Reader Mail: Lunch at One’s Desk

Today’s question comes from a reader curious about lunching etiquette…

I have a question for you guys: what’s the opinion on eating lunch at one’s desk?  There are some projects I need (and want) to stay in the office for but I have to eat!  It’s incredibly hard to look professional mid-bite of a taco and even salads can get interesting.  Not to mention, with an open office plan, not everyone is in lunch mode, so while they’re having a meeting, I’m scarfing down a sandwich.   Dinner isn’t so much an issue, as its afterhours but lunch is still a conundrum for me.   Is this an issue for anyone else?  Do you avoid certain foods?  Curious…

For our $.02, if we haven’t planned lunch with someone, then we tend to prefer to lunch at our desk.  We don’t mean to be antisocial, but it helps us to continue whatever thought we were in the midst of before hunger pangs overtook us, or to surf the web and read blogs that we wouldn’t have time for otherwise.  (In fact, we hate taking breaks in the middle of the day, and tend to bring snacks like yogurt and raw almonds so we don’t have to leave the office at all.)  Some people really do not like the smell of pungent food — we worked in one place where, allegedly, the microwave had been banished to a back room on a middle floor because one of the bigwigs did not like the smell of cooking food.  And to that end, it might make sense to avoid really smelly lunches or snacks.  It might also pay to be considerate, smellwise, of folks who are dieting — avoid bringing in McDonald’s fries or heating up that brownie.

If you’re eating in an open space, there may be other considerations, such as what people can see and here.  You may want to avoid things that are difficult bites to eat — long spaghetti, really large pieces of sushi — or things that fall apart randomly (e.g., hard-shell tacos).  This doesn’t mean you’re left with nothing to eat — ask for them to chop your salad.  Choose tortellini rather than angel hair.  Soup and sandwiches are lunch hits for a reason.  If you prefer to adopt our approach of eating really small meals between breakfast and dinner, it does seem (to us at least) pretty unobtrusive to eat things like an apple, a carton of yogurt, a few raw almonds, a skim latte, and so forth, throughout the day.

Readers, what are your thoughts?  Do you lunch at your desk frequently?  If you’re working in an open space, what do you eat?

Pictured above:  Flickr has an amazing pool of photos snapped by folks who bring their own bento lunches to work, many of them using the Zojirushi Mr. Bento system.  (Specifically, above:  Tuesday Bento (28) – Zojirushi, originally uploaded to Flickr by devlyn.)  If this isn’t quite your thing, check out Amazon’s fairly extensive collection of really cute lunch bags.
Shop lunchbags, below…


  1. It might also pay to be considerate, smellwise, of folks who are dieting — avoid bringing in McDonald’s fries or heating up that brownie.

    Uh, yeah, no. This is ridiculous. And frankly, people who choose to diet really, really need to get used to the fact that the world isn’t going to accommodate itself to them in every particular.*

    Otherwise, I generally do keep my office door open, but I close it while I’m eating lunch. I figure it’s a short enough period that it won’t make me look unfriendly or like I’m shirking personal conflict, and it does avoid looking undignified or sloppy while I’m eating. It also provides a welcome respite in the middle of a busy day.

    * Side note: the bane of every office is that person who can’t stop talking about how goooooood that piece of cake looks and how they really, really want one but that would be sooooo baaaaaad, and they’re so jealous of you for eating that cake. DO NOT BE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE ABOUT CAKE IN THE WORKPLACE.

  2. I agree – it’s unfair to expect your coworkers to avoid certain foods just because you can’t eat them (unless you are talking about a peanut allergy or something similarly life-threatening. Although I am amazed how angry people get if they are told they can’t bring peanut products to the office/classroom!)

    I often close my office door when I’m eating to avoid looking messy, but I usually stick to sandwiches, wraps, and the like because anything else is going to end up somehow getting on my clothing. If you have an open-plan office so closing your door is not an option, I might avoid foods that could be stomach-turning to other people (i.e. really stinky things like tuna fish) or things that are irritating to listen to (like eating a million individually-wrapped candies per day or noisy gum).

