My tummy rumbles. I check the clock: 2.52pm and I’m yet to eat. I’m on deadline and I’m in flow. I check my to-do list. Cooking myself lunch certainly isn’t on it.
Freelance life offers flexibility and freedom. You can set your own schedule, shun the rules and rituals of an office — short, desk-bound lunches and Pret sandwiches can be replaced, in theory, by longer lunches, cooked from scratch in your own kitchen (whilst listening to a podcast, of course). But, with freedom comes responsibility, and accountability — to yourself, your body and your mind.
It’s this lack of accountability I’ve found hard, and it seems I’m not alone. A study by Metro bank in 2017 suggested that over a fifth of self-employed UK workers don’t take longer than 20 minutes for lunch, with them feeling more pressure than their office counterparts to have a ‘productive’ lunch . For me, it was often a case of forgetting, or feeling too busy, to cook and eat. For writer and author Tanya Shadrick, it’s the hours in front of a computer that leave her without an appetite. “I struggle to eat much before the evening meal I prepare for my family, and I haven’t fixed this yet.” It’s true that on a biological level, the stress, anxiety and adrenaline a freelancer’s day can entail – be it pitching, finishing a deadline, chasing payments — can suppress hunger in the short-term.
But it seems to run deeper than appetite alone. For Fliss Hoad, Travel and Lifestyle PR, her relationship to eating whilst working from home is one shrouded in shame. “I’m definitely a grazer and reach for the fridge when I’m stressed, then I’d beat myself up for over-eating”. This shame cycle around eating is common and one that can be exacerbated by working from home, says Dr Lorna Richards, consultant psychiatrist at Life Works. “Working from home demands self-motivation and a high degree of self-discipline in order to avoid distraction, but stopping to eat may lead to feeling guilty because it’s taking you away from work.”
Although we can know rationally that we’re not money-making, productivity robots – that we deserve watering, feeding and resting – this can be a hard truth to swallow when we need to file a piece by 5pm. “I have such a hard time forcing myself to eat during the work day because when I’m in a flow I just want to get things done, and when you work for yourself you don’t feel like you can take a break — time is money!”, says editor and writer Amanda Mactus who, after eight years working from home, thinks her mental health and metabolism have really suffered.
So how can we foster a better relationship with our eating during a working day, whilst shedding the shame and guilt around it? Dr Lorna Richards thinks, first and foremost, we need to prioritise ourselves: “You need to feed yourself and to take other breaks in order to focus properly on a task. Regular eating and activity breaks will make you more efficient, happier and healthier!”
Taking time out to cook ourselves a nice lunch can help too. Cooking offers us a way to engage other parts of our mind, whilst tuning into our bodies and senses. This is the case for freelance writer Corinna Keefe, who has taken to kneading bread during her work day. “It actually fits into my schedule really well. Mix, write, knead, write, knead, write, shape, write, bake, write… and then there are delicious rolls for dinner at the end of it.”
Nigella Lawson, who has been a fellow freelancer since the late 90s, talks about the remedial, de-stressing quality of cooking in her book Kitchen’s The Solace of Stirring chapter. “The best place, often, to soothe the savage breast is stove side,” she writes, speaking specifically of risottos’ ability to “heal and help a busy head”. Nancy Smallwood, editor and copywriter, speaks similarly of cooking’s ability to soothe. “I get a deep sense of calm and wellbeing whenever I manage to make a creative tasty lunch during the work day — particularly one that reduces my food waste by using up various leftovers and scraps of veg. It exercises my recipe brain too.”
For me, sautéing, chopping and stirring at lunch goes beyond creativity or de-stressing — it can also offer a confidence boost when needed. And research supports this, with the Society for Public Heath Education‘s review on the psychosocial benefits of cooking, conceding that the act itself promotes ‘positive mood, self-confidence, and self-esteem’. Useful if you’re in the depths of despair with a deadline, or are amidst writers’ block and need a reminder you are a brilliant, creative soul capable of many things, including making a delicious lunch.
Then there’s the act of stopping to eat your spoils – whether they’re a left-over creation or a bowl of soup. That’s when the temptation to multitask – to make our lunch productive – can be overwhelming. But, as Tiffany Phillapou, writer and co-host of the Is This Working? podcast, says, “I think it’s really important to stop and appreciate your food when you’re eating. I often just stare into space to give my brain a break.” By stopping for lunch we are, mouthful by mouthful, choosing to engage with ourselves over our work. For Tiffany, planning her three-meals-a-day in advance actually allows for more freedom. “I like to remove all decision making in the day so I can focus on my work.”
Yet for some, including myself and illustrator Emily Catherine, embracing our ‘erratic’ eating habits, and leaning into the unpredictability of freelance life, has been the path to a peaceful, joyful relationship with food. “I’m actually really proud of myself that I’ve found my own rhythm,” says Emily, “I always eat at my convenience, rather than when society deems I should eat. So sometimes I’m in flow and won’t eat lunch, but if I’m painting a huge 60ft graffiti wall, I know I can’t work from 6am to 9pm without food, so I’ll make sure I come up for breath and seek out a sausage cobb from Greggs!” For Emily, trusting that her body will tell her when and what it needs has taken time, patience and, most importantly, self-compassion.
And perhaps self-compassion is what’s needed. For whilst there are many tips and tricks to ‘eat well’ out there – batch cook, slow cook, quick cook, a full fridge, healthy snacking, food delivery boxes, a repertoire of fuss-free recipes at the ready – ultimately we are all unique in our work and body rhythms. So perhaps the key is then, whether we cook often or don’t, love it or find it a chore, to exist in each day, to meet ourselves with kindness and curiosity, to come ‘up for air’ long enough to check in and ask the ‘soft animal of our bodies’ (as Mary Oliver put it) what it needs to thrive. And if that thing is sustenance, to know there’s always time to pause and cook something, then to sit down and enjoy that something. Because our deadline and work flow can often survive an extended lunch break. In fact, maybe it’ll be better for it.
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