7 ways to help kids who are sensitive to taste and smell

By Amanda Morin

Some kids can be highly sensitive to tastes and smells. That can make everything from spices in foods to minty toothpastes to scented shampoos a potential challenge. Here are some ways to help kids at home.

1. Keep track of how kids react to foods.

Kids’ reactions to foods can change from day to day. Things like having a rough day at school or not getting enough sleep can affect their ability to deal with new or unpleasant sensations. Keeping track can help you look for patterns and predict trouble spots.

2. Understand the connection between taste and smell.

Taste and smell are closely connected. Your taste buds can identify basics like salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. But your sense of smell provides the rest of the input to notice flavor. That’s why smell can make a difference to kids who are sensitive to taste.

3. Encourage “snake tastes.”

It’s important to take it slowly when introducing new tastes. Occupational therapists sometimes start by having kids simply be near the food and look at it. Then the goal is to get comfortable handling the food.

The next step is to do a “snake taste.” That’s essentially a quick lick. Help kids work up from snake tastes to letting the food sit on their tongue for 10 seconds. Then you can encourage them to swallow a small bite. This may take weeks or even months, so don’t rush it.

4. Set and stick to limits.

Set limits you can all agree on. If you want your child to take a “snake taste,” don’t push for your child to swallow a bite — even if the taste is OK. If you want your child to take one bite, don’t push for more. Showing that you know this is hard for your child will help build trust.

5. Present foods in new ways.

Being sensitive to taste and being sensitive to textures often go together. Using a different form of a food may help. For example, your child may not like the wet feel of fresh fruit. But fruit with a different texture may be OK.

Instead of fresh banana slices, give crunchy banana chips a try. Instead of a whole apple, offer dehydrated apple rings. Plan on some trial and error. Those textures and tastes may not work consistently either!

6. Introduce new foods over time.

Asking your child to try too many new foods at once can be overwhelming. And keep in mind that it can take 10 to 15 tries before kids decide if they like a new food. Pay attention to how your child is responding. If a food isn’t a hit, try other forms of it before giving up and moving on to a new food. For instance, try a banana smoothie instead of a whole banana.

7. Set up “no scent” zones.

Have you ever smelled something so strongly you can taste it? Kids with taste sensitivities can have a lower tolerance for scents. Try keeping areas you eat in free of air fresheners, perfume, and other strong smells.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Vanessa M. Pastore, MA is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration. She has a private clinic in New York City.