Every day, across Norway, something strange happens. It starts at about 11:30, and the first sign is the rustling of paper at the bottoms of rucksacks and handbags. Shortly thereafter, people begin fishing out square packages, neatly wrapped in baking parchment. Some have cute messages like ‘ha’ en god dag!’ – ‘have a good day!’ – scrawled on top. Others are tied up with string.
The phenomenon can be witnessed everywhere – in offices and schools, on public transport, out hiking near icy fjords. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that all will contain the same humble open sandwich. And, if it’s been made correctly, it will be dry, flavourless and predominantly beige in colour.
In Norway, you’re not supposed to look forward to your lunch – Ronald Sagatun
“In Norway, you’re not supposed to look forward to your lunch,” says Ronald Sagatun, who works in advertising and hosts a YouTube channel about Norwegian culture. “It’s kind of a strict thing. It’s easy to make, easy to carry around, easy to eat, but it should be a disappointment.”
While British office workers rush around each lunchtime, queueing at cafés, bankrupting ourselves on superfood salads and deli-style sandwiches or, worse, skipping the meal altogether, Norwegians have it all organised. Each morning, going back decades, they diligently prepare a packed lunch.
A slice of tradition
The ‘matpakke’, pronounced ‘maadpukke’, with a satisfying emphasis on the ‘e’, consists of a stack of three or four thin slices of wholemeal bread, with a meaty, fishy or cheesy layer on top of each (this is the word’s popular meaning, though technically it can be used to describe any food which is prepared to be eaten outside of the home).
Today the matpakke is much more than just an insipid open sandwich; it’s a national institution, and an understated source of cultural pride.
Most children in Norway take one to school and many adults continue the habit for their entire working lives. According to retiree Helge Vidar Holm, who studies French literature at the University of Bergen and has recently retired, the matpakke is the first aspect of Norwegian culture that foreign students are taught when they arrive. “Quite a few, the first word they learn, before thank you and so on, they’ll learn to say ‘matpakke’,” he says.
The tradition originated in the 1930s with a government programme to provide all school children with a free meal each day
The tradition originated in the 1930s with the Oslo Breakfast. Back then, Norway was poor and this government programme aimed to provide all school children with a free meal each day. It was an unmitigated success, and later copied around the globe. Eventually parents took over the responsibility and gradually it evolved into the matpakke – now not just for children, but widely eaten by adults, whether they’re doctors, students or construction workers.
“Like most Norwegians, I eat my matpakke every day when I work,” says Holm. “That’s the Norwegian way and it’s most peculiar, because it’s not the same in Sweden or Denmark, Iceland or Finland. It’s a very Norwegian tradition.”
Norway is a rich country with one of the world’s highest rates of GDP per capita. This is partly due to oil reserves in the North Sea, but it’s also to do with the nation’s productivity.
According to a report by the business marketplace Expert Market, in the year from 2016, the nation was the most productive in Northern Europe. Meanwhile, in the UK, productivity output per hour worked still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 economic collapse; the same report revealed that while productivity in Norway grew by 9%, in Britain it fell by a further by 7%.
Could other countries learn a thing or two from the steadfast, simple culture of the matpakke?
One leading benefit of the tradition is that is makes for more efficient breaks
One leading benefit of the tradition is that is makes for more efficient breaks. In Norway, employees are given just 30 minutes for lunch, regardless of whom they work for. Although the regulation might sound strict, it’s necessary; the nation has among the shortest working hours in the world, at just 38.5 hours a week on average – and many workers go home at three in the afternoon.
“If you have a longer break, you will have longer hours,” says Holm. “And especially because we are a very [geographically] long country, we have long polar nights, so it’s good to finish the day before the sun goes down and it gets dark.”
Things are very different in the UK. In addition to a troublingly sluggish workforce, the nation also has the longest working week in Europe, at around 42.3 hours. Assuming an eight-hour working day, this is equivalent to more than three weeks of extra work every year when compared to Norway.
“I don’t think we’re more clever, but we have the idea that when you go to work, you work. We don’t spend very much time chatting and talking with colleagues, eating and so on. I do much more of that when I’m abroad,” says Holm.
It’s more of a practical take on food. It’s really like ‘OK, no wasting time!’ – Ronald Sagatun
The matpakke is crucial because it means workers can use the entirety of their breaks to relax. “It’s very easy, you don’t lose any time making it, and then within 10 minutes you can scroll your phone or talk to your colleagues, and so on,” says Sagatun. “It’s more of a practical take on food. It’s really like ‘OK, no wasting time!’.”
