Food smells – a common challenge for fussy eaters
You’re busy frying some onions when your child enters the kitchen, looks at you in horror and begins gagging. They rush from the room in disgust refusing point blank to have dinner or even sit at the table if the onions are there.
One mum told me she went to pick up her 4-year-old from Grandma’s and he was hiding in the garage to escape the smell of the roast cooking in the oven!
This is not unusual among fussy eaters. Sensory sensitivities go hand in hand with picky eating and are also highly correlated with autism and ADHD.
Why are food smells so difficult?
The sense of smell differs from person to person. Be it someone (teen boys?!) who can’t tell there is a mouldy plate of food stuffed under the bed and sneakers that smell like a dead badger to those who can detect perfume weeks after Gran has wandered through the room.
We are all at some point on the smelling spectrum. I have a fairly keen sense of smell so often wander in disgust around my house of males, looking for the offending article, garment, boy!!
Some children are particularly sensitive to smells and so find certain odours overwhelming.
This can be a real challenge when it comes to eating, as although our taste buds can recognise salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, the rest of our taste is provided via our nose. And imagine if food smells bad. There is no way you are going to want to put it in the mouth.
What if our child is sensitive to food smells?
Parents are often at a point of despair when they have a child who really struggles with food smells and the instinct is to shield them from it. Who wants their child to feel uncomfortable?
But, like many other challenges our child faces around food, there are some basic guidelines to follow:
i) Sensitivity can increase. Smells are ‘in the air’ they are not going to be contained in the school environment or a restaurant or on a plane. If a child can’t be around certain smells it will be really restricting as they get older.
Hiding from smells prevents a child from becoming more comfortable with odours. Plus, the more they are able to avoid it, often the more sensitive they can become. Children who are not exposed to tastes, smells, or textures for extended periods often become more challenged by them.
ii) Work consistently. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s often going to be a long-term project, but one that is worth tackling.
A lovely mum I worked with has a son who is very challenged around foods. He would run from the bakery as the smell was overwhelming.
Mum gently but consistently baked with him for months, gently building his tolerance and confidence. One of her projects was vanilla essence. At first, he would not go near the bottle at all and could tell when one was opened over the other side of the kitchen.
6 months later, he was in the kitchen showing dad where to find things to make cookies. He happily grabbed the vanilla essence, sniffed it, said it smelled amazing and asked to taste it.
The easy solution is to feed a child who dislikes food smells separately or stop cooking the foods that trigger them. This makes sense short-term but long-term can create more problems than it solves.
What can a parent do about food smells?
Viewing smells as a long-term project is a great approach. It’s something that usually needs to be tackled over time. The progress made may be very slow and very small but, like many aspects of resolving fussy eating, we often see a sudden snowballing of positives once we reach a certain point.
It’s that systematic exposure – like gradually viewing spiders, if we have a fear of them – that gradually reduces our extreme response.
In practical terms we can:
1. Validate – acknowledge that a child finds smells difficult. Let them know we appreciate what a challenge they are facing and that we will support them to overcome some of the discomfort.
2. Expose – gently expose a child to the smell in baby steps. This is easy if it’s something contained, like vanilla.
Move closer and closer to the smell. Depending on how sensitive a child is, this could be having the food at one end of the table and gradually moving it towards the middle, or it may mean the food is in another room and a child over time takes steps towards it.
3. Warning – prepare a child prior to the meal. Advising our child that we will be cooking a specific thing. If they know it’s going to happen, they are better able to prepare, rather than being surprised.
Conversely, sometimes the opposite can be true too. Not making it into a ‘thing’ can be the best strategy – you will know which works best for your child.
If they do find some foods difficult, having some fun and often active parts to the pre-dinner routine helps build a positive mood. This gives them a better ability to cope with a challenge.
4. Coping skills – finding ways to support a child to better cope with challenges. Even though the food smells may be difficult, we can work on strategies so they can manage them more comfortably. Perhaps this counting, teaching the mind to focus on something else.
5. Smell reduction – directly reducing the food smells by using, for example, a cover over a particular food in the kitchen or on the table. An upside down bowl or a big pan can work.
6. Better ventilation – opening a window or using a fan, especially if the cooking process produces a strong smell can be helpful.
7. Gradual exposure – allowing that gentle desensitisation process to happen via cooking, prepping, or science experiments, for example. Often beginning this process away from the table is best.
8. Gently enable – certain ‘tools’ may be helpful, particularly to begin with. Maybe a child can use a napkin over their nose initially, to enable them to sit at the table with everyone else.
Coffee beans can clear and neutralise odours and so maybe they can be placed next to a child at the table. Or essential oils can mask other smells. Alternatively, some of dad’s favourite aftershave or mum’s perfume on the wrist can be smelt instead of the food.
9. Temperature – serve certain foods cold. There is generally less of a strong smell from cold foods. This may be a good interim step helping a child get used to a muted version of a smell.
10. Distractions – sometimes introducing other things into the routine can change the focus. Perhaps this is having music playing in the background or having a candle in front of a child.
Making progress with food smells
This may be a long, slow process. But rewarding a child for moving a chair slowly towards the table, or the plate of broccoli closer to a plate all shows a child that a) they are making progress and b) that their efforts are appreciated.
If we do have a child who gags at smells, it’s usually a good policy not to make a big deal out of the gagging. It directs negative attention and can inadvertently make things worse.
The gagging also may not be about the smell, it may be more of a conditioned response at the thought of eating something challenging. Again, if this is the case, less attention to the gagging often reduces the frequency over time.
Can you help?
YES! It’s important to tackle food smells challenges. The ‘it will come right eventually’ tactic may lead to years of stress and discomfort for the whole family. But parents are absolutely in a great position to support their child to overcome challenges around food smells.
If you have a child who finds smells difficult, are there any tips you can share to help another parent?
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Judith is also mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/