can we ban smelly foods in the office microwave?

A reader writes:

We have an employee at work who has been bringing in some pungent food and heating it up in the microwave oven. I have received a complaint or two of the smell, and a number of vendors who’ve come to our office have commented on the smell as well. One employee shared that the smell makes her sick, even nauseous at times. This employee with the stinky food sits close by to the front door, so any visitors (which mainly consist of our firm’s clients) would be sure to get a good sniff as well. She always heats up this food and takes it back to her cubicle to eat it there. Even if I asked her to limit the eating to the designated eating area, the smell would still travel, as our office space is not that big and the lunchroom where she heats it up is central.

Is this something that can be safely and appropriately brought up to the employee, about her bringing in smelly food? Do I have legitimate grounds as her supervisor to bring up this issue? We are a professional firm and should maintain a professional environment, but even beyond that, her food is irritating other workers and potentially affecting their productivity and concentration.

Would it be fair to enforce some kind of policy or make a general office etiquette announcement that suggests people eliminate heating up any foods with strong odors? Along with explaining that we need to maintain a professional working environment, especially keeping our clients in mind and that these kinds of odors do not help maintain one, but rather can be overwhelming and disturbing to others, both to visitors and those within…?

There are others who also heat up some smelly food time to time in the office with the microwave, so it isn’t entirely just this one employee. It’s just that she does it more regularly than others.

Also, I should note, this particular employee (with the smelly food) can tend to be quite sensitive and moody from time to time. When she is annoyed, she can be very harsh to others and in general, does not have a very positive working relationship with the other staff.

Sure, you can absolutely have a policy against heating up strong-smelling food in the office microwave, and plenty of offices do.

You want to make sure, of course, that your policy isn’t unfairly targeting people of a particular ethnicity or national origin, who might bring in foods that smell different than what the rest of your employees are used to. So your policy needs to tackle strong smells across the board, both in wording and in how you enforce it. But yes, it’s entirely reasonable to have a policy that says something like, “For the comfort of employees and visitors, foods that produce strong smells should not be microwaved or consumed in the office.”

Of course, even after the implementing that policy, you might still discover that people don’t always realize that their food smells strongly to others, and if that happens, then you’d need to tell them. As in: “Jane, would you mind not heating up fish and similar foods in the office microwave? The smell carries pretty strongly.”

If, in response to that, the employee asserts her right to cook whatever she wants, you can explain that no, in fact the office doesn’t allow foods that produce strong smells to be cooked there, end of story.

Also … if you’re not already tackling her tendency to be rude to others, you’ve got to take that on too — it’s more important than the microwave issue. You need to let her know that you expect her to be pleasant and polite to her coworkers, even if she’s annoyed, and you need to hold her to that standard, just like you would with any other part of her job.

{ 322 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    And remember that the longer the explanation, the more awkward it gets. Short and sweet and immediate.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      And don’t let anyone try to argue or reason with you about it. Stand firm and people (like me) who are kind of sensitive to food smells will appreciate it.

      1. Vicki*

        I worked in a group in a company that supplied microwavable fake-butter popcorn packets. The smell of those things makes me nauseous.

        Then one of our managers started talking about getting a “popcorn machine” for the team. Not just a simple hot-air popper but one of the fancy ones with (again) the melted butter stuff.

        The only reason we successfully fought that back was because one of the tech leads was also sensitive to the smells. The manager didnt seem to care what I thought, but didn’t want to annoy that particular tech lead.

        Aside to Alison: Do you have statistics for questions? How many times over the years have you had a etter about smelly food?

  2. Anonymous*

    Everywhere I’ve worked, microwave popcorn has been banned from the microwave.

    Some people complain about curry smell, but those people are always ignored because curry is delicious .

      1. Anonymous*

        There’s a large Indian population where I live so there’s no way a workplace could ban curry, even if it does annoy a few people.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Popcorn smell is delicious. BURNT popcorn smell is not. Anyone who makes popcorn in the microwave needs to stand by it and not walk off. What if it caught on fire?

        1. Emily K*

          I had a coworker who burnt popcorn every day at a previous job. It was terrible. I was the only person in the office without a private office. I sat in a cubicle in the center of the floor, just outside the kitchen, and everyone else had doors they could shut to escape the smell.

        2. Lindsay J*

          You know, I had a coworker who said that she liked burnt popcorn, and I always assumed that she was lying to cover up the fact that she was embarrassed that she burnt it. It never really occurred to me that somebody could legitimately like the taste.

    2. Maggie*

      The smell of popcorn triggers coughing fits for me (I have asthma). I hate it when people nuke popcorn at work.

    3. Vicki*

      I’m allergic to something in curry, particularly the yellow curries. I don;t know which ingredient it is, but it makes me nauseous AND gives me a violent headache.

      1. KellyK*

        Turmeric maybe? That’s what gives the yellow color, and it’s used pretty heavily in Indian cooking.

  3. AnonAnony*

    Also, bizarrely, microwaved broccoli is really pungent and terrible. It’s a culturally neutral food (as far as I can imagine!), so it’s probably an easy example for employees to understand!

    1. KarenT*

      Huh, I didn’t know that. I’ve never noticed the smell of microwaved broccoli (and I eat a lot of it!).

      1. A Bug!*

        It’s more noticeable when it’s over-microwaved.

        (And I’m not sure if it’s related, but broccoli also makes my compost bucket reek really quickly.)

        1. fposte*

          It’s the cruciferous vegetables thing–notice we’ve had people talking about broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts! (And I’m pretty sure it’s related to its odor when vintage, too.)

          1. Emily K*

            And the smell of hot cucumbers is identical to body odor! I had a coworker at a retail shop once who would get hot deli sandwiches with cucumbers on them and stick them in the employee closet/storage area til she was ready to eat it, and it made the whole closet reek of BO. UGH.

      1. ThatGirl*

        ^The trick is to get a hot-plate and steam them outside.
        I usually steam my fresh veggies on my patio and then my house doesn’t reek for days on end.

    2. Anonymous*

      I used to have a coworker who would microwave broccoli and salmon together. It was terrible. No one would go in the kitchen all afternoon and you had to hold your breath even walking by it.

  4. S3*

    I long for the day when it’s part of common courtesy to never, ever microwave fish at work. I love seafood…but it’s just too strong in an office seeting.

  5. S3*

    I long for the day when it’s part of common courtesy to never, ever microwave fish at work. I love seafood…but it’s just too strong in an office setting.

  6. Cat*

    While you’re making a policy, don’t forget to include non-microwaved pickled fish. It may seem like something that will never come up, but someday you will hire someone who likes to bring pickled herring or gefilte fish for lunch, and then you will be glad you read this comment and put it into your policy!

    1. Sascha*

      Or sardines. I have a friend who eats canned sardines, and you can smell it across the room when he pops one of those cans. I shudder to think about it.

    2. Suz*

      Years ago I had a coworker who left pickled herring in the office fridge all the time. We used to steal it and feed it to the stray cats that hung around our warehouse.

    3. Elizabeth*

      My dad used to eat sardines, smoked herring, etc. as snacks in the car on road trips. Nothing like being in a small enclosed space with a can of sardines when you don’t like fish…

    4. Anonymous*

      I love sardines and canned fish, and I have an emergency sardine in my desk drawer for late nights, but I’d only eat it if no one else was around.

  7. A Teacher*

    and add to the policy to clean out said microwave after use…there’s nothing more disgusting than going to use the shared microwave and its full of other people’s crap that exploded in there…gross.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      We had seven microwaves in the kitchen at work, and I’d go down the line until I found one that wasn’t too dirty. People thought I was nuts, but it bothered the hell out of me.

  8. Ash*

    I’ve never had a problem with microwaved fish, it’s burned popcorn that kills me. It can make me physically ill if it’s bad enough. How hard is it to follow the instructions on the bag? -_-

    1. Cat*

      Actually, kind of hard since different microwaves will burn popcorn at different kinds. (However that is clearly what makes it unsuitable for an office setting.)

    2. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Or if you don’t notice that someone left the turn-thingie out of whack and it’s not rotating properly.

    3. Elysian*

      I am totally incapable of microwaving popcorn. I use an air popper at home. For me, it is very hard to follow the directions on the bag and come to the proper results *sad face*

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I use the air popper too, because for me, microwave popcorn goes from madly popping, madly popping, starting to slow down a bit, burnt, all in about 3 seconds. (Plus, salt and real butter is so much better than that yellow stuff.)

    4. Elizabeth West*

      As I said above, the rule should be “Don’t walk away from the microwave when cooking,” and this especially applies to popcorn. If you’re keeping an eye on it, it’s pretty hard to burn it.

      1. Michele*

        Most microwaves come with a popcorn button. 95% of the time if used properly there isn’t an issue with it burning.

    5. MaryMary*

      I used to work in an office where the fire alarm would go off if you burnt popcorn. It was a large building, hundreds of people, and everyone had to troop outside while the fire department came over to see if the building was on fire or if there had been another popcorn incident (or if someone got toast stuck in the toaster, that was problem too). HR put up signs begging people to keep a close eye on their popcorn, but it still happened a couple times a year.

