Building an Appetite From a Distance

Chef Ryan Callahan

Hello OncoLink family! I apologize for my long absence. After reading my last few blog posts, you should have a pretty handy grasp of how flavor is perceived. So today, we will discuss concepts to keep in mind while you are trying to build a cancer fighters appetite.

Let’s begin with a question. What causes you to be hungry? If you fail to eat for an extended period of time your body will naturally indicate a need for food that you will intuitively perceive and understand as the need to eat. What else causes hunger? Delicious smells, pictures of appetizing food, certain associated sounds, and memory associations. Sometimes the taste of something that “hits the spot” can cause you to become hungry even if you aren’t hungry at all!

Perception of food breaks down into two categories, senses that perceive from a distance (smell, sight, and sound); and senses that perceive from contact (taste and touch). Both of these categories of senses are then run through a memory and association filter to look for comparable experiences to understand the received data (experiences) more thoroughly. So let’s use this information to build appetites.

Next question, which is easier – to generate an appetite slowly over a distance, or immediately with the presentation of food? I would argue that the former is a much better way to build an appetite. If a person smells food, hears food cooking, and then sees the food being cooked they will instinctively react to these experiences and generate an appetite for the food that is being cooked. If you suddenly place food in front of a person when they aren’t hungry they will not necessarily have an appetite upon the reception of such a sudden stimulus. Of course, if the person was already hungry this isn’t necessarily an issue. So, let’s discuss a few techniques that you can use to generate an appetite slowly and consistently from a distance.

1: Start with your sense of smell

After reading my last few articles this should seem pretty obvious. We experience most of the culinary experience with our nose and can perceive over 1 trillion unique scents. These unique scents define the character of a dish and give us the amazing breadth of experience found in cuisines around the world.

Your sense of smell has a hard line connection straight to the most primal parts of your brain. It is believed that the sense of smell is the first sense that organisms actually developed (except for possibly touch). Your sense of smell does so many things for you that you aren’t even conscious of. You use it to find food, to find a mate, to tell if food is fresh or rotten, and so much more. Think about the smell that comes from a BBQ restaurant. You can be driving down the street, have just eaten lunch, and the smell of that wood smoke and slowly roasting meat instantly makes you hungry again. You muster all of your self control and do not go to that BBQ place for a second lunch… most of the time. In this case, your sense of smell helped you to identify the presence of food that you definitely want to eat. Think about spoiled milk, we’ve all gotten a whiff of that one way or another in our life. What happens when you smell spoiled milk? You immediately gag, and if you have a weaker stomach may even puke. This is another place where your sense of smell immediately makes a decision for you. Spoiled food must be removed from the body to keep you from getting poisoned. That’s a survival instinct at its finest.

Instead of fighting this sense and its various instincts, let’s take a different approach and lean into it fully. Let’s create great smelling dishes that fill your entire house with delicious smells that fall in line with your cancer fighter’s preferences.  Try sautéing mushrooms, onions, or garlic in a sauté pan. Add some sage or rosemary to your dishes for a strong, but soothing aroma that is sure to build appetites. Bacon, wood smoke, grilled and roasted meats always work too!

2: Make food that looks visually appetizing

Humans are incredibly visual. Think about all of the decisions we make just with our eyes. We say things like “Oh! That’s so cute!” or “I love the colors in this painting!” We make art, carve statues, scroll on Instagram, watch movies, buy clothes based on aesthetic preferences, even breed dogs to have a certain look because we enjoy the way they look. The same is true for food. Why do you think there are pictures in cookbooks, on advertisements, and on menus?

If we make food that is brightly colored, and full of interesting color combinations, we can create dishes that when you see them, are visually interesting and that helps to build an appetite from a distance. That doesn’t mean that our dishes need to be artwork, but simply that you can add a variety of brightly colored veggies to dishes to give them an interesting outward appearance. Think about a caprese salad, red roma tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and a green basil leaf. This is a very appealing dish to the human eye. Now think about oatmeal. Oatmeal is bland, boring, beige, and looks disgusting. But if we add, slices of bananas, blueberries, or strawberries to that oatmeal, all of a sudden it is an interesting dish worthy of being hungry over!  Building an appetite with sight in conjunction with your already present sense of smell reinforces the idea that it is time to be hungry and helps get you excited about eating something delicious!

3: Use your sense of sound to build associations between sounds and food

Most people never consider that eating also involves you hearing your food before and during the eating process! You hear the sound of food sizzling in a sauté pan, you hear the fat burning on a charcoal grill, you hear the bubbling of water when it boils and so much more. But it’s not just the cooking process itself that involves hearing. You hear yourself chew, and you hear the surrounding ambiance of a room. This ambient noise could be sounds of cooking, people talking or the music being played in the background of a restaurant. Imagine if you went into a Chinese restaurant, and instead of hearing the soft sounds of classical Chinese music you heard loud rowdy Irish pub music, or mariachi music. You’d be a little taken aback. These musical sounds can be used to train someone that it is time to be hungry as well as tell someone what to expect in the meal.

Many times we have pre-built associations between different styles of music and various foods and environments. For example, I associate the following types of music and culinary styles: Blues = BBQ, Mariachi = Mexican, Latin Jazz or Reggae = Seafood, Crooner Music = Italian, Classical Chinese = Chinese food. This is not an all-inclusive list by any means. But, I hope that you understand the point that I am trying to make. Whenever you are cooking put some music on before you start cooking so that your loved one can begin to slowly associate the sound of music, with food. With my mom, I played Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. Still to this day she hears “That’s Amore” and wants to eat spaghetti and meatballs!

By utilizing these three senses to build an appetite from a distance, you can get your loved one interested in food before they even sit down to the table. Smell tells them to be hungry as you cook and entices their tummies. Sight reinforces the idea that this meal is delicious. Sound helps to build regularity, and association that it is time to eat. Combine these three with properly seasoned and flavored meals that your loved one enjoys and you have yourself a delicious recipe for success!

About the author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is a 2x Gourmand World Cookbook Award Winning Chef. Author of Cooking for Chemo …and After; Cooking for Kids with Cancer; and Chef Ryan’s How-to-Cook Cookbook. He is also the founder of

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