how can I stop people from stealing my food in the office fridge?

A reader writes:

I have a question about how best to call out and address food theft and bad kitchen behavior. Most of our staff is very respectful and we have systems in place to keep our kitchens clean. But there are a few bad actors, and their behavior is getting worse.

There are some communal dishes in the kitchens, but a few of us bring in our own mugs. I’ve occasionally had my mug “borrowed” if I’ve left it too long in the kitchen after cleaning it, which for the most part is fine if they clean it and put it back. But a few weeks ago I found my mug in the kitchen covered with oatmeal. There was literally a thick sheet of oatmeal on the inside, outside, and on the handle — it looked like it had been dunked in a vat of oatmeal. It wasn’t even rinsed. Whoever had made the oatmeal had left it out to dry into concrete on my mug.

What’s more annoying is that I’ve had quite a bit of food and drinks stolen too. A few sodas I could write off as harmless (or an accident). But it’s happening more frequently. Just a little while ago I had an entire box of snacks stolen out of the fridge. And then just yesterday, I came into work and found that someone had opened up a Ziploc that had my breakfast in it and helped themselves to some of it. It’s just becoming brazenly rude at this point.

Do you have any advice about what to do? I have absolutely no idea who it is. For a while I was resigned to venting to a few friends and writing it off, but because the behavior is getting worse. (Seriously, who just starts opening up other people’s containers and helping themselves to half of it?) I want to proactively try to call out the behavior and address it. Post-It notes or a message in the general office Slack are tempting. But I don’t want to be the kitchen police, and I don’t want to sour an otherwise good office/kitchen culture. What’s a productive way to handle a few bad apples in the kitchen?

This is a problem that plagues offices everywhere and, as far as I can tell, no one has ever found a fully effective solution to it. (Witness, for example, the amazing viral Twitter thread a few weeks ago about an investigation into some stolen shrimp fried rice.)

There are a couple of things that work … sometimes. They won’t be effective in all cases, but they’re worth a shot:

* Label your food with your name. Some office food thieves will be deterred by this — maybe because when food is unlabeled, it’s easier for them to believe it’s somehow communal (even if that stretches credulity), or maybe because it’s easier for them to steal when their victim is Unknown Coworker rather than Jane, Who Always Says Hi To Me. On the other hand, particularly sociopathic thieves won’t care. But hey, at least by trying this, you’ll find out which type you’re dealing with.

* Call out the theft publicly. This won’t be appropriate in every office, but if your team is small enough, in some offices you could send an email team-wide saying, “I had a box of mangosteens in the fridge that has gone missing. Please let me know if you know its whereabouts.” Again, sociopaths won’t care (and who knows, might even get a thrill), but your more run-of-the-mill food thieves may feel guilty and be less likely to do it again when they’re forced to see that their pillaging wasn’t a victimless crime.

(You can also get more creative. This person put her food in a thermos and labeled it “breast milk.” People stayed away.)

As for the mug … if you leave it in the kitchen, some people will assume it’s for communal use, since some offices do provide mugs and other dishes. Your oatmeal-eating colleague is gross (how and why was the outside of the mug caked with oatmeal??), but your solution there is just not to leave it in the kitchen (or just to use mugs you’re not attached to, and where you won’t care as much if they’re desecrated with oatmeal).

Truly, though, as long as offices have communal kitchens, people will make their bad manners known there.

{ 669 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    My bet: the outside of the mug is caked in oatmeal because they used it in the microwave and it all boiled over.

        1. Kristine*

          And didn’t clean the oatmealy stalagtites now encrusting on the roof of the microwave! Gotta love those people.

          1. DriverB*

            I did not think that this really happened. And then today I went to put my lunch in the microwave only to find an oatmeal-encrusted turntable with a telltale mug-shaped depression in the middle. Eating my soup cold was not an option, so I ended up scrubbing it myself. And leaving a note on the bulletin board asking the culprit to at least put it in the sink next time if they have to run off. :/

        2. zora*

          This literally happened in our office kitchen the other week. All the dishes are communal, so it’s not like the mug belonged to someone else. But still, how hard it is to at least fill the mug with water so that it is a tiny bit easier for the cleaning crew to deal with??? People are so rude. I hope the cleaning crew just threw that mug in the trash, because I can’t imagine spending the time it would take to clean that thing.

      1. fposte*

        I’ve done this with both oatmeal and rice in containers; I cannot wrap my brain around how much the stuff expands when you nuke it.

        1. Kathleen_A*

          I’ve done this at home – and yeesh, is it a mess – so that’s the first thing I thought of, too. The microwave directions do say “Place in a deep bowl,” and they are not kidding!

        2. Koko*

          The modern microwaves are also much more powerful than they were when microwaveable porridge first came out. As a kid I remember routinely microwaving instant grits with little to no trouble in our old 1980s microwave.

          30 years later I have to set the power on my 2010-era microwave to 60% or put something like a wet paper towel over the top of the bowl before nuking it to keep it from boiling over with grits-cement.

          I know some people who still have really old/low power microwaves in their apartments, and I could see one of them being caught by surprise when porridge boiled over if it never happens in their home microwave.

          1. InfoSec SemiPro*

            My 2 year old home microwave is pretty strong, but the office microwaves are Not Screwing Around – I don’t know what radioactive industrial factory we got them from, but I typically start with half the time I estimate the food needs.

            Oatmeal in those things would be astonishing. I can only imagine an oatmeal volcano.

            1. Alter_ego*

              I have the opposite problem! The microwave in my house is nice and new, because I picked it out, but the one in my office is so so old. I have to practically double the time on stuff I do at home with no issues

            2. Stephanie*

              I use a microwave in the lunchroom of a distribution center I deliver to. I have no idea where Kroger for these things, but they’re incredible. Usually it takes 3 minutes to microwave a container to eatable at home. There? 60 seconds and it’s steaming hot and needs minutes to cool down. I really want one, but I suspect they’re not for retail sale.
              I mean really, you could cook an entire turkey in 5 minutes in one.

          2. Nucking Fux Nix*

            This is why you microwave just the water and then add it to the oatmeal. Bonus: Your oatmeal doesn’t taste like the inside of your microwave. People always look at me like I’m crazy when I do it this way, and I just remind myself that the innovators are always thought of as crazy until they’re proved right. ;)

            1. Totally Minnie*

              I usually just heat the water for my oatmeal in the tea kettle and pour it over the dry oats in the bowl. Works like a charm.

              1. Kathleen_A*

                Only with instant oatmeal, which I do not like. With quick-cooking oatmeal, you have to, you know, *cook* it.

                1. No Name Yet*

                  Actually, I use boiled water from a tea kettle every morning in my oatmeal, using quick-cooking (not instant) oats. I let it sit for a minute or two to soak up the water, but it works just fine (I was SUPER excited to discover this and avoid both instant oatmeal and weekly microwave volcanos).

                2. Kathleen_A*

                  LOL. That’s not worked for me. I’ll have to try it sometime. Currently I am on a quick-cooking steel-cut oats kick, and I’m fairly sure it won’t work with those. I don’t know…maybe if I let it sit covered for a couple of minutes?

                3. Liz*

                  Kathleen A, you can overnight soak steel cut oats and then just heat them when ready to eat.

                4. Totally Minnie*

                  @Kathleen_A, I use quick cooking oatmeal, and I usually stir in the boiling water then cover the bowl and let it sit for a couple of minutes. It’s worked out okay for me so far.

        3. LCL*

          The brand of instant oatmeal I buy calls out specifically in the instructions to microwave the water in a separate cup and add it. I wonder if these instructions were the result of customer feedback?

        4. Kat G., Ph.D.*

          I feel like a huge failure at life because I have never been able to cook oatmeal in the microwave without it exploding everywhere! I always think hm, I’ll microwave it, this will save me time! And it never does, because I inevitably spend half an hour cleaning oatmeal off every surface of the inside of the microwave.

          1. Kathleen_A*

            Another thing the directions on the box almost always say is “Stir halfway through cooking time.” They aren’t kidding about *that*, either. Besides redistributing the oatmeal-lava hotspots, that little pause helps you assess how close to doneness/disaster your breakfast actually is.

            Yes, I am speaking from experience. Why do you ask?

          2. Jules the Third*

            A small plate over the top of the bowl limits boil-overs.

            We now use a small plate over every open-topped bowl food (soup, oatmeal, reheated pasta) because of boil-over and splatter. Cuts microwave cleaning time a lot.

            1. Samata*

              No joke, the last time I did this with oatmeal the plate exploded right off and hit the roof of the microwave. Luckily it didn’t break but it shook the micro quite impressively. Now I just stop and stir every 30 seconds and that seems to work.

          3. azvlr*

            For Malt-o-Meal, I have it down to the exact amount of cereal and milk. 30 seconds at a time in my current microwave for two minutes total. Must stir in between. I can multitask in between those 30 seconds and be at the door when it dings surprisingly well.
            Recently, I have been mixing a big batch of steel cut oats. It’s so easy! I don’t know the exact ratios at the moment, but I make enough for 5 servings: Measure and boil some water. Measure some steel-cut oats in a resealable container. Add the water and let it set overnight. In the morning, add the desired portion to a bowl, add salt and microwave for one minute. It doesn’t boil over.
            I add sugar, chopped pecans, a dash of nutmeg, butter and some milk.

            Am I the only one who adds salt to oatmeal? It makes a little sugar go a long way.

        5. Media Monkey*

          US people – when you say oatmeal, do you mean porridge? like oats that you add milk or water to and cook? as i have never thought of these as being difficult to cook (and my husband and daughter eat them every day with no ill effects in the microwave!). or is this some sort of crazy stuff infused with lava sent to trip up the unwary who look away from the microwave for a second?

          1. Anna*

            It’s exactly porridge. Rolled oats plus water or milk. US microwaves are more powerful than mainland European ones which may be the reason for the confusion – probably also more powerful than uk ones? I have a similar problem in Germany though. Putting the microwave at 50 % (400 W I think) usually prevents the problem. I have exploded oatmeal twice at work tho due to not understanding its power requirements.

      2. Sick of pigs in the office*

        My explanation is they do not know. Despite common thought, too many were not raised and therefore have no idea of either common courtesy nor common cleanliness . My supervisor disagrees with me. I live in the office of dump your food in the kitchen sink. There are 2 signs which have been there literally for over three years stating there is not a garbage disposal. One being pictorial showing we do not have do not have a garbage disposal. Added to this, office had a flood in the last month from the kitchen sink that destroyed an office on the floor below as well as flooding 6 offices that were located near the kitchen.
        Three weeks ago there were chicken bones and salad greens in the strainer which was left in the sink. Some brave soul removed the strainer from the sink to leave it on the counter where it sat for 2 days. Three days later, 2 inches of standing water in sink due to strainer not being used. Sink clogged with rice and salad greens .
        I skipped the cutsey sign and posted “Instructions for how to use a shared sink” with numbered instructions like Wikihow. So far so good. Maybe it will work for you. My lead was “no one here is employed to clean up Your food mess.” (My office does not have a cleaning service but it is not for kitchen sink.) Next instruction was “Show courtesy to the coworkers who have to share this kitchen”. Third instruction was “clean Your food mess over the garbage can with Your fingers for Your food. You can also use paper towels to do the same”. No pleases, no shoulds, just instructions on what to do in bold red lettering with specific instructions as “the strainer looks like this” and “the garbage can is to the right behind you when you face the sink” and “the hot water faucet is the one to the left.” Maybe this will be helpful to you.

      1. Tardigrade*

        Shouting faux-expletives upon seeing what was happening in the microwave, then removing the entire turntable and spending a good 15 min and too many paper towels wiping out the thing with 3 onlooking coworkers is one of the most embarrassing situations I’ve endured at work.

        1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

          Ours is mounted above the counter, and I’m all of 5′. So my coworker walked in and saw the turntable in the sink and my upper body wedged into the thing furiously scrubbing while cursing nonstop under my breath.

            1. wendelenn*

              Yup. At 4 feet 9, it was a mistake to have put in an above-the-stove microwave when we renovated our kitchen at home.

              It was also a mistake to buy a hatchback Prius. I need to add a tether I can pull to bring it down!

        2. SkyePilot*

          I tried to make coffee for the first time in our new office with the fancy industrial type coffee brewer. Some how managed to get the filter stuck to the inside of the hopper so that instead of filtering, it just caused the hopper to fill up with boiling hot water and coffee grounds until it spewed. Coffee grounds all over the machine, the counter, the floor. Of course then it was filled to the brim and I was too short to have enough control to not pull it out without sloshing boiling liquid all over my hands…

          That was a fun morning…

    1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

      I’ve done this several times. But always in my own container that I promptly cleaned. I wonder if they left it caked all over the microwave too?

    2. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

      That’s exactly what happened because I’ve done that at home. I learned to watch my oatmeal more carefully.

    3. YarnOwl*

      This is what happens to me, even when I cook it in a good-sized bowl! I watch it like a hawk so I don’t have to clean it up. I admit, it is like, the worst thing cleaning up hot, gloopy oatmeal from the fridge, but I would never leave it for someone else!

      1. LavaLamp*

        I have literally never microwaved instant oatmeal. I just mix it with hot water from the tap.

        1. Caitlin*

          When my dad used to make it for us, he’d boil the water on the stove and then pour it into the bowl. Then he wouldn’t have to microwave it for as long.

        2. Kathleen_A*

          Pouring boiling water works for instant oatmeal, but not quick-cooking oatmeal. I’m sorry to be pedantic about this, but quick-cooking oatmeal is better than instant in almost every way…except, you know, the way it explodes out of the bowl like Vesuvius if you don’t pay proper attention to it.

          1. Sunshine State of Mind*

            LavaLamp SPECIFICALLY said instant oatmeal in their comments so you can relax your vigilance over this issue, I promise!

            1. Kathleen_A*

              The only reason I bring it up (aside from strong tendencies toward pendantry :-)) is that many people actually don’t realize that there is a difference between the two. But I *promise* to shut up about it now. Thank you for your patience, everyone!

    4. Wren*

      this whole thread is a little baffling to me: for instant oatmeal, yes, you add it dry to hot/boiling water. But for quick cooking rolled oats, which aren’t as thin as instant, you have to watch it. The way I always did it growing up, was a specific depth of water in a specific bowl, and microwaving a specific measure of oatmeal in it until it expanded to the brim. You have to watch it. And it doesn’t take that long, so why would you walk away or try to multitask??

      1. This Daydreamer*

        In my case? Because Lessa needs something from the storage closet, Brekke needs to be let in the front door, Menolly was just cleared and is on her way and I need to set up a room for her and her firelizards, and now the smoking porch door needs to be opened for Mirrim…

          1. This Daydreamer*

            Gold, of course! Things could get interesting when she grows up. I promise not to over feed her!

  2. Snark*

    And whatever you do, it should absolutely not include dosing your risotto or whatever with a liberal shot of some excessively macho hot sauce made with Carolina Reaper chiles, which will reduce even the most iron-tongued of your thieving coworkers to whimpering, gasping sacks of meat, sweating freely as they turn an attractive shade of vermillion.

    Don’t do that.

        1. Karo*

          I just went back and re-read it, because it was so amazing. It sucked that she got fired for it to begin with, though!

          1. mrs_helm*

            I think if she had not talked about it/admitted doing it on purpose, she wouldn’t have been. You’re allowed to eat spicy food. You’re not allowed to try to harm a coworker.

            My solution has always been a cooler bag in my desk drawer. Never had stuff stolen.

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              She… didn’t do it on purpose, though? That was her food, the way she liked eating it!

            2. Jules the Third*

              I think you have her mixed up with someone else. She was just eating her leftovers from dinner, no additional spices. She’s relatively new, this was the first time hers had been stolen, so she didn’t even have motive to ‘talk about it’.

        1. teclatrans*

          I got it! (And appreciated having the link available for people who wouldn’t have the reference point.)

    1. Interviewer*

      That actual maneuver backfired badly on an employee who wrote to AAM for advice after the culprit went to HR. Like Snark said, don’t do that.

      1. BadWolf*

        Although that OP didn’t “dose” their food — that was just how spicy they liked their food normally.

        But still a valuable lesson in that dosing food won’t magically go your way.

      2. Apostrophina*

        I wonder if there’s a psy-ops version of this you could do by just talking a lot about your love of spicy food in the office?

        (I’m also amused that this question came out on the day I have Thai-hot restaurant leftovers for lunch…)

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Definitely don’t do that. The HR person might be sleeping with the food thief and get you fired.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        It’s not an asshole move to season your own food. It may be a counter-productive move to season your food with something you don’t like it, certain that the office food thief will make off with it–what if they’re stealing chicken parm instead this morning?–but if the only way anyone ever finds out is to steal your food and eat it, it’s not an asshole move.

        Like the people stealing packages from front steps, who wind up with a load of dirty diapers. Or tarantulas.

        1. Doe-Eyed*

          It’s not an asshole move to season your own food, but very few people routinely season their food with Carolina Reapers, the hottest chili pepper in the world, which has been known to exacerbate mild common health problems, like asthma. Some people have even have seizures triggered from it.

          Sure, I think Ted from accounting is a jerkbag for stealing my soup but I don’t think he deserves to go to the hospital for it.

          1. RabbitRabbit*

            The poster in this case loved crazy-spicy food and even ate some to show it was NBD for them.

          2. Falling Diphthong*

            It… but… Surely if you have a health condition that could be lethally triggered if you eat the wrong thing, it’s all the more reason not to steal people’s food and eat it?

            1. Phouka*

              I was so looking for a LIKE button for this.

              Seriously — if you are made ill by FOOD YOU STOLE, it’s your own fault. Stop stealing food.
              “But I didn’t know it was yours!”…well, yeah, asshole, but you were sure it didn’t belong to you.

