Let us air our grievances
July 23, 2019 1:23 AM   Subscribe

My husband usually takes leftovers to work to eat for lunch. I have learned recently (just through reading on the Internet) that reheating fish in the office microwave is deeply frowned upon. But..what IS ok?

When I searched online I saw forbidden foods like fish, microwave popcorn, curry, barbecue anything, kimchi anything, thai anything...I mean we eat a lot of things with fish sauce or cumin or garlic or at least onion in them. What foods do you reheat at the office? What have you heard complaints over? If you work in an office with a high proportion of Indians and Chinese, do those rules get jettisoned? Even basic chili has cumin and spices in it! I get the fish thing though. What are your experiences?
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee to Human Relations (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hi - I take my lunch to work almost every day (i.e. I will only go out and get something maybe once a month or less) - and it's usually leftovers to heat up (otherwise I eat my sandwiches at 10.01!). We do have a separate room to eat lunch in which is quite big and has windows - I always eat away from my desk and encourage my team to do so as well.

I often bring in spicy home-cooked foods (curries, thai, chinese, mexican) and the only thing I worry about is fish. For example, if we have had roast salmon and veg and rice for dinner, I will reheat the veg and rice but eat the salmon cold (which I don't mind at all, but others might?) We have quite a lot of international students who reheat more pungent foods but it's not too bad because they do so out of the actual offices.

I really don't like it if my colleagues heat up almost anything and bring it back into the main office - even just soup or pasta. To me, that's not great - and I'd much rather they took 10 mins away from their desk and ate it out of our work space (open plan). At my old office (also open plan) , I made a very polite complaint about that and it did help - but I suppose it depends very much on whether you have a decent space available to eat reheated food.

If I did not have a separate space I would be much more likely to have cold lunches or blander food but I am quite sensitive to these things (i.e. recently I didn't want to eat a hot falafel veg box on a train because I was worried it would be smelly - my partner thought I was worrying too much).

So my take is that it depends very much on what kind of eating space you have (if you have any!). I personally would not reheat smelly food if I had to eat it at my desk, and I would prefer my colleagues not to either...
posted by sedimentary_deer at 3:09 AM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I eat my leftovers cold—but I really enjoy them that way.
posted by sallybrown at 4:00 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

I work in an office, and the only thing that bothers me is fish. Popcorn is mildly annoying, but even those smells are in the kitchen, which is where smells like that are appropriate. If you work around other human beings, you’ll have to deal with things occasionally not being exactly what you want. It’s a good practice to learn to live with that.
posted by FencingGal at 4:24 AM on July 23, 2019 [16 favorites]

It's entirely variable upon the place of work and its current standards. I worked at a place where fish was frowned on and popcorn ubiquitous until one day two or three of the higher status people decided they needed Omega 3's and from then on salmon was absolutely fine. And popcorn resulted in microwave fires and the smoke was so annoying that it was banned.

The only way to find out is for your husband to ask. Much will depend on the ventilation in the building, the location of the microwave and what everyone else is bringing. If two-thirds of the company are engineers from India, curry and dal will be totally acceptable. If three quarters of the staff are recently from China, something like butter may be considered horrible.

I also worked at a company where one of the women would sometimes suddenly break out with hives around her mouth, if someone in the kitchen was cutting up strawberries - so if someone asks for other people not to cook something or prepare something, I would try hard to work around it.

His HR department might be able to help if his coworkers provide a jumble of answers.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:26 AM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

We have an unsaid rule about not microwaving fish in my office (its an open office with the kitchen off to the side, so most smells will inevitably make its way to at least one part of the office). We have lifted the ban on microwave popcorn as it is an office favorite - and we make popcorn as a part of an office celebration or Friday afternoon event.

