Business lunch is a bizarre notion


The concept of the business lunch is a bizarre notion, almost as absurd as the business breakfast. Both evolved for two reasons: to squeeze extra working time into the day and to soften up the ground on which proposal can be discussed and agreements made.

Business is best done during business hours. Allowing it to invade lunchtime denies you what you need in the middle of the day: a chance to refuel your body and rest your brain. In a business lunch you are focusing on conversation and not taste. However apparently relaxed the setting, there is a war of nerves being played across the table.

If you are able to, get the business out of the way before you eat, and then concentrate on the meal separately. An alternative is to leave it until just after lunch, but your brain will be less alert then, and the anticipation of negotiations may make you tense during the meal.

There is an important difference between talking while you are actually eating and talking while you are digesting. The latter is perfectly all right, but the former encourages you to gulp your food. You want to empty your mouth as quickly as possible, which means you don’t savour the food, you don’t chew properly and you swallow air as you gulp. All this will play havoc with your digestion. To make matters worse, you have not even enjoyed the food because your attention has been elsewhere – most people do not remember what they have eaten at a business meal.

If you are face with no alternative but to discuss key issues as you eat, here are some ways to minimise the harm it does.

  • Because business lunches are much about creating an impression, it is all too easy to eat and drink more than you intend. Remind yourself of this before you meet, to guard yourself against saying yes for the sake of appearances or to please your host or guest.
  • For a starter, choose either soup or a salad, something that you cannot swallow down without noticing. Soups will force you to pause as you concentrate on not spilling the spoonful, allowing you to pay attention for a while on what you are eating; it is also easy to digest. A salad needs to be chewed. Not only will you be able to digest well-chewed food more easily, but having to chew each mouthful draws your attention to what you are eating and keeps you alert.
  • Similarly, for the main course, choose something that will demand your attention: fish or meat that needs to be cut off the bone, vegetables like asparagus or broccoli that you can’t just scoop up unthinkingly.
  • Get into a rhythm of chew and listen, stop and talk. Give the other person a chance to do the same. Set a clam pace and you have a better chance of understanding the business under discussion. If others at the table are at times in a position to be able to talk when you can’t, so be it. Their health is their affair, and there is a lot to be said for listening more than you talk.
  • Choose only a very light dessert or none at all – you are unlikely still to be hungry. If the lunch is a drawn-out affair, with long pauses between courses, then your digestion will have had sufficient time to accommodate a dessert. Biscuits and cheese are not a bad choice because they amount only to a small portion, for the taste. Avoid fungal cheese such as blue-veined and soft, rinded cheeses.
  • Business lunches are generally less boozy affairs than they used to be, but there may be drinks beforehand and wine the meal. The message here – as always – is moderation. Too much alcohol, or alcohol on an empty stomach, will start to take effect towards the end of the meal, blunting your mind just when you may need to be at your sharpest for the concluding part of the business.
  • Have a soft drink before the meal and enjoy a glass of wine at the table. Taking the wine with food will slow down the absorption time of the alcohol. And drink your wine in sips. It will give you more pleasure and affect your alertness less. If you lunching out several times a week you may find it preferable to avoid alcoholic drinks altogether – socially an increasingly acceptable option.

If full-blown business lunches or dinners are a regular feature of your life you may feel you can survive, even thrive, on such a regime, but it will take its toll sooner or later. Don’t wait until plumpness turns into obesity, or your heart or liver gives up in protest. Mitigate the effects now: keep your other meals very simple, become a weekend vegetarian; do a one-day full fast; and treat your digestion to food that is easy to deal with, such as purees and soft, bland food.