  9. Shuvon*

    I used to work in an office that had a cutesy sign with a clip-art fish on the microwave:

    What is our only wish?
    That you never microwave fish
    Or heat up your broccoli
    Or food that’s too smelly.

    1. Chuchundra*

      The meter is wrong

      What is our wish?
      Don’t microwave fish!
      And please don’t cook broccoli
      or food that’s too smelly.

      I like broccoli/smelly. That’s inspired.

    1. Anna*

      Why would it be illegal? If it doesn’t target one particular group of people (the reason you can’t ban just curry, to borrow from an example above) and speaks to pretty much anything that might be strong (popcorn, fish, curry, apparently broccoli) you’re addressing an issue across boundaries.

  10. Bryan*

    I wonder how a policy like this is worded. Does it list specific foods or does it say “please do not microwave anything smelly.” I feel like if it’s ambiguous there would be further problems and I can imagine the people doing the microwaving never think there food is a problem unless they are directly told so.

    1. Laufey*

      Also, I have a notoriously poor sense of smell. Being aware of this, I err on the side of caution when nuking things at the office, but I genuinely have no clue if my food bothers people or not (I assume it doesn’t since they don’t say anything). Keep in mind that some people may not even be aware their food is smelly, and that some my react indignantly to be told as much.

      1. Laufey*

        All of this is in agreement with Bryan and is something for OP to consider when setting up the policy.

      2. rlm*

        I’m a congenital anosmic (no sense of smell at all)…I’m always terrified that my food smells and I have no idea. I’m getting some good tips from the comments on this thread though!

      3. BeenThere*

        Yeah this is the part that would worry me, I love garlic so does my spouse. Leftover dinner becomes lunch and I alway hope someone would tell me if my food smelt to strong.

  11. Michael*

    Also consider what you will do when someone microwaves something really delicious but also pungent. You might be in a position to have to that someone’s spiced apple cider or Thanksgiving leftovers also smell very strongly and shouldn’t be heated up.

  12. Rose*

    I don’t think the phrase “foods that produce strong smells should not be microwaved or consumed in the office,” would be helpful in stopping people from microwaving smelly foods. People tend to think food from their own culture smells neutral, even when others find it very pungent. I wonder if there’s a better way to word that…

    However, if you have the sign, it would make the follow up conversation a lot smoother.

  13. The Other Dawn*

    My former manager banned microwave popcorn and fish. Some people thought it was ridiculous, others were happy. Microwave popcorn isn’t bad, but when it’s burned it just lingers, and lingers…

  14. Lily in NYC*

    I have one coworker that cooks fish in the microwave every day and another one that heats up something that smells like a dead rat every morning at 8:30 am. It is the worst!

      1. The gold digger*

        Sadly, I know. If you put rat poison in your kitchen, the rats will eat it and get high the first few times, but eventually they will die, but only after they have crawled under the floor of your kitchen.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          I’ve had dead mice in my house (one in the attic, another in the very long dryer vent piping that runs under the house slab), so I recognize the smell of dead rodents. Truly gross.

  15. PoohBear McGriddles*

    I made the mistake of nuking some broccoli yesterday. It was delicious but the smell lingered all afternoon.
    One thing to keep in mind is that our sense of smell becomes dull to odors we are normally exposed to, so the offending epicurean may have no clue how strong her dish smells to the rest of the office. Although from the OPs last paragraph, it sounds like her give-a-dam busted a long time ago.

  16. Anonymous*

    My desk happens to be close to the kitchen at work, and until a few weeks ago, one particular person would heat up what smelled like maggot-infested road kill every single day.

    I managed to get the message across by heavily Febreezing the kitchen, the path from the kitchen to the offender’s cubicle, and the area around her cubicle. The kitchen has been road-kill free since.

      1. Anonymous*

        I have. She didn’t care. So, I resorted to countering chemical warfare with chemical warfare.

        1. H. Vane*

          Febreeze can set off athsma attacks, so I would consider your response disproportionate even so. I feel bad for everyone in the surrounding cubicles.

        2. AMG*

          I have had to do this–I totally understand where you are coing from. Except that the person made his own lotion and used it all damn day. You could smell it from 5 cubes away. It started giving people headaches. Since I sat right next to him I would Febreeze the crap out of my own cube to get rid of the stench.

          Conversely, when I had hand lotion that another cube mate said gave him headaches, I just stopped using it. It’s not a big deal to just put lotion on my hands in the bathroom. Or bring an unscented lotion.

          1. H. Vane*

            Yeah, but there’s a big difference between Febreezing your own cubicle and cropdusting the office, don’t you think?

            1. AMG*

              maybe…the smell carries across to other cubes, but nobody minded because we all hated the lotion that guy made. You could actually hear the giggles from down the aisle when I would start spraying, as well as little IM ‘thank you!’s and ‘ugh, why does he do that!’s.

              But point taken, yes, there is a difference. I’m just saying it worked in our department.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                LOL we used to do that at Exjob when a coworker would cut a particularly noxious fart once in a while. He wasn’t embarrassed–he would just giggle while I sprayed the fresh-air scented Lysol around.

                1. Lucy in the sky*

                  My dad and his office mates used to have farting contests on a regular basis. And they were literally rocket scientists! Gross.

            2. Ellie H.*

              Yeah, I’m really sensitive to artificial air freshener smells and I would absolutely lose it if somebody did that to my office. I’d rather smell basically any naturally occurring bad smell than the artificial odor. But I guess we all have different preferences for what we can tolerate.

              1. Anonymous*

                Yup, this is me too. Except those overly perfumed scents often give me migraines in closed spaces and air fresheners seem to be particularly potent offenders. I don’t have issues with a few sprays of an air freshener but I would be Not Happy if someone doused most of the office with it. I’d rather sit in the environment with the unpleasant food smells than the one that will give me a horrendous full-on migraine any time.

              2. Cally*

                Ditto. Many offending food smells are natural and will not cause asthma attacks and migraines – they’re just yucky. Deal with it (unless you have an allergy). Artificial air fresheners, on the other hand, are TOXIC and can harm people’s health.

                Artificial butter flavoring is toxic as well – linked to asthma, lung disease, and Alzheimer’s.

  17. AprilA*

    I worked in an office where everyone but me was from a different country. In that particular culture, fish, fish-based sauces, and pickled/ fermented things were staples. I couldn’t put anything in the fridge because the smell of fish and fermented things would permeate my food and throw the taste off.
    To make it worse, I can’t stand fish. Just going into the kitchen during lunch would make me gag. But they felt a similar revulsion to cheese, and thought the smell of warmed up cheese dishes was gross. I worked there for three years and learned a great deal about their cooking and found some dishes that I absolutely loved, and they learned from me in return. However, we had to just learn to live and let live when it came to fermented fish and cheese.

        1. Chinook*

          It is important to remember how culturally sensitive these smells are. I love anything with bacon or ham but, after a home Ec class with some Muslim students, I learned that the smell of bacon turns their stomach while making their classmates drool.

    1. BeenThere*

      Yes, heated up cheese dishes are gross. I love cheese but there is something about reheating it that changes the air.

    2. jimmy*

      I totally agree and respect your opinion. all the above comments are, I feel like, against fish and fermented fish products. the cheese and spaghetti sauce make me gag too. I didn’t complaint a bit. That’s rude to complaint someone’s food as well.

  18. Jax*

    As a mom on a budget who has to take left-overs to work, a ban like this would irritate me. Unless you’re wealthy enough to go out to lunch, or like to live on salads and sandwiches, you’re going to (at some point) reheat something smelly in the microwave.

    How about shutting the door to the lunchroom (or break room with the microwave) to keep cooking smells in? How about making a rule that dirty dishes can’t linger on desks, but need to be cleaned and put away by the end of lunch? Or that food trash can’t be tossed in office garage cans?

    Plus, who gets to determine what’s smelly? I’ve smelled some pretty rank Chinese take-out that makes other co-workers drool. It’s subjective.

    1. B*

      This has nothing to do with being a mom on a budget. I am on a tight budget as well and bring in leftovers. However, I am careful what I do bring in. Reheating seafood, fish, popcorn, certain vegetables (hello brussel sprouts) can linger for quite a long time so I do not bring those in. It is about being courteous to your fellow colleagues.
      If you did not like the smell of that chinese did you tell the person? If they don’t know the smell bothers a majority of people how do you expect them to stop?

      1. Jax*

        I don’t expect them to stop–that’s the point. It’s just a food smell. It’s not enough to make me ill and it fades away 5 minutes after the food is gone and the dishes are cleaned.

        My office is big and everyone eats lunch at their desks. The worst that happens is the smelly food culprit apologizes while the rest of us laugh it off and move on. It’s just not a big deal.

        1. B*

          You must work with some great ventilation if food smell is gone after 5 minutes. And possibly never had something horrible reheated.

        2. Lily in NYC*

          People react very differently to smells. I actually gag from strong odors and vomited on the street last week after walking by a gross pile of trash bags waiting to be picked up. So just because it doesn’t bother you doesn’t mean it’s ok. It’s common courtesy. No one “needs” to heat fish in the microwave and please spare me the “mom on a budget” sympathy ploy.

