should our office ban smelly foods?

A reader writes:

My staff are busy so I do not discourage them from eating at their desks. My problem is the type of food because some produce strong odors. For example, kebabs are smelly and the smell lingers throughout the afternoon, and if dropped on desks they can stain! We don’t have enough room for a designated eating area, so eating at their desks is the only option. Do you think that banning certain foods is unreasonable?

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Roasting departing colleagues
  • Problem employee lashed out at me
  • Giving references for multiple people for the same job
  • After I couldn’t interview on short notice, employer picked a different candidate

{ 321 comments… read them below }

  1. Jack Be Nimble*

    Q1, about banning smelly foods: has anyone had luck in implementing such a ban in a way that doesn’t place undue scrutiny on the perceived foreignness of a dish? Theoretically, I’m sure there’s a way to do it that doesn’t come down to “no curries (but equally pungent Italian food is okay)” but I can’t for the life of me think about what that may be.

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      Personally, I adore the smell of curry but can’t stand the smell of red sauce, so it has to be really generic. Most places I’ve worked leave it at “no popcorn, no fish” and that works fine.

      1. lyonite*

        Agreed, would add cooked broccoli to the list. And I suppose if someone developed a durian habit, you would probably need to have a talk.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          And roasted Brussels sprouts. I made my favorite recipe last night, with bacon, maple syrup, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. My refrigerator smells like roasted Brussels sprouts, and I can imagine how my officemates would react if I microwaved ’em at work.

          My local grocery store had durian fruit in the International frozen food section. Frozen solid, and it still emitted visible aroma.

          1. allathian*

            Visible aroma? Like dry ice smoke rising from the freezer? I don’t want to nitpick on language, but I just got a giggle out of the image your phrase put in my head.

        2. Barbara Eyiuche*

          My boss brought durian-flavored cookies into work one day. The smell from the kitchen reached my office and was making me retch. It also gave me a headache. But one of his secretaries said the smell was not coming from the cookies, but was because the drain had backed up. (It was the cookies.)

          1. JSPA*

            Love fresh durian, but the cookies / cakes / candy seem to play up the “open sewer” aspect. I wonder if they use the overripe fruit for those, figuring the sugar smell will cover? (It doesn’t.) None of it’s as bad as butter flavor popcorn, though. Which is to say, it’s all 100% individual.

            1. allathian*

              I’ve never had the misfortune to smell durian, but butter flavor popcorn makes me gag. Or really, anything other than salted popcorn. Sweet or flavored popcorn isn’t really a thing here, with the sole exception of chocolate-covered popcorn.
              Swedish surströmming is something else, though. The stench is awful.

          2. JustaTech*

            One time a coworker brought in both durian candies and bacon-flavored jellybeans and was sharing them in the lunchroom.
            I didn’t know about it so I was sitting in the lab area (down the hall, no doors) when I smell this very particular smell. So I call out “Who left the beta-mercapta-ethanol open?” because it smelled exactly like that chemical, which is so very unpleasant that even a small spill is room-clearing and sends everyone home with a splitting headache.

            But it wasn’t that, it was the combination of bacon jellybeans and durian candy.

    2. Kiki*

      My office had a “no hot foods at your desk” rule that worked out well (even the most pungent warm foods tend not to smell nearly as strong when served cold). But we had a separate and relatively remote lunch room where people could eat whatever warm or hot dishes they pleased, so this probably wouldn’t work for this LW’s office without any sort of lunch space.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Kiki, that’s the approach my office has taken as well (we are lucky enough in non-pandemic times) to have a break room to eat in (it’s closed for the pandemic). Cold/finger foods only are allowed at desks. The only additional caveat they added is nothing with peanut products and nothing with shellfish (due to allergies in the office – those two things have oils that can spread super easily on fingers to other places).

      2. Mynona*

        Yes, “no hot food at your desk” is the only way to prevent litigating what constitutes a smelly food. And that’s not reasonable without a separate lunch area where people can eat hot food. Because it’s common for people to eat hot lunches from home. If eating at their desks is their only option, all food needs to be allowed, except in instances of allergies.

        1. Koalafied*

          I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s unreasonable. Lots of people eat cold lunches – kids at school, people who work outdoors, people who travel and can’t afford to buy food on the road, retail employees. Hot lunches are nice, but if food smells are an issue then it’s not really asking so much for people to have 5 of their 21 weekly meals cold.

          1. lunchbox kid*

            As a kid who mostly brought lunch to school, I’ve had hot (well warm) lunches by using a thermos. With newer and better insulating containers these days, it’s a lot easier to have hot lunches without needing to reheat it.

          2. Birch*

            Lots of people also won’t eat cold lunches at all, and I’d flag that this can also be a discrimination element (in some cultures, people believe that eating cold lunch is unhealthy).

            1. Cinq or swim*

              Which cultures believe that? Not being snarky, I am stunned because I have literally never heard that and can’t imagine which culture would believe that.

            2. Middle School Teacher*

              I’m sorry, what cultures exactly? I work in the most multicultural school ever (have done for 15 years) and I have never heard of this.

            3. Rachel in NYC*

              Also, even cold won’t eliminate the ‘smell’ issue. My supervisor has an issue with the smell of certain yogurts.

            4. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

              I don’t know the reason, but I think people customarily always eat a hot lunch in Sweden.

          3. Anon Lawyer*

            Yeah, I disagree. Figure out how to mitigate the food smells; don’t police what people eat at work. Obviously nobody is going to starve eating a sad salad or sandwich every day, but there’s no reason for that level of micromanaging.

      3. Jack Be Nimble*

        That’s smart, finding a commonality outside of a particular spice/ingredient! It is trickier in offices without a designated lunch space, or a designated lunch space that’s open to/close to work spaces.

    3. Mel_05*

      I would stick to bans that are more about a specific smelly ingredient. Fish is a common office no-no and it doesn’t matter what type of dish it’s in. It just smells.

      I also personally believe that no one should be allowed to cook a whole egg at work (my coworkers put them in the toaster oven) but apparently I’ve never worked for or with anyone else who cares.

      I don’t think it’s possible to ban all stinky foods. There are just too many. People would bring in casseroles and heat them up and it would smell like a terrible fart – but no office is going to ban casseroles.

      1. Mommy Shark*

        Yeah I was in a working parent group where we got into an argument about if broccoli was appropriate for an office because it can smell like farts when heated up. So much food is just smelly.

        1. Jean*

          Oh wow, this triggered a memory of my most dysfunctional former workplace. I had a coworker there who would microwave whole bags of frozen broccoli florets and eat them out of a bowl at her desk. She would even do this during meetings sometimes. And she got V E R Y O F F E N D E D if anyone said anything about the odor, which was strong and stomach-turning. Management loved her, so no one was allowed to say anything about anyone’s gross food smells after she made a stink (ba-dum-bum) about people complaining.

        2. Oh Snap*

          This is so weird to me…. Broccoli smells? No it doesn’t! Y’all are wrong lol.

          I would definitely cook broccoli and eggs at work and have NO IDEA others considered those smelly.

          1. Adereterial*

            I know, right? I’m wondering if it’s the variant commonly grown in the USA perhaps, as broccoli in the UK just smells of green and vegetal matter to me.

            1. Fish Microwaver*

              Have you two ever been past a field from which broccoli has been harvested? Smells to high heaven. And I’m a broccoli lover. :D

            2. JSPA*

              Given that people are genetically different in their ability to taste broccoli as bitter or non bitter, I would not be at all surprised if some people smell it as sulfurous, and others, not, also on the basis of genetics (as well as having different cultural tolerance).

              1. Supertaster is my superpower*

                * Raises hand.

                The TAS2R38 gene and those of us who are heterozygous or homozygous for the PAV haplotype… If you are AVI homozygous for the gene you can’t understand what it is to taste/smell Brassicaceous/cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, arugula – and dark chocolate!

                1. Birch*

                  +1 and I don’t know how this policy could be instituted without having to explain what brassicas are to the whole office. Ban broccoli and you’re going to have someone bringing brussels sprouts, someone bringing roast cauliflower, and someone steaming cabbage in the office kitchen.

            3. ceiswyn*

              Nope. I’m in the UK, and I love broccoli, but cooked broccoli is a strong sulphurous smell. Same as cabbages and brussels sprouts.

              There are major individual differences in the ability to smell/taste certain compounds; you just aren’t able to perceive the compound that smells so strong to others.

              1. Mongrel*

                “Nope. I’m in the UK, and I love broccoli, but cooked broccoli is a strong sulphurous smell. Same as cabbages and brussels sprouts.”

                As with most of the cabbage family there’s a really fine line when you’re cooking it between ‘Fresh veggie’ smell and ‘Sulfurous armpits’ smell.
                Most people fall on the armpit side even before the unattended, un-timed* microwave habit that most people seem to do at the work microwave.

                * You know, when they twist the time dial to max and wander off to do something else.

                1. Alex (UK)*

                  Oh gosh, the curse of the overcooked vegetables! I used to take lunches with me to work that would include roasted broccoli. One co-worker commented that my broccoli was raw.. it wasn’t, it was just roasted properly so the colour was still bright green with a few burnt edges, rather than the sludgy grey-green colour that comes from being over-cooked.

      2. MusicWithRocksIn*

        I’ve worked at a place that had a separate microwave in an unused office for fish or other strong smelling items. Also a place that had to specify that you weren’t allowed to put your slippers in the microwave.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I just don’t want to know why that rule was made (referring to the slippers).

            1. Taura*

              Some people want to have toasty warm slippers, and I think there ARE microwave safe pairs so you don’t have to put a hot pack in the toes or something instead to keep them warm – but you shouldn’t use a microwave you’re sharing with others for this!

              1. Quill*

                Hey I’d like to borrow those but like… not someone’s used slippers right now. Something else.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

            Guessing they had those rice hot packs built in for feet warming, but that’s just a guess.

            1. TardyTardis*

              I used to have a rice pack for my lap for those lovely days when you really, really wanted one, but I put a paper towel underneath while heating it up (if only to avoid getting that tomato stain on it).

        2. SINE*

          Someone once tried to cook bacon in the toaster (regular toaster, not toaster oven) and started a fire. I’m not sure why someone thought this was a good idea, considering we have a fully equipped kitchen.

          1. Nobby Nobbs*

            Maybe they didn’t want to wash a frying pan? (For the record, when I don’t want to wash a frying pan, I don’t make bacon.)

