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 about 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) are 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? 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?

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 tends to be quite sensitive and moody. 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.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 216 comments… read them below }

  1. MHR*

    Sounds like you are letting her become the office broken stair. Everyone knows her moodiness is a problem but they just avoid her instead of fixing the issue (like stepping over a broken stair over and over again instead of just fixing it.) Sounds like everyone is so scared of her they don’t even want to implement a policy that is honestly pretty standard in fear of offending her! It sounds like her attitude is the real problem here, not the microwave.

  2. Lady Phoenix*

    I don’t have a good nose, so what seem strong smelling to one person si fine with me. Except fish, don’t microwave fish (and salmon is the grossest thing ever).

    But as MHR said, you don’t have a food problem, you have a coworker problem

  3. nnn*

    I think any rule about banning smelly/pungent/strong-smelling foods would have to define what exactly that means. Because no one thinks of their own food with negative descriptors like smelly or pungent, and I think people aren’t always aware that others might find their food strong-smelling.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think it does, though; that’s falling afoul of what I think of as the legislative fallacy, where you can’t enact any policy that you haven’t legislated out to every detail. In real life, office policies can adapt as necessary; you name the issue and a few known offenders and ask people to be conscious. It’s fine to subsequently say to somebody “Yeah, we didn’t have fermented deer liver on the list, but we’d ask you not to nuke that in future anyway.”

      1. Queen of the File*

        I think the key is having those specific examples, or at least a venue to ask for more information. I feel a bit nervous about this too because my sense of smell is not great and I am not sure which smells are carrying and/or offensive. For example, I’ve read that some people think cold tuna sandwiches a no-no for work, but I’m not sure if that’s a common enough thing for me to avoid eating tuna at work altogether.

        1. fposte*

          I think if you eat at your desk in close proximity to people who have to stay there to work, it can be good just to ask them! Do it a day when you don’t have tuna so they don’t feel like they’re telling you to throw out your lunch.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          The last time this came up I thought “no fish in the office microwave” was an obvious one, and several people argued that fish in the office microwave is great and shouldn’t be a problem for anyone.

          So yeah, there definitely is no common sense obvious to everyone standard here.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              I think it’s that it’s strong and lingers. It’s the lingering-ness of a smell that often gets to people.

              1. A Person*

                It also leeches into other food. Prior to my office instituting a ‘no fish in the microwave’ rule, I had to throw away my own lunch a couple of times because the fish smell was all over my own food.

          1. DArcy*

            I’m of Vietnamese ancestry and all my food is fish. Like, seriously — pretty much all Vietnamese cuisine that doesn’t have actual fish in it is going to be cooked in and/or served with *nuoc mam*, which is a very strong, very delicious fermented fish sauce.

            I would absolutely call shenanigans if anyone tried to ban all my fish while allowing horribly pungent European foods to be microwaved.

        3. Kathleen Adams*

          I have a coworker right now who likes – this is so odd to me – burnt popcorn. I don’t mean burnt black, but definitely burnt, and that’s a smell that really carries and lingers, too.

          So yeah, we finally had to just flat-out tell her “You cannot burn your popcorn here.” She got kind of snippy (she’s very sweet, but she’s also kind of touchy), but apparently it took because I haven’t smelled burnt popcorn in ages.

          1. Jennifer M.*

            I had a job where microwave popcorn was 100% banned. People kept walking away from the microwave and it would burn and people complained about the smell. The office manager was b!tching about it to the CFO and he didn’t want to deal so he just flat out banned it (he also banned the entire company of 200+ from ordering mechanical pencils because if the Finance dept could get buy with yellow number 2s, so could the rest of us). There were even signs taped inside the vending machines so that it was never accidentally loaded into the machines.

            1. Snorlax*

              Same, I also worked st an office where popcorn was banned. The smoke from burnt popcorn set off the smoke detectors a few times and the fire department showed up.

              1. Rebecca in Dallas*

                I did that once. *hangs head in shame* It was super embarrassing, I never made popcorn at work again.

            2. LawPancake*

              God I wish my office would ban it. The first hour smelling it isn’t too bad but after that I start gagging.

            3. Sandra wishes you a heavenly day*

              I had a manager who hated the smell of microwave popcorn and it was therefore banned in our offices. No other reason, he just hated it.

              Someone actually microwaved fish here at current office Monday and I thought of the whole AAM commentiarat! (Apparently one of my coworkers who was present for the microwaving yelled at the perpetrator about how smelly and wrong it was, as well.)

            4. Mabel*

              I don’t think the smell of burnt popcorn would bother me, but I feel sick to my stomach instantly when I smell the fake butter on microwaved popcorn. It just really gets to me, almost more than anything else.

            5. Observer*

              Well, with the burnt popcorn, that’s a reasonable reaction. It’s not that it happened ONCE and was banned – this was an ongoing problem that people could have fixed very easily by either figuring out how to set the microwave and / or not walking away. If it were one person, ban THEM. But if it’s a pattern with multiple people, then it’s not reasonable to make someone (probably the office manager) try to police that.

              1. OlympiasEpiriot*

                I don’t understand how the popcorn consistently got burned. I mean, there’s instructions on the bag, and there’s often special settings on the microwave panel itself. I used to have packets of microwave popcorn in a stash at university for when I needed to stay late in the department and I never burned popcorn.

                I can’t be so strange for reading instructions?

                1. Observer*

                  Well, that’s where I come down, too. There is no reason for this to have become a problem.

                  If people can’t be bothered to read the instructions and follow them, then don’t be surprised when you get less than pleasant consequences.

                  And, no you are NOT weird.

          2. Mallory Janis Ian*

            My aunt and I used to make popcorn on the stovetop, and we’d leave a few kernels in the pot to burn just a little bit after the rest of the popcorn was done. We didn’t want all of our popcorn burnt, and we didn’t want any of it burned much, but we liked just a few slightly singed ones mixed in with the rest of the popcorn.

          3. MCMonkeyBean*

            Wow, that is wild. Burnt popcorn smell lingers SO badly! Any time I have accidentally burnt popcorn, I leave the bag in my garage until we’re ready to take out the trash.

          4. Ann Furthermore*

            Whenever this discussion comes up here, it almost always comes back to fish and popcorn. So why not just ban those 2 things, because they are the worst offenders, and be done with it?

            1. Fish Microwaver*

              Because people find other reheated foods unpleasant, like curries, stews, pizza, cheese, vegetables etc. As someone said down thread, they don’t like the smell of microwaved fish but want to be able to heat a curry.

              1. Kathleen Adams*

                Exactly. We who live in glass houses (i.e., we who like our own particular variety of “smelly” food) can’t throw stones (i.e., ask that other varieties of “smelly” foods be banned). Well, we can, but we have to be careful, not only for selfish reasons but also for reasons of fairness. If we’re going to ask people to be tolerant of our dietary quirks, we need to be tolerant of other people’s dietary quirks.

        4. Hedwig*

          I hate hate hate the smell of canned tuna, but it seems like such a standard thing t have for lunch that I can’t imagine asking someone not to eat it (other than my husband when I am pregnant). I do think it’s strong enough that if there is a lunch room available it should be eaten there if possible and not at the desk. Also, in my experience, the smell of the freshly opened can is much stronger than a sandwich that someone made at home.

