10 Steps to Making a Working Lunch Work for You

colleagues eating and talking at a business lunch

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
April 15, 2024 at 9:23AM UTC
Working lunches (or other meals) can be a good way to get important business done and meet with potential business partners. In some cases, they can also be a nice time to get a company's employees together to discuss ongoing work, important projects and similar topics in a slightly more informal setting. However, these situations can also be stressful and fraught if you aren't sure how to conduct yourself appropriately.

What is a working lunch meeting?

Working lunches generally fall into two types. The first is in-house working lunch meetings for a company's internal team. In these cases, the company might want to gather its employees to discuss certain topics together, kick off a new project or conduct a workshop that, due to its length, spans the lunch hour. In these situations, the lunch is generally catered and in the office. The second type generally involves current or potential business partners meeting each other to discuss business over a meal. These meetings are generally smaller (likely one-on-one) and in a restaurant.

10 tips for a successful working lunch.

Keeping a few tips in mind will help ensure that your working lunches are successful.

1. Order (or pick) easy-to-eat foods.

A working lunch isn't the time for finger foods, messy foods with a lot of spill potential (everyone loves nachos, but they really aren't the best food for a working lunch) or anything too complicated. A good rule of thumb is to pick items that are easy to eat with utensils and that won't make a mess or stain your clothes if you drop a bit of food.

2. If at a restaurant, wait for your guest(s) to arrive before being seated.

If your working lunch is at a restaurant, wait for your whole party to arrive before taking your seat at your table. This is especially true if you're hosting the lunch, in which case seating yourself before your guest arrives is a faux pas that may cause offense.

3. Be open to a working "lunch" that isn't actually lunch.

It used to be that a business lunch had to be strictly during lunch hours back when business was conducted in a fairly strict nine-to-five culture. Nowadays, with everyone's 24/7 schedules and more relaxed rules around when it's appropriate to have business lunches, bear in mind that your working "lunch" could just as easily be a working breakfast, dinner or coffee.

4. Remember basic table manners.

Regardless of the venue that your working lunch is in, be it at your office or at a restaurant, remember to abide by basic table manners. So, chew with your mouth closed, don't talk with your mouth full, tilt the soup bowl away from you and use the proper silverware for your meal. If you wouldn't do it at a nice dinner out with your folks, it probably isn't appropriate at a business dinner, either.

5. If at a restaurant, order a mid-priced item.

If you're eating out for a working lunch, avoid ordering either the priciest or cheapest item on the menu. Either choice can make your dining companion(s) feel uncomfortable about their choices and send a signal, intended or not, that you're focused on the price tag of the meal. 

6. If at a restaurant, mirror the number of courses your guest(s) choose(s).

If you're eating out for a working lunch, choose the same number of courses as your guest. Otherwise, if they've ordered a soup, salad and main course to your single main course or vice versa, one of you will be stuck awkwardly watching the other eat while waiting for their own food.

7. Stay focused.

The point of a working lunch is the working part of the event, not the lunch part. Therefore, make it a point to stay focused during your working lunch. Take notes if needed and, especially if it's an in-office work lunch, come prepared with your laptop if warranted.

8. Don't drink if it's a daytime meeting, and take a cue from your dining companion if it's a working dinner.

While shows like Mad Men remind us that there was once a time when a two-martini lunch was standard for certain types of business people, it's no longer appropriate — at least in the U.S. — to drink during most daytime business meetings, even if they take place over a meal. With that said, rules get a little trickier at dinners, where it's more common to have a drink; in those cases, take a cue from the person (or people) you're with to gauge what's appropriate.

9. Stick to the agenda.

A working lunch is the same as any other business meeting in that there should be a point to it. So, there should be an agenda (or, in the absence of a formal agenda, a clear set of objectives for the meeting) that everyone should bear in mind. You've convened to conduct business first and foremost, and should conduct yourselves accordingly. With this in mind, don't get lost in your food, no matter how good it is.

10. If at a restaurant, the person who called the lunch should pick up the check.

Generally, the person who asked for the meeting should pick up the check for a business meal (with that said, if the person you're with insists on splitting the check, don't deny them that request). So, if you're the one who initiated the meeting, put your credit card down when the check comes. Since you're paying, use this opportunity to wrap up any loose ends from the meeting and thank your dining companion(s) for their time.

Do I legally have to take a lunch break?

There's no federal law requiring employers to offer or mandate lunch or coffee breaks. However, the federal law does say that if employers offer short breaks of five to 20 minutes, this is considered time worked. On the other hand, when employees take lunch breaks of 30 minutes or more, that isn't counted as work time. 
However, at the state level, laws are varied, although most states require some sort of lunch period during a minimum of five to six hours of work. Some states — such as California and Colorado — require employees to have a minimum of a 30-minute break after the first five hours of work. Nebraska, meanwhile, requires a 30-minute off-premises lunch break for every eight-hour shift. However, California also allows an employer and employee to waive this requirement through mutual agreement. 
If you aren't clear about your state's specific requirements around lunch breaks, consult your employee handbook or the relevant state laws and statutes.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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