By Joe Pinsker – The Atlantic
“Variety doesn’t really matter to me. I would be perfectly happy to eat the same Caesar salad or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day.”
Vern Loomis, a retired structural draftsman in West Bloomfield, Michigan, had a standard office lunch: a peanut-butter sandwich, with various fruit, vegetable, and dessert accompaniments. He ate this, he estimates, nearly every workday for about 25 years.
His meal underwent slight modifications over time—jelly was added to the sandwich in the final five or so years—but its foundation remained the same. The meal was easy to prepare, cheap, and tasty. “And if you happen to be eating at your desk … it was something that was not too drippy,” he told me, so long as one applied the jelly a bit conservatively.
Last year, Loomis retired from his job but not his lunch, which he still eats three or four days a week (now with sliced bananas instead of jelly). “I never stopped liking it,” he says. “I still do.”
Loomis may be uncommonly dedicated to his lunchtime ritual, but many share his proclivity for routine. One of the few existing surveys of people’s eating habits estimated that about 17 percent of British people had eaten the same lunch every day for two years; another indicated that a third of Brits ate the same lunch daily. But it’s hard to say for sure how common this really is, since these surveys tend to have been conducted by food purveyors, who might be inclined to exaggerate the ruts that diners are stuck in (and then try to sell them a way out). Still, loyalists who stick to a single meal for months or years—they are out there.
Some of them are public figures whose monotonous diets have been revealed in interviews—they are college-football coaches, fitness-chain CEOs, TV personalities, fashion designers, dead philosophers, Anderson Cooper. Depending on the context, eating the same thing every day can come off as a moderately charming quirk, an indictment of one’s lack of creativity, or a signal of professional focus and drive.
Whatever the symbolism, these people’s behavior is not doing them harm. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the author of several books about nutrition and the food industry, says the consequences of eating the same lunch every day depend on the contents of that lunch and of the day’s other meals. “If your daily lunch contains a variety of healthful foods,” she says, “relax and enjoy it.”
So there is nothing wrong with this habit. In fact, there are many things right with it. I spoke with about half a dozen people who, at one time or another, have eaten the same thing for lunch every day. Together, their stories form a defense of a practice that is often written off as uninspired.
Many of the people I talked with emphasized the stress-reducing benefits of eating the same thing each day. Amanda Respers, a 32-year-old software developer in Newport News, Virginia, once ate a variation on the same home-brought salad (a lettuce, a protein, and a dressing) at work for about a year. She liked the simplicity of the formula, but the streak ended when she and her now-husband, who has more of an appetite for variety, moved in together six years ago. Would she still be eating the salad every day if she hadn’t met him? “Oh heck yeah,” she told me. “It would’ve saved so much time.”
Sharilyn Neidhardt, a photo editor in New York City, once found solace in regularity. About a decade ago, she switched jobs, and her new one stressed her out. “There were phones ringing constantly and there were people yelling all the time,” she recalls. One thing that Neidhardt found soothed her and gave her a measure of control over her day: She picked up a spicy noodle dish called tantanmen from the same ramen restaurant every lunch break. She did this for “a minimum of six months,” after which she got tired of the meal (and its cost) and, perhaps more important, settled into the new job.
Eating the same thing over and over can also simplify the decisions people make about what they put into their bodies. Currie Lee, a 28-year-old resident of Los Angeles who works in retail, has some food allergies, and keeping her lunch unchanged “makes it easy” to eat around them. For about six months, at her previous job, she brought overnight oats every day; her current go-to is a turkey sandwich with hummus, avocado, arugula, and cheese, on gluten-free bread.
Lee’s eating habits are not just a function of her allergies, though. She likes that eating the same thing makes grocery shopping simpler, brings consistency to her sometimes chaotic schedule, and made it less likely she’d spend the money at the “$12-salad place” near her previous office. Besides, she really likes the things she brings. “I’m not eating, like, a PB&J every day,” she says. “I try to make it taste good and interesting.” (I did not tell Vern Loomis what Lee apparently thinks of his lunch.)
Chloe Cota, a computer engineer in New York City, does not have as strict a lunchtime regimen as others described in this story, but she has noticed that when her company brings in catered lunch, she always picks a salad when it’s available. She came to think of this default selection as reducing her “cognitive overhead”—a way of not expending mental energy on something that wasn’t a high priority for her.