I just had this conversation with my partner last night about whether we thought tuna fish or canned salmon was acceptable for the office - even cold, it does have a strong smell. But we both decided that as long as it wasn't being microwaved, it should be ok for office consumption.
posted by something_witty at 5:13 AM on July 23, 2019

Reheating broccoli in the microwave can also be awful and linger. At a past job, I used to sit the closest to the kitchen, and yeah, broccoli, burnt popcorn, and fish were among the worst.
posted by limeonaire at 5:20 AM on July 23, 2019 [13 favorites]

I don't mind spicy stuff wafting over. It's really the seafood that gets me. Fish, shrimp, scallops. Also, scallops reheated in the microwave? Why would you even want that??
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:40 AM on July 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

Wait, what? There are still people who don't know it's inappropriate to microwave fish at work? I guess I shouldn't be surprised; I've worked with many of them, but I thought this was a well-known commandment of office life: Thou shalt never microwave fish.

Beyond that ironclad, never-to-be-violated commandment, there are actually two issues at play here. One is the odor (or aroma) of the food as it's being eaten. All food smells like something. If you're eating food in public, other people are going to smell it, and there's no way around that. You should try to be sensitive to other people, but the aroma for most foods (like macaroni and cheese, or a turkey sandwich) is gone once you've finished eating it, so stuff like that is fine.

The second issue is lingering odor. This is the problem with fish. Fish smells like fish as it's being eaten, yes, but it also smells like fish for like hours after you've finished eating. You can't get rid of it. That's what you should be trying to avoid. If someone walks in a room three hours after you've microwaved your food and says "smells like someone had some fish (or Thai food, or buffalo wings, or whatever)", that's where the problem is.

There's no universal rule. Fish is just well-known because it's so immediately obvious for so long, but most dishes are trial and error. After all, if you're the type of person who likes cooking new things, you can't know how they'll smell until after you've made them. Whenever you heat something up, check back in the kitchen at various intervals later in the day to see if you can still smell your lunch. If so, don't bring that again.

The last thing is to consider is disposal. For me, I don't have a problem with Thai or Indian food being microwaved, but since a lot of both involve curries, the problem ends up being the disposal of the extra sauce. (This is a problem with a lot of "American" food too.) You have three real options: throwing it in the trash, leaving the dirty dish at your desk, or washing the dish out. If you throw it in the trash, the trash can is then going to smell even worse than it already does, and that's gross. If you leave the dirty dish at your desk (this is generally my preferred option, due to laziness), your desk area will smell. The best option would thus seem to be washing it out, but consider that most office sinks don't have garbage disposals, and therefore a lot of the remnant sauce will just sit in the pipes below the sink, making the sink area smell. Consequently, your goals should be to either bring food that can be consumed entirely (like a sandwich), or to find a place to dispose of your food outside the office (either a dumpster, for disposable containers, or your car for Tupperware).

But again, the most important thing is Bayesian updating. Everyone makes mistakes; just don't make the same mistake twice.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:43 AM on July 23, 2019 [14 favorites]

I work in an office where probably five people microwave salmon every day - as long as you don’t let it go too long it doesn’t bother me (no big deal compared to my husband heating up tuna fish in a frying pan at home), and I guess it doesn’t bother my coworkers either. We have a large kitchen with several large trash cans and a sink and dishwasher and the office is professionally cleaned daily. It usually smells fine.

In short: even fish is not a universal rule!
posted by mskyle at 5:54 AM on July 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm an office worker who also brings leftovers daily, and I eat at my desk instead of the lunchroom. My one concession to fish is that I'll eat it in the lunchroom, instead of at my desk. Yes, after I've microwaved it. ;)

There's all kinds of weird food issues that people have, but we can't live (well) on just steamed rice. So I'll happily eat my leftover curry or wings, and I'll remember this as a trade off when the guy who eats mcdonalds at his desk 2+ times each day brings in another stinky load in a sad paper sack. Seriously, if one doesn't eat fast food, it's amazing just how bad that smells.

on preview: kevinbelt - the other option of disposal - bring the food in in one's own covered containers, and after eating it re-cover it to bring back home and wash there. No aromas once I'm done eating.
posted by nobeagle at 6:10 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

The biggest things for me are
1. Eat in the kitchen (if available). There is a room for kitchen smells for a reason
2. Don’t microwave fish. The smell just lingers way too long.
3. Pretty much everything else is fine.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:17 AM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think microwaving salmon for 30 seconds isn't the same as cooking fish, like it's not cool to defrost a salmon at work but a mild reheat in a glass container should be ok. You can cover it with a paper towel (something I do for almost all of my lunches), and microwave some vinegar water for a couple minutes after to reduce the smell if you're really worried.