            2. Anion*

              Yes. I’m allergic to capsicums, which are very, very common in all types of food (even foods you wouldn’t think peppers would be in). I don’t steal food anyway, but even if I wanted to I wouldn’t, because you never know when/if someone added a bunch of cayenne or red pepper flakes to that risotto or marinated that beef in some sort of pepper-filled marinade, or whatever.

              And my allergy isn’t even potentially lethal. I just get sweaty and dizzy and sick, with horrible pains in my head and stomach, and then I puke everywhere for a long time. I never want to go through that, and I can’t imagine taking that risk. Peppers are too ubiquitous these days to take chances.

            3. Doe-Eyed*

              It’s not about “having a health condition” or an allergy. This is literally a pepper that is the hottest known pepper in existence. Even a bit can hurt someone for days. It’s like setting up a can of mace to go off in someone’s face when they yoink your stapler and then being pleased when they’re hurt.

              Yeah, it wouldn’t happen if they weren’t stealing yoi stapler but it’s a disproportionate reaction.

    3. Scott D*

      I *LOVE* super spicy food. I put jalapeños on everything and consider them mild. My preferred pepper is habernero, especially on sandwiches. I’m not going to stop using them because someone in the office might steel my food!

      1. Bigglesworth*

        Another pepper lover here! I had to stop putting habeneros in my chili because it’s too spicy for my husband. It just tastes blah to me now unless I put extra cayenne pepper in it, but he likes it mild. Oh well.

        1. Samata*

          I recently developed an allergy to cayenne, jalapenos and habeneros. Within about 30 seconds of eating any of those it feels like I have 5,000 fire ants on my head and I don’t stop itching for hours. Most food is now garbage to me. {it may be more than those peppers, but those are the 3 I tried so far since they are my favorites} I am hoping its a phase.

          1. hayling*

            Me too! Except it gives me migraines. You don’t realize how much hot peppers are in *everything* until even a few shakes of creole seasoning make your head feel like it’s going to explode.

            1. Anion*

              Yep. I’m allergic to capsicums in general, and it never ceases to amaze me how many things have bell peppers/pepper flakes in them. I bought a can of plain, basic tomato sauce at Target–their Market Pantry brand–and made spaghetti sauce with it. I thought it didn’t taste quite right/there was a weird undertaste in there, but it wasn’t until after I’d had six or seven forkfuls and my stomach started feeling weird that I checked the back of the label and realized their “plain tomato sauce” includes red bell peppers. WHY?!?!?! Why doesn’t it say that on the front of the label, where you claim it’s just tomato sauce? Why do I have to double-check the fine print to make sure that you haven’t added peppers to a can of plain unflavored tomato sauce? It wasn’t sold as “spicy” or anything, just…basic tomato sauce. I don’t understand it at all.

              The worst part is when they do it to things like french fries. They don’t tell you the fires will come coated in cayenne pepper seasoning or whatever. I ordered Home Fries from a restaurant once and got a bowl of fried potatoes with jalapenos and some sort of spicy sauce poured over them (the menu did not say anything about this, obviously; it just said “Home Fries.”) In what world are those home fries? Does anyone hear “home fries” and think of anything *but* cubed fried potatoes, maybe with some minced onions in there, or some bacon bits if they want to be fancy?

              1. Samata*

                Yes! I agree – its ever.ry.where. I’ll be out to eat and then all of a sudden I’m fighting the urge to itch like crazy.

                Anything that says home fries should be potatoes. Adding peppers, spices, etc. to something to make it “fancy” at least calls for a description on a menu. It’s not a fun surprise for everyone!

          2. I See Real People*

            Samata – I have eaten cayenne, Jalapenos and habeneros all my life until last summer when I had a very prolonged cold/cough (possibly whooping cough, though not lab-diagnosed). I’m otherwise very healthy. Since that illness, I have had an allergy to these types of peppers, reacting with throat swelling, cough and some itching. It’s terrible because my favorite food is buffalo chicken anything! My doctor doesn’t have any answers as to how this allergy came about. Did your allergy develop after an illness?

      2. Snark*

        I’m not an extremist about it, but I think it’s probably been several years since I cooked a meal that did not include some form of chile.

        1. whingedrinking*

          I made corn muffins once and brought them to a social gathering. A friend, who due to having a lot of food issues as a kid had never had a particularly adventurous diet, started cheerfully nomming on one – and had to stop a few bites in. He knew I liked spicy food but hadn’t thought that even my baking might be suspect. I felt awful because I hadn’t thought to warn him that they were spicy. For me, one can of jalapenos chopped small and mixed into a dozen or so corn muffins isn’t hot at all.

          1. Birch*

            Just came here to say that’s how I make my corn muffins too! They’re not complete without jalapenos!

      1. Blue Anne*

        This was my method in college. None of my roommates ever stole my milk that was starting to look a little green.

        Yellow is counter-productive, though. Made it look buttery and delicious.

    4. Specialk9*

      Ha, I’m eating risotto right now. The Instant Pot has made me someone who makes risotto often enough that my toddler calls it “Oto”.

      1. stitchinthyme*

        Heh – About a week ago I posted this to FB: “Even if I never used it for anything else, the Instant Pot would totally be worth having just for the risotto.”

    5. This Daydreamer*

      I KNEW that saga was going to appear here. Now I have to read it all again to bask in the epicness.

    6. Nonyme*

      I have actually made chocolate covered wasabi bonbons. I did not get in trouble, and, in fact, my manager found it absolutely hilarious when I told him about it later. They were in a bowl clearly labeled as mine, with a note, “Do not eat!”

      There was one missing at lunch, and the food thief left my food alone after that.

  3. Neosmom*

    I keep an insulated lunch bag at my desk and avoid using the communal refrigerator.

    When I have to pop beverages in the fridge for an upcoming business meeting, I put a note in the bag with the beverages listing the inventory, the event date, the event, and the event host. This has deterred theft because no one wants to irritate our chairman or president.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Same, although in my case it’s more that the communal refrigerator is chronically stuffed to the gills and I’m one of the first people to arrive — meaning that by lunchtime, my food is all the way in the back. Easier to just use an icepack and keep it at my desk.

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        We have that problem too. We have two, giant convenience store size refrigerators and I am one of the first people in every morning, but it is already packed. I think people just buy enough food for the week and keep giant bags of it in the fridge. Which I get is convenient, but takes up ALL of the room.

        1. Alternative Person*

          I had people do that to me in shared housing, taking out my half loaf of bread and bag of veg in the process.

          My respond was … not mature.

        2. CMDRBNA*

          By the way? Bringing an entire week’s worth of supplies and storing them in a fridge is kind of a dick move. So is keeping a giant lunch box in the fridge. At my last office, we had two massive refrigerators that had barely any free room because people would bring in entire produce departments/deli sections.

          Then they would inevitably leave a bag of veggies in the fridge to turn into putrid mush.

          1. rocklobster*

            then they clog up the counter assembling a giant healthy whatever out of the big bag of ingredients and block access to the rest of the appliances for ten minutes.

        1. Kate*

          I really need to know the back story of this review: “Cheaply made. Despite lock, it was easily taken apart and gotten into.” Like, were they testing its hardiness or was someone so dedicated to food stealing they took apart a lock box to do it? What kind of person does that?

          1. VermiciousKnit*

            Maybe someone with Prader-Willi syndrome or something like it? Or a real jerk of a teenager who is *determined* to get the last of his mom’s stash of thin mints?

        2. Aphrael*

          I feel like someone should sell a fridge specifically made for offices, which is entirely lockers instead of shelves inside.

          1. Claire (Scotland)*

            We had those in my university Hall of Residence kitchen, twenty-odd years ago. One shoebox-sized locker per person, barely big enough to fit a carton of milk and a tub of butter. Our floor ended up not locking any of them and buying communal milk, butter etc from, to make better use of the space.

          2. MinB*

            Downside to that: when someone leaves their lunch in their locker to mold while they’re out on vacation, nobody can get to it to throw it away.

    2. EddieSherbert*

      I gave up on the communal fridge/dishes/dishwasher awhile ago simply because everyone else is gross and I was the only one ever cleaning out the fridge or dishwasher. Or even like… rinsing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher!

      My work stress level has gone down a lot since I stopped even using that room, haha. I also hear regular horror stories about moldy food in the fridge, and nasty dishes sitting in the sink for days! No one seems to know why it’s gotten so bad this year (…which shows you how much attention was paid to my emails)!

      Not my circus, not my monkeys ;)

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        I just got a flashback to the common room for my graduate program, where the full-size fridge had no room left in it and got to the point where the room reeked every time someone opened it. Not having access to a decent fridge was affecting my quality of life, so I finally posted a sign saying that I would clean it out on X date near the end of finals period, and a couple of fellow students kindly volunteered to help.

        It was so incredibly disgusting. There was stuff in the back that was obviously years old, and from students who had already graduated. I found stuff in the freezer that had expired multiple years earlier. But an hour or two of grossness was totally worth it – the next semester there was plenty of space and the fridge was much more pleasant to use, as was the whole common room.

        Lesson learned: common kitchens (and bathrooms) cannot survive on general good will alone. Someone has to have some responsibility for semi-regular deep cleaning and cleanout. When 100+ students had access to the same fridge it was inevitable that it would get gross.

        Most of my offices have worked better – they’ve had fridges for much smaller groups, and someone like an office manager who would handle posting signs for cleanouts as needed.

        1. it_guy*

          At my office, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is emptied out of the fridge on Monday morning. Even if it’s in a sealed, labeled container.

          There is one guy in the office who is responsible for building services, and he get’s the honor.

        2. Rebecca in Dallas*

          At my office, they clean out the fridges on the last Friday of the month. They post signs and send out multiple emails to remind us that ANYTHING in the fridge after 4pm on that day will be thrown out.

          1. EddieSherbert*

            I used to be that “they.” Not part of my duties, no one asked me to… just observed it was a problem and took it on for a couple years. But by the beginning of 2018 I was sooo over the level of grossness and complete lack of response from coworkers about their grossness, I had to walk away.

            As far as I know (and I legitimately never go in the kitchen anymore) no one else has taken up that role since then. I’d be scared to check out the fridge! Haha.

        3. nonymous*

          One place I worked at had two fridges next to each other. One was cleaned each Friday (the thursday night cleaning crew would put up a sign reminding us which one) – they threw out everything in fridge and freezer compartment and wiped all surfaces. Bonus for the cleaners is that nothing grew too bad, but I was very surprised at what people moved over from week to week.

      2. Alli525*

        I can’t tell you how many people at my last job would MOAN about how awful the fridge smelled. It was exactly no one’s job to clean it out on a regular basis, so no one even got rid of their own stuff. Everyone complained, but no one seemed to realize that if they could smell it, that meant they had been in the fridge, which in turn meant that they were partially responsible for fridge best practices.

        I got some nice brownie points from senior management for occasionally losing my mind and scrubbing it top-to-bottom (cleaning is good stress relief for me), so after one cleanout, where even the Tupperware couldn’t be saved because the mold issue was so severe, I instituted weekly cleanouts. Everyone got an email on Friday after lunch, saying that anything without a dated “Don’t throw this out!” post-it note affixed to it would go. Including Tupperware. I kept my word, and peace reigned until I left two years ago. I wonder what the fridge looks like now.

      3. Oxford Coma*

        There was a manager at one of my old jobs who prided himself on being a no-nonsense man-of-the-land type who could repair anything. He took home the community fridge and power-washed it. The compressor was not pleased.

      4. Ralkana*

        I am not generalizing about all young employees, but in my particular experience, a couple of years ago, we hired three new employees who all still lived with their parents, and the number of dirty dishes in the sink skyrocketed. We had a staff meeting where everyone was informed that cleaning their own dishes in a timely manner (at the end of their break, not the end of the day or week) was expected, and dirty dishes at the end of the day would be disposed of. The problem stopped. I think maybe they just didn’t realize it was expected.

      5. Birch*

        Yep, same. I don’t do communal kitchens (or housemates, for that matter) after a sorority house incident that involved someone leaving half a watermelon on the counter for 2 weeks in July with no AC. There were some strongly worded emails. I’m still famous for it after 10 years.

    3. Murfle*

      Because I make my food in batches on the weekends, I freeze it for the week, then take it out the night before I take it to work. My food is still frozen when I get to my work so, voila, I don’t even need an icepack and just keep everything on my desk. Depending on the food I’ve prepared, it’ll be either partially or fully thawed by lunchtime.

      1. Sam*

        Yes, this is a good plan. Plus insulated lunch bags and ice packs work really well. I never use the office fridge because I’m so skeeved out by it.

    4. Jerry Vandesic*

      I have learned to keep cans of soda in my office rather than the fridge. Way too many cans have gone missing over the years. I usually am able to scrounge up some ice to take care of cooling my beverage.

      1. Penny*

        It may not deter everyone but I keep soda in a plastic bag and no one yet has taken it.

    5. BRR*

      I just keep everything at my desk as well. This is one of those issues that I don’t think is realistically solvable (like having a messy roommate). I just have my own dishes and bring a lunch box with an icepack.

      1. Windchime*

        This is how we do it in my office. We all have plenty of storage in our cubes (very lucky!), so people keep their mugs, plates, etc at their own desks. I’m actually impressed at how clean our kitchen is; nobody wants to keep food-c0vered dishes at their desk so everyone does a good job of washing immediately after eating.

        The fridges still get gross, though.

    6. Artemesia*

      This is the only way to operate if you have a food thief in the office. Get yourself an insulated bag and keep your stuff at your desk. It is a PITA and you shouldn’t have to, but if you want to have your stuff, it is the only thing that usually works. (yes people occasionally steal stuff at desks as well)Just get in the habit of loading up the bag every morning with your can of pop and refrigerator items and ice pack and stop worrying about it. And keep your mug at your desk now that you know what happens otherwise.

    7. Oxford Comma*

      I was just coming here to suggest this. I haven’t used the communal fridge in years just because of this issue.

    8. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Another one with an insulated lunch bag. I don’t like to move other people’s food around to make room for mine, nor do I want to deal with other people’s leakage and mold. I have also used the office microwave exactly once. It’s a small office but I have stopped caring if other people notice (and believe me, they notice).

    9. CubicleSweetCubicle*

      I went all the way, and bought a mini Igloo fridge for my cubicle. Nice bright blue!

    10. Nat*

      Another lunch-boxer, here. I keep mine with an ice pack at my desk to avoid theft and the really gross kitchen. I have been able to remove myself from the monthly rotation of fridge-cleaning that way, too. It is amazing how gross people are.. I clean the fridge at home, not at work..

      1. Birch*

        I have to agree here and also ask the rhetorical question–why is it even necessary to HAVE to clean work fridges regularly? I get it at home, you’ve cooked, there are raw ingredients, things that spill, but I really do not understand why people bring messy stuff to work. The few times I’ve ever used a work fridge it’s been a single sealed glass dish inside its own lunchbox, or a bottled smoothie. I guess I’m just a far more private person than some people but I can’t imagine not having my lunch ready to eat because of the time involved in preparation and the number of nosy nellies in offices. That letter about the employees being forced to cook and eat together at work is my own personal nightmare!

    11. Jules the Third*

      Another insulated bag user here, for several years. I like it because I can pick what I’m in the mood for that morning, instead of being limited to whatever few things I have put in a work fridge.

      Works fine for frozen foods, though I usually do a sandwich / wrap.

  4. Higher Ed Database Dork*

    There’s a lot of articles about how an actual image of eyes or a person watching you can deter theft. Maybe put a picture of your face on your stuff?

    But seriously, labeling worked best for me. I also keep my food in a zippered lunch bag inside the fridge – it added another layer to get through, and it looked more like a personal lunch rather than just tupperware waiting to be opened. For drinks, I would put my name on a post-it and rubber band it to the can.

      1. Scully*

        Unless you’re working with Scully and Hitchcock. They’re monsters who will steal and eat anything.

      2. Seriously?*

        Also, if it is the style with two zippers, you can add a small lock if the lunch box isn’t deterrent enough.

    1. Myrin*

      This mental image absolutely delights me.

      (And weirdly reminds me of a situation long ago: My sixth grade classroom was directly next to the (known-to-be-aggressive, easily-angered, red-faced) janitor’s office. He had this little window with a wooden door that he could open so that he’d appear at the front left side of our classroom’s wall, to the left of where our teachers usually stood. He sometimes threw it open and yelled at us if we were being “too rowdy” between classes (in hindsight, I think we were just behaving like normal twelve-year-olds). So a couple of my classmates put a poster over our side of the window so that this big, round-eyed owl would be angrily facing him down whenever he opened the door. The wall was also just thick enough that he couldn’t reach and destroy it. Still one of our better ideas, and stayed there for the remainder of the school year.)

    2. Murphy*

      Now if anyone starts stealing my food again, I want to put a “Big Brother is Watching You” sticker on it.

      1. This Daydreamer*

        They make giant googly eyes. Just attach magnets and you’ve covered the whole fridge!

      1. Tuna Casserole*

        Years ago, someone stuck googly eyes on the coffee maker. Every time we get a new coffee maker, the googly eyes are moved to the new one. Been through 4 or 5 coffee makers now, still have the googly eyes watching me every time I make a hot cuppa.

        1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

          The coffee maker is making sure that if you kill the joe, you make some mo’!

    3. Is it Friday yet?*

      I just put my name on things and have no issues. It helps that I’m Internal Audit and half the company is scared of me.

      The downside is the other half of the company hates me, so I only dare put tamper proof sealed containers in the communal fridge. So, pretty much only unopened beverage cans.

    4. Tardigrade*

      Or buy one of those window stickers from a home security company and put it on the fridge. Bonus points if you attach an actual sensor to the door.

    5. Sybil Carpenter*

      So instead of a label I should attach a sticker with my face on it to my food? This might work.

