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Has Covid-19 turned mealtimes into a battlefield with your child?

Coronavirus can cause a condition called parosmia which can alter the taste of their food, experts tell Katie Wright

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Children with parosmia say their food tastes like rotten eggs

Children with parosmia say their food tastes like rotten eggs

Press Association Images

Children with parosmia say their food tastes like rotten eggs

Have you noticed a change in your child’s eating habits since they had Covid? If you have, they may be suffering from parosmia, a disorder which causes strange or unpleasant smell distortions, such as chocolate smelling like petrol.

According to smell experts at the University of East Anglia and Fifth Sense, the charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders, the condition may affect children in particular, meaning they no longer want to eat foods they once loved.

“We know that an estimated 250,000 adults in the UK have suffered parosmia as a result of a Covid infection,” says Carl Philpott, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.

“But in the last few months, particularly since Covid started sweeping through classrooms last September, we’ve become more and more aware that it’s affecting children too. In many cases, the condition is putting children off their food, and many may be finding it difficult to eat at all.”

In one case, 11-year-old Malisse Kafi, who had coronavirus in September, became dangerously ill when he struggled to eat, because everything tasted like “poo and rotten eggs”.

So, what should parents do if their child is experiencing parosmia?

 

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Minimise smells

“With this disorder, foods can smell like, let’s say poo, because certain receptors or certain nerves are sort of temporarily disabled,” explains Noel Janis-Norton, parenting expert and author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Mealtimes.

“If children are given cold or chilled foods to eat, it’s less likely to trigger that feeling that it smells awful, compared to hot foods. Things with very strong smells — like coffee or garlic — are likely to make it worse, so obviously go for mild flavours.”

She also advises not to serve meals “family-style, where there’s a pot of something on the table”, because the smell could be “assaulting the child’s sensors the whole time”.

 

Keep calm

Parosmia can be stressful for both parents and children. Georgina Durrant, author of 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play, says it’s understandable if mums and dads are “concerned their children aren’t eating a balanced diet, and may be missing out on vital nutrients. They may also be worried about weight loss”.

However, it’s important to deal with the problem calmly and make sure families don’t pass on this stress to the child who is struggling to eat the food. “The additional pressure and worry can make a stressful situation even worse.”

 

Listen to your child

We often talk about fussy or picky eaters, but using negative language can be detrimental.

“I dislike the term ‘fussy’ as often children aren’t being picky but, due to sensory differences, find certain food unpleasant to eat,” says Durrant. “This is similar with parosmia, children and young people are by no means choosing not to eat food to be difficult.”

She suggests talking to your child openly and asking how they’re feeling: “Listen carefully and take on board what they are saying. Don’t use negative throw away comments such as, ‘Don’t be silly’ or ‘It’s no big deal’.”

 

How to make mealtimes stress-free

Prof Philpott advises: “Encourage children to try different foods with less strong flavours, such as pasta, bananas, or mild cheese — to see what they can cope with or enjoy.”

In order to make it less daunting, Durrant suggests starting with empty plates and having a selection of (non-smelly) foods on the table to choose from. “Not only does this stop them from feeling pressured by a full plate, but gives them the option of trying what they would like to eat.”

Don’t pressure your child, even if they’re reluctant to try new foods, she continues: “Instead, try to remain calm and positive during meal times. And if you are worried, speak to your child’s GP about your concerns and their diet.

“It may be that you can supplement with vitamins or other foods/drinks, but you should always speak to a medical professional first for advice,” she says.


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