  3. I eat lunch at my desk almost every day. I also almost always close my door when I’m eating lunch, because I have that option. However, if I were in a cubie, I might be a bit more discrete about my eating. I tend to bring things like cottage cheese, fruit salad, oatmeal, humus & pretzals, veggie sticks with dip, etc. Or I pick up a sandwich or salad. I like things that are in smallish containers because it doesn’t overwhelm your desk and because you can put a lid on it if you have to pause to talk to someone. I keep a small selection of frozen lunches (rice and veggies, that kind of thing) and only use them in emergencies.

    The most important part about eating in your office or at your cubie, in my opinion, is what you do with the trash. For example, a good sandwich isn’t going to stick up the office. But if it sits in your trashcan overnight, it will! All leftover food & food containers should go in the kitchen trashcan to avoid that, “oh, did you have a sub for lunch?” feeling at 3:30pm. Also, I have a can of Febreeze that I use after eating in my office (though, this also comes with some warnings… becareful of people who are allergic to fragrances; if you are in a cubie, beware of overwhelming scents). I have heard of people who use dryer sheets to help mask odors, but I have never personally tried this.

    • The most important rule! :

      A has stumbled on the most important rule here – FIND AN APPROPRIATE TRASH RECEPTACLE FOR YOUR GARBAGE. I really don’t care too much about the people out there on diets who need to be protected from BigMac-smell lest they run out and gorge on the entire McDonald’s value menu. But the entire world can be rightfully offended by BigMac-garbage-smell emanating throughout the office 2 hours after lunch. Anecdotally, I think the healthier fastfoods can be just as smelly – I used to work right next to a lady who would dump either Panera or Subway trash in her garbage every day and I swear I could tell you exactly what she had ordered three hours after lunch…

      • Subway has an oddly distinctive, somewhat sweaty smell. I feel like I can identify one from about two blocks away.

        • You can. I’m convinced that they artificially mix the smell up and blow it out through vents. It’s an innovative way of getting instant recognition, and alerting the passerby. “Hey! Want a sandwich? There’s a Subway a few doors down the street!”

  4. brownies are delicious :

    Although I agree that the brownie thing is ridiculous – I would say that any office that smells like brownies is a good office. But as to other stinky foods, I think a lot of it depends on the office you’re in. If you’re not in a well-ventilated space, the smell of some food can linger for a long time and, although I will tolerate the smell of your Thai red curry for an hour or so around lunchtime, if that same smell would still be hanging around at 3:30 – you really should have brought a sandwich. I think even more so this can be true of fast food – when somebody brings in a bag of McDonald’s I can smell the greasiness across the building for like the next six months…

  5. Everyone’s got to eat, so I don’t worry too much about looking unprofessional by “lunching in”. It’s not like I’m whipping up a four course meal at a deskside toaster oven or something. I eat lunch and snacks at my desk most days and do sometimes close my door for that brief lunch time if I’ve brought something particularly involved or messy.

    My pet peeve is people who walk in while I’m obviously eating lunch and carry on as if I’m not “at lunch”. A few times I’ve had to say “As you can see, I’m eating lunch, so when’s a good time for me to get back with you?” These are generally the same people who can’t take the hint that our meeting is over and I have to literally stand up and start to do something else to get them to leave.

    I generally agree about not microwaving food that’s too smelly, though I do microwave popcorn fairly often.

    For open office plans and cube workers (cubists?), maybe you can post an “out to lunch” or “On deadline — please do not disturb” notice at your doorway if you’re self-conscious. And be sure to keep your desk and keyboard crumb-free. “Food stuff” all over someone’s work space is definitely unprofessional, as is visible food storage. Don’t want anyone to conclude that you’re homeless and living at the office.

    Keep precious originals safely out of spillage range. As an aside, I read or heard somewhere that desktops and keyboards are incredibly germy, so a quick wipe-down may be a good idea, especially in this flu season.

    Anon — totally agree about dieting comments!

  6. Ummm, with the hours I work, I end up eating lunch in my office every day. Accordingly, I will eat whatever the eff I want. If someone calls me “unprofessional” for eating a taco at my desk, then so be it. Better than being called unprofessional for not hitting my hours this month.

    The only portion I agree with is to throw food garbage away in the kitchen.

  7. I don’t know about eating microwave popcorn at the office. That is a smell that never goes away and makes me feel as though I somehow am breathing liquid butter. I don’t have a problem with other food though, so maybe the popcorn is irrational, but it really drives me crazy and seems inconsiderate to one’s colleagues.