  5. Lynca*

    I know it’s not something you can do everywhere. But the way offices are set up here, we can have mini-fridges. This helps because we can lock our offices. Downside is you have to take care of the issue yourself and the added expense. But I’m finally thinking about biting the bullet and getting one of my own.

    1. Chocolate lover*

      At least half my office suite, including myself, has mini fridges in their individual offices. Mostly due to crowding and cleaning issues rather than outright theft.

      1. Lynca*

        We also thankfully don’t have a theft issue. Ours is mostly a space/crowding issue. Our communal fridge is also on it’s last legs. I’m not sure it will get replaced when it goes.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I was going to say this. Our office is notorious for food theft (labeling, etc., doesn’t work), so I’ve opted for a mini-fridge. It is extremely useful, relatively easy to hide, and because I have my own office, easy to lock up when I’m not in.

    3. HS Teacher*

      I have a mini fridge, a microwave, and a Keurig in my classroom behind my desk. There’s no way I’d use the communal stuff at my school, and our staff is only 20. The fridge is always full, but I don’t think we have a theft issue. I wouldn’t know because I never use it. Once in a while I borrow silverware, but I usually remember to bring my own, and I always wash and return forks and spoons.

  6. Naptime Enthusiast*

    I have my food in a lunchbox with freezer packs at my desk. I feel like I’m in middle school walking in with a lunch box every day but at least my food is untouched!

    As for snacks, I also keep those in a drawer at my desk. If that isn’t an option, I suggest writing your name on everything out in the open or in a communal area.

    1. k.k*

      I’m in the lunchbox gang as well. I used to use the communal fridge until the day someone decided to deconstruct my sandwich to steal the cheese out of it.

      1. smoke tree*

        I can think of few things less appealing than the moist cheese pried from a coworker’s sandwich.

        1. Squeegee Beckenheim*

          Literally the only creature I know who would do that kind of thing is my cat. She once stole lunch meat out of a sandwich my sister was making.

    2. Yvette*

      Where I commute, back-packs are the new briefcase. My back-pack (if it is allowed to name specific brand and model let me know, I will) had 3 main storage pockets, giant, middle and small. I would pack my lunch in a insulated shopping tote (much thinner and larger than a typical insulated lunch box) with an ice pack. Never had a problem with spoilage or theft.

      1. Naptime Enthusiast*

        Brands and links to where they can be bought are greatly appreciated!

        I just bought a new backpack for traveling with an easy access laptop compartment for TSA, but I didn’t consider getting one for everyday. Now I’m kicking myself.

        1. Yvette*

          Don’t know what happened to my comment, maybe the link hung up the in the firewall? I probably did it wrong. Anyway, it was a JanSport Big Student. They have a website but they are available all over.

          1. Specialk9*

            All links have to be approved. Alison is pretty good with checking and releasing though.

        2. A Non E. Mouse*

          Oh Oh! I have a good one:

          My high school kid lives out of this bag, and packs it with approximately 45 pounds of books, a laptop, food, water bottle(s), languishing sheets of homework and sometimes a change of shoes. He carries it every day, and it gets thrown around the car, the school, the practice fields and the bus to/from ballgames.

          It’s stout!

        3. August*

          Chiming in: my favorite backpack is from Timbuk2, I’ve carried my massive laptop in that thing every day for YEARS and it’s still holding up

        4. Amelia*

          I’ve an llbean backpack I’m still using. It started off back in 2005 in high school. Fairly good condition, the mesh water bottle pouch ripped, otherwise fine.

          1. ElinorD*

            I have had 2 LL Bean backpacks EVER. One lasted through middle school, high school, college, AND grad school. Finally had to get a new one once I began teaching. On the middle school bus, they called me, “LL Cool Bean.” (It was the 80’s.) Maybe I should change my name on this site.

        5. KateS*

          I have two colors of the Everlane commuter and I love it. Really comfortable, great side pockets for a water bottle, keys, phone etc.

    3. I'm A Little TeaPot*

      Me too. everything’s at my desk, and if that’s a problem, the drawers are lockable.

    4. Ann*

      I keep mine in an insulated lunchbox as well (Though more because the office fridges are gross and smell awful than theft issues). I even have the exact same type of LL Bean lunchbox that I used in middle school! (I asked my mom if she still had my old lunchbox, but she said they’d thrown in out a long time ago). I got one with dinosaurs on it, so it’s easy to identify (plus it was on sale).

      1. BadWolf*

        At present, they have a couple shark prints, but dinosaurs must be sold out.

        Shark lunch bag is pretty tempting…

    5. Wendy Darling*

      At my one job where I worked in an office with my own desk I had one of those locking drawer units with two little drawers and a file drawer, but it was a tech company and I had exactly zero paper files, so the file drawer was just full of snacks and spare cables.

    6. Chook*

      Good idea I do very similar and keep dry foods in my desk drawer. If I do have milk, soda or chilled lunch in the fridge I put it in a plastic bag (I reuse) and I haven’t every had problems. I also make sure I place the food at the back or on lower shelves.

  7. Falling Diphthong*

    How and why was the outside of the mug caked with oatmeal?

    This is the prompt for an 800 page novel if ever I’ve seen one.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      My theory was that someone had used it as a dipper for a huge vat of oatmeal, but fposte’s suggestion above is more likely. If less satisfying.

  8. Mystery Bookworm*

    Keep snacks and a mug at your desk if at all possible! And yes, label your food, that’s helpful for more reasons than just snack-thieves.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        (we have communal dishes/silverware at my office – they are usually dirty or “clean” with something still caked on it…)

        1. aett*

          I bring my own silverware to work on a daily basis, too. We have a sink and silverware drawers in the office, but things tend to sit in the sink for weeks, and even when someone cleans them, they sit in a dirty drying rack until someone uses them again. The whole thing is disgusting.

    1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      If you are going to keep snacks at your desk, I recommend keeping them in a hard, plastic container. We have a serious mouse problem in my office. Once I came in and found all my snack food chewed up in my top drawer (it was all sealed in wrappers and boxes). Then spent the morning cleaning up mouse poop. But I’ve found if you seal everything in a hard plastic seal able container they cannot get in or be attracted to your area.

      1. Judy (since 2010)*

        And you need the hard rubbermaid type containers, not the thin “take and toss” containers. And keep any spare pile of napkins from takeout in there too. You don’t want a nest.

        Don’t ask me how I know.

  9. Allison*

    I had a problem with someone pilfering my cheese sticks. Labeling them did nothing, it wasn’t until I hid them in a paper bag that the culprit stopped taking them, but at that point I decided they weren’t worth the trouble.

    1. Allison*

      As a side note, I’ve noticed that no one helps themselves to my veggies, or salad greens. Hmmm . . .

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Aha! Someone needs to make a fake salad container that can be used to conceal your actual left-overs.

        1. Annie Moose*

          I once saw an ad for a fake head of lettuce to hide valuables in, as surely thieves would never think to look there. Now we have a new market for the same product!

          1. Falling Diphthong*

            I have never ransacked lettuce.

            I am not a spy (as far as you people know) but could totally see the applications here. Dirty underwear is immediately suspect, but not your healthy greens.

        2. AllIDoIsWin*

          +1 A container with a secret compartment – on top is a thin layer of raw spinach and kale which lifts up to reveal the real lunch full of cheese/fat/deliciousness.

        3. Anion*

          I seem to recall seeing something like that at ThinkGeek not too long ago: a lunchbox or bag that appears to be full of rotting food. I could be misremembering, but it might be worth checking out?

  10. Safely Retired*

    Post a “sign-up sheet”. In the heading invite anyone who cares to participate to record what disappeared and when. This might reveal that the problem is widespread, or targeting individuals. It might even be a deterrent.

    1. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      In a way this is what my employer did when we suddenly had a rash of really petty thefts — not just food either. They had security take a report of everything that had gone missing and when — even if we weren’t sure it was stolen and not just misplaced. (They also reimbursed people so that was extra nice). This helped them narrow down the time when the thefts began and places of theft (apparently it was the whole building and not just my department) so that they ultimately determined that it was someone new on the cleaning crew. In the decade+ that I’ve been working here, we’ve never had a theft problem so people were really lax about securing stuff — including leaving the keys to the petty cash box in the same drawer as the petty cash box which was also left unlocked. We’d just been really lucky apparently and the thief was smart enough not to steal ALL the cash or anything really big and noticeable — honestly, my coworker got the charger cord to her phone stolen but none of the more valuable knick knacks on her shelf or in her desk.

    1. So happy I'm done temping*

      I had a coworker actually bring a dead bird to work and post about it to Facebook because she didn’t want the baby birds to stick around the dead mom. I don’t remember where she put it, since she worked in a different room. But we saw her post on Facebook and knowing her, it didn’t surprise us at all.

      1. Caitlin*

        My biology teacher brought in a dead bird that crashed into her window. (Poor thing broke its neck.) After holding it up and showing it to us, she put it in one of those dissection trays and passed it around so we could all look more closely at it.

      2. Aitch Arr*

        We often had dead birds in our freezer when I was a kid. My dad’s a birdwatcher and he’d bring the dead birds to the local nature center for necropsy.

    2. Christmas Carol*

      Very old joke:
      Put my leftover soup in the refrigerator with a note on it, “Please don’t eat–I’ve already spit into this soup.”
      Went to get it at lunchtime. Found this added to note, “It’s OK, I spit into it too.”

  11. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Well, there’s two issues here. One is a coworker who won’t clean up after themselves. We had a few here. (Worse, it was always left for “the girls” to clean up. Blech.) After a few emails noting that nobody’s caretakers worked here – and some flat out refusing to clean anything that wasn’t ours – it stopped.

    As for the food thievery…not a whole lot you can do. You can label it, that does work in my office. But we don’t have people opening containers that others have brought in. The one time it happened, an email did go out to the entire office and the behavior was never repeated.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes—I hoard my dishes in my office, and I don’t clean dishes that aren’t mine. Both have really helped undermine the brazenness of the non-dish-washers and mug-stealers.

    2. Jane*

      The co-workers who don’t clean up after themselves drive me absolutely crazy. Some just dump their dishes in the sink where they’ll sit for days and days as they wait for “the girls” to clean them up. Then there are also the people who are under the bizarre impression that we have a garbage disposal in the sink. So they’ll rinse out their salads or oatmeal and just let all of the carrots and oatmeal and bits of lettuce clog up the sink. THERE’S NO GARBAGE DISPOSAL! So someone has to get a paper towel and scrape all of that up out of the drain so the water will drain. Don’t even get me started about the microwave.

      It makes me wonder what their houses look like. Or are the houses super clean and nice and they just assume there are people to take care of it at work?

      We’ve done notes, e-mails, etc. It never changes. Drives me crazy.

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        Oh, it stopped with me when the sales guys (not even my department) didn’t clean up after themselves and stopped at my desk to tell me that the remnants from the lunch meeting needed to be cleaned up.

        I stared back, blinking and said, “Okay. Need me to grab the doorstop so you don’t have to juggle everything?”
        They said no and repeated that it would need to be cleaned up.
        I paused. Long time. No facial expression. Lots of blinking, “Why do I need to know this?”
        Awkward shuffling and glances between the two guys, “You know….because….”
        I nodded knowingly, “Uh- huh,” raised eyebrow, “Because why?”

      2. Jules the Third*

        I don’t even go into my company’s kitchen. 100+ people in a large call center. We at least have professional cleaners, but if I don’t go it, I don’t have to see the interim mess.

      3. Tuna Casserole*

        Had a weird argument with a co-worker about this.
        Me: Why don’t people wash their own dishes?
        Her: They’re just leaving them for the cleaning staff.
        Me: Cleaning staff does not do dishes.
        Her: Yes they do.
        Me: I’m pretty sure they don’t. I’ll call and ask.

        Me: The cleaning staff does not do dishes. I asked the building supervisor.
        Her: I’m sure they would if you asked.
        Me: …

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Nope, they don’t. Ime, the contracts for cleaning an office are extremely restrictive (too restrictive, in the case of our office). Even vacuuming happens under some kind of a special extra order.

      4. Totally Minnie*

        At OldJob, we actually had to use a plunger on the sink because of all the rice someone had put down it. :(

    3. Artemesia*

      I am flashing back to the time I got my oreos out of my lunch bag and ate them mid morning and then when I got my lunch at noon, the oreos were still there. Never knew whose oreos I snarfed.

      1. Chameleon*

        Douglas Adams wrote about the time he was in a train station, and bought a cup of tea and a package of biscuits (cookies for Americans) while he waited for his train. He was sitting at a communal table with his biscuits in front of him, when the guy across the table nonchalantly reached over, opened the package, and ate one of the biscuits. Adams was too politely British to say anything, so he instead just reached over and ate one himself pretending he didn’t notice. Then the guy did it again. Eventually the two were sitting there passive-aggressively eating biscuits at each other until the package was empty. Finally, the guy walked away. The train came, and Adams got up to get on it…only to find under his newspaper the package of biscuits *he* had bought.

    4. kb*

      One thing that’s helped in our office is having a policy that there will be no cleaning of anyone else’s stuff. We had issues on both sides of the coin: people leaving stuff dirty and people who were overzealous and cleaned other people’s things when they didn’t need to. Now if someone notices that there’s, say, a dirty dish lingering in the sink for an afternoon, the protocol is to send a message on slack asking if someone forgot their dish in the sink. Every time the “perp” has responded, they usually apologize and explain they were interrupted before cleaning it and totally meant to come back. It’s really helped our office because so often it really is an accident or misunderstanding of some sort and since nobody cleaned it for the person, nobody feels like the office maid.

    5. Adlib*

      We have like maybe 7 people tops in my office at one time usually. Most of the time, not. However, stuff STILL gets stolen/used. My friend once bought a gallon of milk at lunch to take home, and at the end of the day, she found someone had used almost 2 CUPS of it! I mean, we have office-provided sodas/coffee creamer, but not milk! I tell her to label it, and she never does but complains to me when it continues to happen.

    6. Beatrice*

      I am still in love with the woman in my office who called a retreating coworker back into the kitchen to rinse out his own dishes that he’d left in the sink. He’d just deposited them there and was halfway out the door when she firmly called out, “John, you need to come back and rinse these dishes you left in the sink.” He started mumbling something about cleaning not being his job, and she said, “Oh no, it’s nobody else’s job to clean up after you.” He looked mad, but he washed his own dishes that day. (We do have professional cleaning staff, but they do not do dishes.)

  12. Cordoba*

    The rule everywhere I have worked has been that personal food has to either be in a non-public area, in a unique identifiable container such as lunch box, or labeled with the owner’s name.

    Anything not adhering to these rules was fair game. Unlabeled ziplocks in the fridge got eaten by whoever wanted them.

    It seemed to work out very well overall, and genuine food theft incidents were rare. I can see where this approach would be frustrating for somebody new who didn’t know the “rules” for what was up for grabs or not.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I initially read this as “personal food has to either be in a non-public area … or labeled with the company owner’s name.” and thought that was an amazing power grab on their part.

    2. LtBroccoli*

      As long as they post the rules (so new people know) that seems like a pretty good way to go. Probably cuts down on “whose spoiled food is this? Will someone yell if I throw it out?” issues too – which is more of an issue in my workplace than theft.

      1. Sam*

        Yes. At my old job, the rules were clearly stated on the fridge that you had to label your food with your name, and sharpies/tape were available. The rules also stated that anything unlabeled in the Fridge on Friday after 3pm would be thrown away, but no one actually did that. I sometimes got frustrated and on Friday afternoons threw away all the unlabeled stuff without remorse. It was satisfying. I also ate a few yogurts that were unlabeled and 1 day past their expiration date.

  13. Stolen ice cream*

    When I was pregnant, there was an ice cream bar from ice cream day in the fridge with my name on it because I wasn’t there. Everyone in the company gets an ice cream that day. Someone ate my ice cream!!! I am the only one in my department with my name.

    And coincidentally at that time, there was a meme on the fridge that said “strange new trend at the office. People putting names on food in the fridge. Today I had a tuna sandwich named Kevin.”

    1. Murphy*

      They stole a pregnant woman’s ice cream?? Unacceptable!

      (I had my snacks thrown out when I was pregnant…in their defense they said they’d be cleaning out the fridge that day, but in my defense I expected them to wait until after lunch.)

      1. Bea*

        In what world do you clean the fridge before lunch? That defeats the point of the fridge. My mom’s work has a schedule, the fridge is cleaned at 4pm on Fridays. So you know it’s always going to be happening. Argh.

      2. Stolen ice cream*

        Yep. And it wasn’t like poeple hadn’t already gorged themselves on ice cream. There are enough people that don’t want one that you can have multiples if you really want!!

        And I was at home getting my air conditioned replaced because it was broken.

      3. Stolen ice cream*

        Also: our fridge is supposed to be cleaned out once a month. There is usually a sign posted on it but I rarely put my lunch in there because it is always too packed. And I think they missed last month because it STINKS right now.

    2. Fergus*

      I am that person who:

      If you find your sub from your favorite place with a bite out of it, YES it was me. It was delicious. I will be back for a second bite.

      That package of 2 cupcakes and now 1 is missing, that’s me too.

      That soda, I love coke, coca cola puts everyones name on a can. Today my name is anyone who’s name is on the can.

      Yea I make the same as anyone else in the office. That 150K /yr goes a lot father when I don’t have to buy food. I eat YOURS.

      Oh by that way if you label your milk breast milk, if I forgot my milk for my coffee, guess what?

      1. Artemesia*

        Well breast milk is quite sweet and probably makes a great coffee creamer. I knew it had to be Fergus.

    3. EvilQueenRegina*

      This one guy in my office used to like labelling his team’s milk with some fat made up names, like he would label it as belonging some dead celebrity, or once he literally called it “something silly”. This one time the guy he sat next to became an accidental milk thief when he thought “Eric” was one of his daft names, only to find out Eric was a real employee.

      That team’s milk is now labelled with “name of team”.