          1. Julia*

            Canned tuna was the last thing my cat would eat before she died, so the smell really gets to me. (I hat to quit eating meat and fish after she died because all I could think of were dead animals.)
            I still can’t tell my co-workers not to eat it.

    2. Roscoe*

      I agree. Its such a subjective term. I don’t mind much of anything. To some people chili is smelly. To some pizza is smelly. I think if you are going to do that, you need to name a few very specific things and kind of stick with them. As you said, no one thinks their own food is smelly. Similarly, I learned from having many pregnant friends, that pregnant women find many things unpleasant (at least the ones I know), so do you then have to cater to their newly sensitive nose?

      1. Ms. Anna*

        That depends, how sensitive are you to the smell of vomit or the sounds of someone vomiting? I am semi serious here.

        Having said that, I have had 5 kids, and while I banned their father’s after shave and microwave popcorn in the house, it was my house and car I was banning stuff in. I learned to cope at the office. Breathing through a wet washcloth helped the smells of the break room a lot. So did avoiding it altogether.

    3. Artemesia*

      I once worked in a new office complex with a little kitchen and the first week the admin staff fried chicken. From that day onward, no cooking was allowed in the office and there were firm policies about the microwave. The manager did not want as he put it, ‘clients thinking they had stumbled onto a fast food restaurant.’ Fried chicken smells good to me, but it and popcorn, and kimchi and fish and tikka massala and lots of other smelly foods make an office rather unprofessional if clients are met there.

      And yes, this employee is a broken stair and all the issues should be dealt with but start with the smelly food and ban all of it not just hers.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Worst microwave smell is frozen fried chicken with the bone in. By the time it heats up the entire surrounding area is permeated with the smell of overcooked bone. I think frozen food makers got the clue and went boneless because I haven’t smelled that in years, but in the early days of microwaves it was really popular.

    4. Turquoise Cow*

      Agreed. This a subjective, opinion-based determination. Someone who grew up in a culture of lots of garlic or curry won’t even think that their food is strong smelling, while others will be appalled.

      If you are going to ban “smelly” foods, you need to list concrete examples, or you’ll have coworkers argue over what is and isn’t smelly.

    5. LK*

      My OldJob banned microwave popcorn and seafood of any kind from the microwave. I was a fan. No shrimp or tuna or crab or fishsticks in the microwave.

    6. Tammy*

      See, the discussion here underscores for me the fact that this is a “broken stair” problem, and not a “smelly food” problem. In a world without a broken stair, someone would say “Maryanne, could you please not microwave fermented moose tongue in the office? The smell is really strong and it lingers.” And Maryanne would say “oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry; I had no idea” and then not do it again, because Maryanne is a decent person who wants to have congenial relationships with her coworkers.

      Instead of legislating around the symptom, fix the broken stair problem.

    7. M-C*

      As Allison suggested, I’d strongly suspect that the ‘smelly’ food is simply from a different ethnicity that the OP’s. I know much of my perfectly normal food ‘smells’ to midwesterners. I’ve heard them complain about other colleague’s delicious curries. I haven’t yet found an American who finds their perpetual popcorn-with-faux-butter as nauseating as I do.

      If food is entirely without any smell, it’s not edible. So perhaps investigate better ventilation around the microwave? Put in a door that can be closed to isolate the lunch room from the office, and ask that people actually eat in there?

  4. Murphy*

    This is why I refuse to heat anything fish related at work. I don’t want to be that person who makes the whole office smell.

    1. President Porpoise*

      In the last week, I’ve had French onion soup, corned beef and cabbage, salmon and roasted broccoli, and brussel sprouts and a bacon heavy dish. I’ve brought leftovers, but I ate them cold rather than make my coworkers suffer. People can bring smelly food all they want – they just can’t use the microwave.

      But please, no limburger cheese in any form.

      1. Mb13*

        You should consider reframing from eating those foods at work generally. They tend to leave a very bad and lingering small on your breath and it would be a shame if your work would be hindered by a bad breath (I don’t know what your job is. But if it’s client facing than it could be a problem. I know my fair share of people who wouldn’t want a business service because of onion breath)

        1. Arielle*

          Isn’t that why they invented gum and mints? I can’t be the only person who keeps gum in my desk 100% of the time for post-lunch freshening.

          1. Mariposa*

            Just want to politely point out that I would happily take microwaved sardines, burnt popcorn, moose liver or whatever to never have to see or hear someone chewing gum ever again, so please reconsider chewing gum in the office. And to me it smells more offensive than anything natural like fish or curry, even when I’m not pregnant.

            1. Not Yet Looking*

              Which is the exception that proves the rule that no matter how far you bend over backwards to please people, there’s still going to be someone waiting to kick you in the ankles.

              1. An Inspector of Gadgets*

                I even thought people were kidding on this thread! Can’t please everyone, so just do your best to be pleasant and considerate, and politely discuss intolerable issues with those around you.

  5. all aboard the anon train*

    I say this every single time this situation comes up, but I’m pretty against it because everyone has different food items that might make them nauseous. The smell of grease from fast food or fried foods smells awful to me, and I can’t stand the smell of pickles, but there’d be outrage if I asked people to not microwave that food or get fast food.

    Yet, food I grew up eating and cooking that has a lot of garlic and onions and spices is considered food not to be heated up in a microwave. And it’s pretty annoying to have people tell me my food is “bad” food because they don’t like the way it smells.

    There’s no one type of food smell that every single person agrees smell bad. I don’t mind the smell of heated up fish, so I never got the outrage over the smell.

    1. fposte*

      It’s often not simply what smells bad, though, it’s how long it smells bad and how far the odor travels. There are also some really popular recurring items on the list that indicate it’s not simply an individual taste thing (fish and burned popcorn come to mind). In the OP, there are some specific identified offenders. You don’t have to ban everything that might offend to have a policy; you can just address those.

      1. all aboard the anon train*

        I guess I just never really cared if they lingered. I’ve had my desk near a kitchen and it’s never bothered me enough to complain about it because I figured people were allowed to eat what they wanted without me policing them about the lingering smells.

        1. Bend & Snap*

          I care a LOT about food smells. I won’t throw away food in the trash can at my desk because I can’t stand smelling it all day. I have a dog nose ever since I had my daughter.

          Immediate smells are part of office life but lingering smells can really be distracting and bothersome.

        1. Dmr*

          I had an office manager who hated microwave popcorn smell, but would heat up some stinky fish and food from her country. I now have a co-worker that I only know heats up fish because he told me what he makes, which looks and smells delicious (no fishy smell). At my old office, they’d occasionally order Chinese food that smelled nasty to me. I think dealing with food smells is just part of working in a diverse environment.

      2. OlympiasEpiriot*

        The food smell that endures the longest in my office to me is american fast food burger and fries scent. It is NASTY. NASTY when people eat it, nasty to smell the wrappers in the garbage, nasty smelling it on their breath after — I swear I can smell it emanating from them in meetings…and, no, I’m not a vegetarian, pregnant, nor have severe allergies.

