What makes the perfect meal?
Most of us might envision a specific dish, or a certain ingredient — a fine steak cooked medium-rare, grandma's chicken curry or mom's hearty ratatouille.
Charles Spence thinks about the food, for sure. But he also thinks about everything else: the color and size of the dinnerware, the music playing in the background and the lighting in the dining room.
That's because Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, has dedicated his career to studying how our environment affects the way we experience food and drink. He has found, for example, that the weight and color of our utensils can affect how sweet or salty a food tastes. And people tend to enjoy the same dish more when it has a longer, more descriptive name.
In The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, Spence and psychologist Betina Piqueras-Fiszman from Wageningen University in the Netherlands explore how even the most minute adjustments can enhance the dining experience.
"The perfect meal means something different to everyone," Spence says. "But there are commonalities, and the quest of looking for the perfect meal leads to a lot of interesting research."
We asked Spence to walk us through the science and advise us on how to perfect our own meals.
As any good chef will tell you, how the food is arranged on a plate makes a big difference.
"When the plating is artistic, people tend to enjoy the food more than if the same ingredients were just dumped on the plate," Spence says. In a paper published this June, Spence and his colleagues found that people enjoyed salad more when it was plated to resemble a Kandinsky painting.
The shape and color of the dinnerware can affect taste as well. In general, round, white plates tend to enhance sweet flavors in food, whereas black, angular plates tend to bring out more savory flavors, Spence says. And serving food on a red plate tends to reduce the amount diners eat.
Why? "We know that if we change the actual color of the food [or drink], it can change the taste and flavor," he says. Dye a glass of Sauvignon Blanc red, and your brain may trick you into thinking it tastes more like a Merlot. The same food can look different when it's placed on different colored plates, Spence says, and flavor our perception.
It could also be that we're primed to expect certain foods to be plated in a particular way. "Maybe you've been to a lot of gastropubs where they serve food on slate boards," Spence says, so you subconsciously associate dark, rectangular plates with salty pub food.
Or it could be something else, deeply subconscious. "Studies show that people normally describe sweet tastes as round," he says, though researchers aren't sure why. And we tend to associate red with danger, which he says may help explain why we tend to eat less when food is served on red dinnerware.
The takeaway here, Spence says, is there are lots of ways to plate the perfect meal – it just depends on which ingredients and flavors you want to play up.
The hue of the lights in your dining room can also affect the way your food looks, and that can profoundly affect the way we perceive the food, Spence says.
"Green and red lighting added fruitiness to red wine," he says. "And studies show that men will eat less under blue lighting."
One study found that people who like strong coffee tend to drink more of it under bright light, whereas people who prefer weak coffee tend to drink more of it under dim light.
Scientists can't fully explain any of these phenomena, Spence says. It may be that we expect certain foods to look a certain why — so blue chicken and yellow milk just look wrong.
"Or perhaps people are trying to maintain some kind of balance in their senses," Spence says. We like bright light when we're tasting strong flavors, but we prefer dim light when our food and drink is more subtly flavored.
As we recently reported, music can either enhance the dining experience or ruin it, Spence says.
"That's something people don't think about. We see chefs care passionately about the food in terms of the ingredients they put in," he says. But they aren't as discerning about the music playing in the dining hall. "The duty manager on the floor just has his iPod on — and it detracts from the meal."
Pairing music with food is both an art and a science, Spence notes. "People tend to say that sweet-tasting foods are associated with higher-pitched sounds and wind chimes, whereas savory foods are associated more with lower-pitched sounds and brass instruments," he says. One study found that people enjoyed wine more when it was paired with certain types of classical music.
Sommeliers are using such research to better understand and experience complex wines, Spence says.
And chefs are paying attention as well. In England, inspired by Spence's research, famed chef Heston Blumenthal serves a dish called "Sound of the Sea" at his three-Michelin-star restaurant, the Fat Duck. The seafood plate comes with an iPod tucked into a conch shell, so diners can listen to the sound of the ocean as they eat.
But there's no need to leave this sort of experimentation to the pros, Spence says. He encourages home cooks to experiment with their own gastro-musical pairings.
"When people are in a really bad mood or depressed, they have trouble even tasting the food or certain ingredients," Spence says.
Small levels of stress can taint the taste of a meal as well, but that can be remedied. Just as a palette-cleansing dish can refresh your taste buds, he says telling jokes before a meal can lighten the mood and improve the overall dining experience.
In his book, Spence mentions chef Denis Martin, who adorns the tables at his high-end restaurant in Vevey, Switzerland, with toy cows that make mooing noises when tipped over. The idea is to get customers laughing before they eat.
In the same vein, Spence says, "you'll never have great meals while fighting with your partner."
And we tend to enjoy meals more when we're eating with a group of friends than when we're eating alone. "The more people at the dining table, the more food is consumed," Spence says.
These days, many solo diners use their iPhones to keep them company, but, Spence warns, studies suggest that smartphones can distract diners and diminish their enjoyment of a meal.
But we have to accept that smart phones are now a permanent fixture at our dining tables, Spence says. He's interested in figuring out how chefs can work with technology rather than against it.
"The challenge," he says, "is how do we reposition technology from distracting us from our food to enhancing our meals?"