I bring and eat everything to work. People only express positive admiration of yummy smelling leftovers (like burritos or thai food), but I suppose most of us aren't packing too many strong smelling foods. I'm pretty smell sensitive and I keep peppermint essential oil at my desk if I need to overpower an unpleasant smell and we have a pretty secure garbage can in the kitchen that is supposed to hold odors in.

A good option for you might be those bento sets that keeps your food warm, that way you won't be using the microwave at all and can pack/eat pungent foods to your heart's desire.
posted by lafemma at 6:25 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I got to say, there’s a lot of people in this thread saying “oh, I would totally stop microwaving fish if someone told me it really bothered them.” And a lot of people in this thread saying “please don’t microwave fish, the smells bothers me.”
posted by raccoon409 at 6:28 AM on July 23, 2019 [25 favorites]

I got stuck with the cube across from the kitchen doorway (between the two bathroom doors!), and I complain loudly at Tom, who heats up a plate of hot peppers every damn day at 10:00. He thinks it's cute that I complain about finding the smell offensive; I think he's a selfish dick. It's really about being a considerate neighbor, and listening to your colleagues. (Fish is also out, and I say that as someone who loves eating fish. Nuke that fish, and I will share my Feelings.)

Mind you, by the time that Tom gets to his desk, the air conditioning pulls away the smell -- but at the kitchen itself, the smell lingers. So being respectful of the people who are stuck sitting in a particular spot is important.

Beyond that, just ask the folks who sit nearby if anything bothers them, because it's a win either way: if they tell your husband that there's something they hate, they will be grateful that he asked and they also get to share spiteful gossip about the Smelly People; if there's nothing that bothers them, they still see that he's a swell FNG and he scores some free brownie points.

Finally: use the lunchroom if there is one.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:33 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Can I jump in and say that as a vegetarian, the smell of leftover PORK being reheated makes me nauseated.

Fish and Popcorn are also terrible. What is wrong with people?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:34 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fish is the only food you should not microwave at work. People who put curry on the list of foods you should not microwave at work are racist.
posted by capricorn at 6:38 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

As you can see, this is a question about workplace culture and is not knowable by strangers. Your husband should ask the people who sit nearest the microwave to be sure.
posted by samthemander at 6:51 AM on July 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

The rule is: nothing that's super stinky and lingering.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:30 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Nothing that has a strong and pervasive smell. Some such smells can be subjective, but fish is universally acknowledged as a "strong and pervasive smell". Popcorn is as well - although for most, it's a strong, pervasive, and tempting smell. Same too with french fries. Fish is regarded as a strong, pervasive, and unpleasant smell by several.

You may also find people who find smells associated with curry unpleasant. That's a little more of a subjective-opinion thing; I only mention it to warn you. (I like that smell, personally!) So as long as a smell is subtle, you'll probably be okay.

Also, there's an obvious solution to the microwave issue - get an insulated container, so you can heat up whatever you want at home and bring it in. It'll still be hot by lunchtime, but you haven't used the microwave, so that doesn't amplify the smell. The people sitting around you when you open a container may smell it, but that's about it; microwaves can amplify a smell as it's heating your food, and that's why people react strongly to things in the microwave.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:01 AM on July 23, 2019

any kind of seafood microwaved at work is a capital offense IMO
posted by poffin boffin at 8:23 AM on July 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think this is really office dependent. I have worked in an office with a separate breakroom without any close office, an office where the kitchen is on the main manufacturing floor, and an office where we had a microwave and a fridge in our cubicle farm. Each had different but annoyingly unspoken rules about what was acceptable.
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 AM on July 23, 2019

If your food splatters inside the microwave, wipe it up! Otherwise, it will get microwaved over and over again and continue to smell each time. Especially noticeable with butter and canned soups IME.
posted by momus_window at 8:28 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Fish and broccoli are the worst.

