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In Defence of Eating Alone at Your Desk

In Defence of Eating Alone at Your Desk

  • Culture
  • Life
All photos by author.

A very long time ago, I partook in Singapore’s inescapable lunch culture. Every day around 12 noon, I traipsed into suffocating, humid eateries with a gaggle of colleagues, who proceeded to reserve our tables with tissue packets and lanyards. 

After hearing about someone’s latest squabble with her parents-in-law or another person’s Tinder escapades for what felt like several hours, I would find myself desperately regretting that I hadn’t listened to my inner introvert when it told me simply to order food delivery. 

Since I stopped trying to fit in, I’ve eaten alone at my desk 80% of the time—and it’s flippin’ fantastic. Sometimes, I make a brisk run to the nearby cai fan or curry rice stall before the lunch crowd starts gathering.

Here’s the thing though: my love for eating alone isn’t new, but it’s never been this convenient, thanks to food delivery apps, like Grab. Unlike being in school, where lunch hour was seemingly staggered, depending on the time your classes ended, the working world induces a unique sense of dread when I think about the swarm of humans that emerge during 12 to 2 PM. 

When I am in the mood to chill out in the office, and still get my fill of hawker food, I get my food delivered via Grab’s Hawker Picks (Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, anyone?). Just because I don’t fancy joining the long queues doesn’t mean my tastebuds have to settle for something less. In any case, the food on Hawker Picks are available in the CBD area too, so I’d have gone out and bought those if I didn’t need the lunch hour to regain some semblance of peace alone. 

Whatever it is, a solo lunch at my desk is an absolute indulgence. 

Food's here!!!! Joy.
Having always felt excessively awkward or timid on my own, I only started to embrace this specific kind of solitude in my mid-twenties. By then, I had run out of patience to wait for others’ schedules to align with mine. Even so, my disavowal of social pleasantries didn’t instantly make me feel comfortable alone.  

Eating alone is unlike, say, going shopping alone or taking a walk in the park alone. Because eating is inherently a social activity in Singapore, the notion of eating by oneself can evoke anxiety and make you feel ostracised. While the rest of the world seemingly slots themselves into neat cliques, you—the outcast—desperately wait for someone to rescue you from the furtive glances of passers-by and ask whether you’d like to sit together.

Here’s some good news for those of you who are new to dining alone and who want to dip your toes in the waters instead of jumping straight into the deep end: you don’t really need to be alone to eat alone.

Solo dining experts (aka me) would know that eating alone at your desk doesn’t necessarily mean being the only one to do it. For instance, if the whole office eats in, you’d have company. You’d essentially be dining alone—together. 

This has happened more often at RICE HQ than we’d readily admit. Firstly, we have witnessed the insanity that is the CBD lunchtime stampede, and none of us ever want to get caught in it. Secondly, we generally don’t give a toss how we’re perceived by anyone. (Well, we work for RICE, after all.) Finally, and most importantly, we honestly just want to fill our stomachs. 

The last point, especially, means that we’re first and foremost guided by practicality. It’s easier to make our food delivery worth it when we order in bulk. 

Yet once you overcome this fear of being seen as a loner, and the idea that being a loner is necessarily bad, a whole new world opens up for you. No longer chained by social expectations, you’re able to relish your newfound ‘independence’ by finding sheer liberation in the most boring lunch set-ups.

A note for my Grab Food delivery order: "This is a self-care meal. Please cook it like you mean it."
Once upon a time, I laughed when a colleague asked if I wanted to share her subscription plan for Grab’s Bubble Tea Club, which contained multiple brands of bubble tea. A) I’m not a fan of bubble tea, and B) I don’t have a sweet tooth. 

I asked her then, why would you think I’d ever need to use this? 

You’ll see, she replied and smiled knowingly. One day. 

As it turns out, sometimes the people closest to you do know you better than you know yourself. There was a rare day when I felt an unfamiliar urge to satisfy my boba cravings, but seeing as I wasn’t acquainted with the bubble tea outlets around my workplace, I turned to—wait for it—my colleague’s handy subscription. They don’t do deliveries, so I had to slip out of the office just before the lunch hour to get my fix. 

Then, drink in hand and having taken a breath of fresh air, I skipped back to my desk in sheer anticipation of the delicious hour ahead to catch up on Netflix shows, while the rest of the office was dead silent. 

Sipping on my taro milk tea while watching an episode of Mindhunter, without the humidity breathing down my neck, I finally understood true peace. 

Another time, saddled with back-to-back meetings in the morning, all I wanted was an hour of lunch without the same people with whom I’d just spent the last four hours. That day, a thunderstorm raged outside, putting me in the mood for a warm hug. Failing which, a piping hot bowl of Amoy’s Han Kee Fish Soup would suffice. 

I did what any lazy savvy millennial would do. Even though RICE HQ sits right next to Amoy, I called for food delivery. Everyone else had left for lunch (fools!), leaving me the luxury of a quiet, empty office, the silence punctuated only by the thick raindrops beating down on the window panes.

After my food arrived, the next hour and a half were spent engaging in another grand indulgence: leisure reading. I pulled up a few of the several-thousand-word articles I’d bookmarked and dived in with glee. I learnt about millennials who are turning astrology into serious business in the age of uncertainty, the teenage girls on TikTok who are dancing to their toxic ex-boyfriends’ voice mails, and the death of the suit in the modern workplace. 

Even though I barely got through half the open tabs, it was one of the more relaxing lunches I remember having in recent times. I was able to unwind without listening to someone wax lyrical about what to get their friend’s new child for her one-month baby shower. 

After that, I still didn’t want to start work. Having destressed alone over the last hour or so, I now had the headspace to mindfully reply to overdue text messages from friends. I was in Nirvana.

Eating alone! ... with a colleague.
Ok fine. Really eating alone.
But here’s the catch: eating at your desk, like any special occasion, might lose its shine if you do it too often. 

To preserve it as an activity I can look forward to instead of the norm, I occasionally take myself and my favourite colleague on a lunch treat at a restaurant or cafe I’ve been meaning to try. Specifically, I use the 1-for-1 food deals on GrabPay Dealbook because I am a 29-year-old auntie: it’s more affordable compared to other 1-for-1 food deals ($14.90 for a 6 month subscription with 100 1-for-1 deals). 

And it’s convenient, okay? I don’t have to download another app! 

Coupled with our conversation and company, these deals are like a jolt of adrenaline to tide me through the inevitable afternoon slump. 

I might have been filing dreadful paperwork or clearing boring emails the whole morning, but all it takes is one lunch break with someone whose company I thoroughly enjoy to remind myself that work is often less about the job scope, and more about the people. 

After all, no matter how much time I love—and need—to spend alone, humans are inherently social creatures. Well, at least I am. 

After an afternoon or two socialising away from my desk, returning to having lunch alone instantly feels more pleasurable. 

As you get older, eating alone can only be described as one of life’s more unadulterated joys. On eating alone, the New York Times says, “When you’re not sitting across from someone, you’re sitting across from the world.” 

But above all, the best thing about eating alone at my desk is the indescribable bliss of knowing I can be completely comfortable in my skin. In a crowded food court, I might have felt acutely self-conscious performing a social activity by myself. But at my desk, in my own air-conditioned bubble, with a bowl of piping hot fish soup just delivered, I am free.

This post is sponsored by Grab. 

Author

Grace Yeoh Senior Staff Writer