How to improve every meal you'll ever serve.
‘Yeh, yeh’, you’re thinking. ‘How can she possibly make me a better cook in one blog post?’
Well… besides a few key pointers, probably I couldn’t. And I’m not going to try.
What I am going to do is make you a better eater.
Don’t get me wrong; the cooking bit is very important. So is choosing your ingredients. But, there is a certain art to eating. Really considering every element of the experience and learning a few tricks to enhance it will, I guarantee, lead to more enjoyment of your, and others’, culinary efforts. And you might even find yourself becoming a better cook at the same time.
Eating is a sensory experience. Smell makes up 80% of our perception of flavour, and taste the rest. But we’ll come back to these two. What about the other three senses? How do they influence our encounters with food? Let’s start with an obvious one…
Which of these plates of food do you find more appealing? Do you think you’d pay more for one than the other?
Although comprised of exactly the same ingredients, people rated the salad on the left, plated to represent a Kadinsky painting, as tasting significantly better and were willing to pay twice as much both before and after eating it.
We eat with our eyes. As anyone who has watched Masterchef knows, plating is important. Have a play with creating a piece of art. Try stacking. Try artistically drizzling your sauce. Try to assemble a variety of colours and shapes. Balance elements across the plate. Sprinkle fresh herbs on top, or crushed nuts or seeds. Edible flowers are a sure fire way to jazz up a plate of food and are easy to forage in cities.
A few snaps from the grOWN IT Instagram page. Even bacon and eggs can be plated with a bit of artistic thought.
What about your plate itself? If it’s round and white, you’re probably on the right track. But if you’re serving a dish with bitter and sharp flavours being the hero, try serving it on a square black plate. Colour and shape influence our experience of flavour! And if you’re trying to lose weight you might want to try a red plate to help you eat less!
Set the scene. Bright, harsh lighting will do no favours to your meal experience. Dim the lights and light a candle. Soft lighting, creating a relaxed atmosphere, has been shown to increase our enjoyment of a meal. Lay the table nicely. Clear away the clutter. Give yourself a fine dining experience!
What does your food sound like? Have you ever thought about it? Certainly cooking is a wonderfully sonic experience. But what can you hear when you chew? The sound will travel through your teeth, the bones in your jaw and into your ears, internally. Experiments have shown enhancing food sounds, like the crunch of a crisp, increases our perception of freshness. You might think of ways to introduce different elements to your meal that will provide a more varied sonic eating experience!
And, of course, there’s music. What you put on can hugely influence how much you eat, how fast you eat, how much you pay attention to your food and even your perception of flavour.
Imagine you’re eating a Mexican feast of fajitas and nachos and listening to
Which do you think is going to best bring out the zest and spice of your meal and enhance the authentic Mexican flavours?
You’re serving up a big bowl of spaghetti with a rich tomato and olive sauce, smothered in parmesan. And perhaps a glass of red wine if you’re old enough. Will you enjoy your meal more if you’re listening to
Of course, this doesn’t account for personal likes or dislikes! Indeed, studies have found that listening to music we like causes us to rate food as sweeter and as more bitter when listening to music we don’t.
Can you think of any dining situation in which punk or thumping dance music will enhance your enjoyment of food? Loud, fast music causes us to eat faster and pay less attention; a fact exploited by eateries who want a high turnover of customers and so will use this kind of music to speed you up and get you out!
Let’s start with our hands. Many cultures eat with their hands, which seems a sure fire way to connect more with your food. For us cutlery users, choice of cutlery makes a significant difference to how luxurious we find our food. Choose your heaviest. An experiment found that diners given heavier cutlery thought that their food was plated more artistically and were willing to pay more for exactly the same plate of food than diners given light canteen style cutlery. A very simple but effective way to manipulate your dinner guests into appreciating your culinary efforts all the more!
This one should probably go without saying. Get comfortable. Grab a cushion if you need. And your slippers and a jumper perhaps.
And, of course, to our mouths. How often do you pay attention to how your food feels? How would you describe the texture? Is your soup creamy or silky? Can you differentiate between crispy or crunchy? Can you feel all the various elements of your meal as you work your way through a mouthful?
SMELL & TASTE
The most important sensory elements of our meal experience. Though, as we’ve learnt, our perception of them is influenced by what all our other senses are being subjected to.
Most of our experience of flavour comes from smell. What is called retronasal smell to be exact. This means you are smelling the food from inside your mouth as the aromas drift up to your nostrils the back way. The tongue gets the rest via your taste buds, which are evenly distributed across your tongue by the way, not segregated into the five types of taste as you were taught at school. That one has been debunked.
To the five flavours. Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that’s the pleasant savoury element found in things like soy sauce or hard cheese). When you create a meal, ideally you are looking for a good balance of the five (although this doesn’t apply in quite the same way to a dessert or sweet).
Again, how often do you really pay attention to the flavour of your food. I mean, really. Can you taste every ingredient you’ve put in? Often, you can’t, as the flavours will combine and individuals will become a part of the whole, but it’s a fun game to play!
And how about those five elements? Is anything missing? Is anything overpowering? What could you try adding next time to really nail the flavour profile? A squeeze of lemon, a dollop of honey, a spoonful of marmite?
The last considerations don’t quite fall under one of the five senses, and are more about your emotional state. If you’re stressed, angry or upset, you’re probably not going to have a joyful and relaxing dining experience. Try focusing on taking a few deep breaths to come to the plate of food in front of you and using that soothing music to relax you. And apply the above. Hopefully, it will help take your mind off whatever is troubling you.
Really, all of this is a simple practice of mindfulness.
Finally, once in a while, even though it may only be a Tuesday night, put on your finest threads, fix your hair and treat yourself like a VIP.