    • I agree completely about the popcorn. I had one coworker who would have popcorn every morning at 8am. While I normally can’t stand it, it’s just that much worse when you have to come in to that smell.

      Otherwise I generally don’t have a problem with anything in the office. I agree that smelly food trash should generally be thrown in the kitchen, but I don’t have a problem with people bringing in other fatty/fast food if others are on a diet.

      For the person above who uses Febreeze- I’m actually allergic to the smell of Febreeze. When it dissipates, it’s fine, but I had a rather unpleasant experience with a hotel that febreezed like crazy. I had to air the room out for about an hour and sit in the lobby before I could go in.

    • I’m with N & Mel – PLEASE no popcorn in the office! I used to like microwave popcorn, but after working with a daily popcorn eater, I’ve had to buy an air popper because of how revolting it is. And this particular person burnt her popcorn every. single. day.

      But on the diet track – don’t talk about it. If someone turns down cake, don’t push, if someone can’t eat cake, don’t complain.

      Question though: is tuna really THAT bad to everyone else? I’ve eaten with friends eating tuna and never been able to smell it. Maybe it’s because I like it?

      • I have to admit that on my list of hated smells, canned tuna is #1. I worked in one place with a breakroom that seemed to have the permanent scent of tuna since one coworker thought eating only tuna was good for his bodybuilding diet. Of course he typically ate his tuna at around 10am and the smell often permeated the hall nearby because the kitchen was so tiny.

        I’m not a vegetarian and the only other smells that really bother me are popcorn and Subway sandwiches with onions. I don’t know what it is with Subway, but the smell from the sandwiches tends to linger much longer than any other sandwich.

      • I find the smell of canned tuna strong and very unpleasant. Sorry!

        • The smell of tuna makes me gag. My boss feels the same way about beans, for some reason. My office is across the hall from hers, so when my lunch involves beans, I close my door. Unfortunately, when she brings tuna (which is quite often) she doesn’t return the favor! I sometimes have to get up and leave the area until the smell goes away.

  8. I close my door every time I eat, even if it’s a snack. (1) It ensures no one walks in when I’m mid-bite because they have to knock. (2) It means the noise won’t bother someone. If you eat anything crunchy, like chips or an apple with an open door, people can and do hear it. I used to have an office next to an apple-eater and pretty much every day I had to close my door because she didn’t and every “CRUNCH” drove me nuts.

  9. I have absolutely no problem eating at my desk. I don’t have an office, and our cubes actually only have three sides (to encourage communication, I guess), so we’re really out there in the open. We all do it. I make sure to throw my lunch away in the galley so the smell isn’t lingering at my desk, and no one gives the practice a second thought. I’m available to answer emails during lunch, and if you have a quick question you’re more than welcome to ask me while I’m eating.

  10. C – did you work in Philadelphia? the microwave story is true at my firm…

    fortunately I have an office door and close it partway while eating. Most people on my floor do the same. However – yes, take any smelly trash to the kitchen/break room to throw out, don’t whine on and on about your diet (or on the flip side, how you can eat anything) but I also disagree about avoiding non-diet foods unless you’re trying to suck up to a dieter, and try for relatively mess- and smell- free foods if you’re eating where others can observe.

  11. Yes, tunafish really smells that bad. I am vegetarian and don’t expect the world to fit my preferences at all, but for what it’s worth, any really meaty or fishy smells make me want to puke in the office. Luckily I have a door and can go hide in there if I don’t like a smell. I hate lunchtime bring-your-food meetings- which are pretty common in my job- where I get stuck sitting next to someone eating something I find revolting.

    • I was one of 3 vegetarian at my last firm, and we tried to stick together whenever there was a lunch meeting and meat lover’s pizza was one of the items ordered. It always seems more tolerable when there are others around who understand… and don’t make you look like some high strung weirdo. :P

  12. I really don’t see the concern of eating at one’s desk. The bleach wipes you use to clean your desk before/after also do a great job of masking the food smell.

  13. Erica Foley :

    Sounds like the posters here have already hit the high points…

    1. It’s ok to eat lunch @ your desk. Period. Let’s just acknowledge this reality of modern professional life.
    2. If you have a door, close it.
    3. Be considerate about the smells you may be generating.
    4. Find an appropriate trash can.