        But, is anyone going to agree to ban Burger King or McDonalds or Wendy’s? Nope. That s#*t is just fine and “normal”.

    2. Amber Rose*

      It’s less bad, than strong. As an example, I personally don’t think curry smells bad at all, quite the opposite, but I would protest it being heated in the office because the smell is very powerful and overwhelming, and lingers for a long time. Kinda like how someone wearing a little perfume might smell nice, but I still don’t want them to blast me in the face with it.

      Generally speaking, if someone microwaves something and I can smell it strongly anywhere other than the lunchroom, it’s too strong.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Actually as a more specific example, one coworker accidentally flooded the whole building with the smell of maple syrup last year. I couldn’t look at a pancake for two weeks.

        1. Arbynka*

          How do you flood the whole building with the smell of maple syrup? Asking for a friend ;)

          1. Amber Rose*

            The coworker in question was trying to cover up the smell of burning rubber from some task he was doing, and he picked up some kind of all natural scent deodorizer thing.

            It rolled through the whole building. It was nice for about ten minutes, but the smell kept growing and growing and growing and eventually you could smell it even in the far corners of the building. Even in the closet. Felt like I was drowning in molasses.

            1. Arbynka*

              You know, in my experience, when you try to get rid of one smell by covering it up with another, it usually doesn’t end well. Either the cover up smell ends up as bad (strong) as the original or you end up with two smells mixed together.

        2. cornflower blue*

          Was this in Boston, by chance?

          (Don’t want to bother Alison with links this week…look up Great Molasses Flood for reference.)

          1. Amber Rose*

            Nah, it wasn’t real syrup, turned out to be a scent that someone was using to cover up the smell of burning rubber. It was abnormally powerful.

        3. CoveredInBees*

          How? Also, how did you feel about maple before this incident? I have a hard time imagining how I would dislike such a state of affairs because maple is one of my favorite smells.

          1. Amber Rose*

            I still love maple syrup! One of my favorite treats is maple syrup on apple sauce. I did avoid it for a couple weeks but I got over it.

            Turns out some of those plug-in scent things are freakishly powerful.

        4. Brandy*

          I not pregnant but once could barely get into the Sams Club to do my shopping. They were cooking samples of Maple Bacon, all the way across the Sams from where I was and still it about killed me to go in there.

      2. Alienor*

        + 1 on the lingering. I love curry, but I don’t cook it at home because I can’t tolerate the house smelling like curry for the next several days to a week. No amount of opening a window or turning on a fan seems to get rid of it.

        1. CMart*

          See, I love making curries for that reason. Coming home to a house that smells like “ooh, tasty food!” is preferable to me to coming home and going “eh… we really need to vacuum.”

    3. Janelle*

      Anything can smell bad to someone but there are some clear distinct foods. No popcorn, fish….

      Oh and the smell of sweet pickles sends me into a tailspin so I hear you there. Oddly enough though I am a dill pickle addict.

      1. Alexa*

        I am the same with pickles – I love all things pickled unless they are sweet but my husband loves sweet pickles. I have to throw bleach in the sink just so I don’t throw up after he finishes a jar and rinses it out.

    4. Justme*

      I’m with you. I cannot stand how peanut better smells, but I wouldn’t ask someone not to eat it around me.

      1. K.*

        Peanut butter is a bit different because there are people whose allergies are so sensitive that the smell is actually harmful to them, which is why you see stuff like designated peanut tables in schools. I have peanut and tree nut allergies and mine aren’t THAT severe (though fairly severe; I carry an epi-pen), but I know people whose allergies ARE that severe, or who have kids whose allergies are that severe.

        1. Kate 2*

          It’s not scientifically possible for people to react to the smell of peanut butter. People who are severely allergic can react if peanut dust is spread through the air and they inhale the dust, but allergies that severe are rare.

          1. Toph*

            If you can smell it you are inhaling it. That’s how the smell gets in your nose: particulates. It is rare to be that allergic, but that’s how the smell gets there.

            1. anonintheuk*

              If someone eats peanut butter near me, I get the same reaction I do if I step outside on a day with a high pollen count. My eyes water and the inside of my nose prickles.

    5. Wendy Anne*

      I had a coworker once tell me that my lunch smelled weird. The very next day, for the very same food, she told me my lunch smelled delicious.

    6. MHR*

      It’s more potent smells than strong smells. My mom loves burnt popcorn, but that is a smell that carries and sticks around forever. It’s about how they linger. For instance today I hid the industrial odor spray in the bathroom by my desk because I can not stand how it travels and lingers and it gives me a headache every time someone goes in there and thinks that holding down the trigger and stinking up the entire office with lysol scent is preferable to the odor they make that stays behind the closed door and is 100% handled by the automatic air freshener in the bathroom that goes off every few minutes. Some people might say that they like that smell, but it sticks around for hours…

      1. Queen of the File*

        I think what people are sensitive to and even consider to be lingering must be somewhat individual. There are certain chemical smells that burrow into my brain too, but food in general barely registers scent-wise for me. My coworker is exactly the opposite.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yep. Whenever this comes up, there’s at least one thing that someone flags as “obviously everyone knows not to eat X at the office” that would never have occurred to me, because they have almost no smell to me. (Apples, peanut butter, and hard boiled eggs are all things that people have flagged as “obviously offensive” that to me have extremely mild and non-lingering smell–and the peanut one was expressly about the smell, not about allergies.)

          At this point I have basically pretty much no confidence in my ability to guess what is an offensive smelling food and what isn’t (I mean, I’m not going to break out the hakarl or the chicken&forty garlic at work, but beyond that…), so I just blanket tell my coworkers “Please tell me if I’m eating anything that smells bad to you” and hope they actually do it.

    7. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

      Yeah, I think the risk of ethnic discrimination is a little understated in Alison’s response…the office manager or whoever is setting/enforcing policy needs to be on the lookout for things like, “Everyone agrees that Rajesh’s curry is too strong smelling, but we won’t ban french fries because nobody has ever complained about that smell.” You would really need to be sure of not just what you’re doing but the optics of it in this case.

      1. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

        I’ll note that a bagel toasting in the toaster is one of the strongest and longest-lasting smells around. In my office I can smell a bagel or bread toasting in the office from halfway down the hall before I even enter the office, and it stays that way for a good half an hour or more. I highly doubt anyone enacting am ban on “strong smelling items” would ban toasting bread.

        1. SL #2*

          We have a faulty toaster oven that doesn’t always turn off when it should, so burned bread is a very prevalent smell in the office all the time. And yet, no one’s suggested that we ban toast and bagels.

            1. SL #2*

              To be honest, I really don’t know. We’ve asked a bunch of times and it has yet to come to fruition.

            2. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

              Waiting for it to catch on fire? That finally happened in a friend’s office. Fire trucks and a building evacuation got them a new toaster. Seriously, don’t use a faulty toaster.

