Food & Drinks

We Asked People Who Lost Their Taste to COVID: What Do You Eat in a Day?

Since the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the loss or distortion of smell and taste have emerged as one of the telltale symptoms of COVID-19, with an estimated 86 percent of mild cases displaying signs of olfactory dysfunction. In many cases, patients cannot perceive smells (known as anosmia) — and with it the nuances of flavor inextricable from aroma — or any kind of taste (ageusia). In others, the dysfunction eventually manifests as warped senses of smell and taste (parosmia and parageusia, respectively), rendering previously familiar scents and flavors rancid, like being assaulted with the overwhelming stench of rot, feces, and chemicals.

This unsettling loss or distortion is temporary for most, with the majority of patients regaining their senses within weeks of recovering from the disease. But some do not. Claire Hopkins, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon who campaigned to have anosmia recognized as a symptom of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom, said that 10 percent of patients continue to suffer from a loss of smell.

Losing the ability to smell as before presents practical dangers; after all, that is the sense we use to tell if something’s burning, or if there’s a gas leak nearby. But there’s also the more mundane question of how to get through each day, each meal, each bite without quite knowing how food will taste. For anosmia and parosmia long-haulers, particularly people who love to cook or eat, an act that once brought joy is now, at best, a flavorless chore, or at worst, a gag-worthy gamble. When things no longer taste like they used to — or like anything at all — how does one recalibrate eating and drinking?

To find out, Eater interviewed five COVID-19 survivors who have continued to experience a loss or distortion of taste, some for months on end. Here’s everything each person consumed on a recent day and how it tasted.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photos from Plume Creative/Getty, burwellphotography/Getty.

Jonathan Jarrell, 42

Location: Atlanta

Occupation: Attorney

Experiencing primarily: loss of smell/taste

For how long: 4 months

MORNING: I didn’t have much of a breakfast other than coffee with oat milk. I got a sense of the depth of coffee, but not the flavor. I got a handheld milk frother for Christmas, and I’ve been using that to enhance the airiness in the oat milk, so I can get a sense of creaminess as opposed to straight black coffee.

AFTERNOON: For lunch, I had a homemade sandwich: turkey, roast beef, and gouda on rye. I had more mustard than usual on there, so I got some of that horseradish tang. With the gouda, I was hoping to be able to get some of the smokiness. Unfortunately, I guess it was too subtle, so that ended up being more of a “just eat it to get the nutrients.” I haven’t noticed a suppressed appetite, so unfortunately that has not been a silver lining of this, but I’m being mindful to keep up with the nutrient intake.

Later I had a honeycrisp apple. I could get a bit of the sweet-sourness out of that, together with the crunch. And then I had a bag of cheddar Sun Chips; absolutely no flavor, but the crunch was satisfying. I’m paying attention more to textures than I did before because — aside from the nutrition, or outside of going for something super spicy to feel the physical sensation of the burn — it’s the only way to derive any sort of interaction or enjoyment with food.

I typically drink water throughout the day. I have been drinking more sparkling water just to get some effervescence from the bubbles.

DINNER: I had homemade three-bean chili that I loaded with crushed red pepper and hot sauce so that I could get some burn. I also threw in cheese to melt to get some creaminess. The texture was nice because some of the beans were more al dente, and together with the meat — which was softer in texture — it provided a nice contrast. I also had a green salad. I have found myself adding salt to my salad these days. That’s one of the things that I can derive some pleasure from, if something’s really salty.

After dinner I had a chocolate chip cookie. I stuck it in the microwave to get some kind of meltiness. I got the sense of sweetness, but not the flavor from behind the sweetness. But with the gooeyness from warming it up, it was nice texturally. And then I had some almonds. One of my go-tos has been smoked almonds. They’re salty and smoky, which I can get a sense of, as well as crunchy.

Photo collage of dates.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photo from Westend61/Getty.

Meema Spadola, 51

Location: Brooklyn, New York

Occupation: Postpartum doula

Experiencing primarily: distorted smell/taste

For how long: 6-8 months; experienced loss of smell/taste after contracting COVID-19 in March 2020 before senses recovered for a time, then became distorted

MORNING: I had my espresso with foamed milk, even though coffee is disgusting to me now. I do not enjoy the taste. But I have a cup of coffee almost every morning. It’s like ritual, right? I enjoy the process of making it, and the warmth, and the caffeine. So I keep doing it, and I keep hoping that it will taste good to me at some point. I feel like I’m using my imagination when I eat, trying to use my memory of how things smell and taste to recreate the experience, because otherwise I would not want to eat.

