After a hard day’s work, the last thing on our minds is the presentation of our dinner. Most of us are probably more inclined to stick something in the microwave or oven and then throw it on a plate without giving a second thought to how it’s presented. We’ve probably never considered that the design and properties of the cutlery we use can influence our enjoyment of what we’re about to sit down to eat.
“Most of us aren’t mindful of the implicit impact the properties of cutlery can have on the enjoyment level,” says Charle Michel, an experimental chef and culinary artist with a focus on human-centred design. “Research shows that food eaten with heavier cutlery can elicit positive reactions.”
The research in question, which Michel was involved in, comes from 2015. At a hotel restaurant in Edinburgh, 130 diners were served identical meals of trout with mashed potato, spinach and brown shrimp butter (not your average meal, I’ll admit). However, half the diners used cheap cutlery; the others used banquet-style cutlery that was three times as heavy. Those who ate with the heavier utensils were willing to pay 15 per cent more, on average, for their food than those who ate with the basic cutlery.
While the majority of us don’t have the time to cook up trout with mashed potato and brown shrimp butter, we also don’t need to have worked in Michelin-star kitchens in order to benefit from the art and science of food.
Hack the dining table
Charles Spence (yes, another Charles) heads up the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory and has written a number of books, including Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, which explores how to cook up and serve the perfect meal. According to Spence, the colour of the utensils we choose can influence our perceptions as well.
A study he helped to conduct back in 2013 found that yogurt eaten off of a white spoon was perceived to be sweeter, and less salty, than yogurt eaten off of a black spoon, suggesting that when colours match, our enjoyment of food can increase.
Of course, coloured plastic cutlery isn’t ideal for most meals, but Spence recommends that we experiment with the utensils we dine with. By doing so, we can trick our brain into perceiving our meals to be tastier. This is why the aforementioned study found that when participants ate the same yogurt with an expensive silver spoon, they reported it to be creamier than the yogurt they ate off of a cheap, stainless steel alternative.
The properties and qualities of the plates we use can also influence our perceptions. For example, most if not all of us can probably think back to a time we were given a bigger bowl than we’d usually eat out of (most likely at a friend’s or relative’s house), and we helped ourselves to a bigger portion than what would usually be enough to sate our appetite. If we have a bigger bowl, we intrinsically believe that we have to fill it, therefore we help ourselves to more.
Like with cutlery, colour can have an impact. Another experiment Spence has previously carried out involved strawberry mousse. The results of the study show that when the dessert is on a white dish, its perceived sweetness increases by 10 per cent, and its flavour is more intense, than when it’s on a black dish.
Furthermore, in 2017, Swedish food stylist and chef Linda Lundgren paired foods with different coloured napkins, and came to the conclusion that the presence of coral pink napkins help to make strawberry mousse taste even sweeter. Commissioned by hospitality industry hygiene brand, Tork, Lundgren also found that aqua blue napkins help to tone down any saltiness and mustard yellow ones can improve the flavour of dishes that feature sprouts or leafy salads.
While there’s no suggestion that we should rush out and buy a rainbow of napkins (and plastic spoons) tomorrow, it’s food for thought. It shows us how it can be inexpensive and easy to lay a table that will – according to psychology research, at least – make dinner time more enjoyable.