Al desko dining: the great workplace lunch conundrum

Josh Dye
Is it more productive to leave the office and eat outdoors, or stay in and dine 'al desko'?
Is it more productive to leave the office and eat outdoors, or stay in and dine 'al desko'?  Photo: iStock

As the new year ticks into February and the summer holidays fade from memory, many workers again face the dilemma of what to do about lunch. 

Leftovers or laksa? Sushi or a sandwich? Leave the office and eat outdoors, or stay in and dine 'al desko'? 

As people's work schedules and lives become busier, many Australians are choosing to work through lunch or eat in front of their desktop monitor. According to research commissioned in 2019 by food delivery giant Uber Eats, one in four Australians never eats lunch away from their desk.

As people's work schedules and lives become busier, many Australians are choosing to work through lunch or eat in front ...
As people's work schedules and lives become busier, many Australians are choosing to work through lunch or eat in front of a computer screen. Photo: iStock

It's a trend the major retailers haven't missed. Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths are both moving aggressively into the convenience space by offering new product ranges and innovating store layouts. 

Late last year Coles opened its first 'grocerant' - a hybrid supermarket and restaurant in Tooronga, Victoria. Woolworths has been pushing its Metro stores, which heavily feature ready-to-go meals such as salads, soups and quiches. 

Woolworths Metro general manager Justin Nolan says the stores have seen "double-digit growth" in the ready-to-eat meals category over the past 12 months.

"We know some customers are looking to eat new forms of protein and we have also seen a strong increase in demand for plant-based products in Metro stores in the past year," he says. 

Based on the popularity of its convenient meals, Woolworths has begun trialling sandwiches and pre-made salads in more of its supermarkets. 

Meanwhile, David Jones opened its first standalone food store in October as it aims to attract time-poor but health-conscious consumers.

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Dietician and Monash University associate professor Dr Simone Gibson says the rise in convenient meals is all but inevitable to Australian's busy lifestyles.

"Eating healthily and cooking every single meal from scratch is just not possible for a lot of people," Dr Gibson says. 

Global market research company IRI predicts convenience will further dominate the Australian food landscape in 2020.

"Our research has revealed that Australians plan their meals less than ever," says Alistair Leathwood, the firm's chief commercial officer for Asia-Pacific. "Convenience will undoubtedly be the name of the game for the grocery industry moving forward. Ready-made meals have the convenience of take-out, without the guilt."

Dr Gibson is pleased to see a growth in healthier options and more vegetarian and vegan alternatives, but says it's still important to read the ingredients of a ready-to-go salad, rice bowl or wrap.

"20 years ago there was two-minute noodles, tinned spaghetti and TV dinners," she says. "In the last two years there has been an explosion in the types of pre-prepared meals that are available, but just because something is meat-free doesn't mean it's low fat or high in fibre."

Dr Gibson says the next challenge for food companies is to keep improving nutrition and authenticity. 

"To have a meal designed to last a few days in the supermarket fridge or freezer that's not cooked fresh. It's hard to replicate a home-cooked taste."

With so many Australians eating lunch at their desks, it raises questions around workplace productivity and efficiency. 

Dr Robyn Johns is an senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Technology Sydney. She says while eating at a desk is not inherently bad, humans are not made to be sitting in the same spot for eight hours.

"You actually need to take a break, not just be constantly tied to your desk." 

For optimum productivity, Dr Johns advocates regular small breaks instead of one long lunch break.

She also encourages organisations to facilitate a healthier workplace culture and create an "inviting space that encourages people to eat away from their desk".