbing a leftover donut from the breakroom is no substitute for lunch, notes Marks. In fact, eating too much sugar can lead to a mid-day crash.

Instead, aim for a balance of healthy fats, complex carbs, and protein to help fuel your body with the energy it needs to get through the rest of the day. Remember to stay hydrated as well, Marks adds.

Get Outside

“Stepping out of the office and getting fresh air and sunshine through a short walk or sitting on a bench can be wonderful activities during lunch,” Marks says. According to a 2021 review of studies, spending time in nature can simultaneously improve your cognitive, physical, and mental health.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care doesn't have to involve soaking in a hot bath or going for an hours-long hike through the woods. Many self-care tasks can be accomplished during your lunch break. “Whether you're taking a walk outside or taking a few deep breaths, some type of self-care even for a few minutes will help you get ready for the rest of the day,” Marks says.

Don’t Overdo It

“It’s okay to do low brainpower tasks while eating lunch, such as calling a friend, reviewing our bank account balance, or watching a video, but limit it to just one other activity,” recommends Marks. “When we multitask with too many activities, we’re really not focused or present in any one of them.”

Know When to Set Boundaries With Your Boss (and Yourself)

If you don't need to trade off working through lunch so you're free to have dinner with your family or attend an after-work event, you may need to set boundaries to keep your lunchtime free. “There may be occasional days when you need to work during your typical lunch hour, but take a break earlier or later,” says Marks. If you're working through lunch more often than not, talk to your supervisor about shifting or reprioritizing tasks so you can carve out some break time.

While it may feel intimidating to bring up the subject of more time for lunch with your boss, Holmes notes, “Often, our biggest barrier for these windows in the workday, and whether we're spending it well or not, isn't the boss—it's more ourselves.”

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