  14. Cheeky*

    Re: food theft: the best way to avoid having your food stolen is not to leave it in the office fridge. Barring that, I suggest keeping your food in a lunch box, because it’s much more conspicuous for someone to open that up and it definitely sends the message that the food is not communal. Labeling is good, but works best for items that you don’t leave in the fridge day after day. Limit the quantity of food you leave in the fridge; bring just what you will eat that day and no more. If you leave anything around in quantity, people will think they can sneak some of it.

    For your dishes: in my office, if you leave dishes at the sink, whether clean or dirty, they’ll get thrown away. This is a very effective way for us to keep our break rooms clean and uncluttered. The office is not your home, so we tell people to wash their dishes promptly and store them at their desks. People can’t use your mugs if they don’t have access to them. In my office, people learn fast after their dishes get tossed.

    1. Scott*

      I used to put my roomates dirty dishes in a black garbage bag next to the garbage can. That usually got them clean.

  15. Lou*

    It’s not food but I had THREE Lord of the Rings mugs stolen consecutively in my old office! Someone must have ended up with a pretty nerdy collection.

    Now I’m in a new office and no one has dared to touch my new Lord of the Rings mug, which my purse is happy about.

    1. Yvette*

      My suggestion for anti-mug theft is having a mug no-one would want, ugly, weird color, embarrassing etc. I employ that at home as well, no-one wants to “borrow” my pink floral umbrella.

      1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        Every time I go to the OBGYN my husband asks me to pick up a couple of the free pens – he loves them because no one at his work will steal them.

      2. Traffic_Spiral*

        My mug has a picture of me and my family on it. Apart from liking the picture, it’d be super awkward for anyone else to be caught drinking out of a mug with a picture of other people on it.

        1. Erin*

          Someone did this with their luggage. He got a custom hardshell suitcase printed with a huge photo of himself on it.

      3. Ama*

        When I worked in university admin my office mug was from our crosstown rival (I had a summer job there in grad school and they had given it to me as a parting gift). Somehow I never had any problems with it disappearing. (It did go missing once, but only because some undergrads thought it would be funny to rearrange a bunch of small items on people’s desks — but it was also instantly identifiable as mine by the person who found it.)

      4. DCGirl*

        At a job where we would use thumb drives when preparing for finals presentations, etc., and the engineers would “forget” to give them back, my final thumb drive was Barbie pink on a pink lanyard. It’s always came back.

        1. NotMyRealName*

          We had a tech who would always take the roll of duct tape for the shop – until I started buying hot pink duct tape.

    2. I'm A Little TeaPot*

      I bought a mug specifically for the office because while it was fine, I wouldn’t be upset if it was broken or disappeared. It was a quarter at the thrift store. There’s quite the selection available.

  16. A Person*

    +1 for insulated lunch boxes at your desk. That’s my default.

    When I have to put something in the fridge I put it in a grocery bag and post my name, phone number, and date on it. Because if you look inside and want the contents, you can call and ask. No excuses.

    We did have a food thief but it ended when the person who was living in her office was escorted out of the building permanently.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      the person who was living in her office

      You can’t say that without elaborating.

    2. A Person*

      Apparently we had a new hire living in the office – we have proper offices with doors that close, a shower in the bathroom, and a kitchen stocked with people’s lunches.

      Someone got suspicious of things going missing in off hours and the messy bathroom, and security cameras indicated this person was staying here overnight. I missed it but apparently something was vandalized and police were called to remove the person.

      Now no one is allowed to close their office door.

      1. CatCat*

        “Now no one is allowed to close their office door.”

        That seems like a bit of an overreaction! Sorry to hear that.

      2. Lou*

        That happened in my office too before I started – a young guy in one of the higher paid roles decided to give up his flatshare to secretly live in the office in order to, and I quote, ‘save for a mortgage’. He got caught after a little too long and was let go.

      3. Bea*

        I have a window on my office door…so much better than a no door closed ever policy, doh.

        At least the folks I’ve heard about squatting did everything to protect themselves. No messes or theft or vandalism wtffff

      4. BadWolf*

        If you’re going to start secretly living in the office, you think you’d be smart and leave no clues.

        This reminded me of a Crime Show where someone was living in people’s homes when they were on vacation, but was scrupulous about leaving it as found if not improved. As part of the main crime plot, they found a camera with photos of everything and a couple vacationers commented that sink leaks were magically fixed, etc.

        1. Chinook*

          See, if someone wants to break in and leave my place in the same or betyer condition than they found it, I would have no issues with that. Bonus points if they feed the cat and clean his litter box.

        2. Specialk9*

          There was a lady in Japan living on the shelf in a guy’s closet. He got suspicious when food went missing from his fridge and caught her on tape.

        3. Pet sitter*

          I know pet sitters who found this kind of situation. The person left almost no clues except they didn’t flush the toilets. Police were involved.

    3. SoCalHR*

      My boss had an office once where a dude’s twin brother was living in it. People would see him and say “hey Fergus” and Bob wouldn’t even pretend to know them (which I find crazy, if you know you’re living in your twin’s office and someone acts like they know you, act like you know them back to not blow your cover)

        1. SoCalHR*

          It really could be, there were other crazy stories from there too, if I recall some people were have closet sex there too (like literally, in the closet).

    4. Bea*

      Oh man, I feel bad for her because I’ve been in companies where people over the years did live there intermittently due to massive issues. Tugs at my brittle heartstrings.

        1. Annie Moose*

          Living in your office is an extremely unusual thing, yes. I would not take members of Congress as representative of most jobs.

      1. Artemesia*

        We had someone living in our office; it was a client who had spotted a great place to hide out on the less used third floor and the building had easy access all day. He got caught same way i.e. stealing food and not doing a good job of covering his tracks.

      2. A Person*

        Our workplace is totally dysfunctional with high turnover and low pay and all, but I think she had major issues in addition to those.

        Gives a different perspective to food stealing, though. It’s not always the office sociopath stealing food, some people are just hungry!

  17. Cols*

    This sort of behavior, along with completely destroying the office bathroom, is something that will remain a mystery to me until the end of my days. Why can’t adults act like adults?

    1. Bea*

      Knowing so many questionable adults, I’m not at all shocked by some gross and crass behaviours. Just think of your worst roommates and if you had to work with them, argh.

    2. VioletDaffodil*

      We frequently ask this question at my office. Lately, we’ve hit a bit of bad luck with the janitorial staff; there is one person who is known by everyone, including his bosses and coworkers, for doing the bare minimum. and he’s assigned to our office now. The bathroom has suffered a bit, especially since the cleaning log mysteriously disappeared.

      However, the lengths people go through to make it worse… leaving urine all over the seats, not flushing the bowl, paper all over the floor, stuffing the bowls and sinks with wet paper towels that aren’t meant to be flushed… I don’t know how they even mentally justify what they are doing.

    3. Annon for this*

      A few years ago, we had a customer who annoyed a delivery driver. Driver went into the bathroom. Proceeded to make a mess including smeared feces on the walls.

      Now all drivers must use the porta potties outside.

      Few weeks ago, driver gets out and urinates in the driveway. Across from the porta potties.

      Seriously. Can’t make this stuff up. SMH

    4. LBK*

      Seriously – I can’t fathom the sheer egotism of an adult stealing someone else’s food. It’s shocking to me.

  18. Murphy*

    Label your food in a really obvious/obnoxious sort of way. Brightly colored patterned duct tape with your name on it. Distinctive and hard to get off.

    I’d keep food at my desk with an ice pack though if it was getting stolen that often.

  19. essEss*

    I don’t want to get into “blame the victim” but parts of this sound like you’re contributing to kitchen problems. Why are you leaving your dishware in the kitchen after you clean it? Most kitchens don’t have room for the added clutter of dishware left sitting around and we’ve read many letters complaining about people leaving their dishes on the counters (or in the sink) so that others have to work around them. Normally only communal dishes are kept in a kitchen. Keep your personal mugs/dishware at your desk. If you are leaving them there to dry after cleaning, then use a paper towel to dry it and take it back to your desk.
    You mention someone got into your BOX of snacks in the fridge. Again, a common complaint is when people fill the fridge with more than 1 day’s supply of food and snacks so that there isn’t room for others. Also, having a multi-day container does make it look more like community food or triggers a “they won’t notice if only 1 is missing” attitude.
    Meanwhile, the rest is definitely unmistakable theft. Start with an actual straightforward note on the refrigerator that taking other’s food is actual THEFT just like taking money from a coworker, and is not considered a harmless quirk. Anyone caught doing this WILL be reported to HR for theft. Then, purchase a locking lunchbox for items that need to be refrigerated. The locking lunchbox will solve your problem.

    1. Murphy*

      To let it dry? I don’t want to bring a wet travel mug/lid back to my desk. That’s what the dish drainer is for.

      1. Cheeky*

        Just dry it with a paper towel. We tossed the dishracks that someone brought into my office because they became a dish graveyard and were filthy.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Ok, but depending on the office, leaving it in the kitchen to dry is fine. We do that in my office, and for the most part, there’s no confusion between personal mugs and the few communal mugs we have, and people don’t usually take other people’s dishes from the dish strainer. So why should we have to waste a paper towel to dry stuff, especially if, as the OP says, we don’t mind if others occasionally use our stuff? The Op doesn’t have a problem with her mug getting used sometimes by others, it’s what happened to it this time that’s the problem. And whether that’s a communal mug or not, the person who made the mess should clean in up.

        2. fposte*

          Yeah, we don’t have a dish drainer and some people just leave dishes on the counters. Just dry the dish.

        3. Jadelyn*

          Some offices have communal dishracks. If the office has one, I fail to see what the problem is with using it for its intended purpose, or how doing so could be seen as “contributing” to the problem.

      2. OlympiasEpiriot*

        My office air is so dry that shaking the item in the kitchen and taking a slightly damp thing back to my desk to rest on a (clean but wrinkled from reuse) pair of paper towels in my dish drawer is not a problem. It is dry in less than an hour. I figure I’m benefiting from whatever little humidity gets added.

      3. Murphy*

        More than defending my own habits, I was pointing out that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for leaving a clean item in the kitchen.

        But to that point, I don’t like using paper towels if I can help it because I think they’re wasteful.

    2. Bad Apple LW*

      So to explain:

      We have a dishwasher at work which is run overnight. Many coworkers hand-wash their mugs, but if you want a more thorough clean, you can leave the mug in the dishwasher in the evening and in the morning it will be clean for you to use. I left it in the dishwasher because the flu was going around and I wanted the dang thing boiled. Someone arrived in the office early, took my mug out of the dishwasher before I got in to retrieve it, made oatmeal in it, and then left it in the sink. All this happened before 9:30 in the morning.

      The box was a small wheel of Laughing Cow cheese wedges. It’s smaller than every other lunch box in there. It was a brand new box and someone took the whole thing. I don’t leave Costco-sized boxes in the fridge. It was a small box that was provided a week’s worth of snacks for less space than one day’s lunch.

      I wasn’t contributing to a kitchen problem because this is not a part of the kitchen problem.

      1. fposte*

        So you mean people are taking your stuff out of the dishwasher? Yeah, that’s a pretty bad apple.

        FWIW, when you said “I’ve occasionally had my mug “borrowed” if I’ve left it too long in the kitchen after cleaning it, which for the most part is fine if they clean it and put it back” a lot of us are used to much longer semi-abandonments and I think we were picturing those. Overnight in the dishwasher is not “too long after cleaning it.”

        1. Bad Apple LW*

          That was the oatmeal example. Sometimes I’ve forgotten I’ve left my mug in the dishwasher until 12pm or 1pm in the afternoon, and by that point if someone else has taken it for their morning coffee, that’s fine! That so rarely happens though that it never really bothered me (both the forgetting and then the subsequent borrowing). But I mentioned that because I wanted to make it clear the oatmeal thing wasn’t a run-of-the-mill thing. Someone took it early in the morning, before the owner could have had an opportunity to claim it, trashed it, and left it out. It was stunningly rude.

        2. Murphy*

          Once I paradoxically had someone put my clean (not dishwasher safe) mug in the dishwasher, which was running when I left for the day, so I had to go home without it.

      2. Not My Problem Anymore*

        Was the little wheel of cheese loose in the fridge, was it labeled with your name, or in a bag with your name on on the bag? I found that if people could not see what it was was, they were less likely to pilfer food.

  20. Purple Wombat*

    Regarding dirty dishes…

    The only solution I’ve seen for this sort of issue is what they do at my current company. They provide a pretty generous selection of plates, bowls, silverware, and mugs/glasses in each kitchen for people to use. Once you’re done with them, you can put everything in the “dirty dishes” bucket they have, or straight into the dishwasher. The cleaning crew they’ve hired loads, runs, and empties the dishwasher every day as needed. I’ve never seen anything like it before, but it seems to work really well for a large company! Certainly cuts down on the passive-aggression that usually results from people not doing their dishes, and I’ve found that people don’t tend to use their own drinkware because the stuff that’s provided works fine.

    As for food-stealing…they haven’t figured out such an elegant solution for that. It still happens to people every once in a while, but I’ve been lucky because it’s never happened to me. *knocks wood*

  21. Irene Adler*

    One deterrent is to make your food very hard to access. Instead of one ziplock bag, seal up your food in three or four ziplock bags, each opening at the opposite end. Or add in a folded paper bag to this. Then a plastic container or two.

    Part of the success of the food thief is fast, direct access to the food. If they have to remove the food from the refrigerator, open and then remove four or five bags, and then open a couple of plastic containers before they can access the grub, it is more likely they will go for someone else’s food. I witnessed this as our food thief would leave behind opened cans of soda, partially empty. More intracately wrapped food was never touched (I would double bag my cans of soda, which were never touched). They could duck into refrigerator, open can, down a few swallows, and then leave the can on the refrigerator shelf.

    Yes, it’s a pain to have to pack your food in this manner. And unwrap your food at lunch time. But, so worth it knowing my food isn’t touched.

        1. Happy Lurker*

          I would have little plastic bags hanging on every pen while the condensation dries out.

    1. [insert witty user name here]*

      I think a food thief stealing just a few swallows of someone’s soda is even MORE insulting that just stealing the whole can!! Then you come in to see your wasted soda sitting there, flat and germy, and you can’t even enjoy the rest of it and it goes to waste! UGH!

    2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

      This seems kinda wasteful, environment wise? I feel like a lunch bag with a small lock on it would be even harder to get into and not generate so much extra trash.

      1. Trig*

        If you’re multi-ziplocing things, all but the innermost ziploc will still be clean. And you can wash ziplocs.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Oh! And/or, if your work fridge isn’t stuffed to the gills, take non-food objects and wrap them up like that! If there’s a food thief, they’ll drive themselves nuts, and probably stop opening things so packaged. THEN you start bringing your food in wrapped like that!

    4. Samiratou*

      Seems like it would be way easier to buy and insulated lunch bag & ice pack to keep at your desk. Ain’t nobody got time for all that.

    5. Fergus*

      Yea I get through all the bags, I touch it, with my index finger and I put it back the same way. You just don’t know it. Why, I AM FERGUS


  22. Boo*

    I have a deeply inappropriate office mug which deters thieves. It has the picture of a cute pink fairy on it saying “the reason I swear so much is because F YOU”. I obviously only use it at my desk ;)

    1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      We have a wide variety of mugs in our office, but my favorite is one of a cat flipping the double bird that says “I do what I want.! That one was quietly put away behind the user’s monitor while the GrandBosses were visiting.

    2. bohtie*

      I have a Hyperbole and a Half one that says “Responsibility Champion: I Get Shit Done,” and no one has ever TOUCHED that thing except me, haha.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      What a great but sad idea. You have to put your lunch IN JAIL just so you can keep a food thief out of it.

  23. CatCat*

    When I was a kid, I remember reading a book about a boy who had great lunches, but a lunch thief always got into his lunch box and stole some of his lunch. So, one day, the kid rigs up a fairly loud alarm on the lunchbox. The thief doesn’t actually get into his lunch on the day that the kid brings in the lunchbox so it goes off when the kid opens it up himself. It’s pretty loud and attracts attention of others, who become aware of the alarm. That is enough to deter the thief going forward because there is a risk the alarm will go off and the thief has no way to know if it’s rigged.

    I always thought that was pretty brilliant. Not sure how to make a lunchbox alarm or how that would go over in an office. But I love the concept.

  24. Antilles*

    I think you need to separate out the “mug use” from “food theft”. The former is completely and totally normal – to you, it’s clear that My University Mug is clearly mine and why wouldn’t someone else use it; to others, a mug left in the kitchen is a mug left in the kitchen and that’s it. The fact someone didn’t clean it is a horrible jerk move, but as an overall thing, most people don’t really pay attention to what mug they grab when they’re randomly reaching in the cabinet.
    I honestly wouldn’t even recommend mentioning it at all – stay focused on the food theft which is the real issue in play.

  25. Bad Apple LW*

    Update from the letter writer here! Thanks for the advice Alison. fposte FINALLY gave me a satisfying answer to the oatmeal question. I literally never make oatmeal so I had no idea that was a thing that could happen.

    It’s been a little while since I sent in this question, so I have a small update! My breakfast was stole AGAIN after I sent this in, so I posted a note in the office Slack lightly suggesting that I could give the recipe to my homemade breakfast to whoever liked eating it so much, but asking that they not take my food again. I got a lot of public sympathy for my plight, and someone even jokingly offered to set up a tracking system for the fridge like Amazon uses for their cashier-less locations, which would flag you if someone else was taking your food! We all had a good laugh at that, and the food thief stopped for a little while.

    Now someone else had their lunch stolen! The battle continues…

      1. Czhorat*

        That was my suggestion. Use an insulated lunch box with a reusable icepack. Lunch bag can safely live in your desk drawer until midday.

      2. AsItIs*

        Or a Pack-it freezable bag. (Put the whole thing in the freezer overnight.) That’s what I use because the fridge at work stinks!