I had plain yogurt with granola. I don’t think I’ve been eating any fruit at all, so I made myself eat a clementine. It smelled a little weird. Lime is better than lemon, and oranges and clementines are also better than lemon, but lemon smells really blegh. At their best, the distorted smells smell very chemical and fake. Fruit smells to me like NyQuil. To try to eat an apple is as if I’m eating an apple marker or an apple scratch-and-sniff sticker. At its worst, things smell rotten, like propane gas or feces.

AFTERNOON: For lunch I had roasted sweet potatoes with plain cooked kale and this ginger-miso-carrot dressing that I made. I regretted that I had followed the dressing recipe and put in sesame oil, because the sesame smelled like it was totally off. The miso was also funky. In the real world, I would say, “Oh no, there’s something wrong with it, I think the miso is past its date,” but it was a fresh tub of miso. Things smell and taste as if they were forgotten in the fridge.

EVENING: Dinner was chicken thighs with lime and ginger, white rice, and avocado. I try to cook with the things that don’t smell horrible to me — like ginger does not smell horrible to me, so ginger shows up in a lot of food I make now. Even so, most meat smells bad to me as I’m cooking it, and I was like, “This smells weird, this smells gross,” but my family was like, “No, it smells amazing. This chicken is the best ever.” It tasted okay to me, but not great.

There was also green salad with carrots and tomatoes. Onions are just horrific now — the worst — so no onions in our salad.

And I had a few dates for dessert.

Photo collage of mouths and a cheese plate.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photos from Plume Creative/Getty, Westend61/Getty.

Nina Zilka, 32

Location: Brooklyn, New York

Occupation: CEO of skincare brand Alder New York

Experiencing primarily: distorted smell/taste

For how long: 10 months

MORNING: I made breakfast for me and my husband: toast with sharp cheddar and spinach. I made an egg for him and no egg for me. Eggs are really bad for me right now, which is a bummer because I love eggs. The smell is really hard. But cheese has been delicious the whole time; it’s one of the only things that tastes the way it always has. I used to try to eat pretty plant-based, but I’ve completely given up on that with COVID. I’m worried about getting enough vitamins with all the different vegetables and fruits tasting bad, but I eat spinach with basically every meal I can because it still tastes delicious to me.

I also had coffee with a splash of almond milk.

AFTERNOON: I was going upstate to stay at my business partner’s place with my husband, so I grabbed a bagel spread from around the corner to eat on the drive up. Cream cheese still tastes delicious. I didn’t used to be so carb- and dairy-heavy, but now that’s a big part of my diet.

Photo collage of a whisky ginger with a lime in a glass.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photo from bhofack2/Getty.

Later I had a Pink Lady apple. Apples are one of my favorite foods, but I couldn’t eat them during COVID. For two months they tasted disgusting, and the smell was unbearable. It feels a bit like Russian roulette, where one day something I’ve loved will become unbearable. But my husband had one recently, and I took a bite and was like, “Wait, this tastes the way it used to taste.” So now I’m going a little crazy on apple chips and Pink Lady apples.

EVENING: At 6 p.m. we had whiskey gingers. I used to drink wine, but I can’t right now because with its complexity, I never know if I can handle it.

For dinner, my business partner made us Mongolian tofu with rice and bok choy. They put scallions on theirs, but right now anything with onion smells putrid to me. It smells dangerous, like biologically: “Don’t eat this thing, this is a dangerous thing for you to eat.” I had to leave the room while they were slicing the scallions, it’s so bad. It’s frustrating because I used to be — I hate the term “adventurous eater,” but that’s part of living in New York. But even now, with the Mongolian tofu and rice and bok choy, I probably couldn’t have eaten that with the spices in it even a couple months ago.

Photo collage of a mouth, a plate of spaghetti, and a plate of lo mein.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photos from Plume Creative/Getty, EzumeImages/Getty, DronG/Getty.