          1. Jax*

            Wow. Thanks for that.

            I’ll leave this blog to it’s self-righteous back patting about lunch choices and get back to my work.

            1. Amber*

              I don’t think you’re being fair… Lily’s so sensitive to smells that she vomits at certain ones. I’m quite sensitive to a lot of smells and I’ve found ways to cope, but it really depends on the person. Maybe she wasn’t very tactful but I don’t think she’s being “self-righteous”.

              I have peanut allergies but I don’t ask people not to bring that stuff to school/work because I’m not that severe (would be different obviously if I reacted to the mere smell), but, yeah, if I had severe allergies I would definitely ask people not to bring certain food in. Am I comparing apples to oranges? Maybe, but I think it works.

              1. AMG*

                I don’t think the part that bothered Jax, although I do agree that a person’s own nose should not dictate what smells can be tolerated by everyone.

                1. Anonymous*

                  This. There will be nothing left to eat if you can’t bring in *anything* that upsets* someone.*

          2. The Hello Kitty*

            I’m not trying to be rude, but how do you function in New York City if the smell of garbage makes you vomit?

            1. Melissa*

              NYC doesn’t always smell like a cesspit of trash, only in certain areas on certain days. I lived in a neighborhood that had this problem, but now I live in a different neighborhood that does not, and honestly I haven’t smelled that “boiled garbage” smell very strongly in quite a while.

              1. Melissa*

                I say this as someone else who has a sensitive nose and a very weak stomach – a lot of strong food smells make me nauseous, which is why I wouldn’t dream of asking people not to heat up “smelly” foods in the microwave because everything is “smelly” to me.

    2. fposte*

      I think there’s a difference between “having an odor people notice” and “having an odor commonly known to be problematic.” (And I’ve never known a lunchroom with a door, but YMMV.) While these things get negotiated based on population, effect, and need (as AprilA notes upthread), the right not to be troubled by strong odors at work generally trumps the right to bring in whatever you please, because people are there to work and not eat. Just about every human behavior at work is subjective, but that doesn’t mean your workplace can’t set rules for it and that they don’t affect people’s comfort at work.

      1. Jax*

        My office is right across from the lunch room. We have 5 microwaves in there that get a workout from 11:30 to 1pm. I rarely smell anything because it has a door that we keep shut.

        1. fposte*

          Then it sounds like it’s not a problem at your workplace. However, there are workplaces where it is a problem, and it’s a good idea to be aware of that if you’re heating food there.

          1. AB*

            Right — in my last job the large lunch area was an open area on the second floor, with passages that led to our cubicles. No doors to close.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      1) not every office has a break room. We don’t. We have a microwave and fridge right in the midst of cubicles.

      2) this is not a class issue. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a perfectly economical lunch that require neither refrigeration or microwaving. I happen to love salmon but when I cook a fillet I understand that it’s not coming with me to work for reheating. It’s a matter of being polite and respectful to people you share space with. I’ve never struggled to come up with something to bring to work for lunch that doesn’t have an offensive smell.

      1. abby*

        I almost always bring leftovers from the night before, frequently including salmon and other seafood. However, I don’t reheat. I eat the fish cold or room temperature because I just couldn’t do that to my co-workers.

        1. hamster*

          I can’t eat carbs, i’m mildly diabetic. So, sand witches are out of questions. And i have to keep my fat consumption in check and one does get bored of salads and/or chicken. So salmon is extremely easy to cook and eat. All my office eats fish trout/salmon every day. And we’re not even in the northen europe or something. True, i mostly buy it from a catering vendor. But sometimes I re-heat my own in the microwave. But i’ve seen hoards of people do it. And did not garner any attention. Maybe because the kitchen is quite big and ventilated. ( also, at the previous workplace the lunchroom was a different room , with a door. ) Still, amazed at this fish reaction. I’ve seen it as a common health food around.

        2. Another Emily*

          It’s worth noting that cold leftover fish is delicious. I prefer a cold piece of salmon from the night before rather than reheating it anyway. In my opinion fish is only meant to be cooked once.

      2. KellyK*

        I think whether it becomes a class issue depends on how picky your coworkers are about smells (and sounds), as well as your own dietary concerns. Not being able to microwave fish or broccoli shouldn’t unduly limit anybody’s lunch choices, but if your office bans a dozen different foods, it could certainly become a problem. Particularly if you have allergies or intolerances or a special diet that’s *already* limiting what you can bring to lunch. (Peanut butter sandwiches, for example, don’t work so well if you have a peanut allergy or celiac.)

        I think if you’re trying to institute an office-wide policy, it’s appropriate to just go for the biggest offending foods and let people deal with the minor annoyance of smelling things they don’t like. (And if someone is unusually sensitive, the solution might be to move their desk away from the microwave rather than policing everyone else.)

    4. The IT Manager*

      Jax, you don’t have to take leftovers to work for lunch. You choose to expecially since you seem to eliminate salads and sandwiches for no apparent reason except that you don’t seem to like them. A sandwhich is my normal main dish for my work lunches.

      You can select which leftovers to bring and choose not to bring those they have a strong odor when reheated. Following such a policy is simple consideration and is not a hardship for workers with children or on a budget.

      1. Jax*

        Where did I say I didn’t like salads or sandwiches??? The pile-on going on here is ridiculous.

        You’d think I’m advocating for something outrageous, like an office fish fry every day at 10 am. I don’t want my lunch policed. I don’t police the lunches of my coworkers. I would be upset if someone slapped a sign in the lunch room that said, “No stinky foods, please!” because I have no idea what that means, and it would make me nervous and self-conscious every time I reheated my dish of pot roast and potatoes.

        1. Nichole*

          Then just toss the microwave. There’s no requirement that employers have a microwave in the workplace. If you can’t show common courtesy to your coworkers and keep the fish out of the microwave, the microwave can go.

          Eat your food cold if you can’t be polite.

    5. Laufey*

      I am also on a budget, but I plan my meals for lunch leftovers accordingly. Office norms dictate that I eat socially with coworkers once a week (at a restaurant), so if I’m craving frozen shrimp or curry or tunafish for dinner, I cook it the night before I plan to go out for lunch (or on a Friday. I get a lot of yummy Saturday lunches that way). It’s easy to bring in leftovers for lunch and still be considerate of fellow office mates. Does this mean that sometimes I miscalculate and eat PB&J rather than bring in shrimp or nuke a tunafish casserole? Yes. Is it worth it to be decent to my coworkers, who are, on the whole, fairly decent people? Yes.

    6. FiveNine*

      No fish. It’s just a flat-out stated rule where I work and, frankly, entirely reasonable, even if your workplace hasn’t gone to the length to make it a rule yet.

    7. Eva R*

      I actually feel worse about delicious smelling things because my office is very picky about when we are allowed to take our lunch breaks and mine is rather late in the day. Some of the people in neighboring cubes have a lunch break 2 hours before mine, and the people bringing delicious smelling things back to their desks set off my primal food hunting instincts.

      I don’t understand why, if there is a lunch/break room with a microwave and fridge in it, people need to eat hot food at their desks at all. A simple non nuked snack like a piece of fruit or something should be fine if you get a designated lunch break.

      1. KellyK*

        In my experience, a lot of “lunch rooms” are more of a kitchen than a break room. Our kitchen has high stools and a counter, so you could eat there if you wanted, but those stools are kind of awkward and it doesn’t have *nearly* enough seating for the whole office to eat, especially when people are also microwaving their lunches. The other side of the building has *no* seating in the kitchen, so there’s really no place to eat but your desk.

        1. Eva R*

          I’ve definitely worked places like that.

          The current place “technically” has an unenforced policy about not eating at your desk and has 2 different lunch areas indoors and outdoors, plus a cafeteria. We still get people bringing stuff to their desks. Although to be honest this wouldn’t be a problem if our lunch, break and bathroom breaks weren’t strictly regulated. Then if your coworker brought in really yummy smelling takeout you could just go eat your lunch.

  19. mollsbot*

    I’ve got the unpopular opinion here: just let people microwave whatever they want and if you don’t like it keep a stiff upper lip and power through.

    I feel that I should add I realize that there are circumstances where people are particularly sensitive to smells and you don’t want people vomiting at work.

    1. AshRad*


      I’m with you, I think once an employer starts mandating what I can and cannot eat at lunch they’re stepping too far. I have one co-worker who eats a salad everyday, but there’s something in the plastic of her tupperware that makes it smell like a rotten garbage can every time she opens the lid. Everyone just thought her salad smelled like garbage until she actually passed it under my nose and closer up, it just smells like salad! Once she told me that she “might need to ask me to eat my McDonald’s fries somewhere else” and my response was “well maybe I’ll ask you to eat your salad somewhere else”. I dont get fast food every day, or even every week…. but if I want to run to McDonalds, why should I have to sit in my car and eat it?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One issue that was raised in the letter, though, is that clients visiting the office can smell it too because it’s a small space. I think that adds an extra layer of consideration into the mix. I wouldn’t want my client telling a friend, “I’d recommend X, but be warned that the last two times I was there, it reeked.”

