Exploring Work Lunch Etiquette

Food brings people joy. Whether it’s sharing a meal around the family dinner table, splitting a fruit salad with a pal on a park bench, or having last night’s leftover curry goat at your work desk, eating can be a source of pleasure. It’s especially a positive experience now, during the pandemic, as more people are turning to comfort foods. However, there are times when unsavory feelings surround food, like when food-shaming rears its head.

Our team surveyed 996 employees currently working from home due to COVID-19 about their experiences eating lunch at the office versus at home, in privacy. We learned that while breaking bread in front of others can be a delightful experience, people sometimes feel self-conscious about food, especially when their co-workers make comments. It turns out there are some strong opinions about what’s appropriate to eat at work – who knew? Our findings also reveal how employee lunch habits have changed now that more people are working remotely. Read on as we explore what’s in the lunchboxes!

Too Many Comments, Lots of Embarrassment

Food-shaming is a lousy holiday tradition, but it’s not only reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. More than 50% of employees reported feeling self-conscious about their work lunches because of co-workers’ reactions. Although people are typically shamed for eating foods deemed unhealthy by onlookers, survey participants also felt uncomfortable when they brought healthier options to work.

Work Lunch Shame

The most popular comment employees received about their lunches was that it smelled good, but 23% of people who were awarded that compliment felt self-conscious. Those who received feedback about the healthiness or goodness of their lunch also experienced embarrassment. According to experts, this may have to do with how one perceives themselves: People with low self-esteem have a difficult time accepting positive feedback.

Although employees who received assurance felt embarrassment, people who received unsavory comments about their lunch experienced a greater level of shame. Of the 24% of people who were told their lunch had a strong aroma, 58% became self-conscious – making remarks about odor the most embarrassing. Following that, one-half of employees who received comments about the unhealthiness of their lunch felt self-conscious as a result.

Opinions have consequences, and in this case, people went against their desires to dodge criticism. Thirty-four percent of employees said they avoided eating their ideal lunch at work due to fear of judgment from their co-workers. Seafood was the No. 1 menu item people ditched, followed by meat and fatty foods, which may have to do with the recent popularity of keto and Whole30.

Who Brought in the Fish?

Human Resources likely doesn’t hand anyone a do-not-bring-for-lunch list on the first day, but there seems to be an unspoken rule. When we asked our participants what the most inappropriate lunches to bring to work were, a hot dish containing fish was the No. 1 answer. Surprisingly, this may have less to do with preference and more with an allergy. According to allergist Daniel More, people with an allergic reaction to foods, such as fish and shellfish, may experience symptoms when they inhale protein particles. But people who know they have an allergy, aside from particles inhaled, may grow anxious if they know the allergen is nearby. So, to be safe, it may be best to keep the fish dishes at home.

Most Inappropriate Lunches to Eat at Work

Following fish, employees may want to keep the onion, garlic, and curry-based meals at home because they also topped the list of inappropriate office lunches. Foods that make a lot of noise while eating, like soup, made the list as well.

Staying Home and Going Big

Our homes offer us the privacy to partake in activities that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate in public, like eating fish or noisy foods. Now that millions of Americans are working remotely, have their lunches changed?

WFH Lunch Habits

When we asked our survey participants about their work-from-home lunches, we found that there’d been a shift for a slight majority. Forty percent of employees reported eating healthier lunches, but 11% turned up the dial for unhealthy options. Men were more likely to eat healthily than women.

As previously mentioned, people are turning to comfort foods to deal with the uncertain times, but they’re also piling on the portions while working from home. Forty-three percent of women and 32% of men shared that they’re eating more food throughout their at-home workday. More food consumption was the most popular change in eating habits, but employees also expressed that they’re experiencing more erratic lunchtimes (32%) and taking in longer (28%) and bigger lunches (20%).

Percentage Enjoying WFH Lunches More Compared to In-Office

Although people are consuming more food now that they’re working from home, they’re saving more money, too. On average, 62% of employees reported a decrease in spending, with savings of $42 per week. People are also experiencing increased satisfaction: 59% of employees revealed that they’re enjoying their lunches more since working from home.

Embarrassing Office Tales

Craziest Work Lunch Stories

Employees may need a break from the monotonous at-home workday, but they’ll likely miss enjoying their lunches from the privacy of home. Others may find pleasure in returning to the office because they’ll, once again, get to watch their co-workers make inappropriate lunch food decisions. Here are some embarrassing office lunch tales people dished about.

Sounds and Smells Banned

Food is a source of pleasure, and as the pandemic has shown, more people are turning to their plate for comfort. These new times are proving to be especially exciting for employees as they are used to eating their lunches under in-office limitations. However, working from home has presented indulgences. Our findings show that people typically feel embarrassed eating lunches at the office because of co-worker feedback. Without Karen from HR leaning over to smell last night’s leftovers, employees are eating larger potions, spending less, and feeling more satisfied. But, a significant percentage of employees are also choosing healthier options.

If you’re making healthier choices during lunchtime, don’t stop there. Add an exercise routine to your day. Visit FitRated.com, and start building your at-home gym today. As public health remains a concern, a private gym is a great solution. Our dedicated team of fitness fanatics is ready to help you find the right machines (treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, and more) to fit your fitness needs.


We surveyed 996 respondents who typically work in offices but are now remote, in order to investigate work-appropriate lunches as well as how lunch has changed because of COVID-19. Forty-nine percent of respondents were male, and 51% were female. Ages ranged from 18 to 78 with an average age of 37. Respondents were asked to select lunches they found most inappropriate for work as well as provide additional ideas, as well as their own experiences with inappropriate lunches at work.


Survey data has certain limitations such as telescoping, selective memory, and exaggeration. We did not weigh our data or test our hypothesis. This was a purely exploratory look at lunch etiquette.

Fair Use Statement

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