Robin Tanner, 27

Location: Atlanta

Occupation: Copy editor and retail worker

Experiencing primarily: loss of smell/taste

For how long: 2 months

MORNING: At 8:15 a.m. I drank a Gatorade Bolt24, tropical mango flavor. I never liked mangoes (too sweet), but I couldn’t taste anything in this bottle. I needed the electrolytes; I was trying to get my energy back after lying in bed for two weeks.

For breakfast, around 10:40 a.m., I had lemon-basil linguine with parmesan, along with a glass of ice water. I thought that the combination of basil and lemon would catch me and I would taste something, but I couldn’t taste them. There was a little cheese there, and I could almost taste the butter — but maybe that’s more memory than taste because I’ve made this recipe so many times. I’ve gotten more picky about textures and using food that’s going to cook better, so we used fresh linguine noodles instead of dried. It was more expensive, but I still got something out of eating it.

AFTERNOON: I had SweeTarts Ropes. The cherry flavor used to be my favorite, but I can’t really taste them anymore. A coworker got this for me to see if the new rainbow flavor made a difference. Looking at the combination of flavors, I thought that it would be a shocking taste with a familiar texture, and that kind of dissonance should trigger something, but it didn’t really taste like the flavors it was supposed to. It tasted like how cheap cleaning products smell. I had just one and was like, “This isn’t even worth it.”

EVENING: Dinner was fried rice mixed with lo mein. I couldn’t really taste any individual or composite flavors. It was mush in a bowl with a few vegetables in there — like plain cereal, but wet. It just kind of filled me up. I ate about two-thirds of this bowl. Usually I do more of like a beef and broccoli dish, but I haven’t had much appetite for protein. Since I can’t taste anything, eating just feels more like something I have to do instead of something I look forward to.

For dessert, close to midnight, I had Haribo Happy Cherries, another favorite candy. I could smell the cherry flavor, but I couldn’t taste anything. It was just gelatin in my mouth.

Photo collage of a Manhattan, from a top-down perspective.

Photo-illustration: Eater; photo from Maren Caruso/Getty.

Todd Macaluso, 40

Location: Queens, New York

Occupation: Property manager

Experiencing primarily: distorted smell/taste

For how long: 10 months

MORNING: My morning started with half an apple, sliced. It tasted a little funny at first, kind of like there had been some chemical cleaner on the knife when I cut it. The apple was sweet — I never really lost the sweet or salty taste buds — but I didn’t get much more than fiber and sugar. Biting into certain apples, they don’t taste as good as they used to.

I also had a Kirkland nut bar with cocoa drizzle and sea salt. Coffee accompanied the nut bar; I make a press with Peet’s coarse ground Cafe Domingo, one tablespoon of raw sugar, and a “bloop” of cream. I’ve heard of other people having problems with coffee, and thank whoever I’m not one of them. Coffee remains delicious.

AFTERNOON: Lunch was a sandwich: toasted oat-nut bread with hummus, ham, turkey, lettuce, and aged cheddar. A few weeks ago, I went to make a liverwurst sandwich, only to realize they use onions to make liverwurst. It didn’t smell right, it didn’t taste right, it was just awful. Anything containing onion is repulsive. I’m discovering basically everything has onion or onion powder in it, which sucks. It’s challenging, cutting something that’s a staple ingredient out of your diet.

EVENING: Prior to dinner, I made a cocktail, Maker’s Mark Manhattan. I shook in too much bitters, but it did the trick. After COVID, I couldn’t drink. Just one cocktail or glass of wine, and I felt a little feverish, like I was sick again. That was like six months without a drop of liquor. The feeling has lessened somewhat, enough that I can mix a drink now and again.

We ordered sushi for dinner. Standard fare, a nine-piece with a tuna roll. I added a futomaki roll and a peanut-avocado roll. It was all good, but I think I used to enjoy it more. I’m not sure how best to pinpoint my taste and smell loss, but it’s good enough to let me get by. The ginger, however, was funky. I have this clear memory of what pickled ginger is supposed to taste like, and now when I bite into it, it’s very different, and not in a good way.

After dinner and getting the little one to bed, we had Twinings berry herbal tea with honey. It’s my nightly reward.

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