      1. Anna*

        I find the idea that someone wouldn’t do business with someplace because of the “reek” a bit farfetched. I’m kind of on the side of be considerate but don’t worry if it doesn’t always work out. For me this comes down to only owing people as much consideration as doesn’t infringe considerably on my life. Jax has a point, too. If you’re not specific (no fish, no extra butter popcorn because it smells like feet), you’re just creating anxiety and confusion.

    3. Melissa*

      That’s how I feel about it, too, and I say this as someone who is really sensitive to strong smells and will get nauseous, sometimes to the point of vomiting, for a lot of strong smells. I have my ways of getting through the smell and in 15 minutes it’s gone anyway. I find it quite silly to limit the foods people can bring to the office to eat (unless they’re eating dead rats or something) simply for my comfort, and on top of that who gets to decide what’s “smelly”? Everybody has something they like and don’t like. For example, the smell of reheated seafood, broccoli, and curry doesn’t bother me; I didn’t even know reheated broccoli HAD a smell. But I’m on board with the “reheated cheese is awful”; I hate heated pork/ham smells (they absolutely make me throw up) and I also just hate the smell of microwaved popcorn in general, burnt or not.

      Do my unusual triggers give me veto power over other people’s lunches, though? No, I just use my little candle/potpurri thing, inhale deeply, and deal with it for the 15 minutes it takes the smell to go away.

      1. Nichole*

        Fish smells disgusting when it’s microwaved, and it stinks up the whole office. My opinion is just to eliminate the microwave if people can’t be courteous with it. If you’re so hell-bent on doing what you please, and you don’t care about your coworkers or the work environment, you can eat your lunch cold or go out to eat.

        The microwave is not a necessity. If you can’t use it with common courtesy, it can go away.

  20. Elysian*

    While I understand a policy like this, I am glad their isn’t one at my workplace. I have definately microwaved fish and broccoli (that smells? I had no idea.) and other delicious and smelly things. I just bring in whatever I have for leftovers. I think that some people are just jealous that my food is tasty and amazing. (Actually, I’m starting to wonder if my office is better ventilated than most or if my co-workers are just too polite to say anything.)

      1. Elysian*

        I hope it’s that one. As I’ve been thinking about it, they bring back Ethiopian a lot, so I’m going to think we’re on an equal playing field regarding aroma-rific foods.

    1. KS*

      I promise you your microwaved fish does not smell delicious to the people around you. They are being polite. I am not very sensitive to odors in general, but microwaved fish actually makes me gag, and it’s a commonly-banned food item from workplaces because it is so widely considered foul-smelling.

      1. Melissa*

        I can’t really smell microwaved fish, though, and when I can it actually does smell delicious, or at least not unpleasant. I’m actually really quite confused by this and the broccoli.

  21. Andrea*

    I worked in a place once where we had this issue. Lots of curry and burned popcorn and reheated fish. They just got rid of the microwave. Almost anything that gets heated in it is going to smell, and any policy is going to be difficult to craft and enforce, so…

    1. Annie The Mouse*

      I once saw a large, well-ventilated lunchroom cleared out by someone reheating a spectacularly smelly fish dish. The microwave was gone two days later.

      1. Andrea*

        Hilarious. I mean, I’m not suggesting that, but since folks seem to be so inconsiderate, maybe it’s a good option. I try very hard to be considerate of others in general, but it sure seems like hardly anyone else makes any effort at all, and that’s discouraging. Seriously, do they just not notice how strong the smell is? Did they never consider that not everyone wants to smell it? Do they care that some people may actually feel nauseated from the strong smells?

        I should probably also note that I have an extremely sensitive sense of smell, an allergy to cigarette smoke (which can sometimes be triggered just with the stench from some smoker who just finished smoking), and I have asthma. But that said, I still thought that getting rid of the microwave was very extreme and should not have been necessary.

      2. jesicka309*

        That’s what happened at my high school common room. We had a large contingent of international students would frequently heat up smelly fish products in the common room. Not only did it stink out the common room, but the smell permeated through the corridors and into classrooms. We tried asking the students not to heat up stinky foods – it was high school, most of us just used the microwave to heat up soup and two minute noodles! The common room was used as our study hall too – we were trapped in there for our study periods with the smell of overcooked steamed fish for hours at times!
        Even the teachers tried talking to them, but they kept doing it – we couldn’t work out whether they didn’t understand what we were asking, or if they didn’t care.
        Then one day the microwave was gone. A few months later, they took the toasted sandwich maker away because none of the local students would clean it, and eventually we lost the fridge too (people kept ‘forgetting’ their milk) and the next year the year 12s didn’t get a common room at all.
        Some people are disgusting, and no amount of rules or bargaining or discussion will make them into better members of society.

        1. Melissa*

          See, this is exactly the problem – cultural barriers. I noticed you noted it was a “large contingent of international students.” To them the foods may not have been that pungent/smelly because they were used to the smells. How does that make them “disgusting”?

          1. anita*

            They were talking about students not cleaning the toasters and leaving milk and other foods to spoil inside the fridge. The cultural references had to do with the types of food they reheated.

            No xenophobia here; move along.

          2. jesicka309*

            It wasn’t so much the cultural barrier as the language barrier. Our prefects would ask them politely to “please don’t heat up fish in the microwave in the common room, it stinks the whole room out and if we don’t keep this room nice, we’ll lose it!”
            They’d smile, nod, and bring fish to school the next day. Imagine that conversation every day… it drove us, and the rest of the floor, crazy. Especially when we knew they understood most English just fine – they were taking final year classes, after all.
            Our teachers would walk into the room and say “what’s that stink? I can smell it in our classroom! If you guys can’t look after this room, we’ll take it away!”
            The large contingent was relevant because there wasn’t just one student…there’d be 7 or 8 kids heating up fish every day.
            It was a similar situation with the dirty sandwich maker and fridge, only we knew the culprits definitely understood what we were asking and simply chose not to do it.
            We were sensitive to the cultural differences, but it didn’t work they other way – they didn’t give a toss about losing our common room, and didn’t make efforts to keep it clean and smelling nice like most of the local students did.

  22. SJ*

    IMO stinky food letters need to include what the offending food was. I’m always so curious.

    One of my favorites lines from Ghost Town:
    “…you told the super that somebody down on nine was cooking
    stenchy ethnic food that stings the eyes?”
    “Was that you?”
    “It was tacos!”

    1. Andrea*

      This is one of my favorite movies. I have three certain movies that I watch whenever I’m sick or whenever there’s a thunderstorm (keeps my mind off of it so I don’t get too scared), and I always reach for “Ghost Town” first. So underrated!

  23. Anon*

    I also agree that employees should be able to microwave whatever they choose. “Strong” and “unpopular” are subjective words and ALL foods produce an odor when cooked. If you don’t want to smell food odors, then don’t provide your staff a microwave and don’t allow them to bring food in and eat at their desks.

    Some of the strongest smelling food I smell at my office is from FAST FOOD. McDonalad’s burgers and fries with ketchup stink up the entire place, and I personally find the cooked cow flesh and ketchup smells to be naseauting. Ketchup smells like city trash cans in the summer time, seriously. Also, people who bring in salads/sandwiches (subway!) with raw onions make the entire place smell sweaty like the gym.

    I think people need to get over themselves. What you may find acceptable, I may find repulsive and vice versa. If you won’t want your employees to eat at work, don’t provide a breakroom / microwave. That’s really not going to help the obesity crisis though, and either is disallowing employees to heat up whatever they want to eat (like broccoli!)

    1. Katie the Fed*

      “I think people need to get over themselves. What you may find acceptable, I may find repulsive and vice versa.”

      I invite a coworker to slice open a durian in your presence and see how far that “live and let live” philosophy extends :)

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        :) Yeah, no durian!

        I had a boss who claimed he’d never met a fruit he didn’t like, so I brought a durian. I kept it outside, but I did bring it inside to cut open. I should not have done that.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          That is not right.

          I’m an adventurous eater and I bravely decided to try one in Thailand. I…can’t….even…

            1. ThursdaysGeek*

              Yeah, it smells like nasty used gym socks, but it only tastes like sweet rotten onion. It’s not a good taste, but at least it’s not as bad as it smells.

              I’m in the Pacific NW, and I can get them fresh or frozen at the local Asian grocery, plus durian flavored cookies, durian oil, and more.

              1. jesicka309*

                I’ve seen an inner city building evacuated because someone opened a bag of dried Durian chips.
                It made the news that night! Durian is foul.

            2. fposte*

              Similarly, Epoisses cheese. Delicious and very mild, but the smell can be quite notable. (According to a Q.I. episode, a study showed that people reacted positively or negatively to the same smell depending on whether they were told it was cheese or vomit. That’s mammals for you.)

        2. Jennifer*

          Hah, we had one guy who brought durian to a potluck party at my volunteer job. To be fair, he brought a frozen one, which stinks less, but….yeah.

          I have now tried durian. It tastes like a garlic banana. I do not get the appeal.

        3. Shelley*

          I’ve never had durian (I don’t think…unless it was when I was so young I’ve since repressed the memory…). I have, however, STABBED myself on a durian. In light of that, I’m not particularly motivated to go near one ever again. :P

      2. Elizabeth West*

        That’s pretty extreme for most places, however, especially in the U.S. It’s not a common food.

