Can a Working Lunch Make You Sick?

Working while you eat lunch at your desk might seem productive, but not if it makes you sick.

Can a Working Lunch Make You Sick?Photo: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images
Photo: Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images

Who has time to go out for lunch anymore? These days, most of us are desk eaters. Even if you do manage a Panera run, chances are you’re eating at your desk at some point during the day. But consider this: A study by researches at the University of Arizona found that the average keyboard is 400 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. Yuck!

These bacteria won’t necessarily make you sick, but they could. So can bacteria in your food if it’s not handled properly. This doesn’t mean you can’t have your delicious homemade lunch desk-side. Just avoid these common mistakes to keep your dining-hall-for-one clean and your food safe to eat.

Mistake No. 1: Not washing your hands before you eat

Why would you need to wash your hands? After all, you’ve been at your desk all day, not digging in the dirt. Washing up before you eat, however, is always important. Even if you can’t see dirt on your hands, there is bacteria. Transferring bacteria from your hands to your food and then into your mouth puts you at greater risk for getting sick. If there isn’t a sink convenient for washing, keep hand sanitizer at your desk.

Mistake No. 2: Cleaning your desk once a year

If the only time you shine up your workspace is on the day before Christmas, you’ll want to switch up your routine. Keep a package of disinfectant wipes in your work area to make it easy, or try cleaning with lemon as a chemical-free alternative. Clear off your desk and give it a wash. After you power off the computer, shake crumbs and dust from your keyboard, clean between the keys with a damp cotton swab and then run a damp microfiber cloth over the top of the keys.

Mistake No. 3: Storing cold food at room temperature

Perishable food should be kept in the office refrigerator. If your office doesn’t have a fridge (or has an office brown bag burglar), place it in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack. True, there are only a handful of hours between the time you take it out of your fridge at home and eat lunch at work, but that’s time for bacteria to multiply (and that’s not counting any other nonrefrigerated time during the life of your food, such as when you brought it home from the grocery store).

Mistake No. 4: Just warming up leftovers

If you’ve turned dinner leftovers into a creative new meal for lunch the next day, re-heat them until they’re hot. They should reach 165°. No need to go so far as to carry a thermometer around with you at work, although that’s not a bad idea. Just make sure leftovers are microwaved until steamy hot, not just warm, to kill bacteria that may be lurking.

Mistake No. 5: Saving office party leftovers

Whether it’s a retirement potluck, birthday cheesecake or because-it’s-Monday chips and dip, if it’s perishable and it’s been at room temperature for more than two hours, toss it. It’s not worth the risk of getting one of your co-workers sick by serving tainted leftovers the next day.

Now go forth, desk jockeys, and pack that brown bag with confidence. Enjoy your deskfast or cubicle lunch while earning bonus points from your boss for your extra effort, even though you’re really just doing some online shopping.

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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has nearly 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.