          1. Jules the Third*

            Because you knowingly added poison to it, basically. Putting poisoned food out would be assault.

          2. Rusty Shackelford*

            Because it’s against the law to doctor food in a way that might hurt people and then leave it where they can get to it. The fact that they’d be stealing that food in the first place is, according to the legal system, irrelevant. (See also: “attractive nuisance.”)

            1. genuinely curious*

              I looked up “attractive nuisance” and it seems to only apply to trespassing cases involving children–is there actually precedent for applying it to adults or were you using it as a comparison?

              1. Rusty Shackelford*

                For comparison. As an example of the principle that you can be minding your own business and still get in trouble because someone messes with your property without your knowledge or permission.

  26. SoCalHR*

    We had a food/coffee creamer thief. I couldn’t believe it because of the small size of our office (at bigger places I can understand it more, more people = more anonymity). So what I decided to do was to type of a “SHOULD I EAT IT” decision tree. And honestly, I haven’t heard complaints of theft since then. Again, in a bigger office, this may not work, but it seems to have helped here.

      1. Curious Cat*

        I’m hoping it’s an “Is this yours? Yes, eat it. Is this not yours? Do not eat this.”

          1. SoCalHR*

            thanks – and right? just cuz I’m nice and give you creamer once because you were too busy to get to the grocery store doesn’t mean you can be my eternal mooch

    1. Ama*

      As someone who was once the admin in charge of trying to keep people from eating food that wasn’t theirs (we had a lot of evening receptions — leftovers were communally available but often people would grab a noticeable amount of food before the trays were even put out), there are a surprising number of people who hide behind the “well I wasn’t explicitly told not to do this” excuse in order to justify behavior they know is not really appropriate. Looking at your chart (which I love), it pretty clearly removes any “no one said I couldn’t” gray area for food thieves, so I bet that’s why it worked.

  27. UptheDownStaircase*

    Get a lunch bag that has two zippers. Then use a small lock to connect the two zippers closed. The deterrent doesn’t have to be industrial strength, just enough for it to be not worth the effort on the thief’s part. Plus it removes plausible deniability for the thief if caught (so no longer a ‘good’ target for the thief).

    1. Seriously?*

      Yeah, most people are not going to be willing to literally break your lunchbox to get at the food.

  28. seejay*

    Labeling doesn’t always work, even with obnoxious notes. My partner labeled his milk and even included “I drink from the carton” because someone was always using it up. Next time he went in, it was half empty and someone had added “I do too!” to his note.

    He stopped bringing milk in after that.

    1. Bea*

      Yeah brazen jerkasses are rarely thinking of the icks most of us do. They’re eating half and putting it back so often, they think it’s no big deal, just eat it despite not knowing who’s mouth was all over it

  29. Moo*

    I got my friend an I love Liam Neeson mug (because she does) which she uses in work. Their cleaner sometimes takes mugs from desks to the communal kitchen and puts them in the dishwasher, where they go missing. Her Liam Neeson mug went missing all the time (we joked it was the plot of Taken 4). Once it disappeared for a particularly long time and she put up posters with modified version of the ‘very particular set of skills’ looking for her mug. It was returned promptly!

  30. Rachel Green*

    I will never understand the desire to eat someone else’s food, especially because there’s so much you don’t know about it. How old is it? What’s actually in it? I just don’t get it. I will never see someone else’s tupperware full of fried rice and have a desire to eat it.

    I guess I’m lucky because the only food I’ve ever had stolen from me is a hard boiled egg, and I’m pretty sure I know who ate it and that it was a accident (she thought it was her hard boiled egg). But, I don’t keep a whole box of snacks in the fridge. I bring only what I plan to eat that day. And I have a drawer full of my own dishes at my desk (a mug, utensils, a plate and bowl), so I never have to worry about someone else using my mug.

    Another idea is to not use the communal fridge at all, but instead take your lunch and snack to work in an insulated lunch bag and keep it at your desk.

    1. Irene Adler*

      I concur. I don’t want to consume other folks’ food.

      Had a co-worker who had a good story about dealing with a food thief at her prior place of employment. At a work party, someone’s chip dip was taken and set out for consumption as the community dip had been consumed. After the party, the announcement was made that whoever had eaten from the dip should see to getting a hepatitis A shot from their physician right away.

    2. Pretend Scientist*

      Exactly. How do you know that whatever it is wasn’t sitting out on their kitchen counter overnight? Is that leftover Chinese food from last week? How often do they clean their kitchen? So. Many. Questions.

    3. Guacamole Bob*

      I think this is why cans of soda are such a common thing to have stolen, along with individual cups of yogurt, cheese sticks, etc. Very easy to mix up what you brought with what someone else did, and the grossness factor is low.

      People should still stick to their own food.

    4. Seriously?*

      I had a cheese stick stolen but like you I am pretty sure it was done by someone who also brings them in and got confused. After that I started labeling them and it never happened again.

      1. Samata*

        I label things like this but for my own benefit. If I am unsure I don’t take it & I am sure in the past food of mine got tossed as money down the drain. But I am so afraid of being the office thief I never take anything unless I am 100% sure it is mine.

    5. Bea*

      I spent my youth eating questionable things, as an adult I prefer knowing more about things that go into my mouth.

      I do have family members who do not care and assume if someone else planned to eat it, it must be safe.

    6. PB*

      Yeah, I hear you, but some people aren’t grossed out about that stuff, like they should be.

      I did throw away someone else’s leftover once, though. Someone in my office likes to bring Jello cups into work, eat half, and put the other half back for later. When I was getting my lunch out, I accidentally bumped the Jello cup and knocked it on the floor. Since the top was loose, the leftover half slithered out onto the floor. There wasn’t much I could do at that point. I had to throw it out and clean the floor.

  31. ballpitwitch*

    I am honestly shocked that so many people are saying to avoid using the office fridge that is literally there for employees to put their food in and not take any real action to catch/punish/deter a thief. You should be able to use the amenities that are provided for you in your workplace and not have to inconvenience yourself to accomodate someone’s inappropriate behavior.

    1. Yvette*

      Not just the worry about theft. Have you ever seen the inside of some of them!!! The only times I ever used them as opposed to an insulated system was when I was younger and had jobs where you could not keep your food at your desk or in your locker.

      1. ballpitwitch*

        Every fridge should have a designated person/people who cleans it whether that is an office admin/manager or the cleaning staff. That is an enormous failing of management if there is not a schedule to clean a communal fridge.

        1. EddieSherbert*

          Agreed, buttttt there definitely are companies where there is no designated person cleaning the fridge. From personal experience, the logic is that we’re all adults who shouldn’t need someone monitoring our fridge use. And (also in my experience), pushing to change it is taken as volunteering to be the person cleaning up after everyone, and that gets old fast!

          I was that person for almost two years, and my goodness, my stress level has gone down SO much since I gave up, abandoned the kitchen, and started bringing an cooler for my food a few months ago. So much better for my own personal sanity :)

      2. Bea*

        I’ve honestly never worked anywhere with a filthy refrigerator or food thief so I’m fascinated by all the stories in these threads. And I’ve worked with plenty of folks with questionable decision making.

        1. PB*

          I haven’t encountered a food thief yet, but at my old POE, the fridge was cleaned once a year over Christmas break. By February, it was already full of rotting food and smelled.

      3. BRR*

        Yeah, I’ve worked some places where I think you need a haz mat suit to open the door. I wouldn’t want my food near that toxic waste.

    2. STG*

      Yea, it’s always been annoying to me that food thievery just isn’t taken that seriously in many offices.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        At my old job there were signs on the fridges that said if you were caught taking someone else’s food, you could be terminated. We never had theft issues that I heard about.

    3. I'll come up with a clever name later.*

      I agree, I should be able to use the company fridge but the fact that I would have to find the thief, report the thief, and assume the thief will stop thieving / be punished is just exhausting. It’s just easier at this point to keep my food at my desk.

    4. Seriously?*

      How exactly do you propose they catch the thief? They do need to work so they can’t really perform a stakeout. Even if they did, food thieves are unlikely to do anything when someone is around. Most people are proposing not using the fridge or using a lock because of feasibility.

    5. Artemesia*

      There is what you should be able to do and what you can do. There is no good way to deter an office food thief, short of an aggressive management that uses cameras and fires people who do it. That rarely happens. so you should be able to use the refrigerator, but can you? Not if there is a food thief.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        Exactly. I like to say, in many situations, that there are long term goals and short term ones. I would love to create an environment where food thievery does not exist (or, in my case, fridge filling), but until that happens, the aggravation of the principle isn’t worth it to me. I’d rather just bring my insulated bag and get on with it.

    6. Specialk9*

      God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
      Courage to change the things I can,
      And wisdom to know the difference.

      We’ve come to the conclusion that this situation is #1.

    7. Czhorat*

      One consistent there here is that one just choose which battles to fight. Escalation of any personal issues will annoy your boss and cost you capital at work, so you need to be judicious in doing so.

      Food theft is bad, but being the person who made a major issue out of their lunch being taken from the communal fridge is also a bad look.

  32. Temperance*

    At a previous job, one of my colleagues brought in a stool sample in a tupperware container and put it in our freezer. Not that I had ever dreamed of eating someone else’s food before this, but just knowing that there was actual poop in a food container in our communal freezer was enough to cement it as The Worst Idea Ever.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      D: D: D: Aaaugh!

      I hope the colleague was reprimanded. Talk about a biohazard! “YOU get norovirus, and YOU get norovirus, EVERYBODY gets norovirus!”

    2. Anon for this*

      I’ve definitely had to do medical tests before where I had to store my biohazard in a fridge. I work from home those days but I’m still grossed out keeping it even in my own fridge. The doctor’s office acts like it’s so normal though and like it wouldn’t cause someone to work from home. For one test I had to collect my urine for 24 or 48 hours in a giant jug and store it in the fridge in between collections. I’m sure my colleagues would have loved that i the work fridge. My doctor’s suggestion “just put it in a brown bag.” Yeah. NOPE.

    3. Oxford Coma*

      During an old job, I had to go to a specific pharmacy with terrible hours in order to have medication compounded for my cat’s seizures. My only option to get there in time was to go on my lunch break, so I was keeping fish-flavored liquid medication in my work fridge in an insulated lunch bag.

      The funny part is that the seal was air-tight and child-proof (because it was medication), so when anyone complained or asked questions it was obvious they’d had to go to significant trouble to snoop.

    4. ThursdaysGeek*

      Hmmm… that’s a bit worse (I think) than my dad occasionally storing live bats or rattlesnakes in the fridge when I was a kid. But they were usually in a paper bag, and it was the home fridge and just overnight. They’d go to work with him the next morning.

      I don’t think it’s related, but I’ve never stolen food from someone else’s lunch.

        1. Anonymousaurus Rex*

          And surely, they weren’t alive by the next morning?? I have so many questions about this.

        2. ThursdaysGeek*

          He was the biology storekeeper at a local college, and also would go and get critters that people had found and didn’t want, like a rattlesnake on the property. Yes, they were still alive in the morning – the cold just slowed them down. They didn’t always stay in their bags: my sister remembers finding a little bat hanging from the grating in the fridge. We…had an interesting childhood.

  33. Economist*

    When my office had a spate of food thefts, one of my colleagues brought in a plastic tool box, put his food in it, locked it with a heavy-duty padlock, and then then put that in the fridge. It took up half a fridge shelf. (I had the urge to mess with him by removing the whole toolbox from the fridge, but never did that.) I decided that I just wouldn’t put food in the fridge before getting to that point. So, I use a lunch bag with ice packs and keep it at my desk. The very few times I’ve put leftovers in the fridge I put them in a paper bag or plastic grocery bag, put my name and date on the bag, first staple and then tape the bag for “tamper resistance,” which has worked well.

    1. essEss*

      Tamper resistant has me thinking…. perhaps putting the food in a baggie, then putting the food baggie AND a flat damp paper towel that has been soaked with food coloring together into another baggie (so sandwich thief has to remove the towel after opening the baggy to get to the sandwich). Then when the food thief opens and pulls out your sandwich, they get food dye all over their hands. Can’t avoid noticing that on a coworker’s hands if you use a really obvious color.

      1. essEss*

        Similarly, if your entire lunch bag disappears frequently, you could stick a ’tile’ into your bag. Or if it is individually wrapped foods that get taken, slide a tile tracker into the package. These are small squares that you pair to your cellphone to track when you lose things. Then you can track the bag to whoever has your food.

        1. AsItIs*

          When you said “tile” I thought of the ceramic bathroom kind. My brain then went to a small hole in the bag that the tile would fall out of onto the floor as the food theft removed the bag from the fridge. Crash! So “tile” ;)

  34. Loopy*

    I would love to see this, sounds like a fun way to address it if you’ve got the right office culture!

  35. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

    Last week I brought in my water bottle, it’s one of those big Costco ones with a permanent straw and a flip down locking lid. I set it down in the kitchen and when I went back it was gone. I found it later that day in another area, half full of water. Someone took it and was using it. I was so grossed out that I can’t bring myself to use it again. I washed it with soap and bleach but all I can think about is some stranger sucking on it. Luckily the bottles came in a 3 pack so I have 2 more but I’m still peeved. If I bring another one in, it’s not leaving my sight and I’m putting several of my personalized address labels on it. OP, invest in an insulated locking bag that you can keep under your desk. And label your coffee cup and water bottle.

    1. SoCalHR*

      Super gross and a bold outright theft (and some of those bottles aren’t cheap)

      But you know you use utensils and glasses that other people have put their mouths on when you eat at a restaurant, right? How is this different?

      1. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

        I’m not sure. We’ve been conditioned to accept that dishware and utensils used in restaurants are cleaned and sterilized. However, I know that I’m the only person drinking from my water bottle. Sometimes I just rinse it out before refilling it. It’s also a social convention that you aren’t going to take a swig from someone else’s bottle, at least not without asking first. I think it’s a personal ownership issue. Which is why people get angry when they see someone using their coffee cup.

        1. SoCalHR*

          I totally get the rinsing thing when its just you using it, but you washed it with soap and bleach so its the same as restaurant utensils (if not cleaner – sorry, don’t want to make you start bringing your own utensils to restaurants ;-) but its not really such a rare/inherently gross situation to continue to use the water bottle especially if you meticulously cleaned it.

          1. Cousin Itt*

            As someone who once worked in a gastro pub – sometimes that cutlery is nowhere near as clean as you think it is.

    2. R2D2*

      I covered my water bottle with stickers for this reason! There’s no way anyone could mistake my bottle for their own.

  36. Curious Cat*

    Pretty much just echoing what everyone else here has said, but definitely label! I bring in my own almond milk coffee creamer (#LactoseIntolerantProblems), and it is a delicious creamer that I noticed was going down a lot faster than I was using it… I started labeling it and wa-lah! The culprit(s) stopped using my creamer. Also definitely keep your food in a sealed lunchbox, which you should also label. Can’t take too many precautions. People be crazy out here.

      1. N.J.*

        Yeah, we don’t correct people’s spelling in the comments here, unless the misspell or grammar mistake severely affects the ability to understand it’s meaning. It’s rude, not picky and unwelcoming, even if meant with a desire to be helpful.

        1. AMPG*

          You know, I know it’s not cool in general, but I’ve always felt this is an example where someone would want to know, because (assuming they’re not being silly) if they’re spelling it wrong they’re also saying it wrong, and friends/family/colleagues are less likely to correct them in the moment.

        2. Trig*

          Aahh sorry! I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just one that actually took me a really long time to understand what people meant the first few times I saw it! I’m not usually picky about spelling, but it genuinely interfered with my understanding, and if I was misspelling other-language words, I absolutely would want to know.

          But hey, point taken, will refrain in the future.

          1. OhBehave*

            We also can’t edit comments we post. So mistakes are always there even if someone corrects the mistake.

    1. natalie*

      I brought in a new carton of creamer this morning for my personal use–labeled with my initials and first name. When I made my afternoon cup of coffee, someone on my floor had clearly went to use it and wasn’t able to because I hadn’t opened it yet. I know this because my initials were upside down. So labels don’t always work, alas.

  37. MuseumChick*

    This is super passive aggressive so I don’t actually advocate doing this.

    Get some kind of opaque food container, small brown bag or tinfoil would work well. Then get as much glitter as possible. Place glitter in opaque container. if using tinfoil shape to make it appear there is a tasty treat inside. Label outside as “(Name) Cookie/brownie/cake Do not eat”

    As soon as the thief sticks their hand in the brown bag or opens the tinfoil it will be pretty easy to spot them later.

    1. LCL*

      Yes, this is a really tempting idea! Here, though, the glitter wearer would probably announce loudly ‘oh, someone spilled glitter, I got it on me darn it’ and walk away. Leaving it for the custodian to deal with.
      I may use this idea for the mailbox prowlers in my neighborhood.

      1. Fiennes*

        Still, even if they did announce it, you’d know the truth. A few pointed questions from you about “how did that happen?” ought to tell the thief the game is up.

        Unless you have an office where people spill glitter all the time, which I suppose is possible…

    2. Fiennes*

      Maybe squirt some body glitter on the inside of the bag? Then you’re guaranteed adhesion!

      Seriously, I like this—it IDs/deters the thief without risking any harm to them. (Unless they were simply tipping the bag back ready to directly, handle salt consume whatever is in there, which seems doubtful even by the low standards of food thieves.)

      1. Fiennes*

        For the life of me, I can’t remember what was supposed to be in the place where autocorrect put “handle salt.”

      2. essEss*

        I agree with this entirely. Edible glitter! Coat the inside of your paper lunch bag with it so they get coated when they reach in to pull out your sandwich. Make sure you labeled the outside of the bag with your name so no one can claim they opened it to check if it was theirs.

  38. Glomarization, Esq.*

    I’m on Team Insulated Lunch Box/Bag with Freezer Pack And Keep Your Mug at Your Desk.

