Meal Prep
Photo: wickenden
Taking a moment to express gratitude before a family dinner, carefully cutting up food, or dunking a donut in coffee — habits like these are making our food "taste" better! It turns out that a pre-noshing routine may lead people to perceive their food as tastier than those of us who eat in a rush. Findings from a new study by the University of Minnesota reveal the connection between what we do before eating and how we experience taste.

What’s the Deal?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bar of chocolate, some crunchy carrot sticks, or a slice of birthday cake: According to the study, anything tastes better when paired with a pre-meal routine. The study, conducted by psychologist Kathleen Vohs, used four different scenarios to explore the importance of how we treat our meals even before we start eating.

The researchers found that rituals we’re all familiar with — such as singing “Happy Birthday” before cutting a cake — can change our perception of our food, and even help us better "taste" the flavors of that celebratory dessert.

But it’s not just big-deal traditions that increase our enjoyment of food. In another test, 52 subjects were given a chocolate bar. Half were given detailed instructions about how to eat it and the other half could eat the chocolate however they wished. It turns out that those who followed the detailed instructions beforehand "enjoyed" the chocolate more: they rated it higher for taste, savored it more, and said they'd pay a higher price to enjoy it again.

The researchers found that a ritual doesn't have to have “meaning,” quick, personal rituals such as breaking a cookie in half or dunking it in milk have the same positive effect on taste. That gives whole new meaning to the question: “How do you eat an Oreo?”

Anticipating our food also plays a big role in enhancing flavors. The longer we wait between engaging in a ritual (like serving food, cutting a cake, or chopping veggies) and actually eating our food, the greater our satisfaction. But direct participation is key: When participants in the study watched someone else methodically make lemonade, they didn’t perceive the same flavor boost as when they made it themselves. We have to be willing to squeeze some lemons (or belt out that birthday tune) if we want to trick our tastebuds to pick up more from our meal.

Why it Matters

Okay, so nobody is going to start singing 'Happy Birthday' before every bite they take. But the really satisfying thing about this research is that any ritual — big or small — increases anticipation and makes food seem more special. Something as simple as tapping a spoon on the edge of your teacup before taking the first sip, for example, might increase your enjoyment of tea-drinking. It's good to know that those habits that may already be in place, like gathering family or friends together before a meal to say a words of thanks mean many of us are already reaping the tasty benefits of these findings.

On top of that, eating slower and savoring food has been shown to help people eat less. So implementing a pre-meal ritual could be a great tool for healthy weight loss, especially because it makes everything — including perennial health foods like apples and kale — taste better. This study also reminds us to get back to the Slow Food mentality of enjoying every part of the meal, including preparation. Hey, maybe all those times Mom or Dad made you set the table is the reason their home cooking tasted so good!

No matter how you choose to do it, give a little extra love to your feast before you eat. Whether it’s through choosing the perfect condiment, instagraming your #foodporn, or making your cup of coffee just so, you may become a happier (and more mindful) diner.

Do you have any pre-meal rituals? Do you feel like they increase your eating enjoyment? Share in the comments below or tweet the author @skoppelkam