        Disclaimer: I’ve never smelled or eaten a durian, although I know where to buy it here if I get brave enough to try it. You better believe I’m cutting it outside, though.

      3. Anon*

        Fine…I’ve had durian…it does smell awful, and I personally thought it tasted awful too. You are correct that I would not want others eating it at work, and seeing as how several cities in Asia have banned it from being consumed in public places, I will claim this sets precedence for 1 food that should be banned at work.

        I really just want people to stop eating Fast Food at work…pink slime burgers, ketchup and french fries smell so repulsive to me I can’t stand it. I’ll take real home cooked healthy food in the microwave over that any day.

    2. Yup*

      “If you won’t want your employees to eat at work, don’t provide a breakroom / microwave.”

      Actually, the ideal solution is a cafeteria or eating area way separate from the work area. The problem isn’t that people need to get over themselves or not eat at work or not use microwaves — the problem is that people are trying to eat and do work all day in the same limited place.

      1. fposte*

        True, but it’s kind of like saying that the problem with apartment living is that the walls are too thin. Since the walls aren’t getting thicker anytime soon, you have to work around the architectural flaws by being considerate to people sharing the building.

      2. TK*

        I work in a field where because of the nature of the work we do (i.e. we handle stuff that can’t get dirty) food is never allowed in workspaces. In the building I work in no (open containers of) food is allowed at all on our whole floor– the lunchroom is upstairs.

        I sometimes do get frustrated that I can’t each lunch at my desk, but reading threads like this definitely makes me see the benefits too!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          One advantage to not eating lunch at your desk is that you actually get away from work on your break. I eat at my desk every day and I’m always tempted to answer emails while I’m eating.

    3. Ellie H.*

      I hate the smell of Subway too. It’s just utterly revolting. I don’t know how people can stand it, at all.

      I generally agree about lunch smells. Unless the atmosphere is such that it’s important to maintain an exceptionally professional environment at all times (law firm?) I think people should be allowed to eat and heat what they want, or otherwise not allow heated food at all, or not allow food in the office at all.

  24. Katie the Fed*

    When I was low carbing, I used to love making mashed cauliflower. To me it just smelled like cauliflower when I heated it up, but other people were appalled by the smell – I guess it’s like cabbage or other cruciferous veggies. Really doesn’t bother me but it bothered others so I didn’t bring it back. Part of sharing space with others means being considerate.

  25. TamiToo*

    We have a Mediterranean restaurant that is close to our office and it delivers. The food is DELICIOUS and also very fragrant. Even though you may not be microwaving the food, the smell carries through the whole office. I happen to love it, but not everyone is a fan. We have instituted a compromise in our office. We only order the food on Friday, and at a designated time (We call it Stinky Food Friday). Everyone is aware, so if someone doesn’t want to smell the food, they have the option to become scarce during lunch. Generally, if anyone wants that food the rest of the week, they go to the restaurant for lunch.

    Some people are just sensitive to smells. We have had someone complain about salad dressings (salad dressings??? really???), onions, pizza, canned tuna, as well as the Stinky Food Friday food, among other foods. When this person complains about certain foods we take it with a grain of salt, so to speak. You can’t please everyone.

    1. Bryan*

      That’s not fair, you’re not allowed to use compromising as a solution. J/k that’s a great solution.

      1. tcookson*

        “you’re not allowed to use compromising as a solution”

        LOL! This reminds me of that King of the Hill episode where Bobby Hill says, “You didn’t use real wrestling. If you use real wrestling, it’s impossible to get out of that hold.”

        1. Arbynka*

          How about Sheldon Cooper :” Let’s compromise. I’ll get the office and you’ll find a way to deal with it “

  26. Becky*

    Reminds me of a long ago job where we had a co-worker who nuked up her lunch every day – and every single thing she ate was heavily laced with fish sauce (I think she doused every dish with it before putting it in the microwave). The whole office would absolutely reek for an hour or more! And yes – microwaved broccoli – that was one of the first things that came to my mind! The smell is awful (and I love broccoli)! I do remember one time years ago when I was the culprit. Everyone in our small office was out to lunch, and I had just popped a bag of popcorn for my lunch. No problem there, we all regularly popped popcorn. But I like grated parmesan or asiago cheese on my popcorn. I did not realize how foul-smelling that combo is until my coworkers returned from lunch and wondered if someone had barfed in the office ;-D I had never noticed – but have since noticed that if I leave the room where the cheesy popcorn is, shut the door, and then go back in – oh yes …. ugh!! (but it tastes so good! However, that was the first and only time I ever put cheese on my popcorn in the office .. that’s strictly an at-home treat ever since that embarrassing incident).

    Tricky subject …. no one ever said anything about the terrible stink to our fish sauce-loving co-worker (and it was every single day!).

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I don’t get the broccoli thing. I wonder if it’s like cilantro in that some people think it’s offensive but others can’t detect the offensive element of it. I had the same problem with cauliflower – smells fine to me but offends others.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          It’s the worst. It tastes like soap and evil and dirty socks all mixed up. It ruins perfectly good food.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              I don’t care if it’s around me. I just don’t want it in my food.

              I was using the comparison as “some people detect things others don’t.”

              1. Shannon313*

                I read the cilantro tasting like soap thing is Related to the genes that control smell. There is a certain percentage of the population who taste soap when they taste cilantro. My good friend has this aversion and cannot tolerate anything having to do with cilantro. The same article said that a way to overcome the aversion is to eat pesto with cilantro in it, but I question the validity of that theory. I hate tomatoes– they ruin everything–and I have tried unsuccessfully to overcome that aversion for years.

                1. Lucy*

                  Tomatoes are the fruit of the devil and contaminate everything they come near.

                  Cilantro tastes like soap but at least it doesn’t leak onto everything it touches.

                2. Del*

                  +1 on the tomato hate! Getting even a small piece of it in my food is enough to make me vomit — and MAN, is it ever a pain to steer clear of! I have to be super super careful with things I order, especially sandwiches and tacos, because it seems like some people just don’t comprehend tomato as something someone might be averse to.

          1. Mystic*

            I’ve heard the cilantro thing is genetic…

            And yes! I think cilantro tastes like soap. Many of my friends are positively baffled by that description.

        2. Anonymous*

          Yep, I hate cilantro. It has an incredibly strong taste and overpowers everything. I don’t eat foods if there’s even one tiny sprig.

          1. Beebs*

            I used to think cilantro tasted like soap, too! Funny, that. But I just kept running into it and having to eat it and now I like it. Made cilantro pesto tacos last night—yum. But am not bringing the leftovers to work to stink the joint up.

      1. Windchime*

        I love cilanto but I find the smell of broccoli and cauliflower to be very rank, even in a raw state. If I’m not too close to it, I’m fine but I can’t stand the smell of it close-up. It just smells rotten or something (to me). I normally don’t say anything about it, though, because I thought it was just my over-sensitive nose.

        However, I’m someone who will eat tuna straight out of the can, so I am sure I have offended my co-workers on occasion with that!

        1. Garrett*

          I hate the brocolli smell too. Whenever my cafeteria cooks it, the hallway stinks and I almost have to hold my breath when I traverse it. Yuck!

    2. Elysian*

      Your popcorn and cheese incident reminds me of a time when everyone in my office was trying to find a rat that we thought had died in a pile of boxes, only to discover that the smell was coming from a co-worker’s kale smoothie. Even that co-worker was looking for the rat – no one had any idea.

      1. Becky*

        That is hilarious! (my popcorn and cheese incident took place in an office of about 12 people and we were almost like family with one another, so mostly it was funny – I honestly had no idea the popcorn and cheese smelled so awful together until my co-workers walked back into the office after lunch and immediately wrinkled their noses and said it smelled like someone had been sick in the office. Oops! Sorry! That’s just my popcorn & cheese lunch!)

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Me either, and I’m permanently turned off to it because I used to work at Golden Corral back when it was a sit-down steakhouse with a salad bar (yes, I’m old). We had to decorate the salad bar with pieces of kale and we used the same ones over and over, rinsing them and putting them in the walk-in, until they were literally rotten. That will never leave me.

  27. Eric*

    I heat up broccoli at work all the time. I’ve never noticed a smell, and no one has ever complained.

    Really, I would be all for a fish ban, because the smell of fish just hangs and hangs and hangs around, but everything else? Not a big deal to me.

  28. Brett*

    This issue seems like it could easily ostracize employees of a different culture. I happen to live in an area with virtually no Hispanics. My coworkers are rarely exposed to the smell of refried beans other than the incredibly bland stuff that Taco Bell sells. Nearly every major component of Mexican food smells disgusting to them because they have never been exposed to anyone cooking Mexican food. But it is the cheap staple of my diet. A staple that I gave up completely at work because of people complaining about the smell of tortillas (yes, tortillas), guacamole, or beans.

      1. Brett*

        A lot of people think tortillas smell like ammonia. I don’t get it, but apparently if you are rarely exposed to tortillas, they can have a strong ammonia smell.

