How to enjoy Christmas dinner with anosmia

Lucy Farrington-Smith 25 November 2021

For most of us, Christmas isn't Christmas without food. But when you can't smell or taste, it becomes an altogether different ball game—but all is not lost

The last time I smelt or tasted something normally was in February 2018—for in March of that same year, a run of the mill cold would wipe out my sense of smell and taste

As many of us know thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial. It can come under many guises; from being gone altogether, to parosmia and phantosmia, where scents warp into something they’re not.

With Christmas celebrations just around the corner, the thought of sitting around a table full of seemingly inaccessible food and drink can seem daunting. But, there can still be fun found while your smell and taste are absent—we just have to approach eating and drinking in a slightly different way. 

If you’re experiencing a smell or taste disorder right now, this advice will help to ensure that your Christmas dinner is enjoyed, not endured, this year. 

Make the most of your basic taste

For most anosmics, your basic taste will have stuck around—the ability to detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami tastes.

To test this, simply sprinkle some sugar on your tongue and see if you can identify the sweet notes, then do the same with salt, and compare the experience. If you’re feeling brave, try something inherently sour to see if you can still note the sharpness.

Having access to this means that although your range of flavour might be absent, you’re still able to tell your basic tastes from one another, which can help to liven up mealtimes. 

When approaching your festive feasts, make sure you’ve got a balance of basic tastes on your plate. Then, while you eat, focus on their differences.

You may not be able to tell the flavour of something right now, but you should be able to tell the sweetness of a pavlova from the saltiness of pigs in blankets. You may want to still skip on experiencing the bitterness of sprouts…

Experiment with texture and mouthfeel

Remembering to engage your senses in everyday meals can be challenging when you’re slotting in food breaks between meetings. But Christmas is different. This is a time for relaxing, not for nervously discussing the last quarter’s turnover with a sandwich in hand.

A good way to liven up your festive meal times this year is to play with different textures for sensory stimulation. This includes things like mixing crisp foods with soft—think a sharp cracker with some smooth cheese, or pomegranate seeds muddled into velvety hummus.

While your ability to detect flavour might be disengaged, using mouthfeel can help to brighten up meals again by taking the focus away from the lack of flavour, and pushing your attention to the feel of the foods in your mouth instead.

"A good way to liven up your festive meal times this year is to play with different textures for sensory stimulation"

Festive staples like stuffing come in a range of interesting mixes, some packed with citrus fruit rind and others with chunks of nuts. This can then be contrasted with something as thin-as-air, like a chocolate mousse, gently popping away into nothingness in our mouths.

Take each meal as a chance to experience food in a way you might not have done before. By experimenting with texture and mouthfeel, you can still find joy in each mouthful.

Try tactile eating

There’s a reason why buffets are so much fun. Not only are the range of different foods exciting, but the nature of filling up a small plate with odds and ends makes for a great sensory experience which invites tactile eating.

Tactile eating can best be described as eating with your hands. While this probably isn’t best matched with a festive food like gravy, it can work perfectly with buffet-style appetisers (and sneaking leftovers in the kitchen).

Using your hands to hold your food follows on from why mouthfeel is so important. It engages the sense of touch, letting your mind embrace that which would otherwise have been missed when using a knife and fork.

While this may not be a perfect match for Christmas dinner itself, in more relaxed environments where nibbles are left out for everyone to pick at you can really embrace tactile eating—just make sure you’ve washed your hands first. 

Kerb appeal

We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but when we’re eating without smell or taste, it’s important that we do.

How we display our plate of food at the end of a busy work day might be the last thing on our mind, but at Christmas, it’s an opportunity to let your inner Michelin chef shine.

To liven up a dessert, why not try something you’ve not had before, like piles of meringue nests on top of each other with chocolate drops as buttons to make a snowman, or a gateaux shaped like a reindeer with bright cherries making up a red nose. 

Or, if you don’t feel that inspired to experiment, think about the look of a dollop of cranberry sauce on white meat, sitting next to the different colours of vegetables, from orange to white and green.

My first Christmas as an anosmic was hard, but it was mostly down to me not knowing any techniques to enjoy food that wasn’t entirely reliant on smell and taste. I hope these tips can help you to re-find joy in food this year—not just at Christmas, but for every mealtime to come.

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