Lemon-and-Honey-Flavored Chicken (Tracy A. Woodward/TWP)

No broccoli. No cabbage. No fish, eggs, curry or stinky takeout. Absolutely no burned popcorn.

And for heaven’s sake, no organ meats.

Those were some of things we were warned not to cook or eat in our house if we ever hoped to sell it.

My husband and I are one of the zillions of boomer couples hoping to downsize. With one kid finishing college and one already out and working, we decided that, iffy housing market or not, we wanted someplace smaller and closer to restaurants, shops and public transportation.

(Ryan Snook /For The Washington Post)

The do’s and don’ts of cooking when your house is on the market

So we spent a year fixing up our four-bedroom Herndon home. New bathrooms, updated kitchen, new paint, carpet, landscaping — and the removal of enough accumulated detritus to sink a small island.

Finally, there we were. A neat, clean, sparkling house that our real estate agent told us must be camera-ready for potential customers every day. Every. Day. You probably know what a pain that is. Before leaving for work in the morning, we went through a six-page list of things we had to do. Make bed, hide pajamas, empty trash, Swiffer floor, squeegee shower, replace towels, wipe sinks, wipe counters, wipe mirrors, wipe windows.

But that was easy compared with dinnertime. “Try not to cook anything smelly,” our real estate agent, Bernie Kagan, told us.

Kagan, with Samson Realty in Chantilly, has sold real estate in Northern Virginia for 10 years. He told us he had had clients walk into homes that reeked of last night’s dinner and walk right back out.

“Strong smells from spicy food can be a deal-breaker,” he says. “To some people, it’s as bad as cigarette smoke or pet odors. They worry the smell is going to linger in the carpet or the paint.”

What about getting scented candles or potpourri or spraying air freshener, I wondered.

Kagan just laughed. “That doesn’t fool anyone. It’s just one more layer of odor on top of everything else. Makes people wonder what you’re trying to cover up.”

Actually, I should have known that. When we bought our first house from an elderly couple in Dallas 25 years ago, I remember smelling a sweet apple-cinnamon scent every time we visited. I foolishly thought, “Isn’t it nice how much the wife bakes?”

After they moved out, we realized they had been spraying that scent to cover up the moldering stench coming from a small closet.

So Lesson No. 1 about house prep: bad smell, no sell.

I told my husband he now had two choices for vegetables at dinner: salad and salad. Okay, maybe green beans. But all the other vegetables we liked — artichokes, broccolini, bok choy — were too smelly.

And fish could only be grilled. On the deck. As far away from the house as possible.

There would be no bringing home Thai takeout redolent with chilies, garlic, ginger and pungent fish sauce. No slow-cooking fragrant Indian lamb curry, wafting coriander, cumin, garlic and garam masala throughout the house. No steaming loaves of odiferous garlic bread.

When my daughter and her boyfriend brought home onion-heavy burrito bowls from Chipotle one weekend, we had to open all the windows for hours.

Having a convenient excuse not to cook may sound like a good idea, but it rapidly lost its charm with us — to say nothing of costing more to eat out so often.

We really missed the fun and relaxation of cooking. Gone were the weekends trying new recipes, making aromatic family favorites, or inviting friends over for a long, messy potluck.

Even with all the caveats, we did get to do some cooking. I was complaining to a friend about how careful we had to be in menu planning and she was incredulous. “You get to use your kitchen?” she asked.

She had her Chevy Chase house professionally staged in order to sell it as quickly as possible, “and we’re grateful we’re allowed to have bare necessities in the kitchen,” she e-mailed me.

“If the stager learns we’ve been using her kitchen table and chairs, I think we forfeit the house,” she added, half-jokingly.

Another friend, who just put her house on the market in the District, e-mailed: “We just eat baked potatoes from the microwave and try to keep the place spotless.”

My Chevy Chase friend reminded me, however, about the positive effect some aromas seem to have.

Several years ago, she and her husband had been unsuccessfully trying to sell their house in McLean.

“Every fourth house in our development was for sale. In desperation, I tried the chocolate-chip-cookies-in-the-warm-oven suggestion. We got an offer not long after.”

So after the first contract fell through earlier this year and the house went back on the market, I bought some cookies at the supermarket and put them in a warm oven.

Didn’t even eat them; just let them spread their homey scent and then tossed them in the trash. (Hey, they made the trash smell better!)

Not sure whether it really helped or not, but a couple weeks later we had a deal.

The do’s and don’ts of cooking when your house is on the market


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Sagon, a former Food section staffer, writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.