        Having growing up in an avocado growing town, I don’t get how people can dislike avocados at all but a lot do. And if you don’t like avocados, guacamole is just that much more disgusting of a smell.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, interesting, I’m seeing a lot of people talking about this. I guess the theory is it has something to do with the lime treatment of the cornmeal/masa.

    1. Sydney*

      That’s terrible!

      I can see the problem with heating beans because they can be strong, but not just beans in general. And tortillas and guac? Wtf.

      I’ll stay in south Texas, where there’s a Mexican restaurant on every corner, and in some of the gas stations.

  29. Becky*

    There is sulfur in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage … probably Brussels sprouts, as well … and sulfur is stinky!

      1. Aimee*

        I don’t understand why anyone would ever reheat Brussels sprouts; why would there even be leftovers when they are so very yummy?

        Roasted is delicious, but my new favorite way is to mix some greek yogurt or sour cream with some horseradish and crumbled bacon. Then toss the steamed sprouts (though roasted would work too) in the sauce.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I’m the farthest from a picky eater in terms of vegetables but Brussels sprouts are pretty much the one vegetable I don’t like. My mom loves them and I hate the smell when they are being cooked. But I love broccoli and enjoy cauliflower OK (though I find cooking cauliflower to have a mildly unpleasant aroma).

  30. Suz*

    I don’t mind when people nuke smelly food in our lunchroom microwave. At least you can escape the odor when you go back to your desk. But we have a 2nd microwave near everyone’s cubicles. I have a coworker who nukes fish in it everyday. Our entire area stinks like fish all afternoon.

  31. BCW*

    I think, as many people said, its almost impossible to really enact this, because then you get into the whims of a few. Who is to say that my pizza that I ordered (but didn’t microwave) is any better or worse than someone’s curry. What if I don’t like coffee? Should a coffee pot be banned because others can smell it? I don’t even mind popcorn, but apparently many people do. Please, name me a food that doesn’t have a smell when reheated? Unless there are these magic foods, then in theory any smell could offend/bother someone else.

    This isn’t really to be mean to anyone, but at some point it just becomes too hard to tell Jane that she is welcome to heat up her hot pocket, but Jim can’t heat up his microwave popcorn because Jessica gets annoyed by that smell (but not the hot pocket smell). Your only choice then becomes giving people a list of what is acceptable, which leads to all kinds of other issues in my opinion.

    1. AMG*

      I agree; that’s why I think a general ban is best. Please don’t microwave, eat at your desk, whatever.

      1. fposte*

        Except that’s not fair if most people’s foods and eating aren’t a problem. In most workplaces, there’s a certain amount that people are prepared to put up with, and it’s only the stuff that goes well beyond it that really elicits resentment.

        1. AMG*

          True; if it could be limited to fish and broccoli, then it seems ok. When you add popcorn, cheese, curry, mediterranean food, pizza, burritos, anything else with a tortilla, cilantro, etc, then it’s best to just give up.

          1. fposte*

            Agreed. That’s why I don’t think I’d necessarily take suggestions from people, or if I did, I’d say we’ll just listen to the top three most-mentioned.

    2. Anonymous*

      Agree. We just moved to a new office with little mechanical ventilation and got a memo about microwaving “strong smelling foods.” Fish is obvious but I was wondering what else qualified as strong and started to get paranoid. I do bring in leftover curry a lot (we make it at home all the time) and was wondering if I was offending people. Is my home curry more offensive than the Trader Joe frozen Indian dishes my coworker brings in all the time? What about the Korean food I get from the joint down the street? Ack! Meanwhile one guy just decided to start wearing cologne that gives me a headache whenever he’s within ten feet of me. There are a lot of smells to navigate in the office setting.

      1. Anonymous*

        Oh and I should add that for me, the worst offender is Jenny Craig breakfasts that one of my coworkers nukes every day. They smell awful. So if someone wants to ban my curry I might make a stink (HA) about the chemical diet sandwiches. No one can win!

      2. RedStateBlues*

        Being of Korean descent I will tell you this, in my experience there is a lot of korean food that is off putting to people that aren’t accustomed to it. Kimchee is probably the most common thing that can get pungent. If you stick to the basic Korean BBQ fare, then you’ll probably be ok; I haven’t been to a Korean restuarant yet that serves the kind of tear gas producing kimchee some of my aunts make.

        1. Anonymous*

          I don’t consider the kimchee at the place I go to very strong, but reading this thread makes me realize people are really sensitive! I did get Vietnamese takeout once and realized too late that fish sauce is a bad choice for the office – luckily I was working late so I wasn’t offending anyone but I did feel bad throwing the container in the trash because the cleaning guy had already left. Gosh, I just love smelly food I guess.

          I guess I just love all the smelly foods.

    3. Zed*

      I think coffee is one of the most vile substances in existence, and the smell makes me nauseous. I wonder how far I would get if I wanted to have coffee banned in my office…

  32. Jubilance*

    I wish we had this policy in my office. My director’s new assistant has taken to warming up something for breakfast, and it makes the entire floor smell like a dirty bathroom (how she can eat something that smells so bad is beyond me, but different strokes I suppose). I sit right next to the kitchen area, which is also right next to the door to the office from the elevator bank, and in the morning the smell just smacks you in the face.

    But on the plus side, it’s totally curbing my appetite for treats in the office.

    1. Anonymous*

      What is it? I am dying to know what some of these foods are. What on earth could smell like a bathroom that someone would eat?!

  33. AVP*

    So what DO people bring for lunch then?

    It seems so impossible to find things that are economical, healthy, variable enough not to be boring, and considerate/inoffensive to both the crowds who don’t like smelly foods, and the crowds you don’t like crunching or eating noises. And portable, and can be eaten at your desk.

    Most people here have said sandwiches, especially pb&j, but those are really not that good for you (at least compared to vegetables). A lot of soup? Yogurt?

    My solution is to bring whatever I want but not heat it up – I just don’t refrigerate it overnight and it stays at room temp and generally doesn’t need to be nuked. But I had brussels sprouts today so I’m probably not doing it right.

        1. Andrea*

          Working from home is awesome. Until your husband, who also works from home, heats up a hot pocket and it stinks up the damn kitchen so it smells like roasted pig…

          I can’t win.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Pasta salads are pretty easy and don’t require heating.

      Cook a box of pasta. I like trader joe’s tiny raviolis. Drain and cool. Dump on a bottle of light champagne vinaigrette and seasoning. Add veggies and meat and cheese as you want.

      Eat and enjoy.

      1. Anonymous*

        It’s not wise to take just cooked food like that and let it sit for 3-4 hours before eating, unless it is very acidic.

        Making the same food, cooling it in a refrigerator overnight, then letting it slowly be in a room-temperature environment for 3-4 hours would be much safer.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I do keep it in the fridge. Not sure where you got the idea it wouldn’t be refrigerated.

    2. fposte*

      Soup is my go-to lunch. I don’t bring in the really garlicky stuff, but otherwise, you can make a bunch of few different kinds in advance, freeze it in lunch-size portions, and you’re good to go for months.

      1. tcookson*

        I just bought the Just Bento cookbook from that website, and have had a couple days worth of really good lunches with no microwaving required. Sometimes from work-related receptions I bring home left-overs, and my kids say the bento meals are like having reception food for lunch — their highest compliment!

      2. AVP*

        Oh no thank you for the link, I commit basically all of these food safety sins regularly. (Except raw fish…I do at least draw the line there!)

    3. A Bug!*

      As a person who is very familiar with tight budgets, I’ve got lots to say on this subject! There are lots of meals that reheat “less stinky”, depending on your coworkers’ sensibilities.

      Lasagna’s usually pretty neutral, and it’s a meal that you can make in large portions and that freezes well. Chili, although not completely neutral, tends not to offend, unless you have a coworker who is sensitive to food smells in general.

      Lots of foods can be made into cold sandwiches, such as roast meat or poultry, fish, or boiled eggs.

      Lots of food can also be eaten cold as leftovers. I find this particular one to be most applicable to take-out leftovers (pizza, Chinese food), but there are also home-made foods that are good cold – I personally like cabbage rolls better cold.

      If you ate curry for dinner the night before, that can be eaten cold as a wrap in a tortilla. Lots of “loose” foods can be made suitable for a wrap by mixing them with rice, but anything that can be made into a sandwich can also be made into a wrap to mix it up a bit.

      Finally, if you’re not restricting yourself to eating leftovers, there are loads of things that are quick to make that don’t need heating. Veggie trays are easy to put together. Cucumber+cheese+mayo makes a great quick, cheap sandwich alternative to PB+J.

      I’m sure lots of others will have input (or have had input in the time it’s taken me to type this comment), but the short of it is that there’s lots of non-stinky foods you can make on a budget.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        It’s a good thing that tea doesn’t smell, because if I am going to eat a cold lunch, I need something hot to warm me up (she says as she wraps her icy fingers around the hot cup).

    4. Laufey*

      I usually make a big meal over the weekend or on Monday nights that I can poach off of during the week.

      For example, a roast chicken on Sunday night becomes chicken sandwiches/salad, or chicken and veggies to be nuked, or a stir-fry or fried rice. Same thing with pork.

