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Ask Savvy: How Do I Tell My Co-Worker Her Lunch Stinks?

Dear Savvy,
I work in a small office with four other people. I am lucky in many ways — they are smart, funny, and friendly. We coexist well, and three of us usually grab lunch together or send one person out for takeout. Our fourth co-worker is a nice woman, but she is the quiet loner of the group who doesn't partake in our lunch missions. In fact, she brings in strange, saucy food everyday, heats it up in the kitchen right near our workspace, and eats it at her desk. It stinks. And I'm not talking about a faint scent of food that passes in 10 minutes. I'm talking about really, really smelly grub. My most outspoken co-worker has asked her to open the window on occasion, but she seems totally oblivious that the rest of us are suffering. How can I tell her that her lunch makes us sick without offending her?
Sensitive to Scents Sally

Savvy says: Smelly lunches at the office are no laughing matter and a very common problem. PartySugar has tackled this phenomenon before and says bringing stinky food is a major breach of office etiquette. I agree with her. Most SavvySugar readers admit they judge their co-workers by their lunch smells or have been bothered by a co-worker's food before. You don't want to resent this woman because of her lunch. To see what I think you should say,


If you worked at a larger office, I would suggest talking to HR and having them do the dirty work for you by sending out a blanket email about shared space, eating in the kitchen, and making sure to open windows midday for proper ventilation. Given your office size, it sounds like you will need to take matters into your own hands. Start by mentioning "it smells like food" a few times and asking if you can open the window. If you do this throughout the week she'll catch on and be more conscious about her lunch. If she doesn't change her habits immediately, talk to her and be completely honest. Tell her you appreciate that she wants to eat in the office so she can push through work, but you have a queasy stomach and any fancy food scents upset you. Ask her if she wants to eat outside on a park bench with you (the breeze will blow it away). Focus on your sensitive nose and stomach and not her strange food and she won't be offended.


It's likely that she will alter the food she brings in or become more conscious about her lunch once she realizes it is bothering you, but if things don't improve you may just have to make it work. After all, she may think your food is disgusting too. You can always use the half hour it takes for the smell to dissipate to grab your lunch or take a walk around the block. Like it or not, you will be sharing space with your co-workers so long as you work together, so you just have to bear the scents.

Photo copyright 2009 ABC, Inc.

Join The Conversation
lickety-split lickety-split 7 years
i would be VERY careful if this is cultural thing. You could be accused of harassment or prejudice, etc. When I first moved to the area i live in now i rented a room in a house with 3 others. one of them ALWAYS had a pot of something with curry in it on the stove. that was not a smell that agreed with me, so i know exactly what you are talking about. but unless you get rid of the policy that allows employees to eat at their desks, it's going to look like you are singling her out.
missyd missyd 7 years
I dont think you should have to do this "Ask her if she wants to eat outside on a park bench with you (the breeze will blow it away). " You dont have to feel so bad about telling her this that you need to sacrifice your lunches to entertain her (unless you want to) Thats not fair. "Ok, so I dont like how you stink out our office, I'll eat lunch outside with you each day in order to compensate for speaking my mind, in case I came off as rude?" Umm no. I dont think so. One of the things that p*sses me off the MOST in this world is bad table manners (BubbleSpice, comment #4, I dont know how you did it...I would have said something after the first day, or thrown up, one of the two)or anything gross/ignorant that is food related. People can be so piggish
Zivanod Zivanod 7 years
Check your HR policies. If there are offensive smells, it may actually be against regulations and she will have to take it somewhere else. Perhaps have your HR person send out an email to all staff reminding them that offensive smells are a no-no in the office. Hopefully she will get the hint and stop. If it persists, have the HR person talk to her directly. Perhaps she is unaware of the overwhelming smells. A lady in my office once brouhgt in the smelliest fish ever. It only took one of my co-workers to say "Whoa, what smells!" for her to apologize and she has made a conscience effort not to do it again.
BubbleSpice BubbleSpice 7 years
I shared a cubicle wall with a girl that ate different microwave noodles about 4 times a day. The smell was not a problem, the problem was she only used chopsticks and would slurp and slurp. It was so loud clients would hear it over the phone. I finally just moved cubicles, when the boss asked why I asked him to follow me into the old cube while she was eating. After that, he helped me move the rest of my stuff.
buzzlightgirl buzzlightgirl 7 years
I worked at an insurance company in college where people were very uptight. Apparently popcorn was a distraction so the office manager put signs up all over the breakroom that said "DO NOT MAKE POPCORN". It was strange but effective.
Spectra Spectra 7 years
I used to work in a very culturally diverse company where a lot of people were of Asian and Indian descent as well and many of them brought very strong-smelling foods for lunch that would smell up the break room pretty badly. I guess I just learned to deal with it and if the food was really bad, I'd eat lunch in my car or at my desk.
kscincotta kscincotta 7 years
I've run into this situation before, but with a twist. I work in a science lab with a lot of people of Indian or Asian descent. As such, our hallways often reek of spicy curries or even worse, fish. Someone or other brings fish for lunch almost every day. But because that's their traditional diet (many of them are immigrants), I don't feel comfortable asking them not to bring it. What to do?!?
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