        2. DDJ*

          Great point on the smell of things being toasted! I mean, I honestly don’t care about food smells, but our office is large enough that smells are mostly contained to the kitchen area. The only time you’d really smell them outside the kitchen is if someone is eating at their desk, and for the most part, people are considerate about which items they’ll take out of the kitchen. But a bagel? That is a smell that CARRIES.

        3. Turtle Candle*

          The smell of someone making toast is sufficiently strong and pervasive that it will wake me out of a sound sleep. I wouldn’t complain because it’s not a bad smell to me (at worst it will make me crave toast of my own), but yeah. Whereas my husband can barely smell it if it’s right under his nose (and his sense of smell is otherwise quite good). But yeah, it’s hard to imagine a policy like this that would bar toast.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            (And I know secondhand that office life can be deeply unpleasant to people who dislike the smell of coffee, because that smell absolutely is strong, pervasive, and lingering, and yet most offices would have a revolution if you tried to ban hot coffee.)

      2. Bend & Snap*

        I live in a condo building with a neighbor who cooks food from their home country all the time, and the smell does hang. They’re on the first floor so you smell it when you walk in, and I can smell it in the second floor hallway and in one of my closets even after a day or two.

        But this isn’t an office and i’m not about to complain about someone cooking in their own home so I just try to minimize the smell in my space.

      3. VioletEMT*

        The ethnic discrimination risk is the first thing that popped into my mind as well. If you’re banning cuisine that is prominent amongst an ethnic minority in your office, then that could be an issue. Basically, you need to examine whether the ban has a disparate impact on ethnic minorities before moving forward with it.

    8. animaniactoo*

      It’s not about what smells bad or strongly to you personally. It’s about what smells bad or strongly to the majority of people in the office.

      When you’re in the minority about something like this, it’s your issue and you figure out a way to deal with it accordingly without imposing it on other people who aren’t bothered by it. Unless, of course, it is significantly harmful to you on a financial/medical/life-threatening basis or is particularly discriminatory.

      When a majority of people feel the same way about something, it transfers into the category of “public nuisance” and work is done to eliminate the nuisance.

    9. Old Person, apparently*

      I agree. Plus I live in fish country, where it’s not uncommon to live off the fish that you catch during the summer. People take weeks off or even every Friday or Monday off or just a Wednesday if the fish are running and no one bats an eye. So the idea of fish being this terrible, awful, no good food is rather insulting.

      Personally, I find fast food smells (especially the fries) to be rather nauseating.

      Either don’t have a microwave if you don’t want food smells (and tell everyone to go off site for lunch) or stop food policing.

      1. all aboard the anon train*

        I find American offices to be way less accepting of food smells they think are “different”. Honestly, the whole “let’s ban X, Y, and Z foods that smell/linger” comes very close to being “let’s only eat American cuisines” because a lot of the smells that linger are usually ethnic foods or from cultures that base a lot of their dishes around fish or garlic or other “pungent” foods.

        And when you have people saying that the one person eating their ethnic or cultural foods has to change for the majority, you’re toeing a very thin line.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t know that you always are, though; many cultures have foods that are recognized as both theirs and pungent, after all (as noted in a previous discussion of this topic, a second kitchen for smelly stuff like curry or fermented foods isn’t an uncommon cultural practice). You need to be sensitive to saying “Everything you eat is off the table and everything everybody else eats is fine,” but I think you can say “I don’t care if it’s traditional, Lars, no surstromming in the office.”

        2. Kathleen Adams*

          All I can say is that so far the only food that’s been banned in my all-American office’s microwave is: burnt popcorn. And you can’t get much more American than popcorn.

      2. Snark*

        “So the idea of fish being this terrible, awful, no good food is rather insulting.”

        a) No, it’s actually not insulting, and taking it as such is not reasonable and that b) while fish is awesome, the smell created by heating it up in the microwave is strong to the point of being offensive to most people.

        1. Old Person, apparently*

          I feel that it IS reasonable, as it comes up constantly on this site and usually delves into “yuck fish.” Americans are weird about fish and seafood anyway; it comes down to class-based bias. It’s not just “fish in microwave” odor, either, frequently people will complain about the smell of cold tuna sandwiches or tuna on crackers as well.

          1. Snark*

            You’re misreading the sentiment in a way that unnecessarily personalizes it. Nobody’s dissing fish, they’re dissing the smell it creates in the office when it’s heated up. It’s really that simple, and trying to pathologize it as either insulting to you or rooted in class bias is really, really far off base.

            1. Snark*

              And just in case you want to reply that I must be classist and don’t like fish: you’re talking to somebody who grilled salmon last night, who eats fish and shellfish about three times a week, and started eating sushi with gusto at about age 5. Fish and me, we’re cool. Fish is a good thing. Just not in the microwave.

          2. Ypsiguy*

            If it comes to having to either (a) allow people to heat up fish in the microwave in order to not be insulting, or (b) removing the microwave from the office, I would vote for (b) any day of the week.

            Please assume good will on my part, that this is not due to any class-based bias. It’s simply that I am repulsed by the smell of microwaved fish.

          3. Referenceless*

            To me fish and shellfish and seafood smells and tastes the same way dead seaweed smells. It always has. So yeah, I hate smelling fish. Doesn’t make me anything but someone for whom fish smells and tastes awful.

            I have to eat at the front desk, so I get food that’s low odor and edible cold-no access to a microwave. No one wants to be checked in by someone why smells like strong garlic at 2 AM.

      3. yet another Kat*

        I think that the fish thing is usually specifically about microwaving fish. I enjoy cooking and eating fish on a regular basis, but the smell of microwaved fish is significantly different from fish prepared in any other manner or fresh raw fish or canned fish.

        I do agree that often in the US (I come from another country and grew up in the US eating a combo of “American” and Birth Country foods) food odor policing can often happen along ethnic and even class lines (I’ve seen people who are from a wealthier background feel very free to act disgusted by fast food smells) and generally just reflect biases that don’t belong in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter).

        1. Snark*

          Yes, it is exactly that. It’s why salmon and tuna come in for particular ire: those are extremely fatty fish, that fat is light and volatile as it is, and heating their oils volatilizes them along with some very strong-smelling compounds created when fish protein breaks down.

    10. Decima Dewey*

      It depends on the kitchen. Our kitchen has no windows, so stinky stuff can really linger. Other branches have kitchen with windows, so with a fan, the smell can disperse.

    11. DArcy*

      Agree 100%. The cultural double standard here is completely blatant and I find myself pretty disappointed because the commenting here at AAM is usually not so oblivious and knee-jerk.

  6. animaniactoo*

    Hilariously enough, this showed up in my e-mail 40 minutes ago.

    “Dear All,

    In order to keep the workplace a comfortable environment for everyone, please refrain from heating food with strong odors such as fish, popcorn etc.…

    Thank you in advance.”

    1. Machiamellie*

      Do you sit by the entrance and are you sensitive and moody?
      If so, you might be the person OP is complaining about :)

  7. Nanc*

    Maybe a better solution is to relocate the microwave to an area with better ventilation. I have a ridiculously good sense of smell but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t be able to reheat their leftover [not so] yummy liver-fish-stewed-tomato surprise because, hey, we all gotta eat lunch.