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        While I believe that if OP is not providing a separate space to eat in then they cannot really get up in arms about food smells, I will say that if I could erase any food item from the office lunch universe, it would be eggs. I once had a manager who was on some kind of high-protein diet and every. single. day. for the ten months I worked there she would microwave a three-egg omelette in our office microwave and eat it at her desk. The office was one room with no ventilation and windows that didn’t open. I used to time my lunchbreak for right after that and just go on long, sad walks in the rain until the smell dissipated.

      4. Crochet person*

        I sat a few feet from the door of a “pantry” room with a microwave. Someone microwaved fish one lunchtime. The stench was unbearable and permeated the office for hours. The perpetrator was seen cooking her lunch. The negative feedback about her menu choice no doubt reached her. Although she was a middle aged professional person, it was clear that she had never before worked in a large office setting.

    4. Nea*

      I think the way to parse it is to have a (very short) list of banned food items but not a list of banned food types. A lot of cuisines include onions, peppers, or bacon, all of which smell strongly regardless of nationality.

      The problem with saying “no curries” is that not all curries are particularly pungent – butter chicken, for example, has less of a strong scent than, say, Mongolian beef or western omelettes or French onion soup or onion rings or even your basic burger-with-raw-onion.

    5. oof*

      My parents and I are immigrants from another country. When my parents first started working in the US, some of my dad’s coworkers complained about him microwaving fish in the office. The smell of fish isn’t really considered repugnant in our country, just as how the smell of chicken isn’t considered repugnant in most American offices, so my parents and I were really surprised. When I had my first office job, I was super paranoid about what kinds of lunches I could bring to our (very small) office. I made sure to bring non-ethnic foods that didn’t produce any odors, so I ended up mostly eating sandwiches and salads. Funny enough, my coworkers would often microwave chicken, beef, pork and other dishes that definitely had a lingering smell, but since the scent was considered pleasant, no one said anything other than “oh, seems like someone had a good lunch today.”

      1. Clisby*

        It’s not just you. If it weren’t for reading AAM, I’d have had no idea anyone hated the smell of microwaved fish. (I’m from the American South.)

        1. yala*

          Like, I can sort of get it. One of my coworkers eats sardines sometimes, which aren’t nuked, but are Strong and Fishy. But also? They’re a cheap and healthy source of protein and vitamins. So I really hope no one comes down with a decree against fish (I can’t imagine how they could. Seafood is a Big Thing here.)

          Which is kind of what bothers me about the idea of banning fish. Not everyone eats meat. I mean, I do, every chance I get. But fish is cheap, easy, and healthy.

          1. Duvie*

            Oh, dear! The smell of sardines makes me lose my cookies almost instantly, literally within 90 seconds. I’d have to ask for advanced notice so I could quit the premises before the first turn of the key. I envy you if you live where fish is cheap, though. Where I am, fish costs about the same as steak.

          2. TardyTardis*

            I adore salmon with tons of lemon juice on it, but with my sinuses I have to go by what others think about smells.

        2. Alanna*

          Same (I’m from Kansas). Maybe it’s about the kind of fish you (or your coworkers) eat? Salmon is like 95% of my fish diet and I don’t think of it as particularly smelly.

          I also wonder how much of this is about exposure to different cuisines. I’ve never worked in an office with food smell rules, but I’m in a big city with a lot of different types of foods and restaurants. If someone heats up doro wat or chana masala or pours nuoc cham on a rice bowl, I mostly just get jealous that they clearly had some delicious takeout (or home-cooked food) last night.

          1. Clisby*

            I’m sitting here trying to imagine what food smells would bother me. Microwaved popcorn/fish – nope. Curries? Nope. At home, I’ve microwaved Korean, Chinese, Ethiopian, Caribbean, Greek, Lebanese, Mexican, Iranian food – nope. I can’t remember microwaving kebabs, specifically, but it’s hard to imagine it would smell bad.

            1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

              Durian is the only one I can think of. I love the flavor, but know to never, ever, eat it inside

              1. oof*

                Even tons of Asian folks can’t stand the smell of durian. There’s a reason why durians are literally banned from the Singapore subway.

              2. Clisby*

                Oh, wait! There’s canteloupe. My husband loves it, and I cannot stand the smell. (Nothing to do with microwaving, though.) Canteloupe just smells sweetishly rotten (maybe like another poster’s dislike of overripe bananas.)

                1. Clisby*

                  Fortunately, my husband hates grocery-shopping so I do most of it. I don’t think we’ve had a canteloupe in the house for more than a year.

                2. Jaid*

                  Me. too! When I was a kid, Mom would try to make me eat it or at least cut it up to be eaten. Bleagghh.

                3. Koalafied*

                  I’m a lot more sensitive to textures than smells, and I find the texture of melon unsettling. I suppose the good thing is other people watching a food doesn’t subject me to its texture.

              3. JSPA*

                I eat it inside. You just have to get the rind outside ASAP, and any leftovers into the freezer. Interestingly, jackfruit is considered very stinky in Brazil (where it has naturalized and grows wild), even though in Asia or Hawaii, nobody seems to wrinkle their nose at it. I wonder if Brazilians who had heard of Durian assumed the stories were about jackfruit, and were prepared to smell jackfruit as something stinky, and therefore found it so! It’s not impossible; perception and expectation have an enhancing or suppressing effect on how we smell things.

                I also don’t think that truly fresh, mild fish smells fishy (but there are very few places I’ve found fish that fresh, unless caught by family or friends, kept alive, and cooked same day as caught).

            2. Quill*

              If you BURN popcorn I can see the problem, but also, if you burn anything in the microwave you’re losing microwave privileges.

              I’m more concerned about the person who washes a couple bits of kale down the break room sink and just leaves them in there to rot.

              1. chi type*

                I think the issue is just how easy it is to burn, especially if you’re not standing there monitoring it.

            3. alienor*

              I think at least some of the issue with food smells is about context. I love the smell of curry when I sit down in a restaurant–or these days, open up my takeout container–all ready to enjoy a delicious meal. I don’t love it when my downstairs neighbors are cooking it at 7:3o a.m., which they do almost every day, and it comes wafting up onto my balcony while I’m drinking my coffee. Then it feels intrusive, like someone else’s perfume on a sweater I’m trying on.

            4. BeenThere*

              Try McDonalds burgers, Taco Bell , Subway… these all smell gross to me. A heated up Lebanese kebab from Sydney, delicious.

              1. Clisby*

                I’m fine with McDonalds and Taco Bell. I haven’t eaten at Subway in decades, but I don’t remember thinking it smelled bad. (I also don’t remember eating anything hot from Subway – just cold sandwiches.)

                1. JustaTech*

                  I had a coworker who would stop at Subway on his way to work in the morning and buy two tuna salad subs. And then keep them in his desk drawer until lunch.
                  We had a large, clean refrigerator, but he just kept them in his desk with his files.

                  At least he always ate them the same day, so when I cleaned out his desk after he left it didn’t stink.

          2. Littorally*

            The cafeteria at my old job used to burn the s**t out of their salmon and it stank — I love fish and I could barely stand to sit in the cafeteria those days. But if you don’t do anything atrocious to it, it’s all fine to me — that’s the only time I’ve ever objected to fish smell.

        3. Rez123*

          I’m from northern Europe and learned form AAM about the hatred towards microwaved fish. I cannot think any food from the top of my head that I hate the smell of to the point where I think it should be banned. Maybe some day I will meet that dish!

            1. Rez123*

              That is one of the foods that I dislike, but it is my bf’s fave so I have the smell at home quite often. Doesn’t smell great but still not enough for me to vote to ban it :D

        4. Tiny Kong*

          Same. I’ve microwaved fish and never thought it was smelly in a bad way. Seems very culturally dependent.

        5. Pickles*

          My husband is allergic to all fish and shellfish, as is my stepson. The smell of fish alone makes him severely nauseated – we’ve had to leave restaurants on occasion when a neighboring table’s seafood is too strong. Shellfish is even worse. It’s definitely not healthy or delicious for everyone.

      2. Autistic AF*

        This is a really important point. I can’t stand the smell of banana peels or overripe bananas, for instance. I would never suggest that people don’t eat bananas (and I love them before they get brown).

        1. Barbara Eyiuche*

          Yes, the smell of orange peels gives me a migraine, but that’s just me. I can’t very well ask the office to ban oranges. I do have to sit away from any garbage cans that contain peels, though.

        2. JustaTech*

          I also really don’t like the smell of ripe bananas and banana peels, and I have asked my coworkers who sit closest to me to please throw their peels in the kitchen compost bin rather than their desk trash cans. They (really one guy) was perfectly happy to do that for me, and I don’t comment on his ongoing orange desiccation project. (He leaves oranges on the windowsill until they dry out. No idea why, and he’s never had a real explanation, but they’re not rotting so, eh?)

      3. Delta Delta*

        I once ate some leftover fish at the office but I ate it cold. Still deemed smelly by coworkers. Sigh. It was good, too.

    6. anon73*

      IMO, no. Where does it end? Smells that bother some may be fine to others, and I’m not just talking about ethnic foods. There’s no way to fairly dictate what people can and can’t bring in to eat for meals.

      1. Jack Be Nimble*

        I think that’s where I come down, too. I’m pretty sensitive to smells (no underlying medical condition or sensory issue, just an easily-offended nose) but it’d be unfair to ban tuna just because I loathe fishy smells. Some people above posted about banning hot foods (which tend to be more pungent) outside of designated areas, as well as banning certain allergens, but I don’t know if you can go much further without overstepping.

        1. Elbereth*

          Right. Even bread has a strong smell, but banning sandwiches? That would be ridiculous.
          Perhaps the real issue here is ventilation of office space.

          1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

            Very probably. Ventilation issues are probably behind many of the office annoyances people write in about, from lingering smells to spreading colds.

            I think it’s generally impractical to ban foods that some people deem to be smelly. Coping with things we don’t like is just part of being a working adult IMHO.

            1. anon73*

              Your last sentence is key. I feel like we hear from people on here frequently that unreasonably exect their co-workers to stop certain things because they find it annoying. But unless there’s a medical reason (an allergy for example), or there’s a distraction that is keeping you from getting your work done (listening to music without headphones), as adults we need to learn to be reasonable around other adults and their habits.

    7. Alanna*

      People’s concept of what smells seems to be so tied in to what they’re familiar with that I think this would be basically impossible. (There are examples in this post and up and down the thread that I never would have thought of as smelly — Mexican food? Kebabs?) The fact is, lots of hot food is pungent when warmed up — if you warm up lasagna or chili or pizza your office will smell like those things. But somehow those aren’t the “smelly” foods that anyone complains about being able to smell all day.

