Bringing your lunch to work each day just makes sense: you can control your calories, the quality of your food, and your budget. But whether you’ve got a crisp salad or slice of last night’s lasagna, you’ll need a refrigerator in which to store it so it stays fresh.
The office refrigerator can be a well-ordered, hygienic space to store perishable food meant to be eaten that same day or a graveyard of quietly decomposing leftovers and ancient bottles of salad dressing. If writer and epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was alive today, he might say, “Tell me the condition of your office fridge and I’ll tell you how functional your office is.”
Dysfunction in the office kitchen can breed mistrust in the workplace. If you can’t rely on your co-workers not to steal your food, how can you trust them to pull their weight on a group project?
Wes, who asked to remain anonymous, is a high-end number cruncher (or “quant”) at a Texas-based financial analysis firm. The company has always provided work-appropriate beverages, such as bottled water and sodas, stored in refrigerators on each floor of their building. Workers were invited to store their food there as well. But that was before “The Incident with the Drumstick.”
Wes said it all started with a note. There had been some thefts of food in the office refrigerators, so management sent an email reminding staff not to “accidentally” eat other employees’ food. But Wes said the food pilfering only increased. Then, on the ill-fated day of The Incident, an employee brought in a plate of leftover, foil-covered chicken and placed it in the fridge. She came back at lunch to find a scene out of a horror film (well, okay, a comedy-horror film). As Wes explained, “she found that the foil covering the plate had been opened just enough to admit a single hand.
And, to her disgust, the food was completely undisturbed, save for a single bite out of one drumstick.” Apparently one of her co-workers had become a bit peckish, sampled some chicken, and then put the drumstick back. In response, Wes said, the company immediately banned the use of all refrigerators for everything except beverages provided by management.
In some offices, people will eat or drink anything that isn’t nailed down. “My wife,” notes Grant Faulkner, a writer/publisher in San Francisco, “once convinced me to buy some high-priced green powder drink thingy. I think it cost something like $50. It needed to be refrigerated. Tasted like sludge with chalk seasoning. I put my name on it with a Sharpie. Somebody stole it within a week. I'm not sure if they were doing me a favor or if there was a black market for that stuff.”
Good Office Manners
Mary M. Mitchell, author of nine books on manners, including Class Acts: How Good Manners Create Good Relationships and Good Relationships Create Good Business, says the golden rule for office refrigerators is the same golden rule for any interaction you have in the office: "Take a good look around you and be aware of your circle [of co-workers]. Some consideration both ways is essential," she told The FruitGuys Almanac.
She brings up another problem faced by office workers: lack of space. It’s no fun to be faced with a fridge so full you can’t wedge your lunch inside. “You need to have a little compassion. Maybe I'm first in in the morning, and put my lunch on the shelf. There's nothing else in the fridge at that point, but I have to think about what the people who arrive later will see.”
Keeping the refrigerator clear of extraneous foods can help make sure that everyone’s lunches can be accommodated. Mitchell suggests a weekly cleanout and believes that it should be a communal effort with a different staffer doing the honors every week rather than the company’s janitorial staff: “I imagine the janitor thinking, ‘I'm not your maid. It's your food. Why can't you keep track of it?’"
Among All Noses
Keeping the office refrigerator cleaned out also helps cut down on one of the other common complaints about office refrigerators—untoward odors.
RPA, a large Los Angeles-based advertising agency firm, offers its employees some guidance pertaining to kitchen odors—i.e. “avoid warming foods that may not be well-received among all noses”—that illustrates how distracting it is to do work in an environment with a smell that isn’t to your liking.
They have one hard-and-fast rule: “Microwave popcorn isn’t sold in the vending machines, and we ask that it isn’t popped in our microwaves because of one too many times when the smell of burnt popcorn has lingered for far too long through the kitchen and halls.”
Now, everyone has different tastes and is used to different foods’ smells but what causes conflict isn’t necessarily the odor itself, but the intensity of that odor. Pristine sushi after all has a very different smell than two-day-old unrefrigerated raw fish.
Mitchell says the use of proper food containers is the key to containing odors. “It should be in an airtight container, and then smells won't be an issue,” says Mitchell. “We don't have the right to bring food in and impose it on others. The person who is responsible for the fridge should set some rules, including a rule that all containers be airtight."
Office Fridge Ground Rules
If an office fridge is stinky, messy, or subject to pilferage, don’t forget it’s not the refrigerator’s fault—it’s because the people who work there don’t have a system. Here are some guidelines for the care and feeding of the office refrigerator:
Set clear policies, but use a light hand while doing it. “Snippy will get you nowhere,” Mitchell notes. She recommends a light touch and even the use of cartoons to illustrate rules. "A fun cartoon is a great way to make a point, because it's not you telling them they're doing something wrong. When we say 'You do this wrong,’ people start to tune us out.”
Establish cleaning responsibility. Whether it’s the janitor, the office manager, or just the person most disturbed by fuzzy leftovers, one individual needs to be in charge of a weekly fridge cleanout. Try a volunteer sign up sheet, but remember that if “everyone” is responsible for cleaning up, then no one is.
Set a strict throw-away policy. Emptying the fridge of all leftovers at the end of each week is a simple and effective standard.
Recommend lunches be cooked to well done. The office kitchen is not the place for rare or al dente anything, especially not meat or seafood, to avoid possible contamination.
Minimize theft—provide fruit. One way to minimize lunch theft is to have the employer provide healthy snacks for those who forgot their lunches or are suddenly ravenous. Ideally these are healthy and filling; The FruitGuys products are an excellent choice. A stash of whole-grain crackers, high-quality granola or protein bars, and low-fat string cheese are also good choices.
Mark Saltveit contributed research to this article.
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based health coach and the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.