    If I were the office manager (not clear to me that LW is or isn’t), I’d e-mail everyone with, “Do you want me to install a video camera in the lunch room? Because this is how you get a video camera installed in the lunch room.”

  39. Rachel01*

    After my chicken was stolen I started carrying my lunch in a cool pack. Sat it under my desk.

    1. Mainly Lurking*

      I started reading this and wondered if you meant a WHOLE chicken was stolen, which would be shocking enough … But I’d be even more impressed if you told me a LIVE chicken was stolen …

      Yes, I’m bored.

      1. Happy Lurker*

        I am picturing a Wallace and Gromit type of chicken…hiding out in the office fridge.

  40. ENFP in Texas*

    I’ve resorted to paper bags with my name on them that I folded over and stapled shut, or my portable cooler that I locked shut with a zip tie.

    It ticks me off no end that there are so many adults who are so rude and lazy that they think taking someone else’s food is acceptable behavior.

    If you didn’t put it in the fridge, don’t take it out. It’s not rocket science, it’s common courtesy… which I realize some so-called adults are lacking.

  41. paul*

    I’ve never found anything that works if there’s a dedicated food thief.

    I support bringing back flogging for those people though. I won’t get my food back but I’ll feel better.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      I, too, would feel better knowing your food thieves were being flogged. It makes the universe a better place.

    2. Raider*

      The one call center I worked at had a policy plastered all over the place: Taking someone else’s food or drink is punishable up to and including termination. We had hundreds of employees working 24/7. I’ve never worked anywhere else with that policy, and it is extreme, but it did work.

  42. GreyjoyGardens*

    Does anyone remember the “I don’t want my coworkers to know I’m living off of office cupcakes” letter? It makes me wonder if there is someone at LW’s office who is living off of stealing their coworkers’ meals. Not that this really justifies stealing, or makes it less maddening, but the fact that someone *very determinedly* keeps eating LW’s food makes me think that maybe something like this is afoot? If this is what is going on, maybe the employee can be steered to a food bank and/or employee assistance, by HR. (It’s HR’s and the thief’s boss’s responsibility here, not LW’s, just to be clear.)

    But leaving LW’s mug caked with oatmeal? Gross. No excuse. You use it, you wash it.

      1. Rosemary7391*

        You might figure it from the timing – more common just before payday for instance? But it’s still not okay. You could easily be stealing food from someone whose budget doesn’t allow for them to replace it from a shop, or someone who has allergies that make bought food difficult. Much better to go through the formal channels for assistance – they often come with help to tackle the root cause of it as well, at least in the UK.

    1. Bea*

      It’s so frequently not a food scarcity issue though. Many people thrive off the thrill they get from doing these kind of things.

      There was a caller on a local radio show that was a food thief and just enjoyed trying people’s food.

      If someone is living off office supplied food that’s a different tune.

    2. Moo*

      It occurred to me too. We have a sort of system that if its on the counter top, it’s for sharing (its a tiny kitchenette). I left something there one evening and said it to the people who were staying late, and one of them replied that it meant they’d have dinner. I’ve kind of upped my leaving of communal food since then – mainly because I was that other person for such a long time. But of course none of that makes the stealing ok!

    3. Jules the Third*

      If you look out on the web, when they catch the food thief, about half the time it’s someone senior. Higher percentage when the thievery is persistent or in an office. Retail / factory seems to be where it’s coworkers.

      Persistent food thievery seems to have an entitlement component.

    4. AMPG*

      I work for a nonprofit that serves clients in need, and there’s a sign on our fridge saying “This fridge is for the use of [NGO] employees only. If you are hungry and in need, please see an [NGO] employee for assistance.” Then we can direct them to resources.

  43. PR Professional*

    I had an acquaintance at work, on multiple occasions, stop by and say, “I ate one of your cheese sticks, I hope that’s ok.” Mind you, these were cheese sticks that were in a labeled, personal lunchbox.

    At the point that you’ve already eaten it, what am I supposed to say? I was friendly with this person, but this certainly wasn’t a friend who should feel comfortable taking food without asking.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      At the point that you’ve already eaten it, what am I supposed to say?

      “Actually, I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

      1. Robin B*

        Similar to coming in one morning to the 6 pack (now 5 pack) of soda cans in my cubicle, with a dollar bill sticking up where the missing can should be.

    2. I'm A Little TeaPot*

      “Well, now you owe me $2. And while we’re discussing it, why the hell were you going into my lunch box?”

    3. Half-Caf Latte*

      They’re counting on you not wanting to upset the social contract, and to be *nice* and say sure no worries.

      You would have been justified in “returning awkward to sender” and saying “not okay, please do not eat food without asking”.

    4. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      In order from friendly to serving up some salt:

      “No worries — you can buy the next box of treats. I really prefer (Fancy) brand.”
      “I understand that emergencies happen. Will you be able to replace it by Friday?”
      “Are you having…trouble? I think I can bring in some soup if you need it.”

    5. Artemesia*

      ‘Just tell me when you replace them; I usually get the Whatzis brand.’ I had a candy dish in my office; the people who gobbled the most occasionally brought in a bag of candy for the jar. Helping yourself to someone’s box of pop tarts or cheese sticks is ONLY sorta ok if you then replace them.

    6. Bea*

      They’re dealing with the guilt of their poor behavior. Just ask someone if they have something to spare if you’re feeling hungry and forgot your lunch etc. I’m happy to share my snacks when asked, otherwise GTFO of here with your “hope that’s okay!” “it’s actually not, I was looking forward to that cheese.”

  44. Elmyra Duff*

    Right after college, I was a receptionist at a car dealership (yay, graduating during the recession with an English degree!) and the cleaning lady hated my guts. I had no idea why. I still have no idea why. But everything I ever did annoyed her to no end. I always labeled my lunch and put it in the refrigerator, and one day I happened to have leftovers from my very favorite restaurant in there. Like, this is the kind of meal you think about all. day. long. I went to the break room to get it and it was gone.

    One of the salesmen said that Cleaning Lady was throwing stuff out of the fridge that morning, so I (VERY CHEERFULLY) asked her if she happened to throw out my lunch, which was in a bright red paper bag. She (VERY NOT CHEERFULLY) told me absolutely not and she’s offended that I would accuse her of such a thing.

    An hour later, she told the other receptionist that, yeah, she threw it out because, “I f-ing hate that fat c-nt. She doesn’t need to eat, anyway. She’s huge.”

    So, yeah. That’s my lunch story.

      1. This Daydreamer*

        Seconded. I’m sure that would have been an epic post if she’d written to AAM about the whole thing. You know there was a whole lot more to the story than one lunch being thrown out. Yikes.

    1. Millennial Lawyer*

      Clearly that is something you would go to HR or a manager about – I hope you did.

      1. Elmyra Duff*

        Nah. The HR manager didn’t care. She was barely there, anyway. We just communally complained about her amongst ourselves in the receptionist office. And maybe sometimes I’d make a point to walk my dirty shoes across her freshly mopped showroom. I’m not petty.

    2. Gazebo Slayer*


      Sounds like she’d get along great with the HR person at one of my old jobs who decided I was stuck up and too good for her or anyone else in the office one day when she waved at me and I didn’t see. Every time she saw me after that, she made nasty comments about it. Every. Time. Then one day she gleefully called me into her office to tell me that the IRS had garnished my wages.

      After a moment of panic and WTF, I noticed that the person named on the notice had the same first name as me, but a different last name starting with the same three letters. I informed her politely of her mistake, and the outraged disappointment on her face was vastly amusing.

      1. Bea*

        THAT MORON. Wage garnishment are something you do not let anyone but the correct person know about. She should have been fired for the confidentiality breech. I would have went to the other person to let them know they’re being mixed up with you so they know they have no frigging privacy. The IRS could fine her stupid ass.

    3. AlexandrinaVictoria*

      Yeah, at that point I would have been letting the air out of her tires……

    1. Dove*

      At my old job (inbound customer service phone answering), you had two choices: either you put your lunch in the breakroom fridge, or you kept it in one of the (unassigned, first-come-first-serve-and-bring-your-own-lock) lockers that were just barely plentiful enough to supply everyone on-shift and were located right next to the fresh-out-of-training employees…who might well be in the middle of a call when you got on break, and there was no way to open the lockers *quietly*. Plus, we had to keep *everything* in those lockers – purse, coat, winter boots; if you’d brought it in with you from outside and it couldn’t be with you at your desk, it had to go in the locker.

      There were no assigned desks (it was rows and rows of workstations, with people having to guess which row their team had been assigned to today), and you weren’t allowed to have food on the floor even if it was in an insulated bag. The only way you were allowed to have *drinks* on the floor was if it was in a sealed container.

      Most people (including me) ended up just keeping their food in a lunch bag and putting that in the fridge. Because when you get two fifteen minute unpaid breaks, one thirty minute paid break, and you’re constantly being told you need to cut down the amount of time you’re not taking calls (and be faster at getting calls wrapped up and ended)…you’d rather not have to spend a couple extra minutes to go over to the lockers, remember which one was yours today, and dig your lunch bag out from under your coat and the rest of your gear, then close your locker again and *then* go to the breakroom and eat (only to have to repeat the process in reverse, once your break was done). That’s time you could spend trying to gather the strength you need to get through the rest of your shift.

  45. Anonygoose*

    I work at a university, and one of the faculty once got a cake for her class as a prize for something. She put it in the fridge at 12:00 for a 1 PM class, and it was gone by 12:30. Somebody made off with an ENTIRE cake within a 30 minute timespan. We never figured out who.

  46. Zennish*

    I’ve found that a soft sided cooler/lunch-bag with my name on it, and a luggage lock through the zipper does wonders.

    1. LCL*

      I used one of those soft zip bags intended for packing small items in, and a luggage lock. It wasn’t that I begrudged whoever the food; I could afford it and work close to the grocery. It was that one of my favorite food items was and is soft spreadable cheese, and I could tell the thief was scooping it out with their fingers!

      I almost caught the thief in action. I saw him standing in front of the fridge, opening different containers and swearing at them. It was not one of the security guards-people tend to blame it all on the guards. It was one of the higher paid people who was struggling with weight issues.

        1. LCL*

          I did mention, whenever someone complained about it, that they should stop blaming the security guards for everything.
          As for the dish checker, I walked in and said hi, he turned around and left.

  47. Guacamole Bob*

    So I get that food thieves seem to be super common, but am I the only one who’s never been a victim? I’m thinking through a variety of jobs, internships, volunteer gigs, etc., and I can’t remember ever being in an office where this was a problem, in nearly 15 years of working in offices. Have I just been super lucky?

    Gross kitchens and fridges that needed more regular cleaning and people accidentally using others’ dishware, yes. Wanted food getting thrown out due to a fridge clean out that was not posted quite well enough, or because it had been there for a while, yes. People not understanding that milk/creamer was individual and not communal and taking a bit for their own coffee, yes. But no outright thieves.

    1. Trig*

      My workplace has two kitchens: the ‘guest’ kitchen, which is closest to my desk and is accessible by the reception/external meeting room area. It’s spotless. Only a handful of people use the fridge, and I’ve never once had a thing stolen. Nothing lingers in it long enough to grow mold. Any dirty dishes are placed in the dishwasher, and the receptionist runs it when it gets full and wipes down the counters daily. The worst thing I’ve seen is the woman who leaves her disposable Starbucks cup in the sink to drain; everyone knows who the culprit is, because her lipstick mark is obvious.

      My two faux pas, in the guest kitchen:
      – I used someone’s (full sized bottle, mostly full) salad dressing semi-regularly. And then I brought in a new bottle with a “share me!” label on it because I felt guilty.
      – I regularly brought home forks. Usually I bring my own utensils, but on occasion I forget. There are always a few kicking around in the drawers, so I borrow them. And then pack them up in my lunch box with the rest of my containers. But I don’t want mismatched forks, so I always wash them and bring them back later.

      Then there’s the ‘developer’ kitchen. It is much smaller, and not accessible by externals. I do not go there. I do not know what goes on there, and I do not want to know.

      1. fposte*

        Honestly curious–can you shed some light on the decision process that led you to use somebody else’s dressing intentionally? Did you know the person and know they probably wouldn’t mind?

        1. Trig*

          Partly “they won’t mind, I wouldn’t mind”, partly “it’s just a little bit this once”.

          I like to think if it’d had a name on it or been a special gluten-free or fancy bottle I would never have gone for it in the first place. I think I fooled myself with the plausible deniability of “thought it was communal” and “one person can’t possibly finish a bottle anyway, they must intend to share.”

          But after doing it a few times, I realised I was doing it as fast as I could, inside the open fridge so I could sneak it back in and cover up if needed… And my mind suddenly went “what am I doing?!” Which was when I brought in my own bottle specifically for sharing!

          And that bottle got used up by more than just me, so I felt I’d made up for it… And never used the non-communal one again.

    2. Fiennes*

      I never ran into this either. At one office, where drinks were sporadically provided, we had occasional soda mixups, but it was always accidental/understandable.

      1. Artemesia*

        I worked in a building where we had pop in the fridge that people could buy by putting money in a cup. I stored my much more expensive bitter lemon there and of course someone put a quarter in the cup and took it. That was the end of me having tasty bitter lemon at work.

    3. Bea*

      We’ve never had food thieves in my places of business. I’ve always been the one who would have been told if something was up and nope.

    4. JustaTech*

      I’ve never had my food stolen, but I have always packed it in an insulated lunch bag that didn’t go in the fridge. The one place I worked where I couldn’t take my mug back to my desk (no food in the lab) we each ad a personal shelf in the cabinets in the lunch area to store things out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind.

    5. Emily*

      Same here. I’ve worked in government for 10 years. Never had an issue with this. Yes, people sharing sauces and dressing, but never stealing a lunch. Very clear lines between communal food and people’s lunches.

    6. Not a Morning Person*

      The only time I’ve had the problem of food theft was at a former workplace. I kept half-and-half in the communal fridge because the office only supplied the powdery stuff that I find inedible. Someone or several someones would use my half-and-half even after I put my name on a note and binder-clipped it to the top. The only thing that stopped the theft was the note on which I added a skull-and-crossbones. I guess they didn’t want to test it.

      1. Robin B*

        We had a 1/2 & 1/2 thief at my old job too. Would even use it if it were the last serving and never replace it. And if I had a new one in there for future use, he’d open it up before the old one was gone. Couldn’t do much, it was the Chairman of the Board.

        1. Annon for this*

          The food thief I witnessed was a General. I would regularly see all the visiting higher ups take cream, etc that was labeled as personal. Our boss was amazing and would remind people not to take others’ food. But if there was a meeting of out of town higher ups, your flavored personal cream was gone. It happened to me once, because I never brought in personal cream again.

  48. AndersonDarling*

    I’ve labeled food with the Director’s name or the Executive Secretary’s name. No one wants to start trouble with them. I’d but the CEO’s name, but everyone knows the CEO wouldn’t use the fridge.

    1. SoCalHR*

      Unless/until the boss is the problem (which has been an issue here as was reposted today). Or not the problem until they see their name on the package and think “sweet, someone made me lunch!”

  49. MassholeMarketer*

    Because I just graduated college a few years ago, I still have my dorm mini fridge. I brought it in one day for my department of three and never looked back. Communal kitchens are nasty.

  50. Emma*

    My dad started putting labels on all of his food that said “THIS IS NOT A PUBLIC TROUGH” which I still find very funny, but not surprisingly that was only partially effective.

    As for things that I’ve actually found to be effective– sometimes just putting your food in solid plastic containers or bags goes a long way. I’ve also wrapped bags/containers with fabric napkins and tied them in a specific way as a deterrent. I’d be tempted to try out a festive wrapping paper, too haha.

  51. anonykins*

    My *absolute favorite thing* about my last job was the kitchen/food situation. We got free lunch every day (OK, part of the reason was that bringing your lunch, culturally, was not a thing and we wouldn’t have had time to go out for lunch) and, as is the custom in this particular country, actually had a LITERAL OFFICE MAID who cleaned the entire building, including the kitchen. Life. Was. Sweet.

  52. Strawmeatloaf*

    What I wish offices would do is put cameras in the kitchen so they could actually catch who’s doing it and then punish them appropriately.

    Unfortunately I think the only solution may be to not use the kitchen at all.

    1. Parenthetically*

      My first thought was something along these lines. Surely someone among the victims has a GoPro or something that you could mount inside the fridge to see exactly who the culprit is.

      Deliberate disregard for and theft of others’ possessions (not just “Oh shoot, I thought that was my peach Activia yogurt! I’ll bring another one in for you tomorrow!) is a fireable offense. It’s stealing for crying out loud. Part of the reason this continues is because management just doesn’t care to make the effort to put a stop to it IMO.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        And of course that’s mentioned in the original post, I just noticed… but they had a camera and it’s killing me that they didn’t do anything.

  53. Akcipitrokulo*

    Maybe seal it shut with a label over the opening…. they have to break open your name to get into it?

  54. CustServGirl*

    LOL at the “sociopathic” label. But seriously…keep who brazenly take other people’s food are sociopaths.

    I hope Allison’s suggestions help!

  55. Niese*

    In a previous job, I had bottles of water repeatedly stolen from the work fridge. I tried labeling drinks in a variety of creative ways… but it took confronting the thief when I caught her red handed to stop it. Sadly, we had just moved into another building with a new department and she was third in charge in the building. Her excuse was she thought it was free. Crazy boss wrote me up for it

    1. Jadelyn*

      You got *written up* for asking someone to stop stealing drinks that *you bought and brought in for yourself*?

      Good lord.

    2. Bea*

      Lol because freebies have your name written on them.

      I bet your crazy boss taught my former dbag boss how to write people up, they’re both such huge failures at it.

      “She asked me to stop taking her water. Punish heeeeeer!!!”