    8. CommanderBanana*

      Also? Maybe the problem is not the perceived smelliness of certain foods, but that you have no eating space for your employees and they have to eat at their desks.

    9. RB*

      It’s not just the “ethnic” foods, it’s also that some of the healthiest foods can be really smelly (cooked fish, cooked cabbage/brussels sprouts). Do we really want to discourage people from eating healthier? Sure, they could save those foods for their evening meal when they’re not in the office, but unless the smell is causing someone a serious problem (e.g. morning sickness that is aggravated by smells) that seems unduly harsh.

      1. Mommy Shark*

        Actually coming from someone who had some severe morning sickness it was my responsibility to mitigate it because everything set it off. I had a coworker once bring in some sort of fried food that I could tell was cooked in old grease and it made me so sick but I didn’t say anything because it was a me problem. I ate an orange so I could smell that instead.

        1. JSPA*

          When it’s intense enough to provoke a literal visceral response, I think it’s ok to make an individual ask. Not, “your thing is smelly, how rude,” but, “I’m unaccountably sensitive to certain smells, and it would be a kindness if you could zap / eat that elsewhere.” You can even add, “I’ll gladly cover for you with part of my lunch break, if it takes a little longer for you to do so” to emphasize the “me, not you” aspect of the ask.

    10. EnfysNest*

      The only way I would be able to abide by a “smell ban” would be if it was a list of specific items that were forbidden or a “no hot food in this area” blanket ban, because I’m anosmic – I have no sense of smell at all, so no foods are smelly to me. :P If no one has told me that something has a scent, I have no idea, no matter how strong it is.

      I was recently about about 30 seconds away from putting a frozen fish meal in the office microwave before I thankfully remembered all the comments on here about that being a major no-no and I took it back home at the end of the day to cook in the oven instead. So I do know about fish and curry, but I don’t even know what specific Italian food you’re referring to. Every now and then when smells come up in conversation, I’ll remind my coworkers to please let me know if I’ve caused any kind of unpleasant smell so that I can fix it / not do it again, because I truly have no way of knowing on my own.

    11. D'Arcy*

      In my experience, “smelly food” bans are almost always *entirely based* on the perceived foreignness of a dish.

      1. Venus*

        I’ve only known popcorn to be banned, and only because it would make everyone want their own. Sometimes bans aren’t about bad smells. And now I want popcorn.

        1. fire hazard*

          Popcorn can also be banned due to too many office evacuations from burning said popcorn in a microwave and setting off fire alarms. The ban is for microwaving popcorn, not for opening a bag and eating it.

        2. DarnTheMan*

          We banned popcorn from our communal microwaves when I was in university but that was because a lot of them were old and finicky so you really had to watch them because the time they needed to cook was never the time on the packaging, but people had the bad tendency to just set a time and wander off – leading to charcoaled popcorn and terrible smells whenever you opened the microwave for weeks to come.

      2. Pickles*

        That’s sad. It has definitely not been my experience. Popcorn, chocolate (someone burned a weird melted hot chocolate thing), fish and shellfish, egg mixed with sweet potato (short-lived health fad, not recommended), corned beef and cabbage, and one memorable time kimchi. That last was in a room with quite poor ventilation, which was the problem. Korean food was popular with that particular group otherwise, along with other cuisines.

    12. cheeky*

      I don’t think there is a way, and companies shouldn’t try, beyond “don’t microwave fish or popcorn, thanks”.

  2. Artemesia*

    In a situation where the office is crowded and there is no way to have an eating area perhaps allow time to eat out or if that is impossible due to location, limit what is carried in dramatically. No hot foods because all hot foods are ‘smelly’ and no strong smelling cold foods — make it a sandwich or salad office. Sucks but better than just outlawing the Indian food or Mexican food.

      1. MusicWithRocksIn*

        I’m actually semi-dealing with this right now because my office has banned using the kitchen at all. No refrigerator, no microwave, nothing. I’m only in the office one day a week, so its not a major problem and I’ve just been getting takeout that one day, but if I ever have to go back full time it’s gonna be a problem. I have a digestion issue that makes it hard for me to eat salad, so its gonna be cold sandwiches or bagels which is not a fun prospect.

        1. Mynona*

          My office announced a ban on the break room appliances, including the only microwave, when it re-opened. But they did not physically remove the microwave, so people kept using it. We haven’t heard a peep and the microwave is still there. They also turned off the water bottle fillers (our water coolers) and tried to make us bring all our own water for the day. After a few weeks, the water bottle fillers were re-instated.

          1. TiffIf*

            They also turned off the water bottle fillers (our water coolers) and tried to make us bring all our own water for the day.

            OSHA requires places of work to provide drinkable water. Making people bring their own is a violation.

            My work has banned use of the breakrooms and the bottle fillers there and blocked off the water fountains as well–so they are providing free bottled water to everyone.

            Potable water.
            The employer shall provide potable water for all employee health and personal needs and ensure that only potable water is used for these purposes.
            The employer shall provide potable drinking water in amounts that are adequate to meet the health and personal needs of each employee.
            The employer shall dispense drinking water from a fountain, a covered container with single-use drinking cups stored in a sanitary receptacle, or single-use bottles. The employer shall prohibit the use of shared drinking cups, dippers, and water bottles.


            1. mgguy*

              Hmm, thanks for that and it’s interesting. Right now, my workplace has shut off all the water fountains. I drink a LOT of water through the day, and my normal habit is to get up and fill a cup or bottle out of the water fountain multiple times a day. Part of that is because I feel better when I’m well hydrated, and part of that is because of one particular medication I’m on that makes me-at times-almost unquenchibly thirsty. We’re sort of only half open, but my duties require me to be physically present a few days a week. As of now, I’m packing in cases of bottled water to keep in my office. Refrigerators in private offices are technically not allowed either, but right now the break room is completely closed so I don’t have access to a communal one either. That means either bringing bottled water every day, or drinking room-temperature bottles. It sounds like they’re violating OSHA guidelines…

        2. Jaid*

          Mr Bento thermos jars can hold full meals (including soup) and keep them pretty warm. And there’s plug in lunch boxes.

          Just an FYI.

          1. ceiswyn*

            Yes, but the moment you take the cap off the thermos the hot food in it can be smelled.

            That is how my fellow hikers knew I was having a coconut curry for lunch, despite being several metres away on an open hillside in the winter drizzle.

      1. Rosalita*

        +1000 why notnfind a way to deal eith the smell rather than ban the food. Better air circulation etc. Why immediately ban smelly food. I worked in an office that banned broccoli because it smelled there was an instant uproar.

        1. Alanna*

          Honestly, in these Covid times, if you’re smelling food from your office microwave all day, you need to be concerned about your office ventilation as a threat to your health, not what your coworkers are eating. (I understand this was an old letter!)

    1. Mel_05*

      Yeah, I’d be pretty angry if I couldn’t ever have a hot meal. I usually don’t, I’m very much a sandwich and salad kind of person. But never would be upsetting.

    2. Twisted Lion*

      No hot foods sounds awful especially in winter when I want a cup of soup at lunch. I say no fish and no popcorn. Anything else is just overkill.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Same. I live off of soup in the winter – I have such a hard time warming myself up that I nearly always have soup, coffee, or tea on my desk during the winter, even if it’s just to hold the warm cup. (My office is appropriately HVACed, I just have a really hard time warming back up once I get cold.)

        We have an unofficial no fish/no popcorn rule in the office, but people bring regular old leftovers from home and head them up all the time. I’ve scored a few really good recipes from some things that smelled divine, too.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, no–if your workspace is so tight you can’t allow hot foods, then your workspace sucks and your company needs to figure out a new arrangement. Or people need to suck it up and deal with food smells.

    4. anon73*

      You start dictating what people are allowed to eat and you’re going to end up with a lot of angry employees. Outside of banning certain types of ethnic foods (hello discrimination), what about food allergies or sensitivities? Do people need to bring in a doctor’s note if your rules leave them with nothing to eat all day?

    5. Observer*

      That’s a pretty bad idea in general. When you do not want your staff leaving their desks to eat, this is ridiculous. You don’t get to tell your employees that they can’t get a decent meal all day – and that is what you are going to do to a LOT of people if you ban that many foods.

    6. ...*

      Sorry but I think thats absolutely crazy. Oh, people can just eat out? Im not spending $15 per day on lunch when I can bring in a perfectly good lunch from home for $2-3. Unless the company is going to cover my daily takeout, thats not happening. Personally I think salad dressing smells absolutely disgusting. thats a me thing. I deal with that myself, not expect the office to make a policy on it. Unless the job was showering me with money and totally perfect aside from the food thing, if my job told me I had to get takeout every day and couldn’t bring my own homemade food, I’d job search and so would a lot of people, especially those with dietary restrictions or who are health minded.

      1. Kiwi with laser beams*

        “Sorry but I think thats absolutely crazy. Oh, people can just eat out? Im not spending $15 per day on lunch when I can bring in a perfectly good lunch from home for $2-3.”

        Seconded. I live in a HCOL city with a housing crisis, and even as someone who makes above median wage, there’s no way I could afford to eat out every day.

        “especially those with dietary restrictions or who are health minded.”
        This too. You (general “you”) can’t scream about how people with obesity-related illnesses Need To Lose Weight and then say “just get takeout every day unless you want to deal with very narrow restrictions on what you’re allowed to eat in the office”.

    7. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

      Not an office situation but on building sites in the UK it is a legal requirement to provide a means of making hot food if you have a certain number of people working on site. Granted the specific problem of smelling up the office isn’t a concern because everyone is working outside, but I wonder if a ban on hot food would be illegal in some states.

  3. Bear Shark*

    I feel like offices lose a lot of standing to ban smelly foods if there’s no place for employees to eat but at their desk. But then I’ve never worked anywhere that didn’t have a place for employees to eat, even if it was basically just a large closet with a folding table in it.

    1. Mel_05*

      Yeah, that makes it hard. I guess I technically work at a place with no break room, but it’s not open concept, so it’s less of an issue when someone eats lunch at their desk.

    2. Dust Bunny*


      I once had a boss who banned hot meals because he didn’t want clients to smell food and think it was garbage and that our office was dirty. One, the place was spotless and never smelled of garbage, so this was absurd. The underlying problem was that he was a controlling a-hole who couldn’t be bothered to provide a humane workplace. And this was at a job where we often worked 55-hour weeks, so we were there all the time. And the we couldn’t even have hot lunches any more.

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      I think the opposite is true, actually. It seems worse to stink up the actual workspace than a separate kitchen. At least if the kitchen smells, you can avoid it. If the area around your desk smells, you’re stuck.

