Does Your Office Have Food Issues?

by Jennifer Miller on April 19, 2011

in Workplace Issues

Where’s your office food hub? Perhaps it’s a co-worker’s jelly bean dispenser, or a candy dish filled with treats at your company reception desk. It may even be an actual table where people drop off treats they bring in from home. Most offices several “go to” areas for people seeking a little socializing and/or noshing. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the presence of this office tradition has the potential to cause quite the rift between colleagues. Imagine for a moment, a co-worker who declares (as quoted in the WSJ article), “If I have to smell it [the treats], I will move it.” One person’s invitation to stay and chat a minute is another’s evil temptation against the Battle of the Bulge.

The consumption of food—and by extension, the social aspect accompanying it—is a sticky wicket in the workplace. For every person wanting to show hospitality by bringing in a tray of brownies, there are several more trying to watch their caloric in-take.  What’s an office manager to do?

It seems to me that policing what people bring in, or where they store it is not the answer to this tension point.

The answer lies in fostering an environment where co-workers can productively work out their food differences.  There should be honest discussions that go on from all points on the Food Preference Continuum—from those that would set up a full service buffet (if allowed) to those who think all food should be banned.

So is it really necessary to talk about our food preferences at work? It might be, if you are sensing tension due to the presences of workplace snacks. There are essentially two roles in the food dilemma scenario: those who offer the food and those who wish to decline the offer.

For those who offer food, please keep this in mind:

  1. You are free to offer the food if within your company’s policy. Others are free to refuse the offer. Try not to take it personally.
  2. Consider the type of food you are offering. Are there co-workers with allergies or sensitivities to this type of food? Are you offering foods that might be prohibited based on a co-worker’s religious or cultural beliefs?
  3. Does the food have a strong odor? Even if you love the smell, many people may not.
  4. If someone declines, be gracious. Insisting (“Oh, it doesn’t have that many calories!” or, “Just a small bite!”) creates resentment in your co-workers.

For those who wish to decline an offer of food:

  1. Keep in mind that your foodie co-workers are not trying to sabotage your weight loss or healthy living plan. Many people see the offer of food as an extension of good will.
  2. Be proactive—when you see food come into the office that you know you don’t want (or need) talk with the person offering the food in advance— and in private. Let them know why you won’t be able to eat their food. Reassure them that it’s not personal.
  3. Whenever you decline the offer, keep your tone neutral. People often feel judged negatively if food they offer is declined with a comment that connotes “I would never eat that nasty/unhealthy/fattening stuff.”
  4. Polite phrases to decline the offer:
  • “Thank you, Susan. I can see that you’ve put a lot of work into this cake. As you know, I made a commitment to myself to stay on my eating plan and so I’m going to decline. Thanks for the offer, though.”
  • “It really does look tasty. I don’t know if you realized this, but I have a dairy sensitivity, so I’m going to have to pass on that cheesecake.”


If you’re a card-carrying foodie, you’ll probably never convince a vegan to belly up to the snack table. Even so, office colleagues can work out highly differing food preferences, if they maintain their respect (and patience) for one another.

Now, if you’ll excuse me while I go help myself to another handful of M & M’s. . .

photo credit: © Gennadiy Poznyakov

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon April 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Nice post about an overdue topic!

I’ll offer a minor difference of opinion:

I think the most polite refusal of offered food is often the most succinct:
“No thank you.”
“I appreciate the offer, but no thank you.”

However, I also think that many fear the follow-up questions, and try to cut them off at the pass with the response. This is evident in your suggested responses, which both provide a non-negotiable excuse (e.g. diet, sensitivity).

It’s interesting to me that in some situations it’s expected for a person to provide a reason to decline, whereas in others it would be frowned upon to inquire for details. This distinction, in my experience, can be seen in the PTO. If a colleague uses the word vacation, it’s often perceived as code for “something fun” and an opportunity to ask interestedly about trip details. On the contrary (and rightly so, i believe), the expression PTO represents a broad swath of activities – not all pleasant, and not all privy to public knowledge. As a result, the second comment in this interaction may seem rude:

“I can’t make the meeting next Tuesday, as I’m taking PTO”
“Oh, good to know. What are you taking PTO for?”