    That wasn’t so hard, was it?

  14. Tuna and popcorn are the ones I can’t stand (especially now that I’m pregnant) but it is generally only an issue if the person brings the popcorn from the kitchen past my office to theirs.

  15. I keep a small kitchen knife in my desk drawer to cut apples, pears, and summer stone fruit. I find it a more manageable way to eat at my desk. Plus, a juicy peach is a delicious treat but not when it dribbles down your blouse!

    Absolutely 2nd/3rd the take your trash to the kitchen. Our desk-side trash service is once a week but kitchen trash is daily.

  16. falnfenix :

    I eat at my desk. One of my officemates does the same (we time it so we’re eating simultaneously, to prevent extraneous food smells in the office). The other just doesn’t eat, and tends to leave the room for a walk if he finds himself overwhelmed by food smells.

  17. I eat at my desk every day–but I have pretty mild-smelling food, like turkey sandwiches with a bag of chips, leftover homemade chicken soups, etc. I also munch all day and get rid of my fruit trash in the cafeteria so the fruit flies don’t start flying around our area.

  18. Personally, any smelly foods are a complete no-no for me. Who wants to smell your tuna sandwich? I used to work with a guy who ate tinned fish at lunchtimes and he stunk the kitchen out as he didn’t wash the tins afterwards.

    I don’t like eating at my desk, I like a change of scenery so I only do it if I have to.

  19. divaliscious11 :

    I like this blog but for the most part I really had no idea people put this much thought into what other people think and do, as well as worried so much about what other people think about them and the things they do, or don’t do….etc… Maybe I’ve had a charmed life (NOT) but the level of scrutiny some people have or have experienced is nuts! Eat what you want to eat in your office, dispose of it properly. Be considerate. The really are kindergarten lessons, aren’t they?

  20. I don’t care what people eat at their desks, and I often brown bag it because it’s healthier and cheaper, but make sure the waste is thrown out properly AND that there isn’t food in the recycling bin! I hate when people throw something like a yogurt or cottage cheese container or a sticky soda can in the recycling without rinsing it. Gross.

  21. i don’t eat apples at my desk anymore b/c i can hear the guy next door slurping away on his daily. i’ve got an officemate and don’t want to subject him to that twice a day.

  22. Indian and Korean food can be an offender. Personally I love Indian food, so it doesn’t bother me, but that tumeric can be pretty heady. Some Korean foods are, well, hard for American noses to appreciate.

    I keep a couple of those lean cuisine frozen paninis around for emergencies. Easy to eat, quick to fix, and pretty low on the annoyance factor. And surprising tasty for something that comes frozen in a box.

  23. I am personally offended by people heating up meals at all hours during the day so that I have to smell their their food not at normal meal times, but throughout the day. I ate at my desk for many years, but my preference is to go home for lunch, which I can do as I have chosen a lifestyle where my office is ten minutes away from my house, which I highly recommend.

  24. I love this blog but where in the world do you people work? I’m an MBA in the television industry so I’m not subject to these types of dress and etiquette considerations, but I cannot understand how what you eat when you are eating in your office would be a concern. I totally agree that the smell of burnt popcorn wafting through the office would be inconsiderate but, goodness, if you want spaghetti – have it!! Your company is already getting a free hour out of you. Now you have to eat a politically correct meal or risk being thought of as what – hungry? Do you think the men in your office are having these internal dialogs about their behaviour?

    • Word.

    • It’s not a “free hour” if it goes in your billables. A lot of we law peons are chained to a clock, even if we are technically on salary. Personally I miss the social interaction of lunch with colleagues, and it gives me a chance to trade stories on cases we’re working on (which often helps me learn, since I’m new). But if I can munch and read, I can munch and bill, so frequently that option wins.

      • That’s exactly right. If I take a whole hour for lunch, that’s a whole hour I need to make up later in the week/month. A couple times a week I end up eating in the lunchroom with some of the paralegals, secretaries, or other attorneys only because I sometimes need 20 minutes of distraction from my day, but I don’t take more than that. I certainly don’t need a whole hour to eat a salad or cup of soup! I know it can look unprofessional to be eating lunch with paralegals or law clerks, but we aren’t supposed to be chained to our desks all day! Are we?

