Eating at work: five rules of engagement


Eating at the work desk is fraught with difficulty (iPhoto)

Not long before I left my last job I was at my desk eating a Crunchie — you know, one of those Cadbury chocolate-covered honeycomb bars — quite noisily, it turned out. The boss stood up, peered over the partition between the ‘hot desks’ we occupied, muttered something about eating (I can’t remember what, exactly) and smiled in a not really smiling kind of way. I was sufficiently chastised to suck the rest of that Crunchie, which was aptly named by the marketing geniuses at Cadbury, I have to say.

The next day, sitting at the same hot desk, I was eating a bag of crisps — you know, those extra-crispy Kettle Chip kind — quite noisily, it turned out. The boss stood up, peered at me over our partition and said: “Oh, you again!” I was mortified. Not once, but twice i’d been ousted by the boss — of all people — for my inelegant office eating habits.

My chances of promotion would have been severed, i’m sure, had I stayed in that job (fortunately I was working out my notice) because no one — least of all the boss — wants to work around someone who sounds like a pig at a trough. And that, in hindsight, is what i must have sounded like in my  blissed-out little snack-bubble.

The sound effects may have been magnified by the floor to ceiling window our two desks were up against, or by the close proximity of desks in general as employees were wedged into an ever-shrinking floor space as staff numbers and costs were cut, or by the flimsy, cheap partitioning between the workspaces. They may have been magnified by the echoey atmosphere that the stark, open-plan workspace took on as day workers retreated and left a handful of us to plug on. I like to think that.

On those two red card occurrences I was only snacking (and what terrible habits i’ve just revealed), but it got me thinking about eating practices in the workplace — especially for those of us in offices who often eat at the desk, for whatever reason: be it a lack of kitchen/eating facilities, shortage of time (we’re up against a deadline), laziness, or a roster where there’s no one to cover you if you vacate the hot seat (as was my predicament in my last place of work).

I remember a co-worker I worked alongside years ago who regularly ate a sandwich, or a burger, or a toastie at his desk, then wiped his hands on his upholstered office chair. I don’t think he even knew he did it. But I did.

Another time a colleague reheated a salmon dish in the work kitchen and returned to his desk with it where he was harangued over the pong by everyone within smelling distance. I swear, if there had been stones on hand, they would have pelted him with them.

On the other side of the coin, whenever I took to work leftovers of home-made cardamon scented Persian rice, fragrant Malaysian curries, or aromatic Indian biryani I was always greeted with complements and requests for recipes. One colleague used to joke that I should go into business delivering homemade lunches to office workers, like him. On my farewell card, he even noted that he’d miss the smells emanating from my desk at meal times. Of course, he’d miss me too — I like to think.

One day — not long before I left my last place of work — I took in the leftovers of a particularly pungent home-made Thai curry. I decided to eat it swiftly, standing up at the kitchen bench, rather than at my desk. A colleague who came into the kitchen asked what I was eating and commented on how nice it smelled. I explained, I was eating it in the kitchen because it was particularly aromatic. “Oh, thank you!” she said. Despite appreciating its tantalising smell, she appreciated more not being overwhelmed by it in her workspace.

It got me thinking, again, about eating in the workplace. What is good practice, and what is bad? For every five colleagues who salivated over the aromatic, adventurous, home-made meals I ate at my desk (necessarily, not out of choice), perhaps there was one gagging into their bin behind me. While my home-made food smells were appreciated by the majority, perhaps the minority (secretly) wanted to pelt me with stones. For some, it may have set off hunger pangs that were hours away from being satiated because of an unrelenting workload.

Upon commencement of a new job i’ve jotted down some rules of engagement for workplace eating, in general.

1) Don’t slurp, burp, or crunch (too loudly) when munching at your desk. Visuals to avoid include picking your teeth (with a paper clip or notice board pin), lounging back in your reclining office chair and rubbing your protruding belly, farting, and slobbering food on your chin, clothes, or keyboard.

2) Think fish: think fresh — not reheated leftovers the next day. Salmon is particularly whiffy, and I once heard a colleague bemoaning the fact that someone had reheated a “vomit-smelling tuna bake” and walked it “right through the office” back to their desk. It’s not a good thing to be remembered for.