    4. Observer*

      I agree – if you don’t have a place for people to eat, or you don’t want them to leave their desks, then you lose standing to tell them what they can eat at their desks.

      Improve ventilation and get air filters to reduce scent issues if it comes down to that.

    5. Beth*

      Agreed. The ‘solution’ to the food smell ‘problem’ is to provide a separate break area that’s well-ventilated. If you can’t be bothered to pay for an office space that accommodates that, then the fault is with you, not your employees’ food. Pretty much all food smells like *something*, and whether that smell is good or bad is very subjective; pretty much all smells are objectionable to *somebody*. Food smells, including ones that some people think are bad, are an automatic consequence of giving people nowhere to eat except their desk. Employers don’t get to pass off their responsibility to provide a workable space by expecting their employees to give up basics like hot meals.

      The exception for me is if there’s an actual medical condition involved–for example, if the smell of peanuts is a migrane trigger for an employee, I think it would be fine to ask people not to bring in peanuts. That’s not a judgement call on what ‘smells bad’; it’s an objective problem with a specific item, which I think is a lot more reasonable than “I don’t like how curry smells, so I’m banning it.”

  4. Beth Jacobs*

    # 1 Kinda rubs on me the wrong way. The employer won’t allow a lunchbreak, won’t provide a breakroom and is complaining about food smells!
    I get that certain jobs are really busy, I get that some offices are small and moving to a different office solely for a breakroom would be unreasonable. But I just think the employer should try a little harder to figure out a solution or at least be apologetic when asking their staff to limit their lunch choices. From the wording of the question, it seems the OP considers themselves generous for allowing staff to eat at their desks. C’mon!

    1. Somebody*

      Yup, I felt the same way reading that letter and I was bummed Alison wasn’t harsher in her response.

      Your employees are too busy to go out for lunch and you don’t provide them with a breakroom? And maybe it’s just me, but I would not be happy with an employer saying a peep about what I am eating. I am petty, so I’d eat only smelly foods.

      1. Lynda Myers*

        Same reaction here. And then the comment about kebabs staining the desk (horrors!) So can tomato soup or anything greasy. The writer did not come off well to me.

        1. a heather*

          Because of course they picked an “ethnic” food as the example, instead of something like tomato soup or more accepted Italian red sauce that would also stain. The carpet, or clothes, but unlikely a desk. I have never had a desk in an office that was made of something that would stain. What, are they working on unfinished wood??

        2. Jennifer Thneed*

          Yeah, the fact that their only example of smelly food was kebabs was off-putting. Many foods have strong scents: re-heated fish is famous for it. Also tomato sauce, some cheeses, and other things that aren’t hitting my memory right now.

        3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Bet I could stain the heck out of a desk with a hamburger and fries.

          Tbh, I wouldn’t even know how to stain a desk with a kebab. It is a lot leaner and less likely to leak sauce on a desk than, well, a hamburger and fries.

      2. Kella*

        Plus, the OP was upset about the prospect of food damaging the tables but won’t provide a lunch table or furniture that is easily cleaned.

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      Yeah, I think banning “smelly foods” is a) really subjective, b) kind of a dick move if you don’t give people a lunchroom or other ways to get lunch c) can end up being pretty racist if the “smelly” foods people are complaining about are the ones from other cultures.

      Kinda reminds me of the “sexy potatoes” AITA posts circulating recently (which I really wish the poster had asked Alison about instead of reddit!).

      1. norma rae*

        Thank you for referencing the “sexy potatoes” AITA! I had missed that one and it was a joy to read.

      2. 10Isee*

        I agree! I’d also love to hear Alison’s take on the update (where the boss told the OP he’d only hired the complainer as a favor to his wife, etc.)

        1. a heather*

          That’s what this post reminded me of, too! I saw this and thought the same, how I wish they’d asked Alison. (But I think they got some really good advice on reddit, anyway.)

      3. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I know of a boss who tried to ban anyone having incense at home(!) because the smell carried in on their hair the next day and he hated the smell that much. Of course, same guy who would not open windows and insisted the heat be at 30c all day.

        We did have an unofficial rule at one place that if whatever food you cooked up could be smelt from 6 banks of desks away then it was banned, regardless of what it was. Cold food was okay with the exception of hard boiled eggs, after an incident involving someone bringing in and eating 20 of them.

    3. Random Commenter*

      Unless I misread, I don’t see anywhere where it says that they don’t allow a lunch break.

      1. anon73*

        It doesn’t say they don’t allow lunch break, but it’s implied that employees are “not discouraged” to eat at their desks. When stated in this manner, it leads me to believe that lunch breaks are frowned upon because there’s so much work to do.

        1. Random Commenter*

          On that note, I wonder where they’d be expected to eat other than at their desks if there’s no break room.

          1. Starbuck*

            Right? I read this:

            “My staff are busy so I do not discourage them from eating at their desks …. We don’t have enough room for a designated eating area, so eating at their desks is the only option.”

            What is the other option???? Forcing them to leave the premises in order to eat?? Whether that’s legal or not, it would be supremely shitty.

    4. Spencer Hastings*

      The break room at my workplace is closed due to COVID, so this letter is newly apt in some ways! The smell of food is kind of annoying, but…whatcha gonna do. :-/

    5. aebhel*

      Yep, this. I generally eat at my desk because our break-room is tiny and I have my own office, but come on.

  5. Smithy*

    On the food point, I just want to flag that if stains on furniture or the floor are a concern that coffee and tea are going to be far more common potential spills and stains than a kebab/meatball/curry – or just about any food.

    Therefore really do be very careful in thinking through exactly why you are proposing banning the consumption of any food or liquid. If the office also hosts customers/external parties and traps smells – then maybe you are looking at a ban on all warm food to keep smells down. But if you’re looking to also stop stains – there’s really no way to do that with food restrictions alone.

    1. Mayflower*

      The stain angle stood out to me too. Countless laptops have been ruined by coffee, tea and soda spills so being concerned about an occasional kebab drop strikes me as a (possibly racist) hammer looking for a nail.

    2. Threeve*

      The worst food smell I’ve ever encountered at the office was actually coffee–someone spilled a cup of flavored “butterscotch” coffee on the carpet, and the horrible chemical sugar-popcorn smell lingered for at least a week. No fish or curry can ever compete.

      1. Smithy*

        Not to mention any kind of coffee or tea with milk, where if the dairy gets caught anywhere the chance for rotten milk…..

        I actually think the worst mess I ever made in an office was when I dropped an empty mug on the work carpet. This mug was very old terra cotta, and instead of breaking like other ceramics it just poofed into what seemed like endless amounts of red dust. Put enough people into any group and there will be inevitable mess. Just focusing on changes in the people will never get the holistic results that investment in office space with a break room, more janitorial services, or better air filtration system will.

    3. CB212*

      And a Big Mac can also stain if dropped, as can a lovely salad of vegetables roasted in olive oil. Or a hero. Or pizza. That to me was the absolute ‘tell’ that this is about “ethnic food” and it’s going to be hard to frame as not-racist. White people are terrrrrribly concerned with company property sometimes, are they not.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yep, I have done far more damage to my office with coffee and tea than any food and was honestly a bit confused that kebabs got singled out as a staining food over beverages. Within the first week in my newly-carpeted office, I tripped and spilled a whole cup of coffee on the floor. I immediately started mop-up, called the building person, profusely apologized, and offered to go work away from my desk so they could clean the carpet before it set.

      Best of my recollection, I’ve dropped pasta sauce, salsa, curry, barbecue, and pot roast on my desk, in addition to the coffee, tea, and soda spills. Wiping the spills up immediately seems to have generally avoided staining the furniture, and I do a deeper clean at least once a month. The only thing that hasn’t come off is a burst ink pen stain.

  6. Pink Dahlia*

    The only way I’ve seen this done successfully is to manage the preparation process (only allow cold foods, no microwaves available) and the clean-up process (no food/drink garbage in cubicles, only in designated centralized receptacles with covered lids.

    My last company actually ended up saving money this way, because they were able to downsize their janitorial contract by dictating that only the food garbage bins got changed daily, and individual desk bins went down to twice per week.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Yep. I bet heartburn and indigestion were not in the job description when those people accepted their jobs with that company. They never signed up for this.

        1. Murgle*

          I assure you I get heartburn and indigestion from quite a lot of warm food. The room temp food or chilled with an ice pack I bring to work every day doesn’t not cause the same.

          My food is not finger food or sandwiches. It’s standard bento food so makes a proper lunch and could be heated if I wanted to (I don’t, because the microwaves have a useless number of options for heating 200g of chicken or whatever but no options that’s just xxxW for y minutes, and I’m not about to put my rated for 600W bento box in a microwave that may be set to 1200W and you have no way to know what it’s at).

          There’s not one size fits all. Banning hot food won’t help either, cold food can also be very smelly. The only option that works for everyone but the employer who wants behinds in their seats at all times would be a well ventilated eating area.

    1. Smithy*

      Question about the “only cold food” – did that also apply to limiting hot food that people might buy in area places in addition to no microwaving?

      While I see either as ultimately reasonable, I do think that eliminating the microwave alone may do wonders in the space of eliminating lingering office smells. There aren’t many hot food take aways I can imagine being nearly as odorous as cruciferous vegetables in the microwave.

      1. WellRed*

        I disagree that only cold food is reasonable, especially in cold months. Will the company also disallow coffee?

        1. Smithy*

          Only cold food doesn’t necessarily apply to beverages. That being said, there are plenty of workplaces that have areas where food/drink is banned – and often for specific business reasons. Those places also typically have breakrooms or other arrangements where food/drink can be consumed.

          If this was done as a “cut off your nose to spite your face” move to prevent a particular person from bringing in their specific food – that’s both horrific and terrible business. However due to COVID, my old workplace has banned the use of the office kitchens for anything other than hand/dish washing. No refrigerators, no microwaves, no coffee machines.

          Having such a policy is one of the many unpleasant factors of COVID, but it’s one that also makes sense. Feeling like someone did this because they hated the fact that I was bringing kabobs in for lunch would enrage me.

          1. lilsheba*

            I never did get to see the lunchroom at my old job after I went home on covid paid leave (not having it, just being high risk for it) for 5 months. Then I got offered a new job that’s work from home so I quit the old place. I would hate to think you couldn’t have microwaves or hot coffee anymore, so I’m glad I’m home for that reason alone!

