Making a zero waste lunch at work a habit

I decided a few weeks ago to focus on one of the things on my zero waste “hard” list: lunch at work. There’s no canteen in any of the offices I work in and so I had been buying a sandwich from a local café or supermarket and often also getting breakfast or snack while travelling to or from work as well. I hated the amount of packaging waste I was creating but I had a mental block about changing it. I already got up at 6am every day to go to work, had the morning routine down to 40 minutes to get out the door and couldn’t imagine fitting anything else in or getting up any earlier. I was also worried about what to eat – I’m trying to cut down on dairy and my homemade sandwich of choice for years has been cheese and pickle. If I’m buying from a café then I can pick a vegan option but at home, what do you put in a vegan sandwich?!

I decided though really I was just avoiding the issue. It couldn’t be that hard to change and I just needed to incorporate it into my morning routine, make it a habit. Habits are our brains’ way of creating short cuts, doing regular things on auto pilot that become hard wired so we don’t have to expend a lot of mental energy on them. That’s good for saving mental energy but it does make it hard to change habits once they are set. Common wisdom used to be that it takes 21 days of repeatedly doing something new to make it into a habit. However, research in recent years suggests that it’s variable depending on the type of new thing and the individual, and the average is 66 days. Which seems like a long time! I’d have to make a sandwich every weekday morning for 2 months and then it would become automatic. James Clear has an interesting perspective that you become what you regularly do and therefore your habits shape who you become. To help with motivation to build a new habit, he suggests that you work out what sort of person you want to be and match your habits with that.

Despite all that advice, I did what any sensible person would do and found an app. The one I picked (pretty much at random) is pleasingly called “done” and gives you lots of options to track whether you’re regularly doing your new thing or not. That was the extent of my planning. In the first week I had cheese and pickle sandwiches for 3 days and missed 2 days. I missed Wednesday that week because I ran out of ingredients at home and I missed Friday because I was working in London rather than my usual office and it didn’t occur to me that I’d still need to take lunch. And I wasn’t doing well at avoiding dairy. I realised then that some more planning was needed!


That weekend I investigated vegan sandwich options and found teriyaki jackfruit. Turns out I like teriyaki jackfruit and humus sandwiches! A bit weird maybe, but I’m enjoying them so far. I also remembered a Happy Pear recipe for nut and seed power loaf, which is a great snack. This is now working pretty well – at the weekends I make nut and seed loaf and teriyaki jackfruit. I also make sure that I’ve got enough ingredients for sandwiches. It doesn’t take much time in the morning and I fit it in around eating breakfast and sorting out the cat. There have also been a couple of side effects that I wasn’t expecting. On the negative side, I now have no reason to leave the office at lunchtime and so I found to start with that I wasn’t seeing the sky during the day and doing even fewer steps than in a usual office day. Latterly I’m making myself take a short walk at lunchtime so I at least leave the building! On a more positive note, I’m eating fewer unhealthy snacks and I’m saving money.


So far I’m 25 days into forming my new habit and it’s going well. I don’t think it’s totally stuck yet though, despite getting past that 21 days number – I could still imagine forgetting to prepare anything at the weekend or not planning properly when I’m going somewhere different to normal. Having the app has helped, it’s pleasing to track progress and see how long my streak is, a bit like a star chart from primary school!  The main thing that has struck me is James Clear’s assertion that you need to link the habit to your intent, to the type of person you want to be. I aspire to create no waste in how I live and so of course I have a zero waste lunch at work.

Title photo by Jonny Swales on Unsplash

  1. Hi, very interesting !! Indeed was somewhat interested that you find getting up before 6am very difficult – feeling very smug to say am on the 5:50am train every morning which means I get up @ 4:30am !!! Smug perhaps is the wrong word ‘sad’ should be used !!! Seriously what you are attempting is very interesting on many different levels. Firstly on just trying to change one’s behaviour which I think you mention you need to change for 66 days – over 2 months a very long time and very easy to slip back into ones previous behaviour. Secondly how difficult it is to buy vegan food with or without plastic wrappping – indeed I bought a swede today but that was wrapped in plastic wrapping why?? Nobody in the shop knew why !! Cucumber I get why but a swede!!! Apologies I digress – for vegan breakfast how about o/n oats with almond milk and locally sourced honey?? (OK not my idea but my daughter who read your blog with interest and this is what her many vegan friends do for breakfast and yes they struggle to find interesting vegan lunches) You will still be able to get up at 6am and eat very healthy !!! Good side effects though – making you leave the office and saving money all very positive side effects!!! Finally have many – if any – of your work colleagues noticed your effects and have your effects made them think of changing their eating habits?? Less plastic wrapping less meat etc. ??

