Food Fight: The Stinky Bag Lunch

Social scientists refer to the phenomenon as desk top dining. Many of us choose to work through lunch by eating at our desks. Lunch hour is shrinking and that means many of us are eating lunch at our desk. A 2016 New York Times article “Failure to Lunch,” reported 62 per cent of American professionals are daily eating lunch this way at the office. Not only is this a health hazard because we’re not getting up and moving around but bagging it can also create a potentially stinky situation for our fellow cubicle-dwelling colleagues. Because, a meal that may have smelled scrumptious at dinner last night, might be nausea inducing for your neighbors today.

As part of an unscientific survey, I stopped people on a busy street to ask them about which foods they found the most offensive. The worst culprits? Falafels, salmon and hard-boiled eggs, were just some foods people claimed they did not enjoy smelling at work. Even a plain old tuna sandwich got the thumbs-down from a few people.

Joanne Blake is a workplace etiquette expert with Style for Success. Her company provides corporate image consulting for businesses. Blake’s advice is to critique what you bring to work before you pack it. Because, not only can the unpleasantly aromatic meal upset your co-workers, those negative feelings could attach themselves to you and have a long-term effect on how people relate to you.

“You want to ask yourself, ‘Is anything that I’m bringing potentially offensive?'” she says. “I think most of us would agree that relationships are important at work; you don’t want to bring in any messy or odorous foods that could jeopardize those relationships.”

What if it’s one of your colleagues who’s the perp?

“We have to cut people slack and choose our battles,” says Blake. “If a co-worker brings something in once in a blue moon, like stilton cheese, that makes your skin crawl, you might let it go,” she says. But, she adds, “if it happens habitually that’s when you might want to have a conversation with them about it.”

How to Have the Stinky Food Talk

Be polite and do it in private. Don’t tell them they can’t eat a certain food, just request that you would prefer if they did not eat it at their desk. If this is too uncomfortable to do, talk to HR about putting up a sign or making an announcement asking co-workers to not eat overly fragrant foods deskside.

She adds that it may not even be the food smell that bothers co-workers. Slurpee soups or crunchy popcorn can also be a distraction. Her advice? If you want to be a courteous co-worker, take your meal to the lunchroom. It’s expected that that room will smell. This will do two things: give you that much needed break, and, save you, and your lunch, from bothering others.

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