Not Sad Desk Lunch

These Coworkers Eat Homemade Lunch Every Day (And Only Cook Once)

February  2, 2016

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!”

Photo by James Ransom

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.

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“This way, we just kept the container that lunch is served in each day and by the time our turn came back around we had enough for the whole group! Helped avoid the constant swapping/collecting. ”
— Julie B.

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.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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.

Left: Tofu and burdock salad; Right: Sweet potatoes and pickled onions with feta over lentils Photo by Mary Anne Mendenhall

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?

Left: A classic Lunch Brunch text; Right: Spaghetti squash tacos Photo by Mary Anne Mendenhall

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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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I eat everything.


v C. December 30, 2017
And most important! Make sure that what you are packing for others are things they will eat, or your efforts have been wasted.
Julie B. February 16, 2016
I used to work as a middle school teacher and our "lunch club" (very similar to this) saved my life! We were lucky enough to have some fabulous cooks in our lunch club and very likeminded eaters, so the food was always excellent and my turn was always a fun culinary challenge.
One suggestion about containers: between five of us we started off with 15 identical containers. This way, we just kept the container that lunch is served in each day and by the time our turn came back around we had enough for the whole group! Helped avoid the constant swapping/collecting.
HL February 10, 2016
We do a soup swap every week at work. I bring two one litre containers of a soup I make on Sunday to work and exchange with two coworkers who do the same. This way we have all have different soups to eat for lunch over the winter, and only have to make one over the weekend.
Mrs. R. February 9, 2016
Very inspiring. Now I am thinking about how I can adapt this to a lunch club for a few of my homemaker friends and me, or for my coworker docents at my volunteer job. Very lovely way to not feel alone when you eat alone.
feistyfoodie February 8, 2016
I want the container in the first pic! Any ideas where that was purchased?
I used to do this with someone a while back - first when we were in school together, and then later when we were coworkers. It was very helpful to reduce stress and we eat similarly, so there were no real struggles. I don't recall why we stopped doing it (though we no longer work together so maybe that's why). More people would definitely be more fun, more variety!
Ginger February 8, 2016
These are called Bento Boxes. You can get them at Amazon, EBay, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, World Market, etc.
feistyfoodie February 9, 2016
Thanks, I am looking for the exact same box in the first pic.
TerriM February 22, 2016
Looks like an ECOlunchbox
feistyfoodie February 23, 2016
Thank you!
Ginger February 8, 2016
My daughter is an educator and brings her own lunch every day. I sent this article to her. It might be a fun thing for them. Thanks for the great information.
smarshtastic February 2, 2016
My back office team does breakfast club! We take turns bringing breakfast for about 13 people on Thursday mornings. I did baked french toast cups, which were a huge hit, but others have done pastries from their favorite shop, or bagels, or breakfast pizza (!!!) It's a great way to start our mornings, and it makes the accounting and IR groups much less grumpy in the morning :)
M February 2, 2016
I absolutely love this idea. I work at an elementary school with a healthy bunch of eaters. I think I could recruit four like minded friends.
penmoon February 2, 2016
I'd love the recipe for the sweet potatoes with pickled onions and feta over lentils in the picture.
Hannah W. February 2, 2016
This is the nicest article I've read all week! Thanks for finding the story Leslie and sharing it!