Fit to Practice: Beat the working lunch blues

Fit to Practice: Beat the working lunch blues

Powering through the noon hour is OK. But that doesn't mean you get a free pass to eat poorly.
Mar 08, 2013

“Hey everybody, we’ve been totally slammed this morning. How about we all work through lunch to get caught up? I’ll order pizzas and drinks for everybody.”

Sound familiar? If you work in a busy veterinary clinic, this is a common scenario—and dilemma. How can you stay healthy, lose weight, and maintain your sanity when you’re constantly bombarded with pizza, doughnuts, and nine or ten hour shifts without a break? How can you balance the needs of your patients and clients with your personal well-being? If you want to enjoy a long and productive career in veterinary healthcare, these are issues you must successfully overcome. If you don’t, your health, relationships, and passion for pets will suffer over time.

But first, I need to start by making a confession: I’m not a big lunch-eater. I’m also not a veterinarian who believes in taking extended midday breaks. In fact, I often work through lunch nibbling on goodies I packed. So how can I tell you how to beat the working lunch blues? Because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for over twenty years. Here’s what works for me:

Step one: Pack your lunch. Make it healthy. Do it daily.

The first step to enjoying a healthy working lunch begins with what you choose to eat. I’d like to emphasize that word “choose” because that’s what we do each day. We choose to eat healthy or unhealthy foods. We choose to drink soda or water, doughnuts or pomegranates. I’m always puzzled when veterinarians and staff come up to me and say, “I don’t have time to eat healthy.” Makes no sense to me. Everyone must eat to survive. We must take at least a moment to grasp, chew, and swallow our food. The only difference I can find is that I’m munching on almonds while they’re shoveling burritos. I’m sipping water instead of swilling soda. It’s the choices that are different. And that’s where we’ll begin.

For me, I prepare very simple lunches to take to work. Whatever I’m going to eat has to be fast and easy, or it won’t get made. Between feeding my children and pets, signing school papers, and checking early morning messages, I’m left with 5.2 minutes to assemble my noon-day nibbles. I typically slap some freshly ground almond butter on a couple slices of millet and flax gluten-free bread, stash some baby carrots, an apple, or a banana, and throw in a small container of almonds, cashews, or pistachio nuts. I also often carry a thermos with leftover morning fruit and vegetable smoothie enhanced with hemp protein, cacao powder, and bee pollen. Whatever your desire, make it wholesome, healthy, and quick. Think lean organic poultry or beef on whole-wheat bread, plain unflavored yogurt with nuts and/or berries, and spinach, kale, and chard salad.

I also cart my water bottles. (My staff says I must have a drinking problem because I still sip from a bottle. Ba-dum-bump.) In case you were wondering, yes, I’ve been slurping alkalized water for the past 16 years. (I’m well aware my life is a bit of a health freak show.) That bundle will carry me through a day’s work. I flee from chips, sugary snacks, and other cortisol-induced cravings. So far, so simple.

Step two: Make a plan. Approach your boss. Execute (the plan, not your boss).

What I’ve discovered over the years is that, like it or not, you lead by example. By my staff observing my daily eating habits, it begins to rub off on them. Before long you notice everyone bringing their lunch, commenting on wholesome recipes, and sharing advice on feeding their families. Sometimes when I close my eyes I feel like I’m at Whole Foods instead of my clinic.

But what if your boss or co-workers aren’t into this whole healthy lifestyle? What if you’re clocking in at a Dunkin’ Donuts instead of Fresh Market workplace? This is when you must make another important choice.

If your boss or manager has the pizza delivery truck on speed dial, it’s time to speak up. Change is difficult for many people, so before you propose purging everyone’s pepperoni, devise a proven plan. Seek out healthier fare: a salad bar, nearby vegetarian restaurant, or even a health food store. Review menus; poke around your staff to see what other food options they might be interested in, and then approach your junk-food dealer. Tell them you’d like to try a little experiment. You’ve read that high-carbohydrate and sugary foods such as pizza and sodas can actually decrease productivity, mental alertness, and contribute to illness and absenteeism. You’d like to try eating healthier foods whenever the situation arises.

Tell your manager you’ve spoken with many staff members and come up with some ideas on alternative restaurants and foods. Sure, it may cost a little more, but if people are energized and provide better care, that small cost is insignificant. Chances are, your manager will let you try your little “experiment.” Make sure you provide feedback, ask other health-conscious team members to thank the boss for the new foods, and ask less interested staff what they suggest to eat healthier.

Step three: Get the word out to your reps that you’ve gone healthy.

What about industry reps, well-intentioned clients, and celebrations? For industry reps, tell them you love that they bring you goodies, but you’ve gone on a health kick. Sub out pastries and sweet snacks with fruits and nuts. Over the years my reps have gotten really creative, and I think deep down they like the fact that we’re different. After all, shouldn’t healthcare professionals be interested in, you know, health?

For clients, I don’t say anything if a chocolate cake shows up unannounced. However, when clients ask what can they do to thank us, we suggest a couple of healthy restaurants, fruit baskets, or other healthy options. I treasure the fact that my clients view our team as citizens concerned about health. Finally, for birthdays, holidays, and honoring employees, a little sweetness every now and then is all right by me. What I’ve experienced is that once this wholesome culture is cooking, your team will bake gluten-free, Paleo, or even sugar-free goodies. We really are turning into Whole Foods.

Step four: Don’t forget about No. 1—you!

The final step is to create space and time within your life for yourself. For me, that time comes early in the mornings before my family wakes and after work when the family is busy with homework, practice, chores, and other activities that don’t involve everyone. If lunch is your thing, then by all means try and escape to a gym, park, or pool. If you find yourself stuck in a rut of running out to the nearest fast food restaurant each day, I suggest you re-think it.

Working in a veterinary clinic is hyperkinetic and spontaneous—you never know when an emergency or crisis will appear. I absolved myself years ago that lunch would be a luxury. Since I couldn’t always control what entered my hospital, I could strive to control the time I wasn’t there (exercise in the mornings or evenings) and make healthy choices while I was (nutritious snacks and lunch). As a boss, when I must impose on my team’s lunch breaks, I’d make sure to fill it with revitalizing foods instead of sluggish slop. For the past twenty-plus years, it’s worked out pretty well.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and give every veterinary team member set hours, fixed lunch breaks, and healthy foods. While I don’t have a magic wand, I take my responsibility to my team very seriously. As an employer, I can try my best to schedule appropriately and efficiently. I can try to get you out for lunch as much as possible, but, hey, this is reality. Not gonna happen all the time. Further, I can’t prevent you from gulping down a heaping of fat, salt, and sugar when you leave. As for eating healthy foods, that’s a choice we each make. I can guide and exhibit the behaviors I’d like you to follow, but that’s about it.

Beating the workplace blues is simply about making healthier choices. It’s not about time—it’s not about culinary expertise. In fact, there are very few good excuses for making lousy choices. What you can do is eat your veggies, exercise more, make yourself a priority, and commit to living your one and only life to the fullest—vigorously, energetically, and passionately.

So what changes are you going to make today? It’s your choice.