    3. This Daydreamer*

      Wow. It’s sad to hear that there’s someone else who was punished for someone stealing from them. That’s utterly ridiculous.

  56. Nan*

    I have the Human Organ transplant container lunch box from Think Geek. Keeps people outta my stuff :)

  57. Michaela Westen*

    I have a lot of food allergies and if someone stole my food, there would be few if any alternatives. I can’t just grab a hot dog at the stand.
    I’ve been lucky not to work in a place where this was real bad. My current office doesn’t have a real kitchen, and I bring my lunch frozen in an insulated container and keep it in my office. I keep snacks in my office too, in a box where they’re not visible. Maybe keeping your food in your desk or office would help?
    When I’m going somewhere after work I bring dinner and I put that in our fridge – so far no one has messed with it, yay. It’s frozen when I put it in there so it would have to be reaheated, no grab and run.

    1. WannaAlp*

      I sympathise. I too have a lot of food allergies and I can’t just grab substitute food, either. I do similar to you, bringing insulated containers with ice-packs.

  58. last year's girl*

    I used to bring my own milk to work when I worked in a smaller office, as I used it for breakfast cereal. We bought milk for teas/coffees from petty cash, but somebody would always have to go and get it… so, there was one colleague who’d take mine, rather than go out and replace the office carton.

    Until I started dying it green. Just a couple of drops of food dye, tasted of nothing, but doesn’t look quite so appetising in your morning cuppa…

    I now work in a large office, where milk is ordered in – but I keep my own butter in the fridge. When people would use it “just this once”, despite being labelled with my name, I put another post-it note under the lid letting them know that my cat had licked it before I brought it in.

    She might have. She might not have. I’d never have said either way.

    1. UptheDownStaircase*

      When my officemate was pregnant, she started drinking 3-4 glasses of milk a day – so she began keeping a gallon of milk in the fridge (and would replace it every 3 days). The coffee drinkers felt embolden to take ‘just a little bit’ because it was a half-gallon. Putting her name on it didn’t stop them, what did was the rumor that it was breast milk. [which (1) she was pregnant with her 1st kid, and (2) a gallon? really?]

  59. Teal*

    Okay the shrimp fried rice story is too good. I have to give my guess- the coworker who dumped it is not visibly pregnant YET but has the enhanced smell symptom. She may not even know herself. She just smelled rotting chinese food (to her interpretation) in the fridge and dumped it. She’s genuinely confused why the coworker went to HR.

  60. C Average*

    Get a very large ziplock and fill it with cat kibble. Then bury your smaller ziplock full of actual human food inside the kibble. Ideally the kibble should be the smelly kind. Label the bag “Mature indoor anti-hairball formula–for Fur Face–please do not eat!” Fish out your human food when ready to eat.

    If people ask questions, tell them you bring it from home to give to the adorable tabby who lives in the shrubbery beside the parking garage.

  61. Snickerdoodle*

    I keep my mug at my desk, never in the kitchen. I also have a very distinctive lunch box which everyone recognizes as mine, which I’m sure deters theft. I think storing food in opaque containers rather than anything transparent or loose helps. I recently heard a supervisor complain that at least once a week, his string cheese or soda goes missing–he keeps them in the fridge door in plain sight. Ultimately, though, keeping items locked and/or in your desk is the only solution.

    Also, don’t bring large quantities of food to work since not only is that just plain rude, but people can mistake bulk quantities as communal. It’s a constant problem with coffee creamer at my job. My old job always had only gross flavored creamer, so I brought my own in a small plastic container every day. Naturally, one of the bosses got into the habit of asking me every single day if she could borrow some of mine, and I had to either make sure I’d already used it or just lie and hide it and say I didn’t bring any. –sigh–

    To pile on to the horror stories of office kitchens, I was assigned weekly kitchen cleaning at my old job. I went nuclear and threw out *everything* I didn’t recognize as communal (dishes, utensils, and all) every single Friday unless I’d been told to save something–and sometimes even then if it were moldy or whatever. It annoyed the hell out of the one person guilty of constantly leaving food to rot. Everyone else was grateful. I was extremely pleased to discover that my approach is standard, no-exception practice once per quarter at my current job.

  62. Erin*

    To start with, stop leaving your mug in the kitchen. I have one mug at work I keep at my desk and I just clean/rinse it off as needed and bring it right back to my desk. Do the same with any other dishes you use or bring to work.

    The blatant stealing of food out of the fridge is admittedly tougher. Lockable lunch boxes exist, right? Maybe look into that.

  63. Angela Ziegler*

    I’ve always wanted to get a mug with my face on it like in the IT Crowd. Ideally, my face would be on the outside bottom of the mug. That way if someone stole it, with every sip my face would be visible to everyone nearby.

    1. Full Speed Ahead*

      or on the inside bottom, so once they finish the contents, they’ll see you looking at them

  64. John Rohan*

    I once saw a forum on Reddit inviting “lunch thieves” to share why they did what they did.

    Most of the responses went along two lines:

    1. Some people confessed they were genuinely hungry. One of them thought to themselves “why does someone need 5 frozen dinners, no one can eat them all, they can share”. One guy said that he was trapped in the office after a heavy snow, so he ate the food in the fridge.

    2. Some people admitted they did it on purpose to mess with co-workers, or they liked the thrill of it. One guy intentionally targeted the food of a co-worker he couldn’t stand. He didn’t eat the food (because he was worried about the guy spiking it with something), instead he would take it and throw it away somewhere. He enjoyed watching the co-worker throw a fit every time his lunch went missing.

    1. Becky*

      I find the stuck in the office one totally understandable, but in that case I would expect a responsible adult to at least keep track of what they ate and replace it.

    2. fposte*

      I think one question I’d have on stuff like using some milk or salad dressing is whether they’d be doing it if the owners were present–if they felt this was a share and share alike situation–or if they’d only do it if nobody knew.

    3. Bea*

      Being trapped in a storm is a legit reasoning and only a psychopath could be outraged by that situation!

      Omfg the guy throwing away his co-workers food sounds like something some of my dickish former co-workers would have done if they were complete shitnecks during shop-wars days. Nobody hated each other that bad.

  65. SoGross*

    Today the owner where I work decided to put a big bottle of his urine right next to my food in the employee fridge. Apparently he had to collect it over the weekend and was presenting it to his doctor this afternoon. Even with my lunch packaged, I was so grossed out, I don’t know if I can go on…

    1. krysb*

      I had to do a 24 hour urine collection, where I had to keep the 1/2 gallon pee jug in the refrigerator. I stayed home that day.

  66. krysb*

    At my company, we have two fridges: one for communal food and drinks (mostly drinks), the other for people’s lunches. We have always been serious about food theft, so there’s a security camera on the people’s fridge (but not the communal one). That way, if someone gets into the habit of eating other people’s food, we can just get rid of them.

  67. Kristine*

    That shrimp rice investigation and the “breast milk” label are comedy gold! Remember the movie “The Caine Mutiny”? I was always on the side of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg about those stolen strawberries. I was on his side in junior high civic class when we first watched it and I’m on his side now. ;-)

    1. Anion*

      But Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg also should have been focusing on more important matters like winning the war (although his disloyal Communications Exec Thomas Keefer didn’t help him there, by stirring up the resentment and disrespect of the other officers, and neither did the rest of the crew by going along with it).

      The Caine Mutiny is my favorite novel in the world. You should definitely read it; it’s waaaaay better than the movie, which left out most of the best stuff.

  68. kittymommy*

    I was tired of constantly going back to my desk every time I needed utensils so I brought in an entire full set of utensils for the work kitchen, spoons, knives, forks, salad forks, even iced tea spoons (I had an extra set at home so no big deal). I think the place setting was for 12, so 12 of each. As I type there is one fork left. I’ve jokingly said something at random times in front of different people, and no one can figure out where all the forks went to.

    I really want to make a sign and put in the drawer “This is why we can’t have nice things!!”.

    1. LCL*

      Hah. I went through my junk drawer at home and gathered up all the plastic utensils from take out places, bagged them up and took them to work. I put them in the one empty drawer in the kitchen. They are going fast! I won’t donate other utensils anymore, not even thrift store stuff. I’m still sore about the time I washed the cheapo Ikea knife from the set that retired coworker had donated, set it out to dry, and it was gone 30 minutes later.

    2. Seriously?*

      In high school they decided at one point to switch to metal utensils but so many people threw them away that they had to switch back to plastic.

  69. Dame Judi Brunch*

    At old office, we had a really expensive, fancy cheesecake stolen out of the employee fridge. It was a holiday gift to the entire office from a vendor. It had our company name written on it in icing.
    We still have no clue who made off with an entire cheesecake!

    1. It’s all good*

      One place I worked at, the manager would take home any gifts that were for the office.

  70. Kriss*

    food theft got so bad at our office they had to have a special meeting with the staff about it & rewrote the employee handbook to specify that : 1. if you didn’t bring it, you don’t eat it & 2. Taking someone else’s food is theft & theft is not tolerated & is grounds for immediate dismissal.

    the food stopped going missing.

    1. AsItIs*

      That’s how it should be. If someone was constantly stealing small amounts of money from people’s wallets/purses, they would be fire. Why do food thieves so often get a free pass?

  71. BetsyTacy*

    One thing I have to say about my office: my coworkers are so, SO considerate that we never have food stealing.

    On occasion, when somebody accidentally drinks a coworker’s seltzer rather than their own stash (the HORROR), the standard penance is replacing what you took with two seltzers with their name dramatically written on the can. It’s one of the reasons I really like working here.

  72. AerinMaria*

    I honestly just bring in a lunch bag every day with ice packs that keep things cold and I don’t put in the fridge. This is what I do. Especially when someone just threw out my sushi – I saw it in the trash!
    It doesn’t work if you are trying to keep a box of snacks for more than one day which seems like may be your case based on the comment about a box of snacks going missing – but if you pack a daily lunch it works.
    I also keep non-perishable extra food snacks in one of my desk drawers that can be locked as well.

  73. MicroManagered*

    My first day on the job, my manager admitted to being a coffee and creamer thief! I had brought my own coffee in and she said if I ever forget this-other-department has a “coffee club” where everyone chips in, but, she said “I just go over and take some and someone’s always got creamer in one of the fridges.”

    I was astounded that she copped to it so freely–and it was literally the morning of my first day, so it’s not like I was going to say anything. The best I could come up with is she truly doesn’t get that what she’s doing is stealing. Like maybe she grew up with a family where using something belonging to someone else without asking was okay (and truly, there are families like this).

    1. Nicole*

      Great way to make an impression on her brand new employee. Don’t ever bring in anything you don’t want her helping herself to!

    2. Luna*

      Oh man, I’ve had roommates who were from those types of families- it drove me NUTS. They would also argue back and say something along the lines of “well you can take my stuff too if you ever need it!”- except that they never HAD anything in there to take because they always relied on using mine instead of doing their own shopping!! Ugh!

      1. Annon for this*

        I married into one of those families! One day the in laws show up and just took a bench and some coffee tables. I was like, what?!? Spouse, says “Uh, yeah. Who cares. ”
        Couple years later they give me some hand me down baby equipment for my first. They came back a year later, when I was pregnant with the second, take them back. The other daughter was pregnant and she needed them. Um, hello?
        So, strange.

        1. Seriously?*

          My in-laws are kind of the opposite. Furniture seems to keep randomly moving houses but it is instigated by the person who has it not the person who wants it (or at least the person they have decided probably wants it). I find it very confusing. And random food appears in the cabinets and fridge.

        2. Temperance*

          Wait, what? Like they came to your house and took your stuff?? I would have flipped my lid and taken it back.

          My ILs are the kind of people who think that everything belongs to the family, too, but they wouldn’t steal something from my house so much as go through our trash and demand to know if we get rid of stuff so they get “dibs”. And they drop off their own crap here (not anymore, lol).

          1. Annon for this*

            MIL calls my spouse and says “I’m coming by for XX” and comes and takes the stuff.
            It was furniture that was originally MIL, but given to spouse for their house. When another sibling wonders where it went, we got the call because they want it. The worst part is that most of the stuff ended up getting “lost” in their home foreclosures. The best part is that over 15 years later, we have nothing of theirs left.
            My favorite story is the spot rug cleaner. MIL gives it to me because we got a puppy. I loved that thing, used it all the time. Told MIL so. She came and took it back because her daughter needed it. I have not taken one thing from her since.

    3. Bea*

      The recent post about the coffee thief just flashed in my mind. I’m imagining that lady getting a cup swatted out of her hands next time. Argh.

  74. Hannah*

    Food theft is a problem in my office as well. Labeling helps, but isn’t fool proof. Heck, even keeping your food at your desk isn’t fool proof, as I’ve had items stolen right from my desk.

    However, unless the office dishware is all of one set (at my office, our communal dishware is a total mish mash of stuff), or your dishware has your name or other identifying marks, I don’t think that someone using your dishes that you leave in the kitchen is out of malice. It’s reasonable that they thought your stuff was part of the communal set. It doesn’t really matter how long it was in the kitchen–ten minutes or three days. No one is keeping track of how long the thing they are using has been sitting around there. A work friend of mine is always getting angry that someone uses “her” bowl that she stores in the office kitchen, and I keep telling her there is no way for anyone to know that it is hers, as most of the stuff in there is communal.

    Of course, regardless of whether they used your bowl, the office’s bowl, or their own, they shouldn’t leave a disgusting mess!

  75. ScoutFinch*

    This makes me so grateful for my kitchen-conscious coworkers. We have a regular sized fridge (no icemaker). The ice bin is filled and the trays reloaded by anyone who gets ice and notices the bin is a little low. The coffee club has a signup sheet. No one leaves dirty dishes in the sink. People bring food (mustard, taco sauce, margarine, salad dressing) from home to put in the fridge to share.

    FWIW – I work in IT. My floor is probably 70-75% male. It is so comforting to work with adults who know how to be human.

    1. Mephyle*

      Relevant because keeping a kitchen clean and stocked is often considered to be women’s province. It’s more common for men than women to not think about the fact that supplies magically appear when they are getting low, or dishes magically become clean after they get used. There are even some anecdotes about this upthread.

  76. Debbie*

    This happened where I work also. My Co Worker would bring homemade delicious dishes, label them, put them in the fridge, and sure enough, they would ultimately disappear.

    Well one day she’d had enough! She brought in her lunch, put it in the fridge with her name on it but this time the delicious meal was “Alpo Beef Stew” for dogs! The entire Tupperware bowl was eaten and then she announced the thief had eaten dog food. Her lunch was never touched after that. Hilarious!

  77. Nicole*

    I’m really surprised that I haven’t seen lockable lunch boxes/bags. Can you bring your food in a container with zippers you can lock with a little luggage lock or something? Perhaps co-workers will get on it too and soon the thief will have no options.

    Re: the mug, find a bright colorful one that has your name on it. Easy deterrent.

  78. SineNomine*


    Seriously, this has mystified me for so long. It’s like the whole “Who the hell is leaving biohazard messes in public restrooms?”, except in that case you can at least imagine it was some person having an awful day in some way. I can’t even fathom what goes through someone’s head to allow them to justify blatantly stealing other people’s food in their own head. Are these people silent because they are guilty and apparently kleptomaniacs? Do they legitimately not understand that stealing is wrong?

    I’m so, so very curious about this, I have never actually heard or seen anyone admit to this and try to justify it at all, and yet it’s so common.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      In my experience, there are three types of food thieves.

      #1 – Completely accidental. They either think the food is meant to be communal, or they mistakenly believe this is the yogurt they brought a couple of days ago.

      #2 – It’s not *really* stealing. These are people who see something tasty in the fridge and there’s too much for one person, so much that no one will miss it, and they’re really peckish, and they’ll replace it someday, or make up for it by putting an extra box of mac & cheese in the donation box at the next food drive, and they didn’t get donuts yesterday when Bill brought a dozen for the team and this the universe’s way of making it up to them, and it probably belongs to that snob Phyllis who never shares anyway and thinks she’s too good for everybody, and there really is a chance it was left from the meeting yesterday, even though it says Bob on it, because Bob might have snagged it at the meeting and tried to save it for later, and really, does Bob have any right to do that, and basically they can justify it one or a billion ways.

      #3 – Screw you. Knows they’re stealing and do not care. You deserve to have your food stolen if you’re stupid enough to leave it in the office fridge.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          My sister was a #2/3 when we were teens. Mom bought three boxes of Pop-Tarts (almost NEVER happened): one in her favorite flavor, one in my sister’s, and one in mine. Everyone in the house gets their own box, right? Not in my sister’s POV! She ate my last package of Pop-Tarts right before she was going back to college–so she’s not replacing it, and she’s taking her whole box away with her. I used the one tool in my arsenal as the youngest child: tears. I was 17, and straight up made myself sob bitterly about her taking my Pop-Tarts. She decided that if I was willing to be (in her words) “that f*cking dramatic about it”, she would give me a replacement pack out of her box. I still cherish that memory. Those Pop-Tarts tasted of justice.

      1. Student*

        #4 – Poor people who don’t have enough to eat. If you’ve never experienced food insecurity and the hunger that comes from being chronically underfed, it can be hard to really understand it. There’s a reason this specific type of theft gets a a full Biblical exemption from the 10 Commandments. It deserves pity and mercy, if you have any to spare.

        1. fposte*

          I agree with you on food insecurity as a problem, but where in the Bible are you saying there’s a carve-out on “Thou shalt not steal” for hunger?

          1. Bea*

            Proverbs 6:30-31

            People do not despise a thief if he steals
            to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
            31 but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
            he will give all the goods of his house.

            So it actually snatches back on the next verse.

        2. Bea*

          If we want to play with the Bible, then go to the mission, where they give away meals and gospel.

          So how do you absolve this theft when the person who’s food is stolen is broke and can only afford so much?

