Confession time: I’m a snarfer. When I eat, if it tastes nice, you can bet I’ll be shoveling it down. I’ve always been a quick eater and I never really saw a problem with it, despite folks saying it was bad for digestion, unhealthy, or otherwise a bad thing to do.
But recently, I ha to reconsider. I had some friends over for bean burgers and games, and as usual, I finished my burger in about half the time it took the other two.
One of my pals said, “You can’t tell me you actually enjoyed that!” He took a bite of his burger, really savoring it, to drive his point home.
“Of course I enjoyed it!” I replied, somewhat indignantly. But I began to think.
Had I really enjoyed it as much as my friend? If he’d spent twice the time eating the same amount of food, was it possible he enjoyed it twice as much? He certainly enjoyed it for twice as long.
I’m really keen on psychology and “brain hacks” for lack of a better term, and I’ve had success in the past training myself to be healthier — enjoying exercise more, helping curb my perfectionism, even turning down cake and cookies at work.
I was intrigued by the concept of food enjoyment. Could I train myself to enjoy food more?
Researchers at Harvard and University of Minnesota have found something really interesting: when we engage in a ritual — any ritual — before eating, our food enjoyment increases.
What is a ritual?
These scientists define a ritual as “a symbolic activity that often includes repeated and unusual behaviors occurring in fixed, episodic sequences.”
It doesn’t matter if we’re eating carrots or cake: if we engage in a short ritual before eating, the enjoyment of the meal increases. Not only that, but the meal actually tastes more flavorful to us.
It also doesn’t matter what the ritual is. Traditionally, in various cultures around the world that do this, the ritual is related to the meal.
For example, a lot of us sing “Happy birthday” and blow out candles before we eat cake. For that reason, we tend to enjoy birthday cake more than any random cookie we stumble upon.
Maybe it’s the anticipation. Maybe it’s the joint activity. Maybe it’s a Pavlovian response to singing the song. Either way, we tend to love eating birthday cake more than a normal cake.
But the ritual doesn’t have to be related to the food. For the experiment to work, the ritual can be anything you conceive of.
How did these researchers test this?
They broke up some students into two groups and gave them chocolate bars. The students were then either asked to break the bar in half, still in the wrapping, and then eat one half at a time before unwrapping and eating the second half.
The other group was simply told to relax for a bit before eating the bar.
The study found that the group who ate the bar in a ritualistic way rated their pleasure at eating the bar as higher, and the chocolate bar itself more flavorful, than the control group.
But it’s chocolate! You might say. Everyone enjoys chocolate.
The next thing the researchers did was repeat the experiment, but with a bag of baby carrots. This time, a different group of students was told to knock on a table, grab the bag of baby carrots, knock again and take a deep breath before eating one of the carrots.
The control group was asked to make random gestures, not following any kind of routine.
The results were the same: the ritualistic behavior meant that the individuals who took part in it enjoyed the carrot more, reporting a better flavor and higher satisfaction than those who made random gestures.
The interesting thing was that for the benefits to occur, you have to be involved in the ritual. For example, you can’t watch someone follow the ritual of crafting home-made lemonade and get the same feeling of increased enjoyment when you drink it — you have to be physically involved in the process, to feel connected to the meal and invested in it.
How can you do this at home?
For me, I turned to tea.
The ritual of boiling the kettle, putting in the tea leaves, the water, and pouring out cups, is soothing to me. It’s something I’ve done with my family since I was young, so it was something I was already familiar with.
My partner and I decided to brew a pot of green rhubarb tea with every dinner. I boil the water while he gets out the cups and pot, then he puts in the leaves and I pour the water into the kettle.
Then we sit down, pour each other a cup of tea, and start to eat our dinner.
The results for me were definitely noticeable. I found I really savored the meal more, as I was anticipating it while I made the tea.
The ritual of doing it before every meal became a really lovely way to spend some time with my partner before we began eating.
I can’t say I noticed any extra flavor, but I can definitely say my food enjoyment and satisfaction increased.
The benefits of this kind of pre-meal routine are as mentioned in the experiment: higher food enjoyment and more flavor noticed from the foods.
Enjoying your food and slowing down to appreciate the nourishment is honestly one of life’s pleasures which isn’t as important to people anymore. I’ve gained it back and genuinely love the change in pace surrounding dinnertime.
“Mindfulness helps you remember that you’re nourishing yourself with more than food.” — Megrette Fletcher, cofounder and president of the Center for Mindful Eating
Try picking out a ritual — as random as knocking on the table, or something more meaningful for you and whoever you share your meals with, like me with my tea.
Enjoy being more present with your food, either on your own or with loved ones, and appreciate the added enjoyment to an important part of your life!