Coworkers Complain About The Smell of My Lunch

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about odor from lunch:

I work in California and almost every day I bring my food to work. The reason I am bringing my food is for budget reasons. Also, I prefer the food I am used to and there is no store near my work place that sells the Asian food I prefer. (I am an Asian by the way.) My co-workers have complained about the smell of my food. But food, when you heat it, you cannot contain the smell.What should I do now? I am on budget and prefer to eat the kind of food I like, that is why I am bringing my own food. By the way, there is no policy at workplace about the food smell. Will be waiting for your advice.

Signed, Hungry!

Dear Hungry!

We receive many, many complaints from people about the odors of food in the workplace. Even food items that normally would smell good are a distraction at work. Food that has an unfamiliar or unpleasant smell is a strong distraction to those who don’t like it and can even be nauseating. However, I’m glad you wrote because I think there are solutions to the problem and you’ll be happier and so will others, if you can work things out.

You mentioned that there is no specific rule about food odors, but that is true about most things..until there is a problem. Employers can make policies and rules about such things, but most would prefer to avoid doing so. Maybe your good example will remind others to take a few extra seconds to keep their pizza, Mexican food, beef stew or other food, from smelling up the place! I understand about wanting to eat familiar food and about packing a lunch to save money. But, your most important consideration should be to respond in a reasonable way to reasonable concerns. Here are some things to consider doing, adapting them to your specific workplace.

1. Talk to your supervisor and let him or her know you are sincerely working to find a solution that will allow you to have some favorite foods for lunch while not bothering other employees with food odors. Let your friends and coworkers at work know that you don’t want to be a distraction or create an unpleasant situation, so you’re working at finding perfect lunches that you’ll like but that won’t bother them. That kind of communication is invaluable for gaining support and smoothing over conflicts.What makes people angry is the attitude of “I don’t care if you don’t like it, I have a right to eat what I want.” It may also be that there are other conflicts going on and this just adds to it. I’ll hope that’s not the case. If so, let us know about that as well and perhaps we can suggest some ways to improve things in that area as well!

2. Make a list of all the things that seem reasonable for taking to work. Of that menu of items, make another list of those things that don’t have a strong smell.Raw onions, curry , cumin, garlic and some other spices, broccoli, eggs, and fish or fish sauce, of all kinds, all have odors that are unpleasant to many people. Anything in excess can be unpleasant, but some things smell badly to most people, no matter how little of it is around. (Fish, for example and a spice like curry or cumin.) There is plenty of food in every culture that does not have a strong odor. It might not be your favorite of all the food items you could eat, but it is healthy and edible. That’s the food you should bring to work. Focus on food that doesn’t have to be heated, such as wraps and sandwiches or items eaten cold or at room temperature. I realize some items simply must be heated to be tasty, but you could vary your lunches so you aren’t heating food every day.

3. Cover food items to be heated with a safe paper towel. This will tend to absorb steam and the odors that accompany it. If the container has a lid that must be left open a bit, put a paper towel over the entire item. After heating food in the microwave, spray a bit of microwave cleaner inside and wipe it out. I think everyone should do that. Food items that tend to splatter and food that steams and wafts out of the vents, all can leave odors behind. I think almost any of the microwaveable frozen items smell nauseating when I open the microwave door the next time. Maybe you can buy a can of microwave cleaner now and then and donate it to the food area.

4. Do one more thing in the food preparation area if there is any doubt about odors: Deodorize the area after you’ve prepared your food. You can do this quickly in a couple of ways. One way is to use one spray of a light room deodorizer. One short spray is all you should use or you’ll create a worse problem with a strong odor.I suggest something that is lemon based or neutral, not a flower or herbal fragrance. You don’t want it to smell like a bathroom! Just one, very brief spray, up in the air, away from people. Another way to deodorize is to keep a can of bleach-based foam or liquid kitchen cleanser in the area and give a quick, brief spray onto a paper towel and wipe off the counter and the top of the microwave. That slight bleach smell is a good one for most people. Then, throw the towel in the trash and it will help the trash can smell better too. Remember, anything you spray or use should be very light and very mildly used, to avoid bothering people with fragrance allergies. Consider asking your supervisor to give his or her opinion about it, so you can be on the safe side.

5. Don’t eat any food with a noticeable odor at your desk. The smell of food is at least tolerable in food areas, but at a desk they will inevitably be smelled in other work spaces. If you must eat at your desk, you’ll probably have to change your food eating habits a lot, to eat food that does not have a strong odor and that does not have to be heated.

6. Put any trash, papers or containers in a sack to throw it away, so the odor doesn’t linger inadvertently. In one office where I worked, an employee would throw his empty tuna can in the trash, which then smelled badly for days until the big trash can was emptied. Finally our boss directed him to always put the empty can in another bag and close it tightly before throwing it away. That took care of the problem. (And he ate in a corner by himself on the days he ate a can of tuna because everyone hated the smell! Ick!)

7. This last may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. If food has a strong odor on a plate, it does on hands and breath too. Be sure to wash up, rinse your mouth and brush your teeth, so food particles won’t keep smelling as you talk to people later.All of this may sound like a lot of trouble; but it is just social graces applied to work. All employees ought to be doing these things. We’d avoid a lot of bad smells, bad breath and dirty break rooms that way!You may be thinking that no one else has to go to this much trouble, and that is probably true. But, it never hurts to be known as the person who is willing to put extra effort into being a good member of the team at work. You may also find that many others will admire your efforts and will think well of you for being so considerate.Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how these ideas work out.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.