        • How does it look unprofessional to be eating lunch with others in your own office? Are we only supposed to acknowledge staff when we need something from them?

  25. I eat at my desk almost every day, and as it happens my choice for the past few days has been tuna salad. I don’t want to unwittingly gross out my coworkers, so I’m wondering: are we talking about straight up tuna from a can that produces these noxious smells, or is my tuna salad that is half cabbage really making people want to puke?

    • Personally, it’s only tuna from the can that would get to me, but I suppose it depends how smelly the tuna salad is! If you can smell it from 10 feet away, there is a chance the smell will bother other people. I don’t think you have to commit to never eating tuna in the office again, but several days in a row might be a bit much if anyone sitting nearby really hates the smell and the smell is obvious from several feet away.

  26. Apples have been mentioned as loud foods to avoid, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD be sure you aren’t a sloppy eater who chews with your mouth open. Everyone eats at his/her desk at my office and there’s a woman who is a joke because of her unbelievably loud open-mouthed chewing. She’s really put together and accomplished, but I’m sure has no idea we all cringe or leave when she brings food back to her desk.

  27. Shocked by Corporette:
    For our $.02, if we haven’t planned lunch with someone, then we tend to prefer to lunch at our desk. We don’t mean to be antisocial, but it helps us to continue whatever thought we were in the midst of before hunger pangs overtook us, or to surf the web and read blogs that we wouldn’t have time for otherwise. (In fact, we hate taking breaks in the middle of the day, and tend to bring snacks like yogurt and raw almonds so we don’t have to leave the office at all.)
    I’ve lived that life. And I HATED it. I’ll never work at a law firm again. Free at last, free at last, THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, I’m free at last!!!

    • I think even non-firm lawyers have some of the anxiety discussed above – it’s probably more of a young/new-lawyer thing. A lot of lawyers are generally trained to seek/dispense approval/disapproval (e.g. “agree with me, agree with me, pick my argument”). My husband works in business/finance where I think taking risks is more respected. It’s stupid, but I know he wouldn’t think twice about eating spaghetti at his desk and he’d probably joke with his boss and even clients about getting sauce on his shirt for the next six months, me, I would worry for the next six months that somebody thought I was a slob… I’m obviously painting with broad strokes above, but I feel like I’ve had a billion of these types of conversations with other young lawyers and the people I know in business would think we’re all nuts.

  28. Anne Vohl :

    Eatiting lunch in the office can look and smell gross even if you are neat. I used to have to eat lunch in the office a lot, and a good solution was I would buy cold shrimp or crabmeat and a hot sauce. I opened the carton, added the sauce, ate out of the carton with a fork, closed the carton and threw it away. Pretty good for you, not too expensive, and not too many calories.

    • apparently fake crab (krab) meat is really healthy for you – if it’s made with pollack (sp?) (which most krab is) it’s got a ton of omega-3 in it (more than real crab) – I went through a phase where I brought krab, sushi rice, and edamame or other veggies (carrots, cucumbers, etc) for lunch every day – sort of a deconstructed sushi but not as smelly or fussy as real sushi would be…

  29. Lunch at your desk…no, no and NO!
    I’ve made that mistake for the last couple of years…and my ass lives to regret it.
    Get up, get out of the office, and get a life.
    At least that’s what I’m trying to do.

  30. So agree with you, belle de ville! Keeping your head down and being a worker bee only gets you so far in your career, I later realized to deep shock and surprise… Mingling, meeting people, networking, going to seminars, catching up over coffee — that’s how a worker bee turns into a rainmaker ;-)

  31. ChicagoLaw :

    Corporette’s comments about preferring to eat a quick lunch at one’s desk and even then only eating small things like a yogurt is sad to me. Go out and have lunch with your spouse or a friend. If you want or need to eat at your lunch some of the time, you should be able to eat what you want but just throw it away in the kitchen garbage. If someone is Korean and they want to eat pungent kim chee (spelling?), shouldn’t they be able? No tuna, no apples, no popcorn — these ridgid rules make work more stressful than it needs to me. I think more tolerance is needed here. People have to eat and all food has a smell. Some people may hate the smell of yogurt or the smell of chicken noodle soup (two of the foods cited above as unoffensive and professional). So long as it is thrown away in the kitchen, we all just need to be tolerant of our co-workers eating it for 30 minutes.

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