Popcorn with chopsticks? Spaghetti in a cone? Jessica Brown investigates the psychological tricks everyone can use to make food taste better
Ask your friends if they have any weird eating habits, and it’s likely a few of them will gladly reel off a list of quirks they think set them apart from the rest of us. A quick and totally scientific poll of my Facebook friends outed those who can’t let different foods touch each other, germaphobes who can’t touch their food, and one person who loves to touch everything that passes their lips, and uses their hands to eat beans, curry, Bolognese, soups, ice cream and cereal.
On more than one occasion, flatmates have asked me why I sometimes eat from plastic plates and bowls covered in kid’s cartoon characters and animals. I’ve never been able to give a better answer than, “Because life’s too short not to be cheered up by your kitchen utensils.” On a completely separate note, I have never managed to keep a flatmate for longer than six months.
But now, science has come to the rescue for us quirky eaters, with a new study arguing we could all benefit from eating our food outside the box.
Researchers from Ohio State University tasked 68 people with eating popcorn either using their hands, or chopsticks. They found that those who ate the popcorn using chopsticks reported enjoying it more than those who used their hands – even though they all picked out the flavours of popcorn they wanted to try in advance.
In another experiment, participants drank water out of an envelope, or licked it out of a bowl like a cat, and both groups reported enjoying their drink more than those who consumed it conventionally.
Robert Smith, co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, said this is because eating food in a new way makes us pay more attention to what we’re eating – therefore we become more immersed in the experience due to a psychological phenomena known as “hedonic adaptation”. The key to which Smith explains is focusing on the novelty, which drives a shortlived immersion into the food or drink that we’re consuming.
“When we get something new, the feeling quickly wears off and we adapt. We often mis-predict this effect and think we’ll be happy for a long time afterwards, but we adapt faster than we think we will,” he says.
But as long as we keep switching it up, eating unconventionally is a good way to eat food that we know is good for us, but that we just can’t get excited about otherwise.
“One reason we don’t eat healthy food because we think it’s boring. For people who find carrots boring, this is a great solution. A lot of foods taste good if we pay attention to them,” he says.
It’s been well documented that the utensils we use can influence our tastebuds. Research from Oxford University in 2013, for example, found that yoghurt is perceived as denser and more expensive when it’s tasted from a lighter plastic spoon, and we rate food as saltier when eaten from a knife rather than from a spoon, fork, or toothpick.
But Smith’s research suggests our enjoyment doesn’t just come down to switching up the cutlery we use, but the overall experience we have, such as eating outside if we usually eat inside. The bad news is that Smith doesn’t recommend TV dinners.
“Anything different will be good as long as it doesn’t reduce the attention we pay to our food, such as watching TV. You need to lean towards ways of eating that are different, but not in an extremely distracting way”.
I decided to test Smith’s theories for myself. Eating popcorn with chopsticks is a clever way to slow down your eating, but I was too impatient to keep it up for long. No one ever became a scientific genius without experimenting, so I decided to try out my own invention. With last night’s spag bol and an ice-cream cone, I made a concoction worthy of Smith’s attention. I had a little trouble eating it, though. The smell of sugary pasta was too much to take.
Still, I could probably sell them for £8 each in an East London pop-up bar. Restaurants chasing Instagram likes with novelty food has given the practice of unconventional eating a bad name, according to Ross McGinnes, the man behind the Twitter account We Want Plates. McGinnes says he still has sleepless nights after being served a piece of cake on a table tennis bat in Barcelona in 2008.
In the last three years, We Want Plates has dutifully retweeted photos of diners’ less-than-appetising discoveries – from desert served on sanitary towels to chips presented in plant pots.
“Have you tried pouring gravy on a chopping board, or chasing blueberries around a roof tile covered in icing sugar? It’s infuriating,” McGinnes says. “When too much time is spent faffing around balancing six chips in a mini wheelbarrow, the flavour becomes secondary.” He believes it isn’t novel to eat off quirky objects anymore because it’s become so widespread.
“My local pub used to do a great Sunday roast: piled high, tasted great and yes, it came on a plate,” he says. “One weekend they added a quirky offering to the menu: little sandwiches, pies, dainty cakes and mini milkshakes served on a miniature picnic bench, painted bright pink and yellow. And what was the first thing these infantilized diners did? It wasn’t try the food - it was whip out their phones and take a picture.”
You don’t have to get mini-picnic-bench-induced headache to feel the benefits of Smith’s work, however. A quick tip for improving the taste of your tea, he says, is drinking it out of a champagne glass.
“If you’re eating many slices of pizza, consider eating one normally,” is another piece of advice, “one with a knife and fork, one backwards, and so on. If you vary the methods, you may find your last slice just as enjoyable as your first.”
If that sounds like effort, Smith also says it can be as simple as cooking your food in different ways.
“It doesn’t have to be crazy, just using a different dip or seasoning, cooking or cutting it differently, all that works just as well.”
Constant reinvention therefore is the key. And if all else fails, you can always rely on a Thomas the Tank engine plate.