      Beans and rice are wonderful things. Cheap, plus a good source of protein. Garbanzos are also amazing.

      I also really just like sauteeing a pan of veggies – onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, and the like, maybe adding a meatball, and serving with pasta. Season as desired.

      I make a lot of chilis/soups/stews/stoups in the winter, but that doesn’t work so well in the summer. Soups made from scratch are cheap, healthy, and can last forever. If you’re not going to eat it all, you can freeze it in single-servings in containers.

      I’ve been on a tunafish kick lately – on top of my salads – I don’t nuked it. Canned tuna in water is super healthy and pretty cheap. Plus, you can buy it on sale and it lasts for ever.

      And sandwiches can be healthy – the trick is just to overload them with veggies, like you’d do at a Quizno’s or whatever. Or cut up pepper slices and carrot sticks to eat alongside the sandwich.

      And also, adding to what to what Elizabeth said, be careful about not refrigerating things. Depending on where you live and what’s in it, you might be able to get away with that, but if you ever add dairy, or anything else that spoils, food can go really bad really quickly, even if it doesn’t smell or otherwise looks okay.

    5. Emily K*

      Salads are perfect lunch foods. I make really hearty/filling salads with plenty of goat cheese and avocado for a good dose of protein and fat with all my fresh vegetables. I especially like how easy it is in the morning to throw a bunch of salad vegetables into a tupperware when I’m in a hurry, and I just chop and mix them at the office before eating them.

    6. Jennifer*

      I don’t eat anything at work that needs to be heated up, period. I think that is the solution, really.

      1. Cat*

        That’s ridiculously constraining, though. I actually think it’s insane to say nobody can heat up leftovers ever because a few foods create an odor that annoys people. (I realize that nobody heated foods up at work pre-microwave, but we no longer live in that era and we shouldn’t have to pretend we do.)

        1. LadyTL*

          I worked at a place where there was no microwave for 2 years, bringing my meals and never was constrained in what I ate. If you have to do without a microwave it’s amazing what you will figure out how to make. It’s not that constrained at all.

          1. Cat*

            Yes, but we don’t have to do without microwaves. They exist. We have the technology. I don’t have to choke down cold leftovers anymore, so I’m not going to.

            Seriously, I am all for banning fish, popcorn, broccoli, and anything that is a dangerous allergen for someone in the office. Beyond that? Guys, it’s work; they pay you to be there; sometimes it’s not going to be precisely the way you’d set it up in your own home. You can reasonably expect your office to deal with the worst offenders but you can’t expect that anything that’s even vaguely offensive at any point in time will be banned.

            And this is why I don’t complain about the God awful chemically hazelnut coffee people make in the stupid K Cup machine even though I can smell it all the way down the hall and hate it with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Because it is my own idiosyncratic loathing and I can ban it in my own home, but that is it.

            1. KellyK*

              Yep, I totally agree. You *can* do without a microwave, or a fridge, or a toaster. Heck, I know of people who do medieval camping and eat for 2 weeks without a cooler (there’s lots of salting and pickling involved). But, that doesn’t mean you should have to when those are available.

  34. Parfait*

    I had a coworker tell me that hard-boiled eggs are offensively stinky – just the act of peeling one would make her sick to her stomach. I guess it’s that sulfur thing.

    It never ever would have occurred to me that a cold hard-boiled egg could be offensive. That’s like one of the world’s most neutral foods, to me.

    1. A Bug!*

      I find that the sulfur smell comes out more when the egg is boiled longer than it needs to be. If you cook it just to the point of the flaky yolk, and then stop the cooking by immersing it in cold water, there’s little to no smell. If your yolk has a gray ring around it, it’s overcooked. It helps if you ‘boil’ your egg in just-simmering water, rather than actually boiling.

      (Of course, some people are extremely sensitive to smells and will be able to smell a hard-boiled egg even cooked perfectly. But for most people, they don’t notice a smell if it’s cooked properly.)

        1. A Bug!*

          Wow, I’ve never met someone who preferred the grey ring, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as my nan doesn’t consider her toast done until the smoke alarm goes off.

    2. Dana*

      I was on an airplane in a window seat with my then 10 year old daugther in the middle seat, with a random passenger in the aisle. As I was reading during the flight I was all of a sudden hit in the face with a horrific odor. I leaned over to my daugther and asked if she had passed gas, and suggested she might want to visit the restroom. She gave me a huge eye roll and pointed to the lady next to her who had just opened a tupperware container of hard boiled eggs. I love hard boiled eggs, but out of context the smell is very offensive.

    3. Anonymous*

      Its only neutral because you’re used to it. To me, hard boiled eggs smell like the worlds worst, stingiest fart.

    4. MissDisplaced*

      Ugh! I absolutely HATE the smell of hard boiled eggs and deviled eggs (but I like other types of eggs).

      Guess it just shows you that smell is subjective.

      Beyond putting a sign on the microwave to make people aware that certain foods may stick around more than others, and stocking the lunchroom with Febreeze, I think there is really little you can do.

      Ultimately, it’s just a food smell and they do go away.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Me too – I like the taste of hard-cooked eggs in salad, but I hate the smell of them cooking.

  35. Ann Furthermore*

    I think the only way to deal with this is by using the 80/20 rule. In general, about 80% of us agree that fish and popcorn are the worst offenders. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ban those 2 things. I never make popcorn at in the microwave at work, because each one is different and it usually takes a try or 2 to figure out the exact right moment to yank it out before it starts to burn. If you miscalculate, everyone has to suffer. And fish also produces a very strong odor, so I never put that in the microwave either.

    I’m not familiar with the physics involved, but it seems like microwaves produce those very strong odors, but conventional ovens don’t. I make a smoked salmon fritatta with dill and goat cheese every so often, and it is really delicious. It can be served warm, or at room temperature, so if I take it for lunch I can skip the microwaving process. But when I make it, the entire house is not permeated with a fishy smell the way it would be if I nuked the leftovers.

    So perhaps a way to approach it is to have the policy state that because microwaves heat food differently, fish and popcorn (and whatever other items are on the verboten list) should not be re-heated because they don’t react well to the microwaving process. That way there’s no risk of anyone thinking that specific groups of people are being targeted.

    1. Eric*

      The trick to microwave popcorn is to listen very closely to it. When the pops get more than 3 seconds apart, stop the microwave.

    2. Amanda*

      I think the 80/20 rule is a perfect compromise.

      I believe in being respectful to co-workers, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of compromising to every little sensitivity that they have.

    3. Andrea*

      You know, that’s true about the oven and lack of smell. I often use a mini conventional oven/toaster oven that I have for reheating things if I don’t want to heat up the oven. It’s basically just a small oven that can also toast and broil; I’ve had it for a few years, but I think it only cost about $150. I think that would be a much better option for offices. It can do all the same stuff (except popcorn) plus a lot more.

      Also I bought a crock pot the other day and noticed a little personal sized one for hot lunches—-might be just perfect for chili or soup. Not sure if it would be really smelly though.

      1. Cat*

        We have one in my office, and it’s great, but it can’t really do the same things as microwaves mostly because the cooking times for most things are much longer. Unless you only have a couple of people in the office, you’d develop way too much of a logjam if people were trying to deal with frozen meals in the toaster oven.

        1. Cat*

          (Also, I promise you, the toast crumbs will fall to the bottom and burn and people will then be writing into Ask A Manager about how their office always smells like burnt toast. Count on it.)

    4. Ann Furthermore*

      Here’s another thing that I don’t get — why people keep their frozen meal in the freezer until lunchtime. If you keep it in the fridge, it will defrost a little bit, and take a couple minutes off the cooking time. When you’ve got 10 people lined up waiting to heat up their lunch that can really make a difference. When you see someone set the microwave for 6 minutes, it really bums you out.

      There was a commercial that ran where I live for awhile, and I can’t remember what it was for, but it had people lined up waiting for the microwave at lunch. At one point, the microwave beeps and everyone is happy, thinking that the person’s lunch is done. Then someone says, “Oh no, they’re just stirring,” and everyone is extremely disappointed. It made me laugh out loud because it happens all the time. And the stirring bugs me too…when I’ve got people behind me I don’t stir and continue to heat…I just take my lunch and move along.

      And don’t get me started on the bad microwave etiquette of not being there to immediately remove your food as soon as it’s done!

      1. Cat*

        I think this is kind of unreasonable, to be honest. People stir and continue to heat because their food isn’t hot yet. They probably store it in the freezer because it’s not always clear when they’ll be able to eat lunch or if they’ll get dragged out or what the food safety implications are, and because waiting an extra two minutes isn’t going to kill anyone. Nobody likes waiting, but that’s what happens when you have to share facilities with people. Maybe bring a book?

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          Your average frozen meal is so loaded up with salt and preservatives that sitting in the fridge for half a day isn’t going to hurt it at all.

          I’ve gotten it down to a pretty good system where I can put my food in the microwave, set the timer for 3 minutes, run to the cafeteria to buy my lunchtime soda and bag of chips, and be back when there’s still 15-30 seconds left on the timer. I’ve heated up all kinds of food and 3 minutes is more than sufficient for just about everything with nary a cold spot to be found.

