Do you partake in food rituals?

EVELYN LEWIN
Last updated 15:15 20/01/2014
Tea

HEALTHY HABITS: It's not the ritual itself that matters so much as pausing before a meal.

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We all have them. Rituals we do before eating, though most of us don't think of them that way.

You may be the type of person who always eats chips in a bowl because they're just not the same out of the packet. Or you might only drink peppermint tea from your favourite striped mug because it tastes better that way. Perhaps you're like my husband, who sorts his M&Ms into colours before eating them.

If you're not convinced you have a food ritual, think back to the last children's birthday party you went to.

Blowing out the candles wasn't just about birthday wishes, it was actually a ritual that helped signify the importance of the day. And now, research shows that these types of acts add to our anticipation, and therefore enjoyment, of food.

University of Minnesota psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs's ritual was to shake her sugar packet prior to pouring a little bit in to her espresso. She would then take a sip, realise her coffee wasn't sweet enough, and add the rest of the packet. She did this every time she ordered coffee, despite the fact she always ended up using the entire packet.

Vohs was so intrigued by her own behaviour, she went on to lead a study about food rituals and how they affect perception of taste. The first experiment in the study, published in Psychological Science, involved 52 participants. They were divided into two groups and instructed to either eat a chocolate bar or perform a short ritual before digging in.

The "ritual" group was asked to break the chocolate bar in half before unwrapping one side and eating that part only. Next, they were told to unwrap the second half and eat that.

Tellingly, those who performed these instructions said they enjoyed the chocolate more and were willing to pay more for it than those who simply ate the bar.

A second experiment instructed participants to eat one carrot each from three separate bags on a table. One group was told to perform an identical set of movements before eating each carrot (in other words, a ritual), while the others were told to do different, random movements before eating each carrot.

Those who did the same movements beforehand enjoyed their carrots most.

Australia-based nutrition and lifestyle coach Amanda Daley isn't surprised by these findings.

"[Having a ritual] will help you to get so much more satisfaction from the flavours and textures of each unique food," she explains. It can also improve weight control by helping you avoid mindless eating.

"By giving ourselves that pleasure hit from the whole experience of dining, we are much less likely to overeat," she says.

Psychologist Damien Adler, from Mind Life Clinic, says the type of ritual you perform isn't critical. Rather, the act of stopping before meals offers the main benefit.

"This small but important pause allows us to focus on the pleasures of eating, so that we savour the aromas, pay more attention to the individual flavours and eat more slowly."

The good news, he adds, is that even if you don't have a ritual, "You can just make some up and you will still get all the benefits."

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Daley advises to start by focusing on your surroundings. She says all food - yes, even takeaway - should be eaten off beautiful plates, water should be served in wine glasses and your table set with place-mats and candles. Once seated, she advises taking "three deep belly breaths" as a final pre-meal act.

If you're not into deep breathing, you can create a ritual out of your crockery choices.

In a study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in January, 57 participants were asked to try hot chocolate from four different coloured cups.

The participants found that hot chocolate tasted better when served in either an orange- or cream-coloured mug, as opposed to a white- or red-coloured one. Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, the study's lead researcher, concluded, "The colour of the container in which food and drink are served can enhance some attributes, like taste and aroma."

So the key to a great eating experience isn't all about fancy food. It may just lie in what you do before that first bite.

- Daily Life

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