However, in some offices, that’s a likely outcome, which leads to guarded updates such as the following:

“I can’t make the meeting next Tuesday, as I’m taking PTO to run some errands and get to an appointment that’s overdue.”

This places an unwarranted burden on the speaker, in my view – there’s an expectation that reasons for absence be disclosed to peers.

Unfortunately, I find this is often the case for inter-office food matters: namely, that a refusal must be backed up with some sort of grounds.

On that point, I submit the following as ideas for good office food manners:

If you offer food in an informal way (e.g. snack bowl on your desk), you should not be expected to know each of your colleague’s religious/dietary guidelines, allergies & sensitivities, and taste preferences. However, you should be ready with the ingredients of your offered fare, if asked

If you offer food and someone declines, you should not expect a specific excuse for that refusal, regardless of your perceptions of your colleague’s level of physical fitness, exposure/openness to different foods, and/or any other particular characteristic.

Whew! This response was longer than planned, but hopefully still clear. Again, thanks for touching on a very practical subject (and under-appreciated aspect of office culture, imho).

Jon April 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

A concise equivalent to the above post…

It’s often condoned for employees to rib/pressure someone abstaining from an unhealthy snack (as a specific example), which gives rise to the expectation of a refusal+excuse package.

E.g. “No, thank you. I’m on a diet, and my schedule this week won’t allow that!”

However, it’s not necessarily anyone’s business if you’re on a diet. And sometimes persons with religious objections, moral/ethical objections, and food allergies prefer to remain quiet than to disclose such items and cause a fuss for the food preparer. Example, if someone’s got an allergy but often packs personal snacks, being forced to disclose that they’re allergic as an excuse might lead the group to start purchasing alternative foods. But then if/when the alternative option is not consumed and the other “standard” fare runs out, that person may feel guilty and/or harshly viewed – when it was exactly this outcome that would have been avoided if the office culture allowed for a “no thank you” response without qualification.

Similarly, there may be a concern about being judged if you hold a certain view about food that stems from religious and/or ethical traditions.

Secondarily, pressuring often takes the form of calling out distinct attributes about the abstainer. A fit colleague of my used to receive comments such as:
“C’mon! You can clearly work off one piece of cake.”

That statement can be uncomfortable for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons… which is perhaps for another post. 😉

RobbyAnn March 5, 2012 at 5:58 pm

What to do when your desk is the office buffet table??? I work at the Reception desk of an office and whenever anybody brings in snacks – which is OFTEN – the snacks land on my desk for everyone to graze. I am trying very hard to lose weight – and usually my will power wins out over the every day temptations. However, I think it is very rude of my coworkers to continually put snacks on my desk where I have to look at them, smell them, and resist them – all day – every day – when everyone else gets to walk away. I’ve told them to find a new buffet station – I’ve tried covering up my desk with paperwork – I’ve tried putting up another table in the vicinity – all to no avail. They keep coming back to my desk. What can I do?? Other than change jobs, of course.

Jennifer Miller March 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm


I agree that it’s rude for your co-workers to not respect your wishes. Have you considered bringing in another person to help you make your case? Perhaps your supervisor or somebody else of influence who will help you achieve your “no food zone” goal?

Also– it would be helpful to know *why* your work station is the preferred location. Even though you’ve put up another table (a clever solution). for some reason it didn’t “take”. Knowing the appeal of your reception desk may help you create that same appeal elsewhere.

Is there one particular offender? This is an extreme thought, but it would be interesting to do a “desk swap” for a day and ask that person to sit at your desk and you at theirs. Perhaps if they had to smell the food and tolerate the interruptions all day long, they would help support a change of food venue.

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