    I’ll be over here consuming my delicious peanut butter and spinach sandwich.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      THIS is the solution.

      Why on earth are the pantries and kitchen in offices generally without windows or decent ventilation?

      Not to mention breakrooms. Those are usually in the bowels of a building (even when on the same floor as the rest of the office, they’ll be near the core without windows or decent HVAC)

      Then, if you want a lunch from Burger King or Joe’s Crab Shack or your favorite curry house you can enjoy it!!

      Everyone has a right to enjoy their food. Let’s improve the air circulation.

      Peace out.

  8. Bow Ties Are Cool*

    The smell of fish in the microwave makes me gag. The smell of curry (which visibly upsets some of the same coworkers who just love their frozen salmon entrees), on the other hand, makes my mouth water. I would be sad if I couldn’t bring leftover curry to work, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat for a ban on fish.

  9. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    I don’t know how this can be practically enforced with a diverse staff in terms of income and national origin. Someone with not much money may have to heat up leftovers or not eat at all, smell or no, and you can’t expect someone to change their dinner plans in their own home.

    By the same token, a lot of cuisines smell strong to Americans. Traditional Chinese or Italian, and any Korean or Indian food. Even German food (I work with Germans for now)!

    They just made the “no strong smells” rule at the office and I’m thinking, damn, there goes my lunch plans. I grew up with a best friend who was from Pakistan, who would often give me lots of traditional food because my mother thought I needed to diet and didn’t let me eat enough at home. So for four years I basically lived on school lunch, whatever low-cal food I was allowed to eat, and naan, rice, and biryani.

    You can pry my biryani and curry from my cold, dead hands!

    1. SL #2*

      I’m with you and with all aboard the anon train in the thread above. You can ban foods with strong odors in the office, but it is a very short step from that to “your one coworker who brings in food from their ethnic culture for lunch suddenly has to eat turkey sandwiches every single day because you all have banned her from bringing anything that doesn’t smell ‘right.'”

      1. paul*

        I’m a lot more OK with banning lingering (popcorn, bagels, curry) than I am just “bad”. I mean, like it or loath it, smelling anything gets old after a few hours. Hell, I don’t even like cooking bacon at home because the house smells like bacon for hours.

        Lingering seems more objective basically; you’re not judging if it’s good or bad, just that it stays around.

        1. Kate 2*

          But that spins you back into banning ethnic food. Strong smells, like garlic, curry powder, cumin, fish and so on tend to linger. Would you really be okay with telling Indian people they can’t eat curry in the office?

          1. Stardust*

            I honestly don’t see why you shouldn’t be okay with that. I admittedly don’t know very much about Indian cuisine but surely it doesn’t only consist of curries (meaning, an Indian coworker wouldn’t have anything else to bring), so as long as you don’t tell only Indian employees that all of their meals are “bad” you should generally be in the clear. Like fposte says above, “You need to be sensitive to saying “Everything you eat is off the table and everything everybody else eats is fine,” but I think you can say “I don’t care if it’s traditional, Lars, no surstromming in the office.””.

            1. SL #2*

              It’s not just curries, no, but there’s varying amounts of curry powder, garlic/garlic powder, and occasionally, onion powder, in the more popular dishes, all of which are spices with strong scent.

            2. Librarianne*

              My husband is Indian, and I’ll be honest, almost every dish his family makes uses mustard seed, curry leaf, and coconut, or lots of masala powders– all of which are extremely strongly scented. So yes, in practice, these sorts of rules DO tend to target people of certain ethnicities more than others.

              To be fair, his family, all vegetarians, are super grossed out by the smell of any kind of meat. I’m pregnant right now and so this has led to some interesting cultural clashes due to my weird aversions, cravings, and scent-sensitivity.

              1. fposte*

                It only tends to target them if they’re preparing curries every day in the office kitchen. A quick nuke of those ingredients isn’t that big a deal to most people.

              2. nonegiven*

                Do I remember a remodel/house hunting show somewhere where the people wanted a separate room they called the masala kitchen? Maybe they were Indian, I’m not sure. I didn’t know what masala was and I don’t recall anyone saying.

            3. Newlywed*

              I just want to point out that “curry” as a spice doesn’t actually exist (except by Mccormick who makes a generic yellow curry seasoning). In Indian cuisine it’s a word that refers to different blends of individual spices, which tend to have strong aromatic qualities and are usually comprised of some combination of cumin, lime leaf, lemongrass, coriander, clove, garlic, fenugreek, garam masala (another spice blend), tumeric, hot pepper, etc…so by banning “curries” you are essentially banning the ethnic spices in that person’s kitchen.

          2. paul*

            Aren’t there foods in any given cuisine that don’t linger? I don’t know much about a lot of different cuisines beyond what I like to order when I got out though. But I’m just kind of guessing most cuisines don’t consist only of food stuffs where the smell lingers, regardless of how good/bad the smell is.

          3. Sarah*

            I mean, how are fish or popcorn “ethnic” foods? I would consider these to be on the strong smells list but I don’t associate them with any particular culture.

            Also — all leftovers do not have to be heated up! I think a cold salmon fillet on a salad is actually super delicious.

            1. DArcy*

              As I’ve said: ban “fish” and you’ve banned all Vietnamese food, because of the *nuoc mam*.

              1. Observer*

                Not “ban fish” but “ban fish in the microwave”. There is a difference.

                Not that I really care about fish even in the microwave.

          4. Observer*

            Is garlic really “ethnic”? Sure, it shows up in Provencal, Italian, Korean, Syrian, Spanish, Russian and Greek cuisines. But it also shows up in a lot of “American” foods. I mean where else are you going to find garlic ice cream? That’s just weird, imo. But I can’t imagine it in a context where garlic was not used regularly.

    2. kittymommy*

      I remember this being brought up before, and yeah, I can see this getting into some touchy issues when it comes to different cultures. I don’t think there was a consensus.

      1. SL #2*

        There never is, because there’s no clean, easy solution to something as deeply personal and individualized as food. It’s why people hate the food police and calorie-counters at their office. And speaking for myself only, a ban on certain foods is sanctioned food policing and it makes my blood boil. It would absolutely be the hill I chose to die on.

  10. Cube Diva*

    I have a coworker who makes popcorn at least 2-3 times per day. The only microwaves are in our in-house restaurant/cafeteria, so it lingers in the stairway and down the hall to his desk. I can avoid it because I’m on the other end of the office, but if I had to sit next to him I’d raise it as a problem, too.

    TL;DR: I agree with the strong vs. “bad” distinction. Popcorn smells good to me, but constantly and/or near me would be a bother.

  11. Been there*

    I have banned bananas in my private office. And I’m pretty vocal about them in conference rooms during meetings (depending on the group obviously). It’s not so much the person eating the banana, it’s the smell of the peel that is either laid on the table for the duration of the meeting or thrown in the garbage can. Can’t stand the smell!

    I’m sure this makes me a special snowflake, but I’m generally reasonable otherwise, and I fully own my hangup on this one.