3) You, and a dozen of your work mates, might think your Morrocan-scented, 16-spice rubbed, slow-cooked, saltbush lamb stuffed with barberries, wild garlic and preserved lemon smells out of this world, but a colleague around the corner — the one with food allergies, or sensitivities, or just a looming, KPI-meeting deadline that will never be fulfilled — could be barfing in their bin as you’re shovelling it in. If in doubt, sit it out … in the kitchen or the “eat out area” if you’re in one of those annoyingly, groovy workplaces that has tried too hard to be trendy.

4) Do comment on colleagues’ lunches when they look/smell good. Inquire about the components of that well-dressed salad, the spice in the rub on that chicken, the filling in that doorstep of a sandwich, and the recipe behind the casserole that’s chock-a-block with colourful vegetables, pulses and meat, because home cooking should be encouraged — and celebrated — even if it has to eaten at work.

5) If you really have to multi-task by working and eating at your desk — and i’m not advocating it, but sometimes it can’t be avoided — make life as easy as possible for yourself. Scratch soup off the menu: carrying hot liquid to your desk is dangerous and you’ll probably end up dribbling bright orange-coloured lentil puree or chunks of minestrone down your top, which is not a good look. Anything that requires a knife and fork is a bit clutsy, too. What you need is something you can hold one-handed, while you grasp a phone, type with your other hand, or scribble notes as you tune into a conference call. My favourite concoction was a warmed tortilla, stuffed with falafel, hummous, hand-made coleslaw of grated carrot and finely sliced red and green cabbage, and swaddled firmly in a paper hand-towel so nothing escaped. It’s  pretty much smell-free, 100 percent drip-free, and totally slurp and crunch-free — an all-round, desk-bound winner.

Do you eat at your work desk? If so, what are you rules of engagement? Or foolproof meals that don’t get you into trouble?



Filed under Food Issues, Reflections

31 responses to “Eating at work: five rules of engagement

  1. Jo

    Laksa Thursdays always mean I have to cover my keyboard with paper napkins.


  2. We used to have a small office with 13 staff and my husband would crack the shits if someone brought something smelly and ate it at his/her desk. He’d rant that we spent a fortune for a kitchen and a lovely table just so the smells would go the other way.

    I thought of him through every line of this post.


  3. Liz Posmyk of Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things

    Rachel, you are a genus with your observations and I love this post! Like you, I notice things like smells and people wiping their hands on furniture (or using the office kitchen brush to clean their fingernails!!!). Sometimes eating at your desk is a must do…. especially if the Minister’s Office is breathing down your neck… am going to share this post, absolutely wonderful!


    • Thanks Lizzy for your lovely feedback and sharing on social media! What on earth was a colleague doing using the office kitchen brush to clean their fingernails? On second thoughts i don’t want to know! But a great observation, nonetheless x


  4. Here in Zurich, it’s not really the thing to eat at your desk; if you do, you’re likely to be a foreigner. Most of the Swiss tend to eat their lunch at the canteen (which is usually pretty good in Switzerland) or in an area designated for eating. I guess it is because the Swiss regard their lunch hour as sacred and actually take a proper break over lunch. One of the offices recently switched to hot desks and the issue of people (i.e. foreigners) eating at their desks required a committee to be created to set down the rules. Ultimately, the workplace decided against eating at your desk. Even if you wanted to eat a small tub of yoghurt, you were advised to go into the canteen where you wouldn’t be distracting anyone. Although I never ate at my desk, I often snacked throughout the day and only realised too late that, yes, eating a chocolate bar was disturbing my surrounding colleagues!


    • Thank goodness i’m not the only one who has disturbed fellow workers when eating a chocolate bar! I like the sound of lunchtime in Zurich – so much more civilised. However, your workplace committee sounds pretty strict!


  5. I used to work within close proximity to a colleague who had an unusual habit of eating her lunch at about 10.30am daily. Nothing too wrong with that. But what made this extra strange was that she nearly always ate hot, aromatic, Asian soupy things prepared by her boyfriend. I just couldn’t hack these vapours when I was having my mid-morning macchiato with a Danish pastry.


    • I’ve always felt slightly peeved if a colleague’s food smelt really good and made me feel really hungry … and i had an unappetising salad (or worse) in the fridge. Sausage rolls always seemed to spark a hunger frenzy in my last place of work … if anyone bought a sausage roll at the cafe downstairs and brought it back to their desk it would trigger a chain reaction.


  6. In my first office job I worked with a girl who loved tinned tuna and ate it often. Its smell makes me gag. Given the nature of our job, and the small size of the company (2-3 staff), we almost always ate al-desko, and often together in our conference room. Eventually we came to an agreement that either she would eat her tuna outside, or she would wait until I went out before eating it.