According to Mira Rutter, a productivity coach based in London, this efficiency is something we should all be aiming for. “Before I started running my own business, I used to work in investment and wealth management, and I would see people constantly waiting and waiting in queues at lunch. Then they’d eat at their desks, which is really not healthy,” she says. “I’m a big advocate of more mindful eating. Allowing your eyes to rest. Allowing yourself to walk around. Having a conscious break is good practice, it translates into being more effective in the afternoon.”
Although the matpakke helps with time expedience, it doesn’t perform quite so well with nutrition. Despite its roots in improving the diets of Norwegian children, the modern version is hardly the model of a wholesome lunch.
First, the base must consist of boring brown bread; custom dictates that only the highly processed supermarket kind will do. The most typical filling is sliced cheese, especially a brown, sweaty type made from cream and goat’s milk, known as ‘brunost’. It has an unusually low melting point, so it perspires at room temperature – and it’s also highly flammable (the cheese made global headlines back in 2013 when a lorryload caught fire and burned for five days). Other options include cheese from a tube or liver pâté.
“The pâté is not like you’d find in other Nordic countries,” says Sagatun. “It’s more bland in a way, and it’s not that fresh. You can stock it for years and years.”
Sagatun is keen to point out a few classic blunders, such as piling on the fillings or using more than three or four slices of bread. “It should be just what you need when you are hungry, but not more than that,” he says. It’s also taboo to add salad or slices of delectable cured meat. To avoid stern looks from colleagues, those aiming for a fancier version can try mackerel in tomato sauce or cod roe caviar instead – as long as it’s from a tin or a tube. Sagatun says “this is as exotic as it gets”.
Another hallmark of the matpakke is the addition of small, bread-sized squares of mellomleggspapir – between-layer paper – between each slice of bread; these can be peeled off as you eat your way through the layers. The lunch is usually eaten with a thermos of hot tea or coffee.
But regardless of what you put in your matpakke, there are other things that we can learn from Norwegian lunch culture. According to Holm, it’s unusual to skip lunch, and people tend to have it at roughly the same time of day, every day.
As it happens, this is the first cardinal rule of improving your work output, regularly advocated by productivity gurus and splashed liberally across the pages of self-help books: have a daily routine.
This is the first cardinal rule of improving your work output, regularly advocated by productivity gurus: have a daily routine
There haven’t been many scientific studies into the strategy, but it’s used by highly successful people, from billionaire business magnate Richard Branson to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
The idea is to add structure to your day, by blocking out regular time periods for important activities, such as eating and exercise. It’s thought to help people to get more done, while also reducing stress; implementing a daily routine is often used as a treatment for bipolar disorder. In Norway, people take this sensible advice one step further, but eating the same exact food every single day.
To Sagutan’s amazement, though his office serves free hot lunches every day and has its own Italian chef, his colleagues often bring in their own matpakke instead. “Or sometimes let’s say we have pasta for lunch, well, then the Norwegians in the queue will start slicing up bread,” he says. “They might put pasta on top, as if it was a matpakke. They say: ‘No, no, no, I don’t feel that it’s a lunch if we don’t have the slice of bread’.”
Finally, the matpakke could help workers to avoid decision fatigue. This might sound like a bit of a stretch, but there’s mounting evidence that each decision we make takes a toll on our mental reserves, eventually leading to worse decisions later in the day. In some professions, such as medicine, this can put lives at risk.
One strategy for overcoming this issue is to avoid unimportant decisions altogether by making the same choices every day. For example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly always wears the same outfit to work – his iconic grey T-shirt with jeans – for this reason. Another fan is former US President Barack Obama, who wears a blue or grey suit. Having the same lunch formula every day means Norway’s super-productive workforce has one less decision to make.
“Avoiding decision fatigue is certainly important, and I always advise my clients to get around this with forward planning,” says productivity coach Rutter. “Pre-preparing your lunch can really help.”
It’s hard to imagine the rest of the world suddenly developing a taste for caviar-from-a-tube or stale liver pâté. Still, the Norwegian culture of the packed lunch seems to have plenty of upsides. It might be worth giving the world’s most disappointing sandwich a try.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.