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Four mornings a week, around 10 A.M., Mary Anne Mendenhall receives a text message letting her know what’s for lunch. “I just got one—just now,” she said as I spoke with her over the phone earlier today. “It’s a picture of a mint-green bag in the courthouse mini-fridge!”
As a public defense lawyer in the Bronx specializing in family practice, Mary Anne barely has enough time to eat, let alone make her own lunches.
On the morning we spoke, she had been up since 6 A.M. working on a case. By the time we’d been on the phone for fifteen minutes, she already had nine text messages from colleagues and coworkers and had made her hour-plus commute from Brooklyn to the Bronx.
But amid all the chaos, she manages to eat a homemade lunch every day.
Mary Anne is part of a group she refers to as "The Lunch Bunch," a group of five women from her office who rotate making lunch for one another each day of the work week (a feat that caught the attention of WNYC last year). There’s no set schedule, but depending on their workload, and often on the contents of their CSA boxes, each of the women—Mary Anne, Erin Schechter, Holly Beck, Rebecca Oyama, and Clara Presler—volunteers to make the other four lunch on one day of the week.
Being “it” requires delivering a packed lunch to the other four women, who may be in any of the three buildings that make up their office, by 1 P.M. But the trade-off comes on days off, when they return from a case to find a roasted chickpea salad at their desk or banh mi tacos in the fridge.
Because each of the women only have to make lunch once a week, the lunches are well thought-out and beautiful. Past lunches have included slices of frittata with salad, mint and tofu rice bowls, and braised burdock root salads. Each is packed with care, with dressing on the side and non-heatable components packed separately, and delivered with a quick text message or email on how to prepare the lunch.
In the past year, the group has only missed five days—most of which were in December, their busiest month—and Mary Anne says receiving lunch has done more for her work happiness than anything else. “A friend of mine, a senior criminal defense lawyer, described it best,” Mary Anne said. “His observation was that the Lunch Bunch is pure love—it’s a way to bring love back into cooking and experiencing eating other people’s cooking is like this little gift of love at one o’clock.”
Since starting the Lunch Bunch two years ago, two other groups from their office—a team of criminal lawyers and another of family defense lawyers—have started their own. “To me, it’s the most obvious thing in the world,” Mary Anne said. “For working people, it gets so wrought to make your own lunch, but when you’re making it for other people, it’s actually from the heart.” She added that while none of them have kids, they see it as being a useful tool for moms packing school lunches as well. Because really, who doesn’t appreciate a homemade lunch—but also time off from making them?
Ready to start your own Lunch Bunch? Here are Mary Anne's tips:
1. Make a schedule that works best for you and your lunch team.
As a defense lawyer, no two days are the same, so they can’t count on a consistent schedule. As a result, Mary Anne and her coworkers will text the week or night before about who is able to bring lunch the next day. “It can be because someone had time to go to the farmers market, or because someone just received ten pounds of kohlrabi in their CSA. They’ll text the group to say ‘I’ve got lunch tomorrow!’”
Sometimes this takes a little coordination—she counted 45 text messages from this past Sunday—but the end result, she says, is worth the planning.
“If you have a chaotic job, find people who are responsive over text," she added. "If you have even one weak link, it isn’t going to work.”
2. Pick compatible eaters.
“You have to have not only compatible eaters but compatible pickiness tolerance,” Mary Anne said. Because you’re making the same lunch for four different people, there can’t be too many differences in diet between them. Whatever you love to eat, find other people who love it too.
3. Don’t make anything too pungent…
Mary Anne's job involves whispering to clients in courtrooms and interacting with hundreds of people throughout the day, so her lunch group takes pungent foods, like raw onion and garlic, into consideration. She has a hack though: Whenever a recipe calls for raw onions, she pickles them, which she says cuts the onion breath.
4. Work out a system with the containers.
“We’re always shuttling containers across the street,” Mary Anne said, laughing. Returning all of the containers to one person by the end of the day can get hectic, so she suggests that the person who is making lunch bring containers for everyone and collecting them by the time it's they're "it" again.
5. Pay attention to packing.
To make sure all the food is edible and delicious by the afternoon, packing lunch is as important as making it. “Start with the stuff that gets heated, then section out the things that do not get microwaved,” Mary Anne said. For dressing and sauces, she recommends using Sistema dressing containers with screw tops—they're big enough for a healthy dollop, easier to clean, and don’t spill.
6. When possible, pack extra.
Mary Anne packs few extra helpings for other members of her team to keep the Lunch Bunch from feeling too exclusive. That way, her other coworkers get to enjoy it, too.
7. Don’t stress out about lunch,
“The cardinal rule of The Lunch Bunch, is don’t stress out about The Lunch Bunch,” Mary Anne told me. If someone is too tired or just can’t make lunch on their assigned day, which rarely happens, it’s okay. “It’s important for the group to remain a culture of love and support,” she explained, “it can’t turn into a competition.” She added that there is no apologizing allowed. “If a meal didn’t turn out the way you wanted it do, don’t apologize. If it’s too salty, we’ll still be grateful for having an overly salty lunch.”
Have you ever tried forming a lunch bunch? Will you be trying this? Tell us in the comments below!