How to stop a lunch thief

How to stop a lunch thief

An opportunistic lunch thief is like a printer jam or an argument about the thermostat: almost every office will have one at some point, and though it may seem petty, if it happens regularly it can make your workplace unbearable (not to mention unproductive).

How can you prevent lunch larceny from ruining your afternoons? Short of catching the culprit red-handed, no method is guaranteed success: but below are our best tips for disrupting, preventing and/or exposing a sandwich swindle.

#1 Label your food

Most people do not like to think of themselves as thieves – and that includes many of the people who would happily scoff an unattended candy bar or bag of grapes from the fridge. ‘This doesn’t look like it belongs to anybody,’ they tell themselves, munching away and congratulating themselves on their victimless crime. Mark your food clearly – ‘GRACE’S HUMMUS’ – and you make it impossible for the aspiring lunch thief to lie to himself or herself about the origins of their pilfered provisions.

You could also ask your boss whether you can post a short list of Refrigerator Rules – ‘please label your food with your name, and do not eat anyone else’s food’, that sort of thing. If your boss says no, you might also be tempted to label your food with your boss’s name.

Be warned, however: a prolific lunch thief is unlikely to be deterred by labels or rules. There are a bunch of theories about why this is the case, but the most convincing theory is that the lunch thief simply feels entitled to your food and does not believe the rules apply to him/her.

#2 Put the fridge in full view

If it’s feasible, you could point a security camera at the fridge door. (Nanny cams are relatively inexpensive.) If it’s a working, hidden camera, you’ll soon find out who is robbing the Reubens; but if the camera is in full view, it may act as a deterrent without even needing to be switched on.

An alternative, space permitting, is to store food somewhere more public, with lots of foot traffic – like the hallway on the way to the kitchen, so employees can pick up their food en route to preparing and eating it.

If neither of those is going to work, you could simply arrange a discreet stakeout with coworkers: create a rota, make sure the kitchen is never unattended, and sooner or later you’ll see someone take food that doesn’t belong to them. Just make sure your stakeout buddies can be trusted!

#3 Don’t use the fridge at all

If your food isn’t safe in the communal fridge, just keep it closer to hand.

You could invest in an insulated lunch box, purchase a mini-fridge to go under your desk, or just bring food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.

Fresh fruit doesn’t need to be refrigerated: keep it in your desk drawer for a burglar-proof snack!
Fresh fruit doesn’t need to be refrigerated: keep it in your desk drawer for a burglar-proof snack!

#4 Check the trash

That sense of entitlement we mentioned in #1? It can often lead the thief to take a cavalier attitude to concealing their crime – and the evidence. Take a tour of your coworkers’ desks after lunch and you may recognize food wrappers in their trash cans.

Note: do not actually root through your coworkers’ trash, even if you think no-one is looking. It’s weird and you will find yourself having an uncomfortable conversation with HR.

#5 Make your food less visually appealing

Go vegan!

We’re kidding. Vegan food can be delicious. But you can keep your food out of thieving hands by making it less attractive to prying eyes. Try:

  • Hiding your food at the back of the fridge.
  • Using opaque containers rather than clear boxes or plastic wrap, so no-one can see just how tasty your lunch looks.
  • Avoiding ready-to-eat food. You could prepare the ingredients for your lunch yourself, then assemble them in the kitchen. A thief might help themselves to your delicious salad wrap: they’re less likely to munch through a bag of arugula.
  • Buying novelty food packaging that makes your food look moldy. (Warning: this comes with a significant risk that someone will simply throw your lunch away for hygiene reasons.)
Store the ingredients for your lunch separately to make your meal less attractive to thieves
Store the ingredients for your lunch separately to make your meal less attractive to thieves

#6 Get creative

If all else fails, use your imagination. Your options include mixing up the time you eat your lunch (can you beat the thief to the kitchen?), sending out an email warning your coworkers that the food they just stole from you was past date (“Oops!”), or ‘seasoning’ your meal with something high up on the Scoville scale (consider the potential legal ramifications before trying that last one).

Working around other people has enormous benefits, but it brings challenges too: the lunch thief is one. These tips, plus a little ingenuity, will help you protect what is important to you – your food! – so you can get on with a good day’s work.


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