Make Your Food Taste Better With Rituals

I always thought it didn't matter how you eat — it all ended up in the same place, anyhow.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Not about where the food ends up (whew!), but about the importance of what you do when you eat. According to a study conducted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Harvard University, the small rituals you do before you eat can enhance your enjoyment of the food. (See also: Imagine Eating to Lose Weight (and Save Money))

Says Catherine Saint Louis of the New York Times Well blog:

Far from being mere quirks of personality, rituals like these may actually enhance how much people savor what they eat or drink, new research shows. Flavor is intensified. The meal is enjoyed more. It may be one reason why birthday cake is savored more than the stumbled-upon 4 p.m. brownie, because of the singing and candle blowing that precedes it.

The Rituals

What kind of rituals are we talking about, exactly? Donning a ceremonial cow costume, singing a prayer over a carton of milk, and finishing off with a cereal baptism? Will that make my original Cheerios taste less like cardboard?

Actually, yeah, it might. But a ritual doesn't have to be as elaborate as that. In fact, you may already have some food rituals under your belt:

  • Sing before eating a birthday cake.
  • Tap a can before pulling the tab.
  • Scrape wooden chopsticks together before digging in. (Watch out for splinters!)
  • Separate an Oreo cookie before dunking it into milk. (Wait, so it's NOT just a marketing ploy?)
  • Unwrap and uncork a wine bottle yourself.
  • Anything you always make sure to do before you eat a certain food. Anything. Seriously, the sky's the limit!

The Study

The study consisted of four experiments:

  1. Participants were divided into two groups. Both were given chocolate. One group was asked go through a series of chocolate-unwrapping motions, while the other just at the bar.
  2. Participants were given baby carrots. Some were told to knock twice, grab a bag of carrots, knock again, breathe, then eat the carrots. Others were instructed to perform other, similarly not-related-to-actual-eating motions. Some had to wait between carrots, and others did not.
  3. One set of participants mixed lemonade as another set watched.
  4. Researchers asked the participants how fun and interesting it was to eat the chocolate.

The participants who were asked to perform some kind of gesture — unwrapping chocolate just so, knocking and waiting before eating carrots — rated their pleasure higher than those who simply ate the food they were given. And as the baby carrot experiment showed, any old ritual will work — it doesn't have to be related to eating the food. Also, watching someone perform the ritual doesn't do anything for your own enjoyment — unless you're laughing at their silliness, in which case, joke's on you! The lemonade mixers enjoyed the drink more than those who watched from the sidelines. (See also: 12 Luscious Ways to Enjoy Lemonade)

So, why is this roundabout way of eating more enjoyable than a direct approach? By way of Experiment 4, the researchers found:

[O]ne reason food rituals enhance flavor and enjoyment is their ability to focus people's interest on the ensuing consumption. The researchers called this focus "involvement."

The Application

OK, great. So I might enjoy lobster more if I took the trouble to de-shell the crustacean myself (groans, many groans), but are there any other benefits to this culinary ritual business?

Why, yes, there are.

The New York Times brings up the possibility of finally enjoying a food you — or a picky preschooler — previously disliked. Fun rituals, like singing a broccoli song or dancing bitter squash style (no idea what that entails), can make the food go down easier. (See also: 10 Ways to Cut Waste When Feeding Kids)

Plus, taking the time to savor your food can give you better control over how much you eat:

[Dr. Susan Albers], the author of Eating Mindfully, noted that rituals may also help in portion control, something the University of Minnesota researchers did not address in their experiments. She noted that in a small randomized controlled trial at the University of Texas in Austin, researchers found that teaching restaurant diners to focus on awareness of hunger and taste, along with other strategies, was effective at promoting weight management. "When you savor food you enjoy it more, and sometimes you eat less," she said.

Then again, some foods don't need the flavor boost. The researchers caution that the extra kick in some tastes may repel some eaters.

I think I'll hold off on choreographing that bitter squash dance for now.

What food rituals do you engage in? Are there any foods that you want to enjoy more, enough to create a ritual for it?

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