Research shows it’s best to use your lunch break as an actual break and avoid eating at your desk. Sometimes, though, it seems inevitable to eat while working.
Especially for us who work in a cubicle – with coworkers close by – it’s important to be mindful of our eating habits and how they might affect others.
After four and a half years working in my own office, I switched to a cubicle. A short wall with a window separated the two desks me from my nearest coworker. That forced me to take stock of my eating habits.
Below are my favorite tips for eating near others at work.
No matter where you are eating – at your cubicle, in your office, at a working lunch, or even on a date or at home – these tips are polite best practices to help you feel confident as you chow.
1. Be Mindful of Smells and Avoid Anything with a Strong Odor
That may include fish (never microwave or cook fish at work – an exception might be canned fish in the lunch room – that’s a case-by-case situation), strong spices, and anything you’re heating up.
I remember a time when I ate cooked spinach and scrambled eggs for breakfast every day. Since I started work early, I microwaved the meal in this nifty thing called an Eggtastic (great White Elephant gift idea, by the way) when I got to work, and one day, I overcooked it.
The spinach smelled terrible, and two colleagues approached me to say they were disgusted with the smell and no matter what they did, they couldn’t clean the smell from the microwave. I felt SO bad! I promised to never do that again, and learned a very important lesson about overcooking foods (especially weird foods).
2. Consider the Sounds of Eating
Crunch. Slurp. Smack. Certain foods are just better eaten when I’m not in my cubicle with nine other people nearby. Some of those include crunchy foods like carrots, nuts, chips, apples, ice, and cucumbers. I’m not saying those are all bad to eat when people are around. I just noticed that when other people crunch foods like this while I’m trying to work, I get distracted. And I feel self-conscious when I’m chomping away and my cubicle neighbor is sitting on the other side of the glass. It feels disrespectful to her and her work for me to be crunching for an hour when she has nowhere else to go.
I still eat cucumbers, but I cut them into small pieces when I meal prep, so I’m not crunching forever. I also snack on nuts, but am careful to chew deliberately to avoid excessive crunching. If you like to chew ice (I fall prey to this bad habit), I’d recommend beginning to wean off. It is annoying to cubicle neighbors to listen to an ice chomper while trying to work. Plus, it’s bad for our teeth and could actually link to other health conditions.
If you work early and bring breakfast like oatmeal or cereal, or you pack soup for lunch, avoid slurping. This applies to drinking any beverages, as well.
Sometimes it can feel natural to “smack” salads, spaghetti, or zucchini noodles. If you eat these kinds of foods, pay attention next time you eat to see if you’re a “smacker.” Then work intentionally to break the habit.
3. Use Manners While Eating
Maybe it goes without saying, but to look professional while eating at your desk, don’t lick a plate or dump your chip bag upside down into your mouth to get the last crumb. Consider your office/cubicle neighbor or anyone who walks by and looks at you. What do you want them to see? Eat accordingly.
It’s usually best to have a napkin with you. I’m always a fan of placing the napkin in my lap and using the proper way, even if I’m not eating with anyone. Some may say this is overkill, and that’s fine. You don’t have to do it. But please do have a napkin handy so you can avoid any unwelcome “leftovers.”
The last thing about using manners while eating is to know how different foods impact you. For example, if you know a certain meal gives you indigestion, it might be best to save that meal for a weekend, when you’re not surrounded by coworkers.
4. Use Manners After Eating
Never leave your dishes in the break room sink – whether to soak or because you’re out of time.
Do not leave your dishes out to dry – dry them and put them away immediately. Early in my career, a coworker told me she noticed I always washed my dishes, but I left them on a towel to dry for hours, and often forgot to put them away until the next day. (That was what my family did growing up, so in my head I was not being offensive because I washed the dishes.)
She asked me to put my dishes away as soon as I washed them, so she wouldn’t have to do it since she came in before me every day. That conversation was a great lesson to me – everyone has different preferences and it’s helpful to talk about them and know what helps your coworkers. Safest route: Clean up everything after yourself as soon as you’re done.
Sometimes the workday is so busy, washing lunch dishes just seems like too much. I’ve been there. If I’m having one of those days where I’m going to wash dishes at home, I make sure to seal all containers and immediately put my dishes in my lunch bag or someplace out of sight until I leave. No one wants to see or smell used dishes.
You might choose to brush your teeth after lunch. I worked with a colleague who kept a toothbrush at the office and brushed her teeth several times a day. She was brilliant. I adopted the practice of keeping a toothbrush at work too. It’s better than a mint!
These are the main rules I like to follow when eating at work. How do you approach lunch at work? Share in the comments!