The office salad stand-off: Are you competing for the healthiest lunch?
Once upon a time, lunch at work was a simple ham sandwich. Now, you're no one if you don't have a salad - and the more exotic the ingredients, the better. Aoife McElwain on the rise of the competitive salad eater
It's lunchtime in the office. At the strike of 1pm, the Tupperware lunch boxes start to trickle out of tote bags and the office fridge. What delights will be unveiled at the pop of the plastic? Will there be blueberries and kale? Or goji berries and quinoa?
Soon, the workers are gathered around the communal table, ready to slyly survey the bounty of lunchtime salads their colleagues have brought from home today.
The red jewels of pomegranate twinkle in the sun from Sorcha's feta and couscous salad, Fiacre's roasted aubergines glisten with a harissa and tahini sauce, while Anna's edamame and pickled radish noodle salad causes a rippled murmur of appreciation around the table.
Human beings are an odd bunch, and most of us are pretty much obsessed with what other people are doing, and how it reflects upon us. Even when it comes to lunchtime.
Once upon a time, a hang sangwich would suffice for lunchtime.
Nowadays, it appears we're upping our games, and bringing the rest of the office with us. A sort of kale-led peer pressure.
"I've noticed that people are keen to show off the new superfood goiji berries they've added to their salad or the pink Himalayan rock salt they're now using on their shredded chicken," divulges Stella Forte, a graphic designer and chickpea enthusiast.
When did our salads get so fancy? When I was a kid in the late 80s, a salad was a boiled egg, a few leaves of lettuce, triangular wedges of tomatoes, a slice of ham and a dollop of coleslaw from Quinnsworth. Oh, and the ultimate in salad sophistication; Heinz salad cream.
Thankfully the horizons of our salad options have broadened beautifully since then.
"Salads are the new ordinary," explains Gillian Tsoi, journalist and lunchtime salad enthusiast. "But I remember a time when rolls and sandwiches were the lunchtime staple: ham and cheese, tuna and sweetcorn, turkey and egg mayo - olives were exotic back then; sundried tomatoes were unheard of.
"The bread was sliced pan - brown or white. None of your fancy seeded or rye or gluten-free varieties. I don't think people even knew what gluten was in those days. Simpler times."
Quinoa, couscous, chickpeas, pine nuts, pomegranates, kale, fennel, avocado, dried fruits and nuts… our salads have become increasingly colourful.
Thanks to Irish wholefood pioneers such as Dublin's Blazing Salads and Cornucopia, and Cork's Cafe Paradiso, our knowledge of ingredients and our idea of the boundaries of what belongs in a salad has increased exponentially. It's truly wonderful to see variety in our diet.
But are there some salad eaters out there who are trying to outdo one another?
"Competitive salad eating is something I've only come across lately," says Stella. "I think it's become much more common for people to bring lunch into work, certainly since the downturn in the economy.
"I would have always gone for a classic combo of mixed leaves, beetroot, avocado, cherry tomatoes and baked salmon.
"But after noticing people introducing things like pomegranate and flaked almonds, my salads seemed so boring so now I've had to mix it up."
Neil Curran, improv teacher, festival director and irreconcilable tuna misanthropist, feels strongly about the opportunity for showmanship around one's daily salad.
"Aren't the dietary habits the unspoken game in the office at lunchtime?" he says. "Salads in particular bring out a massively judgemental side of humanity.
"You're proud of your culinary creation but you're always looking in the bowl of a colleague to see what you're missing out on.
"People want to be watched with their awesome salad. I'm hated by colleagues for my arrogant bowl of greenery. I always make sure to eat salad out of the biggest bowl I can find. What's good for the salad is good for my ego."
Susan Jane White, self-professed health geek and author of The Extra Virgin Kitchen, has a more pragmatic approach to salads.
"It sounds like competitive people are just turning their attention to food. Frankly, it's harmless. Last year it was marathons. The year before, everyone went paleo-gaga. Next year it will be something different.
Social media fuels our obsession with what other people eat, or, indeed what they appear to be eating. It's not just aspirational homes, clothes, hair and parties that are being shared; I'm sure either you or someone you know has let their dinner go cold trying to get the perfect iPhone pic of it for Instagram.
"People tend to paint this picture-perfect world online. We're quick to upload that delicious brunch we've put together on a lazy Saturday afternoon but not so quick to upload that scrambled egg mess of a carbonara of a Tuesday night.
"We filter out the bad things. I think people know that someone's digital world is not reality, but we still begrudgingly 'like' that brunch though and don't hesitate to show off our own perfect Sunday roast."
Neil agrees. "No one takes pictures of their breakfast roll or chicken sandwich.
"If it's too embarrassing to put on social media, then it's too embarrassing to put in your belly."
Is our obsession with the health food diets of others actually healthy for us?
"I cringe at some popular hashtags like #fitfood, #foodforabs, #cleaneating filled with narcissists and their taut abs," says Susan Jane White.
"I feel like the health food movement has been hijacked by these eejits. Healthy eating is nothing to do with eggbox abs. Don't get me wrong, I admire those with tenacity in the gym... But parading it over social media is a sore sight."
So should we be trying to keep up with the kohlrabies at the office place? Or should we focus instead on pleasing our own tummies, and eating what feels right for us?
Perhaps a bit of healthy competition has only encouraged us to experiment with our lunchtime boxes?
"I've now added things like quinoa and chickpeas to my salads. There's also a plethora of things like nuts, seeds and goji berries to jazz things up.
"Alternating the dressing keeps me amused and I like to add a nut butter into it which keeps me fuller longer. I'm lucky as I've found a lovely shop where I live in Mullingar called Nuts and Grains (nutsandgrains.ie) that has amazing local organic produce which has really helped me up my game," says Stella.
"There might be a bit of healthy competition (pardon the pun) in the office kitchen," says Gillian. "But salad eaters wouldn't tend to look down their noses at sandwich or fast-food eaters.
"I hope not anyway! I for one have never felt judged on my sandwich-eating days."
Neil, however, is more hawk-eyed when it comes to the lunches of his peers and the motivations behind them.
"Spinach is really popular now. I firmly believe there isn't a human being on the planet that likes spinach.
"I've also seen people putting breaded chicken in their salad. It's usually just a gateway ingredient for going full on chicken fillet baguette.
"But let's be honest, if you're putting breaded chicken in your salad, you're only fooling yourself. We are judging you. Oh, and tuna. Tuna doesn't belong in anything. Except the sea."