          2. Jackalope*

            I disagree that it makes sense. If you’re working somewhere for a full work day you need to be able to eat, or at least most people do. Not being able to use a microwave or a fridge limits your options drastically and I would have a hard time feeding myself. There are other ways to deal with the possible COVID exposures.

            1. Smithy*

              Where I worked, in late February they increased janitorial staff cleaning rotations but felt that ultimately there was no safe way to maintain the kitchens.

              Whether or not access to a fridge/microwave and coffee machine are necessary, there’s no denying that it certainly decreases staff comfort in the office. Overall the approach has been to still have all staff remote and actually condense a planned renovation so that the staff will remain full-time remote through summer 2021.

              That being said, over the years I have worked places with better/worse employee kitchen/break room set ups. Not all have had microwaves and/or fridges worth using – and it really just never registered as my number 1 complaint.

          3. Librarian1*

            This does not make sense at all. COVID is primarily spread through breathing in the virus, not through touching things other people touched. Not that it can’t spread that way, but the risk is really low. And having food in containers in a fridge doesn’t do anything about this virus.

    2. Observer*

      and the clean-up process (no food/drink garbage in cubicles, only in designated centralized receptacles with covered lids.

      Except the OP doesn’t really want them leaving their desks.

      1. Pink Dahlia*

        If the OP doesn’t want employees to stand up and walk over to a different trash can, then there are more problems than can be addressed in an advice blog.

  7. SillyLittlePittyPat!*

    I have seen ‘roasts’ on tv that were so far from the mark (all professional comedians/actors) for instance the roast for Gene Simmons that turned into an insult fest on Shannon Tweed. I vowed never to watch again. They are mostly mean spirited. Bad idea for one you may be working with or, for in the future!

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Yeah, professional roasts usually vary widely in how objectively funny they are, and those are for for public figures with specifically honed images.

      For a work context, that’s way more challenging to get the tone right. It really depends on how well the guest of honor’s sense of humor is understood and what subjects would be appropriate vs over the line (no matter how innocuous they might seem). Like, jokes about them being a coffee snob or being really into a hobby might be okay, but jokes about them chronically arriving late might not be if the private reasons have to do with chronic illness or caretaking responsibilities. And anything implying they did subpar work or committed work errors is just out of bounds at a going-away party meant to wish them well.

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        Exactly this. I was roasted by some old coworkers at a going away and it was freaking hilarious. I was laughing so hard that I almost wet myself. These folks knew me really, really well and we were all very good friends, so every joke landed perfect, I enjoy laughing at myself, and it was such a great working environment it felt comfortable. Absent any of those things, it could have been super awkward.

    2. JC*

      Yep, my manager thought this was a good idea for my leaving speech. Totally soured my last day and view of the company, and he made personal comments about a failed relationship I’d had with a co- worker (which no one had known about), so I feel it also affected my professional reputation. I was young and naive, but wish I had reported him to HR. It was wildly inappropriate and hurtful. These have zero place in the workplace, and I would question why any staff member or manager would think appropriate

    3. lyonite*

      I’m a person who *hates* insult humor, and if I worked for a place that had a “roast when you leave” tradition, I would absolutely not show up on my last day. (Unless I had gotten them to promise not to, and even then I might not take the chance.) Maybe there really is no one at this guy’s workplace who feels that way, but if the best he can say is that nobody’s burst into tears, then I’m guessing they haven’t really made sure of it.

    4. Rusty Shackelford*

      “We’ll keep doing it unless someone cries” isn’t really good criteria for something that’s supposed to be fun.

      1. Observer*

        Yeah, that stood out to me. OP, your friend is an incompetent manager – and I suspect not a really nice person.

        “You didn’t cry so it’s ok” is something I wouldn’t accept from a 10 year old.

      2. Sacred Ground*

        As is noted here many times, if a practice at your office sounds like something done on The Office, it’s probably a bad idea.

    5. aebhel*

      Yeah. Mild teasing is probably fine in most work contexts (my office has a long-running joke about the fact that I’m ALWAYS cold and I never turn my A/C on even when it’s 90 degrees out), but anything approaching an actual targeted roast is uh. Not a great idea for a workplace unless that workplace is SNL.

  8. Elizabeth I*

    Would there be a way to de-scent the air instead of banning foods? Seems like a large part of the problem is the *lingering* of the smells.

    What about a strong air purifier with a carbon filter to remove smells? Or that hospital-grade spray thats intended to remove smells from the air (hollister m9 I believe)?

    1. irene adler*

      Or upgrade the HVAC system such that it replenishes the air in the entire room 3-4 times per hour (with fresh air)? Or install the commercial equivalent of a whole house fan? That way smells don’t linger.

      1. Nea*

        I like this idea, if for no other reason than that these days it would also be a good COVID-fighting technique. In fact, perhaps that’s the best way to sell it – “This is a good coronavirus protection, which by the way, would also do something about food smells around here.”

        1. Alanna*

          Ha, this is an old question but I had the exact same thought. If your microwave is smelling up your office for hours on end, the food smell is not the primary concern right now!

    2. Joielle*

      I recently bought a good-sized air purifier for my house and it’s amazing at eliminating food smells! (And dog farts, stale air, etc) And it was only a couple hundred dollars, which seems like a VERY reasonable price for a company to deal with this problem. Even if they had to spend twice that much to cover a larger area… still a small price to pay for office food harmony.

      1. WMM*

        Yes, we got an air filter because the area we live has had so many forest fires, and it has also been wonderful at removing food smells! That’s the first thing I thought of when I read this headline.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          Ditto here! We bought the first one because one of the cat-boxes is in my office, and it works a treat. Then when the fires started we got a larger one for the bedroom (and I woke up breathing thru my nose for the first time in awhile), and then another large one for my wife’s converted-attic studio.

    3. Researcher*

      Trash receptacles are something to consider here too.

      OP could issue some guidance around not placing food waste (especially hot food waste) in office/individual waste bins. It is likely to help somewhat, but also serves to raise awareness of the issue in a way that doesn’t make employees feel like their food choices are being policed.

      Have a few trash receptacles with lids for food waste.

  9. Ann*

    If your staff is so busy that they have to eat at their desks every day and have no time to eat their lunch elsewhere, then it’s time to hire more people. The solution isn’t to regulate what people can eat. Also, seriously Kebabs are
    smelly? This sounds like OP thinks anything that isn’t “American food” is gross and smelly.

    1. A Poster Has No Name*

      The fact that the LW mentions kebabs specifically is what pinged my “ooohhh…racist!” meter. It’s one thing if they’d complained about something like fish, but going straight for kebabs, which are unlikely to actually be all that smelly seems awfully telling.

      1. yala*

        Yeah, I had to re-read that when I saw it because, like…it’s meat, onion, and bellpepper? It just smells like FOOD. If it’s lamb, ok, that’s a little stronger smell than most US folks are used to, but it’s still not “smelly.”

        kinda want kebabs now. …might actually check out the new schwarma place. Ooh, and kibbe!

      2. Alanna*

        Yeah, I had to assume they meant something like seekh kebabs, which at least have some spices involved, but it’s still a very weird dish to fixate on as smelly. (If there is a “separated by a common language” issue here — in the US “kebabs” are often chunks of chicken thigh or breast meat on skewers with vegetables. Seasoning can be involved, but it doesn’t smell any more strongly than a typical chicken cutlet.)

        1. EventPlannerGal*

          I’m wondering if they’re talking about doner kebabs? Certainly where I live they tend to come with copious amounts of sauce and shredded onion and the doner meat tends to be quite heavily seasoned, so they do definitely have a distinct smell IMO but not an unpleasant one.* That’s the only thing I can think of to explain it because kebabs in the meat-on-a-stick sense really aren’t very messy at all and just smell like meat to me.

          *and even if it was, I agree with everyone else that if OP’s staff have to eat at their desks then it’s lousy to impose restriction on what they can eat!

    2. pope suburban*

      Yeah, my spidey senses tingled when kebabs were specifically called out as a hazard. It made me think of stories my non-white friends have told me about getting picked on for their traditional lunches in school. Personally, my big objection to smelling my neighbors’ curry is that it makes me hungry and wistful that I’m not eating that (My local Indian restaurants have made a few bucks on this phenomenon, I admit), but I know a lot of people do get singled out for their traditional foods, and that’s not okay. I really wouldn’t want to try to be the food police ever, and even more so in an office where it sounds like employees have no recourse other than eating at their desks.

      1. Teapot Librarian*

        I have the exact same reaction as you do to coworkers’ curry. Or most smelly foods in the office, to be honest.

        1. pope suburban*

          Yeah, weirdly, the foods I find to smell the worst in the microwave tend to be fairly bland, traditional-white-American things like pot roast, soup, or eggs. I’m lucky that none of it bothers me unduly and I don’t have any allergies, but when I smell something in the work kitchen that makes me mentally go “Ew,” it’s usually one of the foods people consider “safe” for work microwaving. But kebabs, curry, Mexican food, Asian cuisines? That’s probably going to be my inspiration for the night’s dinner. It’s so interesting to me how smells and spices affect people differently.

            1. pope suburban*

              My boss sometimes brings in these low-carb egg muffin things, and oh lord, the sulfury egg smell is something else! It’s as if a hot spring could fart, if I may be a little juvenile. Fortunately the smell doesn’t linger, but woe betide the person walking into the kitchen right after he’s warmed one up.

    3. Threeve*

      Kebabs may be the restaurant or food truck closest to their office, and so the hot food that people bring in most frequently.

    4. Observer*

      Also, seriously Kebabs are
      smelly? This sounds like OP thinks anything that isn’t “American food” is gross and smelly

      I’m so glad others noticed. SUCH a weird item to choose – especially since kebabs can be almost anything, including foods that actually don’t stain that much.

      1. pancakes*

        Presumably the letter writer is in the UK or Germany, or someplace else where döner kebabs in particular are very popular.

    5. Metadata minion*

      Yeah, I actually find standard American fast food one of the more pervasive and annoying food smells out there, and egg salad is my personal I-will-leave-the-lunchroom food. Curries and kebab in the office would only annoy me if I hadn’t brought something that delicious and so was jealous ;-)

    6. Bleah*

      Are you sure the OP is from America? My first thought when they mentioned kebabs is that they are from the UK were kebabs are everywhere and food that everyone eats. It’s kind of weird to me that kebabs are even associated with a minority, it wouldn’t even occur to me that they are considered an ethnic food except maybe some small rural towns.

      1. Observer*

        If you are correct, then that’s a different kind of bad. You really want to keep people from leaving their desks for lunch, but you want to keep them from eating a common food that’s easy to eat?