    Funny banana related story… my boss used to poke fun at me about this, right up until the day we were both stuck in a hotel conference room for a day long meeting and the guy sitting next to her proceeded to eat a full bunch of bananas through the day and stacking up the peels right next to her. I actually couldn’t smell them that day so I didn’t say anything. She kept looking at me with a look that said ‘Hey… banana peel here… yell at banana guy to get rid of them… did you notice the bananas sitting here’ After that day she never made fun of me again :)

    1. Alexa*

      When I worked in an office, I made sure to throw my banana peels away in the break room instead of my office for this reason. I like bananas but the smell of the rotting peel gags me!

    2. brightstar*

      I’m with you on hating the way banana peels smell, so maybe we are both special snowflakes in that regard.

    3. chomps*

      I also hate the smell of banana peels. I always throw them out in the office kitchen rather than in my cube.

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      I love bananas and eat one most days, but I *always* throw the peel away in the kitchen trash! They definitely get a very strong (not bad exactly, just strong) odor.

    5. Rebecca*

      I’m with you on the banana front. The smell of them makes me nauseated. I had a coworker who sat over the wall of my cube once. She ate one of them every. single. morning, then would throw the peel in her trashcan after leaving it on her desk for hours. I asked her over and over and over again if she could please put the peel in the trash in the storage area, but she always would giggle and say, I forgot…tee hee.

      I’m the type of person who can eat pretty much anything at any time. So, one morning I heated up Kung Pao chicken for breakfast. Miss Banana started saying, oh, what’s that smell, that’s making me feel sick, etc. I told her it was my breakfast. She whined that she felt nauseated. The next day, I brought in lox, cream cheese and a bagel. She said, oh, do you have strawberry cream cheese, nope, that’s raw fish, and I took a big bite. She nearly lost it. She complained about the smell, and I said “I’ll stop when you put those banana peels in the trash RIGHT AFTER you eat them, because that makes ME nauseated”.

      Never had a banana peel problem again.

    6. Junior Dev*

      I hate banana smell too! My dad likes to eat them on road trips and I have to open a window.

    1. Formica Dinette*

      That sounds hilarious!

      Related: I didn’t realize microwaving eggs was a stinky problem until I read it in the comments here a few years ago.

      1. Dulf*

        I once had to share an office with someone who microwaved eggs every morning! It was deeply unpleasant, it made me very unhappy, and to this day it is still one of the first things I remember about that particular job. He was a post-doc staying in the US temporarily, though, and clearly on a very limited budget. Which just goes to illustrate the point others are making here, that issues of race and class come up in this particular office problem all the time and a lot of the time the right answer isn’t to ban foods/ask people to change their diets.

        1. Rebecca in Dallas*

          I also had an egg-microwaving coworker. I asked her to stop because they were stinky and she said no she wouldn’t. At least the smell of eggs doesn’t linger!

          Then one day she told me the parmesan chese on my pasta smelled bad to her and I just looked at her like :/

          1. CMart*

            Parmesan does kind of smell like feet to me.

            I assume you just told her “nah” though :) Fair’s fair!

      2. Renee*

        I tend to track food and record macros for fitness reasons and for a short time tried microwaving egg whites for breakfast. The smell grossed me out so badly that I couldn’t keep up with it. I love eggs but not in the microwave.

    2. Temperance*

      True story: at my last job, there was a woman who microwaved fish FOR BREAKFAST. EVERY DAY.

      1. paul*

        I gotta admit, given budget enough, fish tacos would be my preferred daily breakfast. Just can’t afford it. or maybe ceviche.

      2. Alienor*

        I used to work with a lady who microwaved a Lean Cuisine meatloaf/Salisbury steak dinner every morning. I loved her, but smelling reheated brown gravy when I was still trying to finish my coffee was just not on.

  12. cornflower blue*

    The only way to be fair about this is to junk the microwave and make everyone eat cold lunches. That will ensure that everyone will be mad at you equally.

    1. Beancounter Eric*

      Company supplied Meals, Ready to Eat. Heated and consumed outside. (There is a flameless warming sleeve available) And scrap the break-room. Make it office space.

      I’d suggest people try to discuss the problem and work out a compromise, but my experience is that will not work.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      …equally mad. If their was a smelly food ban in my office, I think a smelly food police would instantly appear and start turning in everyone else’s food. Asparagus- smelly. Garlic pasta- smelly. Chicken soup- smelly.
      I don’t know if it’s better to hate each other like brawling neighbors or to remove the microwave and everyone can just hate the boss.

    3. LCL*

      I was on the verge of homicide last week when the salad aficionados made some smelly dish with raw onions and cucumbers. Both of which I consider stinky and inedible. It was time for my lunch so I left the building.

    4. Old Person, apparently*

      There are plenty of cold foods with odors as well. The smell of salami makes me gag, I that tuna salad is offensive to people in my office. I’ve had coworkers complain about takeaway sushi from the grocery store, I’ve had coworkers complain about the fact that other people eat raisins or celery.

      At some point it’s either “suck it up and be a grown up and stop complaining about other people’s habits” or “no one gets to eat in the office.”

    1. calonkat*

      Febreze I find to be a worse smell than the original odor, not to mention the fact that I have trouble breathing in enclosed areas sprayed with Febreze.

      Dunno why, but it happens too much to be coincidence.

      1. Kathleen Adams*

        There is such a thing as unscented Febreze (as well as equivalents from other makers). I’ve read that originally the Febreze people planned to use no scent at all, but public opinion was against them.

        1. calonkat*

          I’ve never found an unscented product that actually is. They all smell of SOMETHING, even if it’s just the chemical components or the production process.

          “Unscented” Febreze is just as smelly as the scented and makes me wheeze just as much. And people tend to use more on the theory that it’s “unscented” :(

          1. Decima Dewey*

            For me, Febreze and Lysol serve as nasal indicators that something disgusting happened here.

          2. Kathleen Adams*

            I’ve not tried unscented Febreze, but I recently bought another unscented product that is supposed to remove odors, not just cover them up. I got it because although I find Febreze quite effective, there are some places I just don’t want a lot of scent (e.g., in a closed car).

            And dang, it works pretty well, too! If there is a scent, I can’t detect it.

            I hope you don’t ask me what it is because I can’t remember. I’ll try to remember to check tonight, just in case.

      2. Attie*

        That’s a common complaint, especially for people with asthma. Personally, I’d rather air fresheners be added to the list of banned strong smells! I’ll gladly continue to suffer my colleagues’ smelly food.

  13. Alexa*

    At my husband’s old job, there were a lot of Vietnamese workers. It might not have always been fish, but the smell of fish sauce in most things the staff ate really, REALLY, bothered the non-Viet staff. Rather than offend them, management ended up just getting separate microwaves and relocating one of them to a different area (it was a large warehouse so that was an option). I know it almost borders on the separate water fountain, etc., thing but it was a solution that worked for them.

  14. Ms. Anna*

    The definition of smelly food can be a minefield because of ethnicity. I don’t know of any way to word it other than please be aware. You can also see if you can get a vent hood for over the microwaves so the smell of any kind of food is sucked out.

