If you're worried about impressing someone with your cooking skills, or you're trying a new recipe for the first time, there are some mental tricks you can use on others to make your meal seem better than it really is. Here are five of the most effective.
Image by Dan Kosmayer (Shutterstock) and remixed by Nick Criscuolo.
Make the "plating" look artistic
If you've ever watched a cooking competition show like Iron Chef or Chopped, you've probably heard them talk about how the "plating" accentuates the dish. Plating is the way you display your meal on the plate itself, and studies have shown that it can actually make your food taste better. Here are some of the basics to artistic plating:
- Start with a clean plate (white is always a safe choice)
- Don't overcrowd your food (and keep pasta servings small)
- Use contrasting colours, textures, sizes, and shapes
- Always use a garnish (like fresh herbs and drizzles, dollops, or swirls of sauce)
We've covered how to plate a beautiful meal before, so check out our guide to see what other tips there are.
Create the perfect dining ambience
In a restaurant, ambience is one of the key components to keeping customers. You want to think of your dining room, patio, living room, or wherever you'll be eating, as a tiny restaurant, and you're going to set the mood. If you can make the general dining experience more enjoyable, the meal itself will seem more enjoyable.
Start by playing some music. Studies have shown that music played at comfortable volume levels increases the enjoyment of a dining experiences. One study, led by researchers Christopher C. Novak, Joseph La Lopa, and Robert E. Novak, and published in the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, found that music played in the volume range of 62-67 dBA (about the level of normal conversation) increased dining pleasure and consumer satisfaction. Music that was too loud, however, made things worse, so keep it soft. Even a little ambient sound can help set the tone.
There are a few other things you can do for ambience as well. According to an Insead Food Marketing Multi-disciplinary Review, light, temperature, and an entertaining presence can positively affect someone's mind during a meal as well:
- Turn down the temperature (our bodies will think we'll need more energy to stay warm)
- Turn down the lighting or use candles (it puts us at ease)
- Use entertaining social distractions like turning on the TV or having people over
In an interview with NPR, Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, also recommends keeping the mood light and stress free. If someone is in a bad mood, it can make a meal seem even worse than it may already be. Get everybody in a good mood before you serve. With the right ambience, you'll make sure their brains are doing most of the work, and not their taste buds.
Use heavier silverware
As Boris the Blade once said, "heavy is good, heavy is reliable." We associate heavy things with value, and dining cutlery is no different. A recent study, led by researchers Charles Michel, Carlos Velasco, Charles Spence, and published in the journal Flavour, suggested that diners using heavier eating utensils enjoyed the whole of their meal more than if they had used lighter ones.
Furthermore, the heavier silverware made diners appreciate the plating more, and even affected how much they would gladly pay for the same meal again. If you're worried about your meal, it's time to bust out the nice, heavy stuff. If you don't have any, you can probably find a heavy set at a local thrift store. The heavier the better.
Appeal to people's morals and sense of nostalgia
People like to know they're eating something special because it makes them feel special, and appealing to people's morals or nostalgic side can give you the upper hand. A recent study, led by Boyka Bratanova, and published in the journal Appetite, suggests that people will enjoy a meal more if they know it comes from a more ethical origin. An ethical food origin increases their moral satisfaction with their meal, and thus enhances their taste expectations and experience. They think, "I can enjoy this as much as I want because there isn't anything morally questionable about where it comes from," and they set themselves up to enjoy it more than they would have. Humanely and sustainably raised animals may or may not actually taste better, but people like to eat with a lighter conscience.
Additionally, a study from the University of Illinois Food & Brand Lab, suggests that alluding to the past can make them feel like they're eating something wholesome or traditional. For example, "Grandma's chocolate chip cookies" would probably "taste better" than regular chocolate chip cookies. Or if you said your pasta dish was an "old secret family recipe," people would probably enjoy it a little more because they think they're getting a taste of history. Both of these tricks are commonly used on restaurant menus to make you want certain items over others.
Adjust their taste expectations
In a study led by Brian Wansink from Cornell University, and published in the journal Physiology & Behaviour, researchers found that someone's taste expectations can easily be influenced by what you tell them. In the study, diners were offered wine with their meal from either California (known for its vineyards), or North Dakota (not known for wine at all). The diners served the "California" wine thought they were being served a nicer beverage than the diners served the "North Dakota" wine, and they adjusted their taste expectations for the entire meal, eating more than the other diners. In reality, both groups of diners were actually being served a $US3 bottle of wine, but the idea is that you can convince people that something is nice if you tell them that it's nice. Opening up a "good bottle of wine" to go with your "great homemade meal" sets the stage in their minds rather nicely.
If something is expensive, people also assume it's nice and adjust their taste expectations. In a separate study at Cornell, researchers found that diners enjoyed buffets when they were priced at double the cost than other buffets. When you tell someone that the food they're about to eat is more expensive, they expect to appreciate the flavour more, and look for the subtleties that could only come with an "expensive meal."
If you allude to your dinner guests that they're about to eat a nice, costly meal — that deserves to be paired with a good bottle of wine — they will probably believe that it's nice and adjust their tastes before they even take a bite.