        But even in the UK, I’m pretty sure that these are considered “ethnic”, even if popular and common.

      2. londonedit*

        You’re right that in the UK kebabs are pretty normal and not considered particularly ‘ethnic’, but I also can’t imagine someone eating a kebab for lunch! They totally have a reputation as drunk food, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone go to a kebab shop in the middle of the working day.

        1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

          I’ve taken leftover kebabs for lunch before. I mostly associate them with takeaway but there are also plenty of sit down restaurants that do kebabs etc. I’m wistfully thinking of my favourite one in Bromley now, but alas we moved away because of covid.

    7. Ron McDon*

      In the UK doner kebabs are more popular and they absolutely reek!

      They usually have onions in them too and some strong smelling sauce.

      I think kebabs in the US are probably very different, judging by how many people are saying they’re not a smelly food.

      Believe me, someone has a doner kebab in a UK office, you’re going to smell it for days!

      1. pancakes*

        I just left a comment saying the same — yes, “kebabs” in the US often refer to skewers of meat and vegetables, very plain in comparison to a doner kebab. They may or may not be marinated in something or rubbed with spices but aren’t necessarily served with sauce.

      2. Observer*

        So do lots of other foods, including foods that are not considered “ethnic” – and Doner Kebabs definitely are considered “ethnic”. (And not all doner kebab’s reek – they are not all prepared exactly the same with the same spices.) For the people not familiar, Doner Kebabs are the same as schwarma.

        And, by the way if the OP really is talking about Doner Kebabs, their worry about dripping on the desk is really interesting – spaghetti with any sort of cream or tomato based sauce is far more likely to drip, and will DEFINITELY stain. So, yeah, I’m still side eyeing this.

        1. Clisby*

          I would definitely not think of schwarma as a smelly food. Now, if it’s being served with some particular sauce I’m not familiar with, maybe – but the meat itself isn’t smelly.

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        Yes, I think they must be talking about doner kebabs – I don’t see why anyone would think of meat-skewer type kebabs as messy/potentially staining. Honestly I love a doner kebab but they are definitely different to what I think most people here are picturing!

  10. irene adler*

    If nothing else, such things will surely increase the number of people who opt to quit without giving their two weeks notice.
    At one farewell luncheon long ago, our company CEO suggested that each of us regale the room with our “most embarrassing experiences” involving the soon-to-depart employee. Room went silent. As it should have.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Ugh your CEO. It would have been so much easier, kinder, and meaningful to just ask “favorite memory with” the departing employee.

      1. Quill*

        The instant gremlin in me wants to stand up and say that in terms of embarrassment, nobody can top what the CEO just said, but I don’t want to walk out before the cake.

    2. Artemesia*

      I have never understood the icebreaker of sharing embarrassing experiences. I remember a training session where someone said ‘think of your most embarrassing experience in the workplace.’ Then went to go around asking people to share it; I happened to be first and when she asked me to share it, I said ”it was embarrassing; why would I want to relive that?’ Sort of deflated the activity. I mean embarrassing? Who wants to share something that will cast them in a vulgar or humiliating or denigrating light.

      I used to a class on designing training with ‘think about a disaster in the workplace that you were involved in or observed.’ And I always said — ‘this should be something you feel comfortable sharing — so feel free to choose something that you observed someone else do or experience if that is easier than sharing a mistake you made.’ It was a great opener because people had great examples and we could then explore whether the ‘disaster’ occurred because of a lack of training or for other reasons. Not surprisingly, most examples were ultimately examples of poor management – and so if a ‘training problem’ was a matter of better management training. Training is often the panacea prescribed for things that are not matters of training or for which training is a small part of the problem– police racism comes to mind.

  11. EPLawyer*

    Kebabs was a really bad choice as an example. it shows that its about that “funny foreign food” that stinks and stains. You ever seen a stain from pasta sauce? Done right, the aroma of the spices can carry too. But no one ever bans spaghetti (except for the mess it makes in the microwave) because it’s “comfort food.”

    Unless someone has an allergy, your better bet to either find time for people to eat lunch away from the desk or invest in an air cleaner of some kind.

    As for the roasts — don’t get me started. This is not high school. We don’t pick on employees to show how much we love them. No tears THAT YOU’VE SEEN. I can guarantee you someone went home incredibly hurt at some of the things said. Just because someone is leaving is no reason to torpedo the relationship. Oh Jim Bob applied here for that new position, I remember what he said when Mary Ellen left their company. Incredibly poor judgment.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      For the food one, policy at my office (temporarily suspended because of pandemic that closed the break room) was hot foods in the break area and only cold stuff/finger foods at your desk. That kept all smells confined to the break room.

      The only food rule that wasn’t paused was the no peanut product or shellfish containing items allowed at all due to allergies in the office. The problem isn’t just smell, but the fact that these allergy items frequently have oils that hutch a ride on the skin of the person who ate/handled them and then you can completely unintentionally spread the allergen around to other places, which can make the whole office then unsafe for a person with an allergy.

      1. UKDancer*

        My company has a broadly similar approach. Hot food is only allowed in the break rooms, otherwise if you want to eat at your desk it’s cold food only. I think that’s pretty sensible myself.

        We also have a no peanut rule because we have some people with allergies.

        Not that I’ve been into work lately so I’m not sure what’s been changed due to Covid.

    2. CommanderBanana*

      Right? I cook Italian most of the time, and let me tell you, the garlic could knock you over.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I make my sauce in the slow cooker (where I work because I WFH even before Covid). Let me tell you the whole house smells like garlic and oregano. mmmmmmmmmmmm. thankfully hubby has the same reaction.

      2. allathian*

        We cook a lot of Italian food, and all of us love garlic. The smell does linger, though, even if we have a fan above the stove.

    3. Filosofickle*

      Yep, even if not tears then hurt feelings. Upon getting out of graduate school, everyone in my group was given a “Most Likely To…” certificate. Meant to be funny and most were; mine was true and not even particularly negative. I laughed along, but it stung a little to think that was the defining memory of me. That was 10 years, I clearly haven’t forgotten.

  12. Admin Amber*

    If you cannot provide a lunch room or break room for your employees, you really have no standing to tell them what to eat on their lunch break. If the smells are so terrible to you, then why don’t you cater lunch in for the employees everyday?

  13. Crivens!*

    I’d rather have the smell of a thousand kebabs than someone’s leftover brussel sprouts.

    And I say this not to say “you should ban different food smells”. My point is that what counts as a smelly food is not objective fact and is culturally informed. If you start banning smelly foods you’re going to risk getting potentially biased really quickly.

    Give your employees time to eat a proper lunch and a break room. Stop attempting to regulate what people eat.

    1. Nea*

      Brussel sprouts! I like them personally, but this reminds me about the time I got in trouble with a co-worker for eating roasted cauliflower in the office. She sprayed perfume in the air, on me, and everywhere short of my dish.

      For the record, I apologized and never heated cauliflower of any kind in the office again. (Cold on salad, yes, but not heated.)

      1. Alison*

        Um your coworker was out of line, not you. Tbh strong smelling perfumes and air fresheners are way worse than food smells IMO. I would be livid if someone tried to spray me with something because they didn’t like the scent of my food.

        1. Quill*

          Yeah, if they’re cheap all I smell is the rubbing alcohol, if they’re not, there is too much and they give me a headache.

          Sorry about a vegetable existing in your presence, people?

      2. AlexandrinaVictoria*

        I was eating a salad with cold cauliflower and broccoli once and a co-worker kept loudly proclaiming my lunch smelled like trash. Really good for my appetite.

    2. Ellen N.*

      I agree with you completely except in reverse. I don’t mind smelling Brussels sprouts, broccoli, eggs, warmed fish, peanut butter, etc. I abhor the scent of most frozen meals and I can’t stand the odor of bacon. I know that I am in the minority on these views about food scents.

      I love the smell of curry. The only problem is that when I smell it I get distracted by wishing I could have some.

      If you are not providing a break room you have no right to complain about the smell of your employees’ food.
      Some commenters here recommend banning peanuts. As they are filling and nutritious; I would only ban them if someone who needs to be there is allergic.

      1. Joielle*

        Yeah, one of my coworkers eats these frozen/microwaved diet meals most days and one particular one smells like farts. On the other hand, I love curry and get takeout Indian or African food for lunch often. Nobody complains about anyone’s food because our office has a pretty strong HVAC system and smells don’t linger too long. I think that’s the only solution for the OP – upgrade the HVAC, or if that’s not possible, get a couple of powerful standalone air purifiers.

      2. another Hero*

        yeah op is wants her staff to be able to eat at their desks rather than giving them reasonable workloads that allow for a break to consume food, but also doesn’t want them to eat even fairly simple food (kebabs!!) if she doesn’t like the smell. she can’t have both.

    3. Kiki*

      Yeah, based on AAM comment sections in the past that talked about smelly foods, going down the slippery slope of banning foods based on people’s perceptions of smelliness results in the only acceptable foods being, like, a plain cold potato.
      I’m also just a person where almost all foods smell great to me– I am just hungry and ready to eat, lol.

      1. Alanna*

        Yeah, the only food smells that usually bother me are in my own house — my apartment is small and if I wake up and it still smells like last night’s dinner, I’ve usually had enough of that scent, no matter how delicious it was. The only thing I’ve ever felt about coworkers’ food smells is envy. (Also, this makes me miss having an office and coworkers.)

      2. WindmillArms*

        Plain potatoes are out now too (based on the “sexy potatoes” thread on the AITA Reddit that is completely worth googling).

      3. Artemesia*

        And then you can’t eat it whole or it is sexual harassment a lat the weird sexy potato story.

    4. Erin from accounting*

      100% agreed… when you start judgmentally choosing what is/isn’t stinky, you’re really playing with fire. I saw some other comments mentioning differentiating between hot food (high smell risk) and cold food (low smell risk), which seems like the safest option. But really the best option is to make sure everyone on the team has time to eat lunch in the break room.

  14. Ryan Gosling, Arts Administrator*

    Choosing to cite kebabs as the example makes clear the underlying racism in this complaint. Would you have made the same complaint about, say, microwave popcorn? Also, the office coffee urn has a very strong and pervasive smell that not everyone finds pleasant. Check your bias, LW.

    1. Mel_05*

      I find kebabs inoffensive, but there are other food smells that drive me up a wall, that clearly do not bother my coworkers (eggs!). Obviously this guy has an employee who loves kebabs. I’m not sure it quite reaches the level of racism to hate the smell of a kebab.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        It’s not racist to hate the smell of kebab, but it’s racist to ban foods from certain cultures while accepting equally smelly foods from other cultures.

