the business of food in the workplace

Going for lunch with colleagues, dipping into the teams biscuit tin, or even going for a pint after a hard days work… these should all sound like fairly regular occurrences in the workplace. But for someone who has issues with food, or a disorder, it’s a daily struggle. When you exercise strict control over your diet and worry constantly about what you’re eating, the idea of encountering any food related scenarios at work (of which there are many) can make you want to avoid turning up to work at all.

As we all know, eating is a natural part of life – we have to eat to survive. But it’s more than that. We eat for pleasure, we eat to socialise, and we use meals, snacks, and drinks to structure our day. So naturally, combining the slight awkwardness of socialising with your colleagues with your daily instalment of food or drink is an easy way to help conversation flow. I like to think I’m not an anti social person, but when I avoid eye contact with my approaching colleagues in case they attempt to offer me food, or accidentally double book an important meeting with our team lunch, I’m guessing this probably doesn’t give people good vibes.

Even worse, there is often a culture of discussing what people are eating, what new diets they’ve been trying out, or making comments about other people’s food. To me, a comment such as “Ooh, that looks healthy” really means “that looks horrible and I wouldn’t want to eat it”. Maybe this is dramatic, or an irrational thought – but we all know many people make judgements about food, which have often made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Mind you, this is still preferable to other pressurised situations at work. I can almost hear the jaws soundtrack playing in my head as my boss has previously approached me with a box full of freshly made cream cakes, and hovers over me until I take one and have a bite. Another common one is being told I need to help finish the biscuits in the biscuit tin, or facing a look of disgust after asking for a Diet Coke when being asked what I’d like to drink down the pub. The examples are endless, but they all of the same outcome – I feel embarrassed and alienated.

I can’t count the amount of times I have felt frustrated with myself for refusing food or avoiding social situations at work and then regretting it. Not regretting missing out on the food, but the opportunities. The chance to make friends, laugh, share a bit of office gossip, and enjoy myself. But no matter what, I would never let myself indulge or stray out of my safe food routine, which often led me to feel quite isolated and lonely.

I have become better at handling food at work. I’ve let myself go at a couple of social events by having a couple of glasses of wine and actually really enjoyed myself. I’ve also started turning up to my team lunches, which is still a little awkward, but I feel good for showing my face. Sometimes I’ve even dipped into the biscuit tin, not to socialise, but because I’ve been salivating over the custard creams my colleague had brought in earlier. It’s simple really – the less I care about what I’m eating, the happier I am. But it’s easy to say that, and extremely hard not to care. I always care about food, as I’m always thinking about it.

For me, the best way to look at it is that it’s ok to say yes, to have a fancy lunch or order a pint after work. But it’s also ok to say ‘no thank you’ when you’re not feeling up to it. The likelihood is that nobody is judging you at all, despite convincing yourself your team are plotting to corner you and force feed you chocolates the boss brought back from their latest cruise.

It has also made me think carefully about how I judge others, and I hope that others might think differently too. Don’t mock Daniel for his protein shake lunch, and don’t judge Susan for ordering a salad at the Christmas meal (you never know, she might actually enjoy eating quinoa). Try your best to make sure everyone around you eats what they want (or don’t want), when they want to. Food is a funny business, but from experience, there are definitely ways to work on it.

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