Almost everything else makes me hungry for lunch myself.
posted by like_neon at 8:30 AM on July 23, 2019

I work in a large building. I mean...LARGE. The main breakroom is situated far-ish away from the public spaces. One day, a staff member heated up perch in the microwave. There is a door and a wall between my offices and the breakroom and the smell bowled us over even before the door was opened. Guests in the museum were asking staff members what the smell was. It lingered for DAYS, even after we put vinegar and/or lemon water in each microwave and the cleaning staff cleaned like gangbusters.

So. No fish.

But no one I've ever worked with has had a problem with popcorn or curries or other strong smells. It wouldn't hurt for him to take an unofficial poll; his co-workers would probably appreciate it!
posted by cooker girl at 8:31 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Nthing the "no fish" dictum.
For curries and other saucy things, I like to bring it in an insulated thermos container and just reheat the rice in the microwave. This is partly due to smell containment and partly personal preference (I think it tastes better).
posted by dotparker at 8:40 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I work with a lot of Asians and Indians and we all microwave fish, curry and other stinky stuff. But pure fish not to steaming hot, just like 30s or so to get lukewarm. Usually salmon. That’s the trick. Once the IT guy microwaved a white fish for like 3 min and brought it back to his cube and we never let him forget it. Oh he’s a white dude so we triple hassled him :P

Personally I think banning both curry and fish / fishy stuff is a little bit racist. Just don’t overheat and you’re fine.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:37 AM on July 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

Curry is so fine. But I work in an environment where that's just... food. Like, no one would say "oh, someone had Thai food!" unless there was a tray of catered red curry on the counter. High Indian population but the white people tend to eat a range of cuisines too, or at least don't find those foods scary and weird (though I'm sure some people don't like them). We also have a lot of people who eat in our break rooms and cafeteria and so you aren't going to escape food smells altogether.

I think a lot has to do with whether the smell strikes you as delicious or as noxious, and how much it spreads/lingers. Microwaved fish, especially if overcooked, gets a strong fishy smell. I also did have a coworker once mention being bothered by the smell of saurkraut in my lunch which is, in hind sight, fair - hadn't really thought about whether it would bother someone but I know I hated the stuff as a kid. Thinking about the curry smells that linger, I wouldn't put a jar of asafoetida in the office kitchen/fridge/freezer. But just warming up your lunch is so fine.
posted by Lady Li at 9:49 AM on July 23, 2019

I currently work in a place with a large number of Indian and Chinese coworkers and the typical "rules" are totally out the window in terms of what people microwave, which is fine by me because a lot of said rules seem to unfairly malign people from cultures with more pungent traditional foods and ingredients. There is a sign here that microwaving popcorn is not allowed, but I think that might have more to do with people burning it.

When I worked somewhere with a large number of Filipino coworkers it was pretty much the same, and fish was commonly cooked in our breakroom. That workplace even provided us with microwave popcorn for free.

This is all in the Bay Area, U.S.
posted by primalux at 10:10 AM on July 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

I have no problem with microwaving fish. I love fish! What's the problem? But that microwave popcorn... man does that smell foul, not at all like the cinema concession, more like a burnt bearing. My big problem with food odors is if you've waving around something savory and delicious-smelling, you're also tormenting your hungry co-workers (who aren't eating for religious or fitness reasons, or who just haven't taken their own lunch break yet).

The way more offensive behavior to me is eating at your desk - I don't want to hear you munching, I don't want to hear your fast-food packaging noises, I don't like seeing (nor smelling!) all that wasteful packaging in the trash, and I don't like the tinkling restaurant sounds of your silverware in the office. I especially hate you if you take a long lunch hour running errands, after which you bring your to-go meal into the office. If I was the boss, I'd write you up for that, and dock your pay.
posted by Rash at 12:21 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

tl;dr but now I understand why, it lingers.

So. No fish.

