Ever wondered what actually makes food taste good? Obviously, a lot of it depends on the ingredients and preparation, not to mention your personal preferences. But psychological studies have shown a few surprising things that can make a difference. So whether you’re an amateur chef looking to improve, or just interested in the topic, here are a few things you should know about what’s at play when it comes to enjoying a plate of chow.
What you’ve probably suspected is true: When food looks good, it tastes better.
In one study, researchers presented subjects with a salad plated in one of three ways: with the ingredients tossed together, with the ingredients presented neatly, and with the ingredients presented artistically (with the ingredients arranged to mimic a painting by Wassily Kandinsky).
“Prior to consumption, the art-inspired presentation resulted in the food being considered as more artistic, more complex, and more liked than either of the other presentations,” the paper concluded. “The participants were also willing to pay more for the Kandinsky-inspired plating. Interestingly, after consumption, the results revealed higher tastiness ratings for the art-inspired presentation.”
Novel eating experiences are also more enjoyable.
Ever tried eating popcorn with chopsticks?
As weird as this sounds, research actually shows that you enjoy popcorn more if you eat it with chopsticks. Yes, really! Apparently, eating or drinking something in an unusual way can recreate that feel-good sensation of trying something for the very first time, heightening our enjoyment of its taste (assuming we like it in the first place).
For a paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers asked a group of subjects to do various things—like eating popcorn, drinking water, and watching a movie—in either a totally normal way, or an unconventional, new, and exciting way. They found that people who tried things the unconventional way, like eating popcorn with chopsticks or drinking water out of a martini glass, enjoyed their experiences significantly more.
“When you eat popcorn with chopsticks, you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience,” one of the study’s authors said in a press release. “It’s like eating popcorn for the first time.”
Using a totally new utensil could also make food taste better.
Enter the Goûte. This glass utensil, created by designer Andreas Fabian and chef and scientist Charles Michel, is a kind of wand modeled after the shape of a human finger. It’s designed for creamy foods like yogurt, hummus, Nutella, and peanut butter. Fabian and Michel partnered with Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory to see how people reacted to the utensil, and they found that participants in a small study said food tasted “significantly better” when eaten from a Goûte rather than a spoon.
“Conventional cutlery is a technology we put in our mouths every day, and currently it is only designed with functional purposes,” Michel explained. “We want to offer eating utensils that enrich the sensual pleasures of eating.”
Obviously, a new and novel piece of cutlery is not super appealing to everyone. But think about whether you use things like a honey dipper, soup spoon, seafood fork, or lobster cracker. Using these specialized utensils can be very satisfying, and possibly make your food taste better.
Still, there’s something about eating with the “right” cutlery…
Who wants to eat yogurt with chopsticks? A spoon just makes sense.
But what kind of spoon of spoon should you go for, then? Well, researcher Charles Spence asked people to rate yogurt that they tasted from either an artificially weighted spoon or a lightweight plastic one.
“The results revealed that yogurt was perceived as denser and more expensive when tasted from a lighter plastic spoon as compared to the artificially weighted spoons,” he wrote in a research paper published in the journal Flavour. The paper goes on to indicate that the right utensil will vary depending on the type of food that’s being served and the experience you’re after.
This definitely makes sense. Think about how food tastes to you when you eat it from paper plates using disposable plastic cutlery versus how it tastes at home or at a restaurant using ceramic plates and metal knives and forks.
This same logic can also apply to drinks. Have you ever thought that soda tastes different when you drink it from a can versus a paper cup? Or what about the holy grail: the OG glass soda bottle? How about movie theater popcorn from a paper bag versus a sturdy bowl, or ice cream from a cone versus straight out of the carton?
The color of your plate, cup, or mug matters, too.
Researchers from the the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom served 53 subjects a serving of strawberry mousse on either a black plate or a white plate. Their paper reveals that those served the mousse on a white plate liked it more and rated the mousse as sweeter and more flavorful.
For the most part, restaurants serve their food on white plates—which may well be accentuating the flavor of the food while also making it easier for diners to recognize what they are eating.
For a paper published in the Journal of Sensory Studies, researchers asked subjects to drink cocoa out of a white, red, orange, or cream mug. “The results revealed that orange (with a white interior) and dark-cream colored cups enhanced the chocolate flavor of the drink and consequently improved people’s acceptance of the beverage,” the researchers wrote.
This may explain why we all have a “favorite” mug that brings us a little bit of joy every time we take a sip. It also explains the aversion many people have to mugs that are not white on the inside—it affects the color of whatever you’re drinking. Anything that makes my tea look a strange color? Not gonna work for me.
Okay, so we know that the science says. But how can you incorporate of these tricks when serving food to others?
“I always tell my clients that nourishment is a sensory experience,” says Gisela Bouvier, a registered dietitian who focuses on mindful and intuitive eating. “Food, first and foremost, should be visually appealing to them. When they see the food combinations they are about to consume, they should be excited and look forward to the food they are about to eat. Food colors have a lot to do with that. If a meal is too monochromatic, it may not stimulate the senses as much as a meal rich in colors. A combination of colors may make the meal a lot more appealing and therefore more appetizing.”
Bouvier also says that playing with textures can completely change how someone feels about a certain food.
“When someone is aiming to include more nutrient-dense foods in their daily intake, the texture of their food matters,” she says. “For example: The texture of roasted broccoli versus tender-fork steamed broccoli is significantly different. The slightly crisp texture that occurs from the broccoli being roasted may make a meal a lot more enjoyable to the palate versus a soft-steamed texture of the same vegetable. Further, having different textures in a meal also creates a more enjoyable experience when eating that meal. I always recommend that my clients combine a variety of textures in their meals and snacks, such as crispy, soft, tender, crunchy, and creamy.”
Rachel Meltzer Warren, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Jersey City, NJ, suggests other small tweaks you can easily make.
“Top with a sprinkle of fresh herbs,” Meltzer Warren suggests. “Restaurants do this all the time—why not try it at home? Chop a bit of parsley, oregano, or basil and sprinkle on your meal to add intrigue, not to mention nutrients and a burst of fresh flavor.”
Another one of her tips that’s an echo from above? “Use white plates. Having a blank canvas allows the colors of your food to pop and even makes it seem more flavorful.”
Finally, she suggests playing around with portion size when you’re plating. “Placing one minimal portion of food on the plate allows the food itself to shine; an oversized portion that takes up the whole plate or dish overwhelms the eye and doesn’t show off your food as well,” she says.
When you are thinking about how to make a meal more appealing for yourself or guests, think about aspects of dining that you really enjoy and try to recreate them. For example, if you love the atmosphere of a restaurant, recreate parts of it at home by setting the table, lighting candles, and playing soft jazz or classical music in the background. If you personally enjoy eating from pretty plates or using different knives and forks for each course, go for it.
And of course, beyond psychology, the quality and freshness of the ingredients in your meal do make a difference. Consider how a farm-fresh summer tomato tastes in comparison to a mealy supermarket tomato that was grown out of season, or what a difference fresh herbs can make compared to their dried counterparts. If you have access to a farmer’s market or seasonal produce stands, make the most of local fare to create fresh, flavorful meals.