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?