    But, you can address the smelly food in the cubes. Every office I worked at had a no lunch at your desk rule. If she is non-exempt, you can even blame it on the feds – if she is at her desk, she is not taking her break, and the feds can fuss at the company.

  15. Canned Salmon*

    When I was in graduate school, my carrel was right next to the kitchenette. I had a classmate (though I do not know which one) who microwaved half a can of salmon and then left the other half of the can, uncovered in the fridge. I left a note up for a very short time, then trashed the salmon. I left a (signed!) note saying I’d done it, and to please not (a) microwave fish or (b) leave uncovered canned fish in communal areas.

    Based on the demographics of my department, there’s a roughly 100% chance an international student had done it. I felt a bit bad about it, but not bad enough to endure canned fish smells indefinitely, plus it was probably a good lesson to learn for American norms.

  16. Former Retail Manager*

    I think trying to ban certain foods is a slippery slope. What I, and some other Americans, consider smelly/yucky/etc. is normal to other people. Example…I HATE the smell of Indian food…don’t like the taste either. We have some in our office who love it and reheat it routinely. I’m pretty sure that passing this on to the Indian employee would go over like a lead balloon, they’d feel they were being treated unfairly (and rightfully so) and a whole host of other issues that may arise. What one person hates, another loves. It’s simply too subjective from person to person and culture to culture. I also think that once you get over an office size of about 10, it becomes nearly impossible to ensure that you won’t bring in something that bothers someone. The complaints I’ve heard from co-workers in my current office go from reasonable to borderline insane….and they all feel 100% justified.

    Not sure if this is possible, but could the microwaves, or maybe even the whole breakroom, be relocated to a distant sparsely populated area of the office? What about adding a door, if it doesn’t already have one, and one of those air purifier things?

    1. Snark*

      Which is why I think it really needs to be food specific, and directed at the worst offenders: no fish, no popcorn, no eggs.

      1. DArcy*

        You mean, “No fried food, no cheese, no butter, no pickled anything.” These are all MUCH stronger smelling, they’re just common in white European cooking so they go unnoticed by the majority.

        1. Observer*

          That’s actually not true. Russian Jewish cooking does a lot of fish and very little butter, and that’s what I grew up with.

          Also tuna and sardines are VERY common in the US, yet they are among the most commonly complained about foods – much more so than fish in general.

          I do get that a general ban on heating anything fish could turn into a problem for people whose cuisine is so heavily fish based. But the kind of argument you are making is not going to really get you very far.

    2. paul*

      yeah. while I’m not 100% on board with saying never ban foods, I’d go to a lot of lengths before starting to do so, both because I generally don’t like that level of policing what employees do, and because of the potential for it to wind up being discriminatory or even just looking discriminatory. It can be done fairly–I think–but I suspect it’ll require a lot of work, piss off a lot of people, and erode morale, when there might be easier ways to handle it.

  17. High Score!*

    Can you make a rule that food must stay in the lunchroom, nothing with strong smells can be microwaved (be fair and use the strength of the smell rather than the cuisine) and add an exhaust fan to the lunchroom?

    1. Beancounter Eric*

      Exhaust fan – absolutely.

      At the expense of being a pain, define “strong smells”….and who’s nose will be the judge?

      1. High Score!*

        A lot of places ban popcorn and fish. If clients can walk in the office and smell food for a non food business, it’s a problem.

  18. Xarcady*

    But it’s not just “ethnic” food. (Technically, all food is ethnic food.) There’s one brand of microwave mac&cheese that a coworker used to heat up at 11:30 every morning. Food smells rarely bother me, but that stuff made me queasy for the next hour or so.

    And yet, I can’t think of food much more bland than mac&cheese. I was grateful when that coworker moved on to heating up garlic bread at 11:30 every morning.

    If the problem is food smells lingering, maybe try to do something about that? Check to see if the HVAC can be improved or altered to speed up the removal of smells in general?

    That, along with a reasonable “no smelly food” policy, might be the answer.

  19. PizzaDog*

    Smells in the office really bug me – whether it’s Febreeze or microwaved food. I’m firmly anti-microwave, I don’t use the one at home for anything other than melting butter. Most foods have a tendency to smell when microwaved, and even if it’s something as simple as a burger, it still smells kind of wet? If it were up to me, open offices without a kitchen area wouldn’t have a microwave at all.

    1. Kelly L.*

      That seems a little extreme, given that microwaving is one of the ways people make office life affordable…since there’s no kitchen in your scenario, I’m assuming you’re advocating either going out every day or only cold food, correct?

  20. Chocolate Teapot*

    My office has a mix of nationalities and smelly-foods-in-the-microwave is an occupational hazard. Thankfully I can open the windows in our break room and eating at your desk is frowned upon.

    Why does fish smell so much worse than everything else?

  21. MB*

    I personally believe that foods shouldn’t be banned from the office, even smelly ones. I’ve found that it’s often foods of different cultural backgrounds (Indian, Thai, etc.) that tend to have strong smells, and that it could be potentially discriminatory for an employer to ban these types of foods. I understand that it’s a problem when employees are becoming nauseated for it, but people with different backgrounds eat different things and may not be used to certain smells, but I don’t think that it gives an employer the right to ban certain foods.

  22. Mike Crapbag*

    As one of the few Asian staff at my conpany I get this conplaint occasionally. I don’t bring strong smelling foods like kimchi or soya bean paste, but I might bring leftover sweet and sour pork or fried rice etc.

    Nobody raises an issue when Bobby from IT stinks out the whole office with microwaved pizza, or Joe brings fish and chips takeaway from across the road. When staff complain of smelly food what they really mean is smelly foreign food.

    In a shared office space some food smell should be expected and tolerated within reason, including foreign meals you wouldn’t nornally eat.

  23. Louise*

    This reminds me of a question I’ve been meaning to ask: eating sushi at my desk, yea or nay in an open-plan office? I don’t have anyone sitting directly next to me, but I wonder if the smell carries further than I think.

    (For context: this is my first time working in a professional environment. Most people take lunch in the break room but there are always people eating at their desks so I don’t think I’m doing anything massively out of step. I have flexible-ish hours, so I prefer to come in slightly later in the morning and work through lunch, most of the time.)

    1. Dr. Ruthless*

      It wouldn’t bother me, personally, if you ate sushi at your desk (even if that desk was next to my desk), but for the love of all that’s holy, throw the trash away elsewhere.

    2. paul*

      I literally cannot smell most sushi unless I’m moving it to my pie-hole to be consumed so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

    3. Turtle Candle*

      Sushi is one of those things that seems to really divide people. I can’t smell it at all unless it’s right under my nose, but it drives some people nuts. (I don’t have a generally poor sense of smell, either–I can smell peaches from three rooms away–but for some reason sushi doesn’t stand out to me.) I think this is a “ask the people who sit near you if they mind” issue, really.

    4. Midge*

      Ok, I’m overly sensitive to eating noises, so others might not have this issue. But for me the problem would be the mess rather than the smell. I don’t think I would notice the smell of sushi across the office. But there is no graceful way to eat large pieces of sushi, IMO. Either you’re putting the whole thing in your mouth and chipmunk-cheeking your way through it, or it’s falling apart in your hands. I personally would find watching and listening to that pretty unpleasant outside of the break room. (Sorry!)

