Smelling food makes my child gag
Your child looks at you in horror and begins gagging. They rush from the room in disgust and will not even return to the room, never mind sit at the table.
I know one mum who 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 picky eaters and especially if they are on the spectrum.
Why are smells so difficult?
Sense of smell differs from person to person. We are all at some point on the smelling spectrum.
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.
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!
What can we do?
Parents are often at a point of despair when they have a child that really struggles with food smells and the instinct is to shield them from it, especially if it causes gagging.
But, like all other challenges our child faces around food, there are some basic guidelines to follow:
i) If we have a child that is sensitive to smells and we allow them to hide from them, they are going to struggle to overcome the issue. 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 get more challenged by them.
ii) 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 have been working with has a son who is very challenged around foods. She has been baking with him for months, gently building his confidence. One of her projects was vanilla essence. At first, he would not go near the bottle at all.
Today, 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!!
iii) The easy solution is to feed a food sensitive child separately, or stop cooking the foods that trigger them. This makes sense short-term but long-term can create more problems than it solves.
How can we help?
Viewing smells as a long-term project is a great approach. It’s something that we will probably need to tackle over time. The progress made may be very slow and very small but, like many aspects of resolving picky 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. Acknowledge that our 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 our child to the smell in baby steps. This is easy if it’s something contained, like vanilla.
3. Move closer and closer to the smell. Depending on how sensitive they are, this could be having the food at one end of the table and gradually moving it towards the middle. Or, it could be having the food on the table and our child in the lounge, then moving them slightly closer to the table from the lounge. This may be that tiny step that they are able to take.
4. Prepare our child prior to the meal. If they do find many foods difficult, having some fun and often active parts to the pre-dinner routine gets them into a positive mood. This gives them a better ability to cope with a challenge.
5. Providing our child with coping skills. Knowing something will be a challenge but giving them some strategies to better manage. Perhaps this is deep breathing or counting.
6. Directly reducing the smell by using, for example, a cover over a particular food in the kitchen or on the table.
7. Opening a window or using a fan, especially if the cooking process produces a strong smell.
8. Letting our child know we will be cooking a specific thing. Knowing it’s going to happen, so 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.
9. Gradual exposure, especially away from the table. Allowing that gentle desensitisation process to happen via cooking, prepping and science experiments, for example.
10. Allowing some enabling tools. Maybe our child is able to 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. Many parents use essential oils to mask other smells – or even some of dad’s favourite aftershave or mum’s perfume on the wrist.
11. Serve certain foods cold. There is generally less of a strong smell from cold foods. This may be a good interim step.
12. 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 our child.
Moving forwards may be a long, slow process but specific and lavish praise for our child when they genuinely make an effort, can be a real support.
Moving their chair slowly towards the table, or the plate of broccoli closer to their plate. All of these can be rewarded and show our child that a) they are making progress and b) that their efforts are appreciated.
If we do have a child that 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 smell challenges rather than pander to them. Often the “it will come right eventually” tactic will 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 that finds smells difficult, are there any tips you can share to help another parent?
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.