Our sense of smell triggers visceral, gut reactions. On a basic, sensory level we experience smells as good or bad. We want to move towards smells or away from them. Even our English words for smells evoke this dichotomy. They can be pleasant aromas or noxious odors.
We often smell foods before we see them and decide, based on this dichotomy of good or bad, whether we’re open to trying a food based solely on how it smells. Biologically, this is helpful to us. Deciding whether to put something in our bodies is a big safety decision and our sense of smell plays a huge role in helping us determine if a food is safe or not.
Everyone’s sense of smell is different. Some people are much more sensitive to smells than others. Understanding the key role that smell plays in our biological attraction or revulsion to foods can help us stay in a more understanding space when kids might need more time to gradually become comfortable being in the same room as a new food, and then work up to being comfortable with it on their plates. When we think about introducing kids to new foods in this way, in terms of how they smell, the step of brining a new food to the mouth (right under the nose!) to touch it to our lips can be a huge milestone worthy of celebration!
Smells are also directly linked to memories in our brains. So, even if a food is safe, if we’ve had a negative experience with a food in the past, our bodies will try to keep us safe by remembering that smell and triggering a noxious reaction whenever we smell that food again. These reactions mean our bodies are working well, even though they may be frustrating when trying to reintroduce a food to a toddler who vomited once after eating it.
Physically, our sense of smell triggers the first phase of our swallow, technically called the ‘oral pre-preparatory phase,’ informally called ‘drooling’ over the smell of food. When we smell something delicious, especially when we’re hungry, our body gets ready to eat by making saliva and getting ready to start the physical process of eating. This is one reason why we’re more likely to try new foods when we’re hungry. Our bodies are physically more ready and willing to accept and digest food.
So, notice the smells around your cooking this week. Point out the smells of the foods you play with. Start linking positive words, emotions and memories to the delicious, tantalizing, scrumptious smells of foods around you as you walk around a grocery store or past a restaurant. Maybe notice and celebrate the small milestones of foods that feel safe to smell at the table, even if your child isn’t quite ready to try a taste.
Enjoy and happy food play!