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What the hell is everyone eating for lunch?

February 22, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC

I loved hummus so much that I ate it nearly every day for lunch for the past two years. It was my default, the thing I always returned to when I was scrounging around in my kitchen between Zooms. Sometimes I ate it with baby carrots, or, if I was really feeling ambitious, I’d cut up a cucumber. Occasionally I’d spread it on pita or bread. I’ll even admit to eating it straight off the spoon from time to time.

I have eaten so much hummus while working from home that, now, I can barely stand to look at the tub of it sitting in my fridge. I am tired of hummus in the literal sense, but also in the metaphorical: It’s a constant reminder of the monotony of my pandemic life.

The Hummus Problem is not one I—or others—seem to have had at dinner. During the past two years, Americans bought air fryers with abandon. We made TikTok feta pasta. We chopped shallots into a million little pieces at Alison Roman’s behest. We were even naive enough to order giant bags of beans and soak them overnight.

And yet this newfound passion for cooking that we harnessed to whip up dinner has been nowhere to be seen at lunch, says David Garfield, a managing director at consultancy AlixPartners. “Lunch is a burnout,” says Greg Portell, who leads the global consumer practice at advisory firm Kearney. “It’s become a relatively boring meal for people.”

In the early days of the pandemic, consumers did try to shake things up with their noon meal. Portell says there was a rise in lunchtime takeout before the economic reality set in. “You can’t live on DoorDash every day,” he notes.

Some of us ate more frozen food at lunch or dabbled in “blended meals”—purchasing a premade element like a rotisserie chicken and adding our own homemade sides. Salad, an office worker go-to, was largely a nonstarter once those same employees were working from home. Portell points to the growth of fancy chains like Sweetgreen and Chopt, which raised expectations to the point where we just feel disappointment if we attempt to make our own leafy greens without the benefit of fun add-ins like za’atar breadcrumbs and roasted sunchokes.

Shelley Balanko of food industry tracker Hartman Group says she’s noticed a new phenomenon around leftovers: We’ve embraced them like never before. Nearly a third of all meals now involve a component from a previous one. She’s even seeing a rise in diners intentionally ordering extra food from restaurants to eat later.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing contingent that’s solving the lunch problem by simply skipping it altogether. Balanko says the proportion of U.S. adults who reported eating regular lunches in the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2020 was around 70%. But by 2021, that percentage had fallen to 62%. Lunch is such a struggle for some of us that we’d rather not deal with it at all.

It’s not as though lunch was super thrilling before the pandemic either. The humble sandwich was the No. 1 thing we ate at midday pre-COVID, and it’s the No. 1 thing we’ve been eating for the past two years. In fact, says David Portalatin of market research firm NPD Group, the sandwich tops the list of things we’ve eaten for lunch for 30 years.

The big thing that’s changed is where we’re eating said sandwich. In the summer of 2019, 56% of lunches were consumed at home, says Balanko. In the early days of the pandemic, that number jumped to 81%. Even last summer, 65% of lunches were still being eaten at home.

In reality, the data shows that lunch boredom comes not from the food but the setting. Dinner is having a renaissance because we’re now more likely to eat it with our families than we were pre-pandemic. Lunch is a dud because we’re more likely to eat it alone, without our colleagues. Even a sad desk salad is a little bit less sad when you’re surrounded by your work friends.

Some experts think that even once the pandemic subsides, consumers will continue to source their lunches from home to some degree; once we adopt a new behavior over a long period of time, it’s hard for us to let it go. But Portell says that as more workers return to the office sporadically, they’re likely to indulge a bit and perhaps splurge beyond that cheap slice of pizza or sandwich.

“Lunch has always been an overlooked meal,” he says. “But the experience of lunch is actually important. We’ve realized that now.”

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