    5. Observer*

      If raw fish smells strongly enough for people away from your desk smell it, you shouldn’t be eating it – something is wrong with it. I don’t think that most of the sauces that typically come with sushi should be a problem.

  24. Old Admin*

    I like fish a lot, so I figured out a way to safely reheat it in the office!
    We have a common large lunch area with a kitchen (fridges, several microwaves, stove, water cooker etc.).
    I would first make or reheat my plain rice or noodles so it was piping hot, then cut up my lovely fish fillet, maybe add warmed sauce, mix a bit – done! Nicely warmed fish dish that never saw a microwave. I could sit right next to the sensitive people and they never noticed what I was eating. ;-)

  25. Toph*

    The issue for me isn’t one of banning “smelly” or “bad smelling” or “pungent” foods. It is about the lingering/spread and time. So, rather than saying, no fish or no burnt popcorn etc, the question is: if you mircowave this for however long it takes to cook, will the kitchen still smell like that more than 20 minutes later? Will the smell on its own disperse farther than the kitchen? How far? Figure out a threshold. Then that’s it. If the office is 150 feet long and within 10 minutes of it being microwaved, you can smell it everywhere in the office, that’s probably a good candidate for “don’t do that”. If you can still smell it half an hour later, don’t do that either. It’s that sort of thing. If no matter what someone makes it spreads that fast or lingers that long, then they have a ventilation issue that should probably be addressed, rather than addressing by what is being cooked. But if most people can nuke their lunches and no one can tell without seeing it what they cooked, then those foods are all fine. If someone two rooms away with the door closed, or someone who has lunch an hour later can tell someone had lutefisk earlier, that’s a good indicator it’s got to go.

  26. Liane*

    I had an issue with fish earlier this week. I had a regular garden-variety headache that turned into a mild migraine with nausea–because I went to my locker by the breakroom and someone had been microwaving fish. Let’s just say it was a good thing the restroom was right there as well. I was lucky I could keep down my meds.

    (For the record, I love fish & don’t mind most food smells–even foods I dislike or am not familiar with)

  27. Cinnamonroll*

    NUCLEAR OPTION: get rid of the microwave. People will just have to eat unheated food for lunch. Problem solved.

  28. Mr. Rogers*

    How about offices consider that people might actually use the kitchen for its assumed function and find ways to ventilate/get ride of smells? Honestly I’m all about having people eat anything slightly smelly in a break room! But I think once they move to the break room people should be allowed to eat what they want, it’s a kitchen and it will smell like food. If it’s not equipped to sooner-rather-than-later get rid of that smell, it’s a poorly planned kitchen and the office should do something to fix that, not just get rid of food in a kitchen.

    1. Mr. Rogers*

      By “having people eat anything slightly smelly in a break room”, I meant “versus at their desk where you have to smell it from two feet away”, to be clear.

  29. Mary*

    Is it not possible to just move the microwave? Sometimes the smell is the strongest the moment of heating.

  30. AnonPi*

    This is ironically timely, as we have a coworker on a new diet who has been eating microwaved broccoli for the last two weeks. It’s so pungent that we’re not sure if it’s just broccoli or something else added to it. I get the worse of it since I’m located right across from his office, and usually have to get up and leave because the smell makes me sick. But it’s strong enough you can smell it about 20 ft down the hallways, and we do have visitors coming through regularly so it doesn’t make the best of impressions (I’ve overheard a few comments by visitors asking what that horrible smell is). The worst was finding leftovers in the trashcan on Monday after the weekend :p
    We’ve been debating asking him if he can eat something else, or ask he go eat in the cafeteria.

    1. Observer*

      Well, firstly, you NEVER leave food leavings where they won’t be picked up by the end of that day or *first thing* in the morning. It doesn’t matter WHAT the food is. The best smelling food is going to smell VERY differently if it sits around, and will also attract a variety of many legged creatures, with and without wings.

      Secondly, this is a clear case where you should ask someone to heat and eat their food in the cafeteria. The smell is carrying a long way, it’s throwing off customers and he has another option

  31. ZK*

    Ugh. Fish and burnt popcorn. We once had someone at old job burn her popcorn so badly that we ended up having to replace the microwave because we couldn’t get rid of the smell. And just last week at newer job, someone heated up salmon and I had to leave the room, it was so bad.

    Even worse is that at a specific time of the month, my sense of smell totally ramps up and so many things make me gag. I mostly go eat in my truck that week.

    That said, I love the smell of most spices, so microwaving a curry would only make me drool ;)

    1. Paul*

      we actually had the fire alarms go off. I don’t know who, or what agency they were with….someone put their bag in long enough for it to catch fire then walked away. I don’t even know if it was an accident or an attempt to get out of work for a bit.

      God, I think it took me nearly a month to eat popcorn again after that. I’m not smell sensetive, but the stench was unreal

  32. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Talk about burying the lede!

    This particular letter is really about someone who is touchy and rude. The food is, pardon the metaphor, a red herring.

    Bet you anything that this would have been solved ages ago if she didn’t generally “not have a very positive working relationship with the other staff.”

  33. Duck Duck Møøse*

    I had a coworker who was on a high protein diet (15 years ago? – he was a early adopter of Caveman/Paleo) and he brought in a George Foreman grill, and would bring in raw proteins to cook at lunch. In a computer lab. With no kitchen. And the nearest running water was the bathroom, around a few corners.

    I told him to stop it, especially when he brought in RAW CHICKEN! He blew me off, so I went to our supervisor, and she tried to blow off my concerns with some stupid excuse about his living situation, so he NEEDED to cook in the office. No, no he doesn’t. He needs to not endanger the health of 20+ coworkers, and dozens of lab users. And if you don’t tell him to stop it, I will go to your boss, and keep going up until I hit sanity.
    The GF grill was gone the next day.
    Yeah, I’m kind of a bitch when it somes to potential salmonella. Sorry. Not. :D

  34. Yuckly*

    We have a person that microwaves a bag of broccoli every morning at 10:30am! Just broccoli and then opens the bag and sits and eats it. The smell is literally unbearable. It’s not steamed, it’s microwaved! I’ve had to go home sick because it has literally caused me to vomit. I’ve spoken to managers and escalated to HR and there is nothing that can be done without it escalating. I’ve even been in trouble for talking about it with co-workers because it’s seen as ‘bullying’ by the offender.

    I just don’t understand how someone that knows how much of a problem it is for people can continue to do it every day with no consideration for others and no reprimand.

  35. Maggie*

    It would be understood by many people that some are actually allergic to the smell of certain foods eg. peanuts so as a decent human being, I would not eat it if I knew that someone in the office had a medical problem with it. However, to people who just dislike certain smells, I would tell them politely and firmly to mind their own business. Live and let live. I too may not like some smells but that does not give me the right to tell Fiona from Accounts not to eat fried eggs. The only people who tell me what I am allowed to eat are my doctor and my gastroenterologist, not Mike from Sales!

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