Very well. Once again, MeFi teaches the unwritten rules. Like pleated pants, I hear and obey.
posted by Rash at 12:58 PM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

fwiw my parents (Chinese) hated the smell of their white coworkers' popcorn butter. If we're banning fish, then we're also banning any odorous dairy.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:45 PM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

> Popcorn is as well - although for most, it's a strong, pervasive, and tempting smell.

Nooooo the problem with microwaved popcorn is that it smells like baby poop.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:07 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I work in a very white open-plan office where we're literally all lined up next to each other on long tables, and it's completely accepted to eat hot lunches including fish at our desks.

So, yeah, ask your husband.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:21 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Broccoli absolutely turns the stomachs of some people. Anyone telling you fish is the only gross lingering microwave smell is probably a broccoli-lover. Heck, I’d avoid cauliflower too. And don’t get me started on the time we were apartment-sitting and thought we smelled hot Brussels sprouts for a week and it turned out to be a dead mouse.

Curry is variable in its makeup and therefore in its rankness. Cumin-heavy curry is probably the worst culprit.

My rule of thumb: office microwaves are not for any food that only smells tasty when YOU are the one eating it. Ditto any food that could be mistaken for a body odour/rotting garbage/the stench of death, if you didn’t know the source.
posted by armeowda at 9:10 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Clearly I'm the outlier here, but I think any food smell except for BURNINATION is fine. It's terribly rude to try to control what people eat. Seems to fall along racist/classist lines a lot of the time too.

I mean if I have to put up with fake strawberry candies, saccharine perfumes, sweaty dudes and the odor of your cutesy dog, I say bring your stinky fishes, your smelly cheeses and your spicy curries! Unless there's an allergy, it's on you to swallow your disgust.
posted by aw jeez at 9:50 PM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do not understand why people don’t pack food so that it stays warm, but at any rate fish and popcorn are both disgusting lingering smells and should not be cooked at work.
posted by winna at 4:35 AM on July 24, 2019

One more thing: I strongly suspect that people's level of distress over microwave smells is inversely correlated with their sense of control over their workplace, their overall wellbeing at work, and their feelings about their coworkers in general.

Did those Lean Cuisines my coworker used to heat up in our shared break room really smell *that* bad, or did I feel trapped in that job and constantly undermined by said Lean-Cuisine-eating coworker? I mean I know they smelled bad, but I left that whole career for a reason and it wasn't the smell of Lean Cuisines.
posted by mskyle at 5:13 AM on July 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ha, we totally microwave fish in my office. And we are a SMALL open layout office of about seven people and the microwave is smack in the middle of the desks. When someone has fish for lunch the usual protocol is that they walk up to the microwave, sheepishly announce "sorry, it's fish" and then proceed to microwave it. It smells for like... two minutes. And we go on with the day. I wouldnt give it a second thought (and I'm never the microwaver as I think reheated fish tastes gross).

As multiple people have said above, depends on your office and the people therein.
posted by silverstatue at 8:46 PM on July 24, 2019

Microwaving fish is the worst. As is other seafood. People might not tell you how bothered they are out loud and to your face, especially if there is a power differential or the people who are bothered are just shy or non-confrontational. I bet if you did an anonymous survey, you might be surprised at just how many people are bothered, and to what degree.

Some people have a really sensitive sense of smell, and what to you might be mildly annoying, to them is disgusting and headache-inducing and gag-causing. And they might not tell you this to your face, for fear of repurcussions or being considered rude. And they are stuck there, in their work area, unable to escape. It's really not fair or kind to inflict strong odors on people.

And on another note, there's a difference between popcorn without added butter-flavor cooked just the right amount, and BURNED popcorn. Like nuclear energy, I think popcorn in the microwave is something humans just can't be trusted with. So many idiots just waltz back to their desk and the popcorn pops away and then burns and reeks for hours/days, even down the hall. If you ever cook popcorn in a microwave, please PLEASE stay at the microwave and monitor it carefully so that it doesn't burn. You are gonna be okay if a few kernels go un-popped, I promise you.
posted by cats are weird at 12:34 PM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

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