What Is the Worst Thing You Can Eat at Your Desk?

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

A woman in Morris County, N.J., eats mail-ordered salmon out of a can. OK, it’s not always in a can; sometimes it comes in a vacuum-sealed pouch. She works at a residential design company and, according to a former co-worker, Randi Friesema, she consumes the cat-food-like snack at her desk, then rinses out the container in the office’s communal sink, leaving behind a stench that—well, let’s just say it lingers.

“She does it in waves, whenever she’s on a diet,” says Friesema, 29. “Whenever I smelled it, I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s back.’ It’s just awful.” Friesema and other co-workers used to make fun of the mail-ordered salmon, but no one ever asked the woman to stop eating it. That’s the problem with eating smelly foods in an office—you probably don’t know when you’re doing it, and no one is going to tell you when you are.

“I don’t want to be the passive-aggressive person,” says Sarah Meyers, 38, who works in Maryland. Meyers sits within smelling distance of her office’s microwave, which means she regularly suffers through heated-up shrimp and fish dishes. “We used to have a sign on the microwave that said ‘No Fish!’” she says, “but we moved offices and I guess the sign got lost.” Meyers is thinking of putting one back up but admits she most likely won’t.

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you probably know what Friesema and Meyers are complaining about. According to the American Dietetic Assn., as many as 83 percent of people regularly eat lunch at their desks, which means everyone has suffered through someone else’s mealtime odor at some point. Some dishes aren’t that unpleasant, but they’re still distracting. If it’s not your carne asada burrito, do you really want to be the one who’s smelling it?

Dr. Charles Wysocki at the Monell Chemical Senses Center says a lot of the problematic office food smells stem from situational expectations. “You expect to have a lot of aromas when you go to a restaurant, but you don’t expect to have a lot of aromas in your cubicle when the person next to you is eating their lunch,” he says. To show how context matters, Wysocki points to an experiment that found that people who smelled Stilton cheese in a container marked “Food” reported a cheesy scent, whereas people sniffing the same scent in a bottle marked “Body” thought it smelled like feet. So if you have to eat Stilton, keep it at the restaurant—if you take it back to your desk, your co-workers might think you’ve removed your shoes and socks.

When I asked people to name the most offensive office odors, fish and hard-boiled eggs were by far the most unpopular. Wysocki says there’s a reason for that: They have strong sulfuric scents that people generally find displeasing. Another frequent offender is burnt popcorn. “This lady who used to work here always burned her popcorn—on purpose,” says Sarah Lifsey, 31, who works at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “They came in these little 100-calorie packs and she’d eat them as her two o’clock snack. Oh, it was terrible.” Lifsey says she doesn’t think anything she eats smells bad—but when I asked what she ate at work, she said mackerel and tins of sardines. “I throw them on salads,” she says. “I don’t microwave them! That means they don’t smell, right?”

Odors aren’t the only problem with eating lunch at your desk, says Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. “People don’t eat more calories if they eat at their desk, but they do report enjoying their food less,” he says. That leads to a feeling that you’re not quite satisfied—which may lead to more snacking, especially if you have snacks or candy available elsewhere in the office.

Erin Zimmer knows what he’s talking about. She’s the national managing editor of the food blog SeriousEats, and restaurants deliver tasty samples to her office every day. “I don’t care how many lunches you’ve eaten in a day, if someone brings in something that smells delicious, you’re going to have to try it,” she says.

Earlier this week, a local restaurant chain sent 10 trays of ribs and fried chicken to SeriousEats as a surprise. “Our office smelled like that sticky, sweet BBQ smell all day,” she says, in a way that implies that was actually a good thing. She and her co-workers also enjoy the scent of brussels sprouts pizza, though—so I don’t know if they’re to be trusted.

But even at SeriousEats, employees have limits. Zimmer says she recently brought dried fish into work as a snack and her co-workers are still giving her grief about it. (Why are there so many fish stories? Stop bringing fish to work, people. Nobody likes it.)

Fish, eggs, and popcorn may emit the worst stenches, but there are plenty of others that co-workers despise. Below is a list of the worst offenders that I compiled after vigorous research—meaning, I asked everyone I knew:

• Meat loaf
• Brussels sprouts
• Steamed cauliflower
• Gyros
• Frozen Indian food from Trader Joe’s
• Curry
• Kimchi
• Durian
• Anything with garlic and onions
• Blue cheese
• Fettuccine Alfredo
• Certain kinds of tofu
• Mexican food
• Bacon
• Corned beef hash
• Fish sticks
• Sauerkraut

Different people have different tastes, of course, and even something as simple as a banana can set people off. One woman complained to me about Lean Cuisine entrees while another specifically mentioned them as something she found olfactorily pleasing. And I don’t know what’s wrong with the person who said bacon was disgusting; bacon is indisputably delicious. In the end, when it comes to inappropriate office foods, the only agreed-upon rule seems to be “Whatever you’re eating that I’m not.”