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The art of eating (and dealing with someone else's) smelly lunch at work

Riled up about smelly lunches? You're not alone. And even if you think your lunch is innocent, others may disagree. Here's how to deal.
/ Source: TODAY
Coworker eating smelly lunch at office deskAngeliki Jackson / TODAY

I remember in high school, a boy I liked asked if I had kimchi for breakfast as soon as I walked past him by the lockers. It was mortifying, and I had cereal until graduation — and beyond.

So when I saw kimchi salad pop up as a lunch option on an app delivery-only restaurant called Ando, I stopped myself. Really, fermented cabbage, bursting on my taste buds and exploding in spicy whiff... at my office? I didn’t even like to keep kimchi at my house out of concern for former roommates. I chewed on the thought of what I really wanted — or could — eat.

RELATED: When office lunch thieves get downright dirty

Less than an hour later, I firmly received the delivery of kimchi salad and rice and beans (double trouble). Ever so slowly I peeled off the covers as I sat solo in the kitchen area. I hoped no one notice a stench as I tried to enjoy my tasty meal. In fact, I kept my eyes down to my food, wishing I were eating in an enclosed bubble.

Currently, I live in New York, where I sit (or stand) in one of those wide, startup-y, open office environments that encourage conversation and collaboration. I have my designated real estate, but there are no enclosed walls. As a former freelancer who would eat wherever, whenever, whatever, I’ve had to think about how to act around people again in an office environment, like figuring out the corporate culture and trying to avoid eating at my desk, for two reasons:

  1. I start to multitask or zone out and overeat
  2. I’m super self-conscious.

Lunch is a huge daily decision, and your food is out there for the world to see, judge and smell. In Ireland, one study found curries and fish dishes to be most offensive and annoy coworkers. And open offices for now, are here to stay, despite documented concerns for audible distractions, and smelly food you may bring to the table and set off sensory headaches.

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When I asked friends to share their food stories, I realize it’s not just ethnic foods that are culprits.

Susan Barnes said one of her former bosses banned burnt popcorn because someone kept burning it over and over again.

Fish still reportedly remains highly unpopular. Allison Marie says she had a coworker who microwaved fish everyday but “didn't do anything because even if I don't like fish, who am I to say what she can and can't eat if that is what she likes, you know?”

Then there’s saucy behavior. Paula Wade is the admittedly “annoying” cubemate who douses her Five Guys fries in malt vinegar, but notes she’s nice enough to throw her dipping trash away in the break room. Her assistant is used to it now, but when other people comment, she replies, “It sure is tasty” and tries to finish quickly.

And file this in intern nightmares: Maria Ricapito remembers not saying anything to her superior about her egg salad sandwich even though she’s personally phobic about eggs and the smell/look/residue are “really horrific.”

Gasp. That was eye-opening to hear because my subsequent lunch order was an egg salad sandwich, one of my favorite things to consume, which I miscategorized as vanilla-safe because it’s great picnic food and oh, I don’t know, delicious?

Thomas Farley, aka Mister Manners, notes we are now “seeing, hearing and yes, smelling, our work neighbors more than ever before.” He suggests take your food breaks away from your desk if there’s a break room, however brief your lunch hour is. In addition:

  • If placing food in fridge, be sure it doesn’t overtake the flavor of nearby lunches
  • If you’re microwaving, try to avoid pungent ingredients like garlic and onions
  • Make sure the aroma doesn't seep into hallways
  • Don’t burn popcorn!
  • Wipe down your desk with unscented spray cleanser
  • Toss food, drink, napkins, containers in a (possibly closed) bin away from the work area
  • Clear your leftovers by the end of the work week

“When all else fails and eating deskside is the only option, be considerate and ensure your lunch ranks low on the odoriferous scale,” Farley advises. “In general, the more powerful the taste, the more powerful the smell. And though you may relish the wafting fumes of an egg-salad sandwich, chances are your officemates do not.”

Duly noted. If we are what we eat, food choices are pretty personal, so if someone’s lunch is offending you, be careful how you approach the situation. “A critique of someone’s lunch can turn rancid very quickly,” says Farley. “If you have a close enough relationship with the individual (or if you are the supervisor of the person bringing in the stinky lunch), I would raise the topic—but gingerly.”

Even snacking on papaya has given me pause. I worked up the courage to ask my new adjacent work neighbor Tom if he could:

  1. smell it, and
  2. did it bother him?

Tom, who is super nice and polite by the way, said he didn’t “pay no mind. I’m in my own little world.” So I guess be considerate, but don’t worry too much. While the workplace is not your favorite restaurant, we should all be able to work and eat in peace.

Ko Im is a lifestyle editor/writer in the Big Apple who once ate an apple a day as an experiment.