    2. irene adler*

      I was thinking that maybe the kabobs were made from lamb, the smell of which, some find objectionable-regardless of cuisine.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        That’s a good point. Kebab is a style of dish, not a specific set of ingredients, and the scent of kebabs will vary from meal to meal.

        And, frankly, kebabs for a work lunch make ton of sense to me, for the same reasons I like Orange or Sesame Beef, Shrimp or Chicken, Risotto and Paella for working lunches.

        1. irene adler*

          Oh, we MUST have lunch together sometime!
          I’m firmly in the “Okay to eat kabobs” of any variety camp. And everything else you listed-especially orange chicken!

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            I completely forgot to mention fried rice, especially Polynesian fried rice (or whatever the pineapple-based fried rice is *really* called).

            I imagine I’d be persona non grata in OP’s office, too.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I didn’t get the vibe that OP was trying to ban just that specific kebab. At least to me, it sounded like the proposed ban would cover anything seasoned and cooked on a skewer.

    3. Artemesia*

      Nah it just mean they are from the UK where very smelly kebabs are the most common street food.

  15. Ailsa McNonagon*

    I always seem to fall afoul of the paywall with these links… Even signing up for the free subscriptions doesn’t always give me access- anyone else, or just me? I’m UK based if that makes a difference?

    1. John Jay James*

      Removed. Please do not post ways to get around paywalls here, as they are how I and other writers get paid. – Alison

  16. La Triviata*

    I’m working alone in the office (everyone else is working from home with occasional trips in) and have been cooking things in the office microwave. I recently fixed a “spicy shrimp” dish … which was good, but it SMELLED. I managed to upset myself with the smell. I have since cleaned out the microwave and put a dish of baking soda in, hoping that will take care of the smell before anyone else needs to use it (someone else was in yesterday and heated something up, but I always use the microwave on the top shelf and she’s short and used the microwave on a lower shelf, so there doesn’t seem to have been a problem). When we were all working in the office, there were frequent popcorn smells, but they didn’t seem to linger too badly.

    A place I used to work, there was one woman who would bring in incredibly smelly foods for her lunch – frequently fish of some sort. No one had the nerve to tell her not to, so it was something we had to live with.

  17. Emi*

    *intense flashback to my white deskmate in third grade telling me hoisin sauce was “disgusting”*

    1. irene adler*

      Desk mate just doesn’t know what’s good!

      Hope maturity has caused them to realize the ignorance of their ways.
      Or, more hoisin for us! I’m good either way!

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        There was a kid in my class in elementary school who used to bring a sandwich with a Mystery Brown Spread on it that we were all very curious about. It was weird. It was dark brown! What would you put on a sandwich that’s dark brown? Peanut butter is light brown. Chocolate is dark brown but you don’t put chocolate on sandwiches, that would be silly. Meat can be brown but it’s not a paste.

        Twenty years later I realized, it was Nutella! Nutella just wasn’t as well-known in the US in the early 90s as it is now.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Ha! I was expecting the answer to be Vegemite.

          (A family member went to Europe in the 80s and fell in love with Nutella. Brought back a couple of jars on the plane. Had no idea it was sold in our little hometown grocery store!)

          1. UKDancer*

            Nutella is yummy. On the way into work sometimes I used to pick up a cinnamon and raisin bagel with nutella on from the stall at the station. One of the few things I miss about working from home is that I can’t make the bagels taste nearly as good as that place does.

    2. Sled dog mama*

      Reminds me of one of my high school students (who was of Asian descent) being absolutely amazed that I (a white American) could use chopsticks properly.

      1. Artemesia*

        I worked for a few weeks in China and was wined and dined a lot and the first meal around the lazy susan of many foods, I plucked a few fat bean like vegetables from the appetizer array with my chopsticks and they were awed. I am not actually great with chopsticks but like many Americans grew up often eating Chinese food and so had modest facility. They had no idea chopsticks were fairly common in the US.

      2. Sleepless*

        I live in a suburb that happens to have a large Asian population, but I didn’t grow up here. The sight of my (white) teenage daughter using chopsticks like a boss makes me do a double take every time.

      3. NotAnotherManager!*

        I have know how to use chopsticks as long as I can remember and had no idea how I learned. I went out for some sort of Asian food in middle school, grabbed a pair of chopsticks, and started eating. My mom finally figured out that our Chinese next door neighbors, who’d babysat for me regularly when I was a toddler, had had taught me. (I taught my husband so we could go to the good pho place and he wouldn’t have to do the walk of shame to the counter to get a fork.)

    3. Name (Required)*

      Is that the same or worse than being told white people smell bad because they eat cheese?

      (Yes, happened many times.)

  18. Daisy*

    Mmm, for OP #3 : your subordinate is out of line for sure, but if I tell my manager (apparently repeatedly) that I am stuck with a report and I do not know how to proceed, and the only thing I get back from her is “the deadline is in two days”, when I know she can help me figure it out how to solve my problem (and I could learn) I think I’d be pretty pissed off. And in this case, I don’t think I’d be out of line.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I was coming to say the exact same thing. There is a lot of space between leaving someone to blow deadlines and founder with a project and taking it on oneself. If someone you supervise is struggling with how to approach a task, what the contents of a report should be, etc., it’s the manager’s job to help them get started, collaboratively outline the report, or whatever needs to be done to set them on their way.

      I have someone on my team right now who is not performing to standard. We meet regularly, and we talk specifically about their projects, deadlines, and priorities, spending more time on the ones that are stuck or languishing. My job is to make sure they have the information and direction to do their job and to reorder priorities (or reassign projects) to get them done. Sending ticking timeclock reminders doesn’t help unless the problem is that they’re unaware of the deadline.

      And never inflate someone’s performance rating – it should be an accurate reflection of their work, nothing less, nothing more. Things like that will give you fits if/when you have to have future performance coaching.

      1. Daisy*

        I was under the impression that the employee worked hard to meet those expectations, and then let it go once the performance review was done. If the OP did inflate the review, it is going not only to backfire, but you risk legal issues if you need to fire the employee indeed!

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          My read was that the employee was working harder than before but perhaps not quite up to standard and that OP#3 had to exert effort to get them even an acceptable work rating – but even if they did bring themselves up to snuff in the home stretch, the evaluation should take the whole year into account. You can note that someone’s overall performance was subpar but that they demonstrated improvement from X point and, in the coming year should continue that upward trend, or that it’s fine in areas A and C but B and D are still subpar. But no inflation or downplaying/glossing over poor performance or it may be very tough to terminate when it’s needed.

  19. Malika*

    At an office i worked we ensured the canteen was closed off and that the ventilation system was at full blast during lunch hour. There is no other solution for letting people eat warmed up food at the office that I can think of. Citing kebabs is an unfortunate choice, even if it’s not meant to be derogatory. It also doesn’t nearly pongs as much as cabbage soup (gag!) and the famous fish (triple gag!).

  20. not all karens*

    IMO, the lingering smell of food frequently comes from the trash associated with it. Whenever I bought lunch that was “smellier” (say, a hot sandwich, or fast food), I’d always take the trash to the can in break room/kitchen, otherwise I’d just be smelling it at my desk all afternoon.

    Of course something will smell as you’re eating it, but once I cleared out the wrappers, it seemed to dissipate pretty quickly, so maybe a large trash can in a relatively unused area (a mail room or storage area) for people to use would help?

    1. Murgle*

      My colleague started bringing bananas to eat during work, about a week in he started wondering where the flies were coming from and brought insect spray.
      I suggested to him that it’d be more effective if he didn’t throw his peels into the emptied twice per month waste bin under his desk (for office waste and clean snack wrappers but not paper, that had an extra bin – so typically the waste bin would be empty) but instead took them to the big waste bin at the coffee maker and snack area which was emptied at least once per day and more if full (we are large enough to have around the clock on-site janitor service). Solved the issue fast.

  21. ArtK*

    The conjunction of “smelly foods” and “roasting colleagues” struck me as funny. When you roast your colleagues, make sure that you rinse them well, otherwise they will likely smell while cooking.

  22. nm*

    I must say I don’t really get the issue with smells. All food smells. Most drinks smell. Water even smells depending on what kind of filtration you have!

    If you’re worried about stains, make cleaning wipes (or equivalent) readily available. If someone’s allergy is being triggered, ban the allergen. But if it’s just about smell, IMO that’s something where you have to just live with.

    1. meep*

      I agree with you! I think food smells are a fundamental part of life, kind of like farts. Regulating them in the workplace seems fraught for all the reasons in the other comments. Imagine a rule that says if you have to fart you have to go to the break room.

  23. Hiring Mgr*

    Yes, I’d say banning certain foods is unreasonable unless people have an extremely intense reaction or allergy.. If it’s just about smell – well, there are odors all around us all the time. As others have said, the bigger problem is the lack of space

    1. allathian*

      And the lack of proper ventilation. Food smells don’t linger with a decent HVAC system. How many offices have remodeled their spaces in recent decades to cram more people into the same space without upgrading the HVAC?

      Also, having covered bins for organic trash goes a long way. Especially if it’s composted at a facility somewhere. My office is a WWF Green Office, and we’re expected to sort trash. Organic matter is composted and converted to soil and methane. Much better than just throwing it out and expanding the nearest landfill…

  24. AnotherAlison*

    No one else was bothered by #4? Just the food?

    I don’t have a problem with OP giving references for two people in theory, and I think the manager would like her honest assessment of the two, but it’s a bum deal for the candidates (well, one of them). If OP was going to give the 2nd candidate a higher recommendation, as the first candidate, I would like to know so that I could find a different reference who wouldn’t compare me to the other candidate., even if the comparison is, “Jane is great, but Joanna is a little better”.

    If the manager had put two and two together that OP knew both of them and asked the OP her thoughts on these candidates, I’d be 100% fine with her speaking her opinion, but it feels different when she agreed to be the reference.

    1. Elsajeni*

      It’s not totally clear to me whether OP means that she’d be acting as a reference, or that she’d be recommending them in the sense of handing their resume to her boss and saying “I worked with Joanna and I think she’d be a great candidate for this job”. I do think there’s a difference — I wouldn’t want to list someone as a reference who I knew another candidate was also listing, so if that’s the situation, I would at least tell the second person that I had agreed to act as a reference for someone else, I’d still be happy to be one for them if they want to list me, but I understand if they’d rather list someone else. But if we’re talking more about a referral/”put in a good word for me” type of recommendation, the applicant can’t easily sub in someone else — you’d have to know another person who works where you’re applying and is willing to vouch for you — so I’d be more comfortable just going ahead with recommending both candidates. (I also probably wouldn’t volunteer which one I thought was better unless it was a pretty significant difference; I’d wait to be asked.)

