Lunch as we know it today has evolved from its humble origins, but efficiency has always been its true calling card. Get ready for a future of sad desk meal-replacement beverage lunches

What are you having for lunch? A store-bought sandwich that crumbles all over your keyboard as you digest the latest depressing world news? A $10 salad, eaten in front of your computer, as you toggle mindlessly between Facebook and your work?

If youre like the majority of American office workers, whatever youre having for lunch, youre probably dining al desko. Some 80% of employees dont take a regular lunch break. Rather, we cram in our calories solo, and swiftly: on average it takes just 15 minutes to eat lunch. And while it may seem sad that so many of us are masticating alone, with only the glow of our screens for company, a lot of people actually prefer it that way. In one study, a quarter of millennial employees agreed with the statement I eat alone to multitask better.

Nine to Five: working ladies who lunch. Photograph:

Lunch, as we know it in Anglo-American society today, was cooked up during the industrial revolution. Longer hours at factories situated a long way from home meant the office lunch became ingrained in the routine of working life. A regular occasion rather than an occasional snack.

At the turn of the century, speed and efficiency shaped the lunch break. Haste seems to be a controlling factor in the luncheon of the worker, noted Munseys Magazine in 1901. The need for speed when it came to workday feeding launched new quick-serve food concepts such as cafeterias and automats. Workers might not have been eating at their desks, but they were still scarfing sustenance alone.

The fabled power lunch was another innovation designed to optimize food-fuelled productivity. The concept was invented by the Four Seasons New York in the late 1970s; they had the idea of designing a meal that would be conducive to doing business. The tables were set far apart to give businessmen (and they were mainly men) privacy. You could buy wine by the glass and get a good meal in under an hour.

The power lunch: increasingly a relic of a bygone era. Photograph: CBS

As technology makes face-to-face meeting and eating increasingly redundant, the power lunch of yore has lost its appetite appeal. Indeed, Four Seasons restaurant is shutting its doors in July, marking the end of an eating era.

In its stead come power bowls and other good-for-you fast food alternatives aimed at a generation of more health-conscious workers, people with standing desks and mindfulness apps.

The power lunch has also been replaced with a slew of new, powered-by-technology lunch startups, all promising to spice up your workday meal. UberEats offers fast delivery from local restaurants, meaning that your options to go broke buying lunch have significantly expanded. New Yorks Maple delivers a rotating menu of celebrity-created lunch options for a flat $12 fee. Arcade lets you order meals by text. Bots have also emerged as a new way to more seamlessly order lunch from within productivity platforms. Taco Bell, for example, has integrated with workplace messaging company Slack to offer an AI-powered ordering service. Users talk with the bot, order food and pay through Slack.

Then there are new lunch services that help you get you out of the office, even if just to pick up your food. MealPass, started by a founder of ClassPass, is a subscription-style lunch model that offers a daily selection of weekday lunch options for $119 a month, which works out to around $6 a lunch. You log on to the service before 9.30am, pick one of the options available near your office, and pop out to collect it at a designated time. I tried it out for a couple days and it definitely injected variety into my usual lunch routine which generally consists of going to the nearest purveyor of foodstuffs and buying the same sandwich every day.

UberEats: bringing local restaurants straight to your desk. Photograph: UberEats

Heres the thing though. While its theoretically nice to have all this variety, Im not sure people are all that desperate for it. I quite like a predictable lunch. But maybe thats because my tastebuds are English apparently 32% of British office workers eat the same thing (usually a cheese sandwich) every day, with the average worker having done so for nearly four and a half years.

All of these lunch-based innovations lead me to the rather terrifying conclusion that we may now be living in the golden age of office lunches. In the 1980s, lunch, like sleep, was for wimps. However, as technology has changed the way we work and the sort of work we value, there has been a renewed focus on both sleep and proper nutrition as essential tools for productivity. Meanwhile, tech giants such as Google and Facebook have made a free lunch an expectation for many workers. Lunch is no longer for wimps its good business and good for business.

This doesnt mean were all going to start lingering over lunch, however. Far from it. Rather, I reckon were going to move towards a more data-heavy diet. The rise of the quantified employee means employers will soon be able to ensure were eating and sleeping in the most efficient manner. There has already been a 300% increase in sales of Soylent, a meal-replacement drink beloved by Silicon Valley types obsessed with efficiency. Indeed Soylent has ambitions to take a large bite out of the lunch market. If you take an historical view, you see that food is in a constant process of evolution. Were just a part of that, the CMO told Bloomberg. Im afraid he is right.

So enjoy your limp sandwich while it lasts. The only thing more depressing than a sad desk lunch is a sad desk meal-replacement beverage lunch. Best consumed solo, of course, as you mutter, between sips: I eat alone to multitask better.

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