    • I love the fact that you came to an ‘agreement’ … that’s good workmanship for you. Hope you’re having tuna free days, these days.


      • sadly not – it’s the only food Mr13 has consistently eaten since I met him nearly 10 years ago. I had to cook him dinners with it – nearly puked each time. Revolting stuff. I got my revenge by disguising bucket loads of steamed and pureed veggies in his dinners 🙂


      • That’s terrible … i’ve never been in the position of having to cook something i hate – or makes me gag – for someone else. You are very brave and devoted. Mr13 owes you, big time!


  7. Hi Rachel, great post, funny and so true! Similarly to Mel, I once had a boss who ate a lot of tinned tuna and was not particularly good at cleaning up after himself. The kitchen and office area constantly smelt of tinned fish and it would make me gag too.

    I do eat tinned tuna now but I have to dispose of the tin and clean up immediately afterwards or the smell just lingers!


    • I must admit, i don’t tend to notice food smells in the office … perhaps because i’ve been the worst perpetrator in the past (i’m currently on my best behaviour!) Usually the smell of other people’s food just makes me hungry … i’ve never liked feeling left out on the food front!


  8. I had to giggle at the boss-really? Food was the only thing I looked forward to when I worked a corporate job. Forget promotion, I would have been looking elsewhere. Or maybe they wanted a chip 😛


  9. Oh gosh – I’m a chronic desk eater!! I do it every day…. but it tends to be salad with some form of protein… not too offensive I hope.


    • I think you’re safe, JV – salad is pretty inoffensive. But then again – there i was stuffing my face with Crunchies and crisps … so i may not be the best person to comment. Happy desk eating.


  10. Well, given the hours you were working in your last job, if you didn’t eat on the job, I’m pretty sure you didn’t eat at all! Great tips though, especially for eating in open plan office space. Can I just say, if I was a boss, I’d want to sack the guy who wiped his hands on the office upholstery every day!


  11. lol there is nothing worse than someone eating a juicy pear and zealously sucking the juice with every bite. I’m generally mindful of the types of lunch I bring (no belacan beans for instance) but I think it also helps if you eat at the time that the office clears out for lunch, although I have scarfed things down in the kitchen too.

    I’m with you on the fresh fish rule too. A colleague used to toast his tuna sandwich in the sandwich press (which sat in our office) and that was all we could smell for the rest of the day!


  12. I love this post. While I have always worked with considerate lunchers, and mostly ate away from the desk -in a kitchen or canteen. Something about eating at a work desk seems so sad and “loser ish”. I know several stories of food encrusted keyboards, with old crumbs and rotting particles jammed between the letters. Eeeeouw.


    • Crumby keyboards are particularly awful – agreed. I think it’s definitely far more healthy to eat away from the desk, but admittedly sometimes it can’t be helped. Considerate lunchers help, too.


  13. what an excellent post! and great advice 😉 i eat at as desko – only so i can exercise for all of my lunch break. in fact, a lot of people do this in my office – eat before (or after) their lunch hour so they can maximise the time spent walking, bike riding or gymming! we’re very lucky.
    i’m also lucky that we had an office shuffle recently, and i have an office to myself, so i can slurp on juicy apricots or crunch on biscuits without upsetting anyone.
    but the really good thing about having an office to myself is no one can see – and therefore judge me on – my eating habits. which i think are reasonable, but someone else may not. when i shared, i started to get paranoid that people would judge me on the number of times i ate during the day (“she’s eating AGAIN?!”). but that’s a different article…


    • I had an ex-colleague who always seemed to walk past my desk when i as eating – and i’m talking shoving a baguette down your throat kind of eating. We had a good friendship and he’d always say something (half jokingly) like “are you eating again?” or “watch yourself, you’ll dislocate your jaw!” – i had to laugh, because it was so apt. Privacy, when eating, is oftentimes a good thing! Thanks for dropping by.


  14. hazedaze

    There’s a drink slurper (is that how you spell it?) at my new office. We’re both new. A soundscape that grates my ears…


  15. Love your writing style, very entertaining. I find homemade sushi the easiest to eat, if made without rice even better. But even drinking required etiquette! A member of our office slumps on his drink bottle really loudly and grossly, everyone makes fun of him behind his back and rolls their eyes behind their computers.


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