“Lunch variety doesn’t really matter to me,” she says. “I would be perfectly happy to eat the same Caesar salad or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day.” Similarly, she has devised a standard “work uniform” (one of her many pairs of black leggings, plus a T-shirt), which helps streamline her morning routine. She says she took inspiration from tech moguls such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who essentially automated their own daily attire decisions in the name of reducing cognitive overhead.
The salad station, Cota says, is also an opportunity for her to practice “mindful eating,” something she started doing as part of her recovery from an eating disorder she developed in high school. She says it helps to know that the foods available to her in that moment are ones she knows she likes, which “short-circuits that whole negative space in my brain where I might get back into those disordered behaviors.”
For some people, the repetition in their daily food preparation is in the meals they make for other people. Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez, a 26-year-old writer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, cooks the same meal—“a meat and rice,” sometimes with some vegetables—for her 3-year-old son most nights of the week. “It made it simple in a way that there was less stress about what to give him,” she says. He usually gets a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch, and doesn’t seem to mind the lack of variety.
Of course, most people around the world who eat the same thing every day aren’t doing so voluntarily. “I would say most people most of the time have little choice in their staple,” says Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. “If they live in a rice culture, they will have rice for every meal; ditto potatoes.” The cooking fat used—say, butter or ghee—generally remains the same as well.
The variety, Freedman says, usually comes from “relishes,” the food-anthropology term for flavor-adding ingredients such as spices, vegetables, and modest amounts of meat (like bacon). “This staple + fat + relish combination is what dominated eating in traditional peasant cultures,” he wrote in an email.
When I asked Krishnendu Ray, a food-studies scholar at NYU, about dietary variety, he said: “Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest. It is recent. It is class-based.” So, when accounting for the totality of human experience, it is the variety-seekers—not the same-lunchers—who are the unusual ones.
I should reveal that my interest in this subject is not purely philosophical. Nearly every workday for the past five or so years, sometime during the 1 o’clock hour, I have assembled a more or less identical plate of food: Bean-and-cheese soft tacos (topped with greens, salt, pepper, and hot sauce), with baby carrots, tempeh, and some fruit on the side. And almost invariably, I see the same colleague in our communal kitchen, who asks with delight, “Joe, what are you having for lunch today?” The types of bean and cheese rotate, as does the fruit—which depends on the season—but I do not inform my co-worker of these variations when I laugh off her very clever and funny question.
The people I talked with recounted similar experiences of having co-workers harmlessly joke about their meals, like “How was that sandwich today, Vern? Did you use crunchy or plain?” Currie Lee’s former colleagues, aware that she adored horses, found her regular meal particularly amusing, saying things like “Oh, there’s Currie with her oats.”
Lee thought these comments were just regular workplace small talk. But perhaps there is more to them, and eating the same thing each day reveals something deeper about who people are, or at least perceived to be. Amanda Respers, the yearlong eater of salads, says that “we bring a little bit of home when we eat lunch at work,” and naturally people’s outside-of-work identities are a subject of interest. What does eating the same thing each day say, then? “No offense, but it gives the impression that you’re a little bit boring,” she says.
Personally, I think Respers is on to something, though I’d draw a slightly different conclusion. The daily rituals of office life are characterized by their monotony and roteness, and bringing a different lunch each day is a sunny, inspired attempt to combat all the repetition. I do genuinely appreciate the optimism of those attempts. But in my mind, eating the same thing for lunch each day represents a sober reckoning with the fundamental sameness of office life. It seems like an honest admission that life will have some drudgery in it—so accept that and find joy elsewhere instead of forcing a little bit of novelty into a Tupperware and dragging it along on your commute.
But I am probably overthinking this. Ultimately, I am partial to Vern Loomis’s analysis of what prompted his co-workers to poke fun at his peanut-butter sandwich: “Maybe [they did so] just out of good humor, or maybe guilt that they’re not eating as healthy—that they’re eating a greasy burger or something—or going out and spending $15 for a lunch when mine only cost 80 cents.”
“Jealousy,” he concluded. “I think it’s jealousy.”