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Meryl!
    Although I read all your posts with my interest and prise, it is the first time that I comment. About time, I would say.
    First, you have my heartfelt admiration. As much as I try to reduce my waste to the minimum, I am not ready for a challenge that requires a systematic approach to household waste! You are an inspiration.
    I understand your struggle with cutting on dairy. I struggle to replace yoghurt and, at a less extent, cheese. Milk is done, but it is the easiest as alternatives are many, and some taste better to me. I also refuse to buy ‘fake’ cheese as it is very processed food and I believe not so healthy. Do you eat eggs? Because if you do, you could make a frittata with vegetables and vegetable milk (I use cashew milk). As an alternative, have you thought about replacing sandwiches with a bento box? I cook my son’s school lunch every day and for myself when I am not in a place where they offer plastic-free food, and I love the aluminium boxes that I bought last September for us. I can make an extra portion of pasta the day before, save it in the fridge and then warm it up (I add grated parmesan cheese though, but you do not need much to give flavour). For myself, I generally do a salad with greens and roasted vegetables (tonight I did butternut squash and chickpeas with paprika, last Friday cauliflower and chickpeas with turmeric and cumin). Another suggestion is to borrow the famous Deliciously Ella’s books – happy to lend you the two I have! – or search the website as she has some great recipes that can be cooked a day or two before helping you with planning your shopping and save time in the morning :-).
    Finally, have you tried any of the Food Waste Apps (no food waste, actually!)? Olio is a well-known one, and you can discover neighbours that are on your same mission or No waste that helps you with expiring dates and meals planning. Here a full list of some good ones and a blog post I wrote a long time ago where there is also the recommendation for a Zero Waste Restaurant in Brighton that you may want to try.

    Keep up with the excellent work! I look forward to reading the next one on the list!



  3. The second line was “much interest and appreciation”, by the way, Meryl! Endless work on my typos and spelling ah ah! As for today plastic-free, dairy-free lunch: Jasmine Rice with leftovers veggies…yummy!


  4. Hi Meryl, thanks for your post and dedication. I love how seriously you took this challenge and it will ado inspire me to try to get to 66 days with things I am trying to change. This is the kind of commitment that is needed for many of the changes that are required.
    And I’ll download ‘done’!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Meryl – really interesting choice of topic- lunches at office and the dilemmas and challenges with food waste and prep work:).

    Seems like an eon ago now but I vaguely remember having these discussions with colleagues – about lunch related -office etiquette and one of my bosses mentioning that it is better to eat out – and network -during the precious lunch hour – rather than eating your lunch at your desk….so there…not sure what HBR or Forbes would say about your choice of eating at office and compensating with a brisk walk afterwards:):) There sure must be some ten tips article written by an expert somewhere on this topic:)

    I hate cooking – so can’t share any magic formulas a la our Simona (not just the mouth watering names but blog addresses too..). However, I can surely comment on building a good habit and holding on it for dear life! You might want to look at some zen practices for help. Preparing lunches are surely not as difficult as practicing – building your inner calm or living in the moment…but as you have rightly pointed out – any good habit needs diligent practice to stick. Good luck in keeping up your great habit….

    Finally – not sure why -but your blog did not pop in my email this time around – and I had to browse through linkedin to get hold of it:)


  6. I really enjoy how you are going about this (e.g. using a habit setting approach). I have found these to be useful mainly because in the excel sheet I was using…it was the dread of not putting an X in the box if I had missed that day or week. Self inflicted pressure to not self-disappoint was actually quite motivating. It also helps that I put it on my refrigerator and there are only some little family members ready to point out if I missed something.

    More importantly I am also looking for foods to eat at lunch that are sensible, easy and more than just salad (although I have mastered the salad this last year). I’m going to look into teriyaki jack-fruit! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am downloading this app as we speak Meryl! I love how technology can help hold us accountable and seeing progress checked-off is so inspiring to keep going. What I would say is this, perhaps setting the bar at everyday is too much? It’s probably akin to dieting – you need to allow yourself a treat day. Allow one day a week and don’t beat yourself up for it. It may be due to ingredients, or just work meetings, or a team lunch for a celebratory reason. All super hero’s need a day off from time to time. You can still see from your app you’re making great waves!

    Also – well done on the beeswax wraps for your sandwiches! My friend makes these and I’m a convert myself! So pretty too – it makes lunch special!

    Liked by 1 person

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