          The stirring drives me nuts because it makes the whole process take longer. No, waiting an extra 2 minutes isn’t going to be the end of the world, but when there are 5 people in front of you and each of them use those extra 2 minutes, that’s an extra 10 minutes of waiting. If you only get a half hour lunch, that’s a third of your lunch break spent waiting in line.

          1. KellyK*

            How does that work if you’re specifically choosing lower-salt frozen meals, though? (Usually the ones from both the diet section and the organic section are a lot lower salt than the standard ones.) It’s not as though there’s anything on the packaging of any frozen meal I’ve seen that would indicate that it’s okay in the fridge, or for how long—in fact, they all specifically say to keep them frozen until you’re ready to eat.

            Unfortunately, I think that if your lunch break is short and there’s that much demand on the microwave, you have to either make peace with waiting (like the suggestion of bringing a book), or bring something that doesn’t require microwaving.

            1. Ann Furthermore*

              Standard commercial ones like Lean Cuisine have quite a few preservatives, even if the salt content is lower. I don’t know about the organic ones. Even they have to have some preservatives (at least I would think so) in order to keep.

              Things in the fridge thaw pretty slowly, and even if the package says to keep something frozen until before you cook it, I always figure that’s just a legal disclaimer so if someone leaves one in their car for 3 days in the middle of summer and then gets sick after eating it, they won’t get far with their lawsuit.

              1. KellyK*

                I’m sure the normal commercial ones have some preservatives, although I don’t think Amy’s Kitchen or Annie’s do.

                My point is mostly just that I have no idea how long you could safely keep them in the fridge, and I wouldn’t expect someone to look that up to lengthen my lunch break by a couple minutes.

    1. Elysian*

      I once had a job that provided free microwave popcorn in the breakroom and kept it well-stocked.

      1. Lindsay J*

        One of my jobs provided microwave popcorn, but then took it away because people kept on burning it because they would heat it for too long (we had 1.5 oz bags and they would press the popcorn button for 3 oz bags).

  36. Malissa*

    Smelly is different for everyone. The smell of maple syrup makes me gag. I sucked it up when my coworker had some maple monstrosity for breakfast every single day for about a year.
    I rarely bring in food that doesn’t smell coming out of the microwave. If it has flavor it’s going to smell. And actually if the fish smells fishy when it’s being reheated, it’s probably old or being over cooked anyway. This will forever be an office battle, much like the thermostat setting. You’ll never please everyone.

    1. TL*

      Cheese. Just walking by the cheese section in a grocery store – especially the upscale ones – makes me gag.

      And pickles. The smell is gross, but at least it does not linger.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      you know, it’s not maple that’s bothering you – it’s fenugreek. That’s what gives artificial maple things their maple-y flavor. And why you sometimes smell like a waffle after eating Indian food.

      1. PPK*

        Hm. I bet I did. I do like it! Hee. Now I feel like a plagiarist.

        It does kick on for new smells. I had it power up after blowing out a candle.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, no, I am excited to see that people are getting them and recommending them. They seriously cured my husband’s horrible allergies for about six months (although now they’ve inexplicably started again and we don’t know why).

    1. MissDisplaced*

      The air filter is likely the best solution for this OP’s office!
      That and lots of Febreeze!

      1. Trillian*

        Nooo … I’ll take any food smell over supposed air fresheners! I’ve never had a food smell give me 2 days of miserable sinus pain.

  37. LCL*

    Seriously, I would tell everyone this policy is coming and ask them for foods to put on the NO list. For me, that would be broccoli because it smells like sewage when microwaved, and cheap frozen dinners that reek of onions. The stinkiest food item that wasn’t spoiled that I ever had the experience of was the day someone was eating a big old nasty green onion, raw. It stunk up the whole 2nd floor. Which is why you should ask, because I don’t mind the smell of fish…

    1. Jen in RO*

      But then you’d end up with a huge list of NO foods and a very small list of things people could actually eat…

  38. AnonAnony*

    Oh, and how could I forget pork rinds?

    They’re magical and delicious, and everyone should enjoy them at home or at a festival with lots of fresh air. I once had a woman next to me on a 5-hour flight open up a bag of pork rinds at take-off.

  39. Wilton Businessman*

    Can I put in a vote for castrating the person that puts the coffee pot back on the burner when it’s empty? Come on dude, either make more coffee or turn the damn burner off.


  40. Ramona*

    What about people with food allergies and sensitivities? Both my partner and I have an extremely limited diet for medical reasons. If either of us was told that we couldn’t eat food at work because it was too smelly, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t be able to eat anything at all. For instance, one of the few foods that my partner can eat is broccoli.

    I just think that banning smelly food at work is going to open a can of worms for a number reasons.

    1. fposte*

      Lots of places do ban smelly stuff, so this isn’t theoretical. Presumably they deal with this as it comes; either your partner would eat some of the other foods s/he could eat, or would eat away from the desk/kitchen, or wouldn’t reheat the broccoli in the microwave (I almost never cook the stuff anyway–it’s much better raw).

    2. KellyK*

      I would hope that if you were in that situation, your employer would consider revising the policy, although in cases like the OP’s, where the smell has the potential to bother customers, there might not be a whole lot of leeway.

      For people who want to implement policies like that, it is important to consider how it impacts employees with limited diets. If you’re banning one of the few things someone can eat, that’s a problem—possibly a bigger problem in terms of morale or productivity than people being occasionally annoyed by a smelly kitchen.

  41. Charles*

    I’m reading this eating my leftover spaghetti bolognese in my lunch break at my cubicle.

    How can the smell of food offend anybody that they can’t work?

    Ok, yes, durian, it is quite foul.

    What puzzles me is that one employee says she feels nauseated by the smell, how?!?!?!

    The only smells that nauseate me, are things that come out of people.

  42. Cassie*

    The microwave in the student store on campus has a sign that bans microwaving fish. Luckily, we have other microwaves on campus (outdoors, near vending machines) that don’t have such a ban. And since it’s outdoors, I’m guessing any stinky food smells will dissipate fairly quickly.

  43. Anon E Mouse*

    I hate, hate, *hate* the smell of oranges. Other citrus doesn’t bother me, but the smell (and taste) of oranges is enough to make me gag. I find most people (including my family) think this is very odd, and I can’t see any office banning oranges or orange-smelling things because it makes me queasy.

    The point is, everyone has their own triggers. Oranges have a very strong smell, just like fish and popcorn.

    1. Emily K*

      Yes, as a kid I couldn’t stand the smell of oranges! I hated when a schoolmate would bring one to lunch and open it up and have our whole lunch table smelling like the stuff.

      Luckily when my tastes shifted as I got older, orange smell stopped being offensive to me. (I also developed a taste for other previously-reviled foods like nuts and salmon, but developed an increased sensitivity to mold, pollen, and smoke in the same brief period. You win some, you lose some.)

  44. hamster*

    On a second thought i hate microwaved chicken. I don’t like reheated meat taste either way but the smell. urgh. But really, that can be easily eaten cold. and so can fish. Plus, it’s more incentive to just go out for lunch/leave on time and don’t stay late, so i can reasonably eat at home.

  45. IronMaiden*

    Hilarious thread. I was imagining some of the situations described, although I feel sorry for the PP sitting next to pork rind woman.

    That said, I am guilty of heating up lasagne, pizza, bolognaise, tacos, fish, curry, stir fry, vegetables including cruciferous, sausages and so on. The only complaints I had were that these foods made people hungry and I wouldn’t share. Funnily enough, I’m bothered by the smell of warmed up cheese dishes because they smell so good and make me hungry.

  46. janelle f.*

    Everywhere I’ve worked since I’ve lived in NYC has had rules about eating certain foods in the office.
    Business #1- the owner put a sign on the microwave saying, “Please do not heat up fish”
    Business #2- the owner of the company sent an email out asking people to not eat food that smells like onions in the office.
    Business #3- the owner forbid microwave popcorn.

    I hate food smells so I like all these rules.

  47. Esther*

    What the credential of the author? Attorney? is this article a legal advice? I can’t believe how judgmental and self-righteous of comments being left here.

    Do you know Cheese product, such as PIZZA, has a very strong odor too? Most of you don’t mind it because you grow up with it. But for people who don’t, it’s very obvious.

    Food who doesn’t have any aroma is boring! Learn to be more open-minded, people!

  48. Pete*

    Keep in mind that some of us do not have a sense of smell. I mean complete, utter anosmia! So don’t assume that your co-worker knows their food smells highly. I have this problem, and am at times amazed when someone mentions that food X has an objectionable odor. I would definitely be open to hearing that others have a problem with my lunch choice.

  49. In an Office of 16 peeps every day*

    i think it’s just plain selfish and rude of people to make smelly foods at work. OBVIOUSLY, they couldn’t care less what others think. ALL the while, we are sitting here having to inhale burnt popcorn every afternoon….it’s disgusting!
    should I find out what the popcorn eater doesn’t like……….and microwave it every day so she gets the idea??????????? I work with a bunch of ridiculous folks, if it’s not this, its always something else.

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