Take back your lunch hour (all that!)

In the decade that I’ve worked from home — mostly as a full-time freelance writer — I’ve made many mildly self-defeating decisions. The non-exhaustive list includes being too lazy to create a separate work email address and working in non-ergonomic environments like on counters and on the floor.

I did, however, learn a crucial part of home self-care: I always set aside a full hour to prepare and eat lunch. This decision was born out of a rather theatrical collapse that I will tell you about now.

Related: How to get out of your next salad rut (plus, a panzanella recipe worthy of a hearty lunch)

I have a background in publishing and magazine writing, but for a short time I was a correspondent for a daily news site covering the packaged food and beverage industries. I was writing two articles a day, which meant I spent my morning doing a few interviews, transcribing them, and writing feverishly; then I would take a break for “lunch” (i.e. alternately shovel slices of cheese, bread, and tomato into my mouth) before repeating this insane ritual in the afternoon.

One day I was waiting for a source to call me back when I thought I had just enough time to cook a few eggs for a proper breakfast. I had barely beaten the eggs and chopped some chives when my phone rang. I ended the interview and posted the story, and smugly walked back to the kitchen thinking out loud, “I can have it all,” when I came across a pitiful sight.

The fridge door had been left open, its incandescent light casting a sickening glow over six or seven chives strewn across the kitchen rug next to half an eggshell, from which a bead of egg white formed a crust like dried slime. The counter-situation was somewhat sadder: a visual orgy of indecision. Four saucepans of varying sizes sat next to a limp wad of softened goat’s cheese still in its plastic sheath. I had taken the entire loaf of bread out of the freezer (yes, I keep bread in it – you should too) to retrieve a single slice, which was hanging half attached to the rest of the defrosting loaf like a fingernail.

Worse still, my first thought upon entering the kitchen was, “Who did this?”

Who indeed?

It was then – eight months into a job that caused me more missed lunches and canker sores than I could count as I watched my 30th birthday – that I realized that it was time to change. It’s been almost eight years since I started working on my own, and hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t taken an hour to cook and eat lunch.

Lunch on a weekday requires time, attention, and strategic shopping, which becomes easier as you learn what you crave for lunch. Because I cook and eat for a living, my weekday lunches are usually vegetarian or vegan, and often egg-based: things like shakshuka, baked sweet potato hash, and saag paneer from 15 minutes with halloumi and greens to clean from the fridge. I almost always have a salad, either as a side — think coleslaw and mint — or as a main course. Must-haves include lemony tuna salad with white beans, panzanella with pickled peppercorn dressing, or seared cucumber and couscous tossed in my favorite tahini dressing (recipe below; you’re welcome). I have found it helpful to always have plenty of fresh herbs and nuts on hand; this way I can mash up a quick herb sauce right on the cutting board with a clove of garlic, olive oil, and citrus juice — and my sharpest knife. From there, I’ll spread it on a sandwich or toss it with roasted veggies.

Of course, there are plenty of days when the prospect of preparing a midday meal seems daunting enough to order sandwiches or eat leftovers. But since adopting this almost daily ritual, I find myself fantasizing about what I’ll do for the day’s midday meal while I’m still having lunch. When I’m between calls or struggling to come up with a good headline, I take a mental inventory of what’s in my fridge and start putting the pieces of the lunch puzzle together. Once 11 o’clock rolls around, I step away from my laptop to go make farro or wash and dry lettuce. I’ve also been known to show up a minute or two late to an after-lunch interview because I was grilling a ham, cheddar, and kimchi sandwich. (In my defense, you can’t rush a toasted sandwich.)

In other words, I slowly took back a slice of my day that for too long belonged to work just because I let it. I even start my working days a little earlier than before, if only to save time for my glorious lunch break.

Now I realize that home cooked lunch on weekdays isn’t an option for everyone for a whole litany of reasons. But the great thing about it is that this idea translates. For example, are you making the perfect cup of coffee or tea? Can you whip up a good batch of blueberry jam, granola, or breadcrumbs? Whatever your thing, the essence of this ritual is to set aside time each day to recharge yourself with a little self-love activity that puts you in the present moment. This is meditation for meditation showers.

That’s why the kitchen works so well. You have to eat anyway; Moreover, it is quite difficult to succeed halfway. I should know that I once covered my whole kitchen in raw dried eggs, chives and shame.

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Recipe: Pan-Seared Cucumber Salad with Sumac and Tahini Vinaigrette

Ingredients

1/2 cup Israeli couscous

Extra virgin olive oil, as needed

1 clove of garlic

salt

1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon of tahini

1 teaspoon of plain yogurt

1/2 English or regular cucumber*

Black pepper

1 shallot, sliced

1 teaspoon sumac (could sub-za’atar)

3 or 4 Tuscan kale leaves, stems removed and shredded

directions

  1. Cook couscous according to package directions. Drizzle with a little olive oil and stir to avoid sticking. Put aside.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette. Finely chop the garlic. Sprinkle it with salt, then smash it into a paste with the side of your knife. Add the garlic to a medium bowl, along with the juice of half the lemon, tahini, yogurt, salt, pepper and a little water, whisking until combined. Slowly pour in 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil, whisking constantly. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
  3. Cut the cucumber into 2-inch segments, then cut said segments into wedges lengthwise to make wedges. Pat the flesh dry with a paper towel.
  4. Heat a frying pan and add a few glasses of olive oil. Season the meaty part of the cukes with salt and pepper and sear until each meaty part is puffy and soft – about 3 minutes per side. (You might need a few more minutes for this first side. Seriously, leave those babies BROWN.) Flip them skin side down. Add another drizzle of oil if the pan seems dry, and toss in the shallots and a little more salt and pepper. Cook 2 to 3 minutes more, until the shallots are tender and lightly caramelized. Squeeze the other half of the lemon and sprinkle with sumac.
  5. To assemble, toss couscous and hot cukes in dressing until well blended and you smell garlic (mmmm). Add shredded cabbage, stir again until combined, and serve. (Ps it’s good at room temperature too.)


Cook’s Notes

If you only have regular cucumbers, peel them until scratched and remove the seeds and gunk before chopping them.

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