          My parents knows all too well of food insecurity being from large impoverished families. They’ve never used it as an excuse to lift lunches.

        3. Rusty Shackelford*

          I’m going to lump that in with #2, people who justify their theft, because (a) there are sources of food for food insecure people that don’t involve stealing from coworkers, and (b) you have no idea what you coworkers are going through financially, and it’s not your place to decide that you need their lunch more than they do.

        4. Temperance*

          Actually, no, it’s never okay to steal someone else’s food. You don’t know if *they* are poor and hungry. And yes, I’ve been there; I worked food service jobs so I would have easy access to food if I couldn’t afford it that week.

      2. Annie Moose*

        An addendum to #2 is “it’s leftovers from a team lunch/meeting that someone was probably going to take home, so really, it’s not like you’re stealing something someone brought in, you’re just retroactively taking some of the team lunch. Even if it maybe wasn’t actually your team.”

      3. Someone else*

        My experience is there’s also a fourth option:
        The office fridge is super full, and one person or various people, in an attempt to get something that was theirs, rearrange and juggle other stuff, and dropped/caused yours to fall. When it hit the floor it the container broke/spilled/was rendered otherwise inedible. They threw it away and never admitted it and hoped it was something someone shoved in there and forgot about, and not someone’s lunch for today that they’ll totally be looking for later, but don’t want to admit what happened or offer to replace it, so say nothing and hope for the best, or hope it gets blamed on #3, who also exists in this office, and everybody knows it, so they deserve to take the fall anyway.

  79. karina jameson*

    I would start making appetizing looking food using cat and/or dog food, or possibly even cat-poo sandwiches. Not even kidding.

    1. essEss*

      Using cat-poo is illegal. I know it’s tempting and fun to fantasize about, but deliberately spiking food with inedible items (or medication like exlax, etc) is against the law and can get you arrested for food poisoning/tampering even if you have it clearly labeled with your own name on it. I know people will start arguing this, but it is the law whether you agree with it or not.

    2. fposte*

      A cat-poo sandwich is going to get you in trouble as well, possibly even more than the lunch thief. It’s not legal to set up a situation where you know people are likely to be harmed by what you’re leaving.

  80. Josie*

    Can you buy a nice cooler lunch bag instead of using the fridge? I know it’s ridiculous to have to do that, but….
    I never leave my mug in the kitchen because I LOVE it and would be crushed if it were stolen/broken.
    Touching someone else’s food is just unbelievable….gross! I’m so sorry! This person is a nut job.

  81. Quickbeam*

    I have some dietary oddities and when my food is eaten I have no place to go to eat around my work place. I have a lunch bag that I freeze overnight and then carry to my desk. I do not use the communal refrigerator. My lunch stays cold (or hot in a thermos) until lunch and I get my meal undisturbed. I’ve been doing this for years. Food does not go bad and stays appropriately cold/hot until I eat it. You will always risk pilferage if you use a communal refrigerator.

  82. Minta*

    Just spotted a meme on Instagram in which someone padlocks their mug to the wire shelf where all the (office’s? household’s?) dishware sits. Ha! There you go.

  83. Christina*

    This won’t deter the most shameless of office food thieves, but my technique is to make my tupperware/food container as unappealing-looking as possible. For example: my office supplies little individual coffee creamers, but if you want milk in your coffee or tea, you have to bring your own. If I go to the store and buy a quart of milk, bring it to work, and label it with my name, people will sometimes sneak some of it, which I can tell by the level of the milk – sometimes I haven’t had any milk lately, but my jug of milk is somehow half-gone. However, when I took that same milk out of its jug and poured it into a mason jar with a rusty-looking cap (only rusty on the outside, not the inside where it would touch the milk), nobody stole my milk. I’d imagine this might also work for food if you used your nastiest, most scratched up, tomato-stained tupperware.

  84. Rusty Shackelford*

    I want someone to cross-reference the commenters complaining about food thieves to last week’s coffee wars post and see if any of them think it’s perfectly fine to take a cup of coffee that they haven’t paid for.

    1. Jules the Third*

      I think most people complaining about food thieves wouldn’t care much about food being stolen once – it would just be chalked up to a mistake. The problem is regular, persistent thievery.

      I think you can reconcile the coffee post wars commentariat using that metric – one time, not a big deal. Certainly Alison’s recommendation makes that assumption.

    2. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who think of food and beverages as communal and a “right” no matter what. Like, “How dare you deny me food/coffee/tea” so they just take whatever they want because it’s available. I don’t even think it matters whether they are actually food deficient or not — it’s just the belief that food/coffee is not property the same as someone’s car or money out of their wallet. But there are precious few that I have a legal or ethical obligation to feed — and none of my coworkers are on that list. I may choose to give charity to someone who needs food or a cup of coffee, but I don’t owe it to them.

      1. Adele*

        I would be surprised by that. People are socialized from grade school on up that people own their lunches and they are not up for grabs.

        1. fposte*

          People don’t always absorb the lessons taught in grade school, or at least the way you’d hope. Some people absorbed more “sharing is caring” and less “hands to yourself.”

        2. pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

          It’s more like, the same person who thinks absolutely nothing of taking a coworkers yogurt because “it’s just yogurt,” would probably never go into that same coworker’s wallet and take $3 out. But essentially those are the same thing.

          I actually think from grade school up, kids are socialized to share food in particular. Friends over at your house? must offer them a snack. Want to give someone a cupcake for their birthday? need to bring enough for the whole class. The rules of hospitality and etiquette are so tied up in sharing of food, that some people don’t realize that work does not operate by those same social rules.

  85. Jill*

    On the mug, if you leave it in the kitchen it’s fair game for people to use. If you don’t want anyone else using it, keep it at your desk.

    On the food, use an insulated cooler bag with an ice pack so you don’t have to put anything in the fridge.

  86. Rachel01*

    Put leftover meatloaf in a plastic container labeled meatloaf. After some eats someone eats or takes it, post a note in the kitchen or send e-mail out saying “spouse just texted me, telling me not to eat the meatloaf. He had given me the dog’s serving with the deworming medicine in it.”

  87. DaniCalifornia*

    I feel like there was a letter writer whose boss used to openly steal her food and she ended up getting a locked lunch box/bag. The fact that there are lunch boxes that lock amazes me, but so does the fact that someone steals other people’s lunches!

  88. Hiring Mgr*

    Our kitchen has two refrigerators, one for private food, one for community food. Don’t know if you have the space for that but it seems to work!

  89. Piano Girl*

    My old job loved giving us stuff with the company name on it (instead of paying us more)??? Anyway, one time we all got matching lunch bags, which sounds great – until all the bags in the fridge look the same.,.

    1. Murphy*

      We kind of have that problem. At new employee orientation, we got a freebie lunchbox so a bunch of us use it. People have put carabiners and keychains on theirs to differentiate them.

    2. Bea*

      You don’t pay taxes on company gifts but increased wages come with a continued price. It’s easier to expense.

  90. All Anon*

    This has been a huge problem at every place I have worked. I’m sure sometimes there are honest mistakes, but not ones that involve eating or drinking some of somebody’s leftovers, replacing the lid and putting it back in their lunch pail. It’s so common that there must be closet support groups for people who eat other people’s stuff. Who doesn’t know that is not okay?
    At one job we took the edge off the issue by putting up fake video cameras (nobody but the facility team knew they were fake)

  91. Salsterr*

    I’ve kind of been a lunch thief. Kind of?

    I worked in an office that bought bottled waters and sodas to keep in the fridge for guests and working lunches. I often set up beverages for lunch and often included some cans of LaCroix that were also in the fridge — just an assortment of cans, no name or label on them. Eventually, I saw a copy of the office supply order and realized that we weren’t ordering LaCroix — I had been offering someone else’s drinks at these meetings! I’m still mortified just thinking about it, even though no one ever said anything to me.

  92. Cheesecake 2.0*

    We’ve only had one occurrence of food theft at my work – it was kind of a weird one. Someone brought in a huge fruit tart (20″ diameter) on a Friday. It was in the fridge all weekend, and all the next week, and no one touched it. It basically took up the entire top shelf of the fridge, it was so huge. The NEXT weekend, some students who were cramming for finals (I work at a university), found it, thought “oh well it’s already been in the fridge 9 days, no one wants it”. They ate nearly all of it, and come Monday morning, the fruit-tart owner comes in and starts a huge angry fit because she had bought it for a special occasion which was occurring later in the week. Then she posted signs all over the office that say things like “Beware! There are thieves here!!” It’s not great that the students ate it, but the idea of a 2 week old fruit tart being served at a special event is a little gross too so the students may have the tart-owner a favor in the end.

    1. Bea*

      She’s lucky it was eaten and not just dumped in the trash having been abandoned! If you’re keeping it for such an extended time put a note in there at least. It’s so rude to hog the fridge space.

    2. Strawmeatloaf*

      Sounds like the students wouldn’t have eaten it if it was labeled for when it was supposed to be used.

      But yeah, still gross.

  93. APA*

    At my previous workplace, we had several incidents where the manager’s lunch was eaten or half eaten. It happened several times to his lunch (not sure why only his lunch got stolen) but without proof, not much our boss can do other than put notice in the kitchen and asked people to label their lunchbox. There were also few occasions where properly labeled condiments and salad dressings were used and refilled with water.
    The last straw for this was one of the staff put her groceries in the kitchen. Our office is above a supermarket, it’s not rare that staff buy groceries during lunch time, put it in the kitchen or fridge during work hour. When she finished her work, she found that one bag went missing.
    I installed CCTV in the kitchen pointing out to the fridge so that we can see what people taking from fridge and the stolen food case dropped to zero.

  94. kc89*

    I simply don’t trust people when it comes to this and choose not to use the communal fridge

    the only thing I would consider using it for is a frozen meal that’s wrapped in a box with a plastic seal on top of the food so I knew that nobody touched it, and if someone stole it I would make my peace with it

    but yeah for me it’s one of those things where I choose to remove myself from the situation rather than deal with it

  95. Liz*

    I only read about half the comments – did anyone mention these plastic bags that make it look like your food has mold on it?

  96. Susan K*

    This reminds me of a fascinating comment on an “ask the readers” post about stolen food last year:

    I remember reading of someone doing a science experiment with his office fridge. Each week he would buy a 2 pint bottle of milk and put it in the communal fridge, and would vary what was written on it, whether it was opened, etc, to see how that would affect whether it was stolen. His conclusions, as I remember them:

    An open bottle gets pilfered a lot more quickly than an unopened bottle.
    An unlabelled bottle gets pilfered a lot more quickly than a labelled one
    A name on a bottle is more effective than initials in stopping pilfering
    A man’s name is more effective than a woman’s in stopping pilfering
    Decanting milk from a store bottle into your own container considerably reduces pilfering

    and my favourite:

    The best thing to write on a bottle of milk to stop people stealing it? “MILK EXPERIMENT”

  97. Anion*

    You know, you can buy a tiny wifi spy camera for like $20. Why has no one purchased one, and set it up in the fridge somewhere unobtrusive but aimed directly at your lunch? Like, at the back of the fridge facing out? That way you’ll know who stole your lunch; maybe you won’t be able to use your film as evidence, but at least you’ll know who did it.

  98. Jennnn*

    My boss leaves cups and mugs in the kitchen purposely covered in lipstick so no one takes them, which sounds like a great idea. But they are routinely swiped. She keeps doing it though, because it comforts her to know these monsters are either using her dirty dishes or having to clean them first.

  99. Millie M*

    My favorite food theft story:
    My desk was in the central part of the office, so I kept a candy dish on my desk. Most of the candy would disappear while I was at lunch, which was a little odd. I wanted to share it, but I also didn’t want to keep constantly refilling it. I found out that the person who was taking it was the assistant director of our program. He was rich, lived in a very expensive gated community, and didn’t need to have a job at all (rich, as in he went to the Scotland Fringe Festival every year. We live in the US). So one day he brought in a bag of candy, and he put half of it in my candy dish and took the rest of the bag off to his side of the building. This rich person, whose car payment is probably more than my rent payment every month, was too stingy to even buy a whole bag of candy to replace all of the candy he had taken from my candy dish.
    So then I started hiding the candy dish when I went to lunch. Problem solved.

  100. Minnie*

    I dealt with a food thief at a previous job, and I knew who it was. Well, we all did….

    He was the owner’s family member, and he loved to dip his fork into my lunches and just eat right from my Pyrex!

    There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being hungry and finding that your awesome leftovers have been (slightly) devoured by a normally decent guy.

    I called him out on it, and it did stop the problem. In fact, me and him became rather close and he gave me gifts. I always assumed it was to make up for my lost appetite and subsequent starvation!

  101. Liz*

    Food theft isn’t much of a problem in my office — in fact, sometimes one of the local cafes gives us their leftover pastries, because of how much money we spend on their amazing coffee, and hardly anyone takes the handmade almond croissants. But the one time someone’s lunch went missing, it was mine — and it was corned beef with two types of pickles (amazing) on gluten free bread (not amazing).

    Yes, it was years ago. Yes, I’m still mad.

    But we sort of have the opposite problem. A bunch of guys decided to have drinks a couple of Fridays ago, and, typically for [profession], left the communal fridge so full of expensive wine and beer that there wasn’t enough room for people’s lunches or the milk, or … you know, the stuff the fridge is actually for. For the first time, I found myself missing the days of working in offices where just thinking about alcohol on company time could get you written up.

    (Slight exaggeration. Slight.)

  102. Customer Circus*

    A couple years ago, I had an unknown coworker stealing my beverages out of the breakroom refrigerator. Management directed me to label my stuff with my name, but it didn’t work. My beverages were still disappearing.

    I informed management that my stuff was still getting stolen, that whoever was stealing my stuff didn’t care if it was labeled with my name on it, and that I would invest in a transparent, locked lunchbox to protect my stuff. (The transparency has a purpose–since some employers reserve the right to search your effects, it’s a good idea to ensure the contents remain visible even if you’re bringing your own lock for security reasons.)

    I then went shopping and discovered that transparent lunchboxes that you could insert a padlock through weren’t really a thing. I ended up settling for a transparent fish tackle box that could accommodate my beverages and lunch, and drilling a lock hole through it myself. It’s secured with one of those small suitcase locks.

    While the thief was never discovered, I never had my food/beverages stolen again.

  103. Zahra*

    When I was a kid… ice packs were not common in lunchboxes. And we didn’t put the lunch boxes in a fridge either. You know what? We didn’t get sick. So, for convenience’s sake and to avoid lunch thieves, I keep my lunch at my desk.

  104. MLB*

    Simple answer…you can’t. When you work with a large group of people who share a kitchen, you can’t keep jerks from stealing food and leaving the kitchen a mess. When I worked in a large office, I bought a mini fridge and kept it under my desk. Worth every penny. Also had a coffee machine, which took care of the “take the last of the coffee and not make more” and “make coffee extra strong/extra weak” crowd.

  105. Curly Girly*

    When I worked for a large retail store, we had a very busy break room/kitchen/employee lounge. I had a few sandwiches stolen from the employee refrigerator. Writing my name on containers or bags with a Sharpie didn’t help. What did the trick was writing my name with my lipstick across my sandwiches…subs, bread. If you have items that leave room for that, it works wonders. I suppose it either made it ‘too gross’ for the lunchroom-bandit, OR it was an obvious sign to anyone else that Some Dude was eating Someone Else’s sandwich. One weird thing about this is that my half-eaten sandwich with my obvious bite marks WOULD get stolen, but my lipstick was a deterrent.
    Now, I work for a place where no one is stealing food, but it’s sometimes hard to tell who brought what if we don’t label it. I just keep one of those large insulated tote bags for some stuff at my desk.

  106. Randy*

    I had this problem. I got a can of Wolf bdnad chili, stirred in a 1/4 cup of fine ground habenaro pepper and put it in the fridge. We all knew who the thief was and no one had to call them out. Problem solved.

  107. SubwayFan*

    I still have the mini fridge from my college dorm days (20 years and counting) and it’s in my cube. Most people don’t know it’s there, and no one steals my seltzer or coffeemate.

  108. Erik*

    Plant some food with a nice dose of Ex-Lax or other laxative. You’ll find the culprit pretty easily. Seriously though – I worked at a biotech company where someone was stealing food from our head chemist, who had a full chemistry lab at his disposal. That didn’t last very long.

  109. CharmedGeek*

    I occasionally drink a specific band of coffee which has a higher caffeine content plus guarana, did when I need an extra kick. I bought a jar and placed it on a shelf in the office kitchen that’s used for storing our personal drinks.

    I noticed that the level in the jar was slowly going down (I hadn’t drunk any in ages) but one day I went to have some and the jar was empty. The coffee thief had actually had the audacity to put the empty jar back on the shelf for me to find!

    This was a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, my co-worker (who knew all about this) told me she’d been talking to someone in another team who mentioned that someone in her team had told her that he’d been drinking “that powerful coffee that someone from [my] team brought in” !!

    Honestly, some adults make me sick sometimes!

  110. Noah*

    “how and why was the outside of the mug caked with oatmeal”

    he microwaved it a little too long.

  111. MamaGanoush*

    Get your own mini fridge. Solved all my problems. (My office door locks, so my very delicious food is safe when I am out of the office.)

  112. dreamingofthebeach*

    A zip top lunch bag with a combo (luggage) lock will work, but I am of the vicious group for payback :) make something scrumptous and add bad eggs, vinegar, or tons of salt, sugar, and/or fresh pepper. Even cardboard or colored paper inside the sandwich as “part” of the meat/cheese.

  113. Jeanine M Claar*

    My work has posted notices and sent an email around saying that if people continue to steal other people’s lunches out of the fridge they can be fired, in essence. We have 100s of people in this place, it’s a call center for a large national bank. While I love the sentiment, it’s not even remotely enforceable. There is no way to prove who owns what or who takes what ….how do they expect to catch people and fire them?

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