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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.

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