  25. staceyizme*

    On Q1- I don’t think you can! There’s no way that you’re going to get a commonly accepted definition of “doesn’t smell bad”. Burnt popcorn and overcooked fish or broccoli are pretty well accepted, but everything else is up for grabs. If you really can’t do space, use fans, enhance ventilation and maintain air purifiers. It might also help to remove the microwave. It’s technically cooking and that’s a major source of smells. In some offices, it’s also an issue of cleanliness. There are great gadgets to keep food hot or even to cook it (sealed) while you work. I just don’t think that she can ban people from eating foods that may have an odor. Because pretty much ALL foods (except boxed, prepackaged shelf stable snacks) have a smell that’s noticeable. And delving into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” odors can come off as policing someone’s diet.

    1. On a pale mouse*

      Yeah, I like my popcorn slightly toasted, but I’d never make it that way at the office. Partly because of the smell, and partly because it’s only about ten seconds from “nicely toasty” to “oh no, call the fire department!”

  26. Justme, the OG*

    Short answer: No.

    When you ban certain types of foods you’re getting into banning foods from certain cultures. You mention kebabs. Foods from specific non-white cultures tend to use heavier spices and are what you’re talking about banning. That’s racist, yo.

    1. allathian*

      Yup. Some European foods smell very pungent, too. Especially Italian foods with a lot of garlic and possibly onion. The LW isn’t thinking about banning those.

  27. ...*

    I think its unreasonable to ban any foods. People are so different in what they think smells bad. I personally think salad dressing smells absolutely disgusting, but I know people eat salads and like different things than me, so I just deal with it if someone eats a salad. Also fish and broccoli are perfectly healthy options for lunch that some people need/want to eat. Everyone at my office makes whatever they want and no one cares. I do sometimes tease my co worker who makes egg salad sandwiches lol but its all in good fun.

  28. FormerHRNeverAgain*

    Honestly, if I ran the office, I would tell anyone complaining about the smell of someone else’s food to find something productive to work on. Pandering to this stuff just opens up so many other doors. It is what it is in your office. Sometimes life is hard.

  29. a heather*

    That’s what this post reminded me of, too! I saw this and thought the same, how I wish they’d asked Alison. (But I think they got some really good advice on reddit, anyway.)

  30. Blarg*

    My favorite thing about WFH is I can eat whatever the heck I want. Regardless of how it smells … or makes me smell. All the garlic! Canned tuna! Bean salads galore! Delightful.

    1. Quill*

      At some point I made a bean and potato soup and rediscovering it in the freezer has been the highlight of my week so far, in terms of cullinary experience.

    2. HailRobonia*

      I’ve been making massive amounts of horseradish hummus and prepared my own horseradish root. Good thing I paid attention to the directions about being careful with the freshly-grated horseradish and keeping it covered… a single whiff of that stuff was like teargas.

  31. Pretzelgirl*

    Sure there are normal smelly foods you shouldn’t microwave but what about something you don’t know what it is? We had someone microwave something and none of us could tell what it was other that it was revolting. It smelled rotten. Didn’t smell fishy, or like broccoli, or like something with a lot of spice. It just STANK. I don’t think the person realized this either. It was so bad people were audibly gagging.

  32. Lorac*

    I work in a diverse a company that has more immigrants than local Americans. When I was in office, it was rare for me to hear more English than other languages being spoken.

    That said, we had microwaved odor fights between different ethnic groups too. Chinese workers complained about the smell of Indian food or Vietnamese dishes with fish sauce. Other groups complained about Chinese lunches. One guy from a coastal region in China was notorious for bringing in a salted/fermented fish dish, which is VERY pungent even by Chinese people standards. The Pakistani guy who sat next to me basically could not stand the smell of anything. I got comments from him because I bought a cold tuna salad with crackers from our office vending machine and ate it at my desk.

    I personally don’t see what the big deal was. I smell a lot of different stuff, it’s very temporary and doesn’t last. But because of all the snide comments going on, I started wolfing down my lunch as fast as possible because I didn’t want accidentally offend someone with my shrimp/egg stir fry or dumpling with garlic chives.

  33. fhqwhgads*

    Do you work in the office of a comedy club, drag club, cabaret, or comedy television show? If the answer is no, a roast is not an appropriate send off at work. If the answer is yes, then a roast *might* be, but still probably isn’t a great idea.

  34. Asenath*

    It’s hard to predict what smells people will dislike. At one job, the microwave was in a common office area, and complaints about food were commonplace, regardless of the type of food. I once received complaints because I microwaved a perfectly standard mass market frozen meal – it didn’t contain fish, popcorn, curry or even much in the way of other spices. I just stopped buying it and offered to move the microwave to my own smaller common area if it was such a problem ( aside from assorted complaints about ordinary bland food like the one I got, reheating coffee was a common offense). But no one wanted the inconvenience of going down the hall, so we just all tried to heat stuff that hadn’t gotten complaints, at least not recently.

  35. Fish Microwaver*

    Have you two ever been past a field from which broccoli has been harvested? Smells to high heaven. And I’m a broccoli lover. :D

  36. LinesInTheSand*

    There are a lot of very reasonable people in this thread bringing up the (sadly) very reasonable possibility that the kebab example had racist or at least xenophobic underpinnings. I get it. And it’s fair to wonder if that’s a component of this whole thing.

    But as commentators up thread have pointed out, it doesn’t change the advice because Alison already covered that angle. And having been a letter writer in the past, I know that LWs are encouraged to read responses and comments. At some point, it gets exhausting and it’s not covering new ground here. There’s a pile on effect that isn’t adding to the discussion and does get exhausting, and in this case is based entirely on speculation. I wanted to offer a counterpoint. I didn’t do it well.

  37. ACM*

    My feeling is that if your employees are already stuck doing something really not-ideal (eating at your desk, which is really not recommended for a lot of reasons even though some people don’t mind it) because of your office declining to provide a fairly common amenity (a break room), placing further restrictions is not going to be worth the morale hit.

    If you do embark on it though, apart from avoiding targeting certain ethnic cuisines (as banning kebabs would do), make sure that your ban jibes with the takeout on offer locally. If the kebab stand is one of only a couple options within easy distance (or by far the cheapest), and employees have no place to stow/heat brought-in lunches, they’re going to be pretty severely limited in terms of their lunch options. I know some people don’t mind eating the same cold sandwich every day for years on end, but to me that sounds untenable in the long run.

    You can probably keep a roll of paper towels on hand and insist that they “tablecloth” their desks first. But I wouldn’t ban any food given the circumstances described here.

  38. employment lawyah*


    Hourly employees need to be paid whenever they are not working. Generally hourly employees aren’t paid for lunch, but they MUST be paid when they work.

    Here’s the issue: It’s VERY hard for an employee to take a “break” in front of all of their work stuff, at their work desk without… doing work. And then they need to get paid.

    If they are at their desks and eating while looking at work email: They get paid. Eating and answering phones: phones: They get paid. And they may need to get paid even if they are just monitoring phones; or “available to answer questions” from other folks who are at their desks but NOT on lunch; or talking about work tasks while they eat, or….

    There have been some pretty big cases on this and I would never advise any employer to allow desk-lunches unless they pay for the entire time, so you may want to think on that and talk to your HR counsel.

  39. pancakes*

    I don’t at all agree that it’s hard for employees to take a break at their desk and not continue working. I’ve worked with numerous people who prefer a desk lunch spent catching up on the internet, reading a book, or reading the paper to sitting in a cafe or break room, and have often done so myself. Forcing employees to use a break room or leave the premises for lunch presumably wouldn’t be out-of-place in a workplace where autonomy is low, but in a professional office it would be infantilizing. Telling people not to continue working during time they’re not billing / off the clock should do.

    1. employment lawyah*

      [shrug] Not my client, not my business. It’s their call.

      But trust me when I say “there have been some expensive cases on this.” It’s worth talking to counsel.

  40. Loves libraries*

    My husband cooked fish last night but it wasn’t done. Do I microwaved it. Then I realized that I was “that person “ who microwaves fish. I was surprised there wasn’t a lingering odor.

  41. Saradactyl*

    Two weeks ago, someone brought in two large crock pots of sourkraut in for use on sausages for an employee potluck.

    They left these crock pots plugged in all day and evening, on a table in the far corner of the staff lunch room. When I came in for my night shift at 10pm, I had no idea this had been done and couldn’t see the crock pots at first.
    When I walked into the lunch room, I thought we had a mouse or rat that had died and was rotting under the fridge! I went from fridge to fridge (there are three) and the vending machine, trying to find the bloated corpse of a deceased rodent… It really was that bad! It really stank like dead animal! It was enough to make me gag.

    Finally, I found the source of the funk to be the still-warm sourkraut in the still-plugged-in, lidless crock pots. I unplugged them and put the lids on. There is no way that I was touching that! I’m the security guard, not the maid!

    The next night, when I came in, I found that someone had put both crock pots in the largest of the three fridges, and the whole fridge reeked of dead, flyblown roadkill.

    Cabbage. NEVER at the office!

  42. Brusque*

    Roasting is definitely under no circumstances an acceptable behaviour if you don’t know the person extremely well so you know rhey can roll with it and sometimes even then it’s still risky.
    My brother used to roast me in my youth. He used to hide it behind jokes and jest and till today his crazy cackles echo in my mind when someone tries to joke with me that way.
    He wasn’t funny though. He was a mean and cruel bully with whom I cut all ties as soon as I escaped his toxic behaviour and the indifferemce of my family.
    Of course there would be ‘no tears’ if my boss or colleagues would do a ‘roasting’.
    But any halfway sensible person would still clearly see my distress. Reading how the colleague talked about the roastings they did and the dismissive choince of words as a reaction on the legitimate questioning of such a thing show me he’s just like my brother: he doesn’t understand that a joke isn’t funny just because no one cried. As soon as someone doesn’t laugh honestly it’s no longer a joke intention be damned.

  43. LogicalOne*

    Hosting a party to roast colleagues on their last day? That sounds completely unnecessary. That and it sounds like an excuse to tell people what they didn’t do right or what their flaws are yet it would be more beneficial to address those sorts of things in the moment while the colleague is still actively employed with the company. Why wait until the last day to address such things? That is not good on management’s behalf. It could also be a mechanism to plant in people’s heads to let them know what’s coming if and when they quit. Not cool.

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