Food and Mood
If you were asked to visualize your favorite meal, would you picture a perfect piece of steak, or the dark wooden columns in your favorite steakhouse? Would you describe your favorite dessert as a slice of apple pie delivered to your brightly lit, red and white checkered table clothed booth at your neighborhood diner, or your Aunt Sally´s home made apple pie served warm at her kitchen counter?
As you might expect, creating an enjoyable meal involves much more than food selection. It includes cultivating an appetizing environment. Whether planning the perfect dinner party or surprising your spouse with a candlelight dinner for two, the perfect meal involves a combination of mood and food.
Ambiance and Appetite
Have you ever noticed that food often tastes better in a restaurant than if you make the exact same dish at home? (If you haven´t, you are already on your way to creating the perfect meal). If not, before you knock your cooking skills, it turns out there might be a partially scientific explanation for this phenomenon. One in which you can use to your advantage.
Stated plainly, ambiance impacts appetite. Anecdotal experience reveals that for most people, enjoying a meal with a background soundtrack of melodic, pleasant music, enhances the dining experience. Having your table and water glass constantly vibrating to the beat of loud music does not. Research corroborates these observations.
Alexandra Fiegel et al. (2014) investigated how background music impacts the perception and enjoyment of a meal.[i] They sought to determine how the impact of background music varies depending on food type (emotional versus non-emotional) as well as the music performer (single versus multiple performers).
They tested four genres of music: classical, jazz, hip-hop, and rock, using clips from either a single performer or multiple performers. Participants rated sensory perception and food stimuli impression after eating an emotional food (milk chocolate) or non-emotional food (bell peppers) while listening to the four musical stimuli.
The results? Among other findings, study participants enjoyed food stimuli significantly more while listening to jazz rather than hip-hop. In addition, background music impacted overall impressions regarding emotional food, but not non-emotional food.
On the topic of emotional food, apparently, music specifically impacts chocolate. Carvalho Reinoso et al. in a piece entitled “Smooth Operator” (2017) demonstrated that music played while eating chocolate impacts the perceived taste.[ii]
When participants were presented with identical chocolate samples, a “creamy” soundtrack enhanced the perception of both sweetness and creaminess of the chocolate, compared with a “rough” soundtrack. Interestingly, these perceptions did not impact the overall enjoyment of the chocolates—which goes without saying for most chocolate lovers.
So plan to accent your dinner (and chocolate dessert) with soothing jazz rather than "rough" rap. Next question: what beverages do you serve with each course?
Pairings to Please the Palate
To showcase your perfect steak, do you open a bottle of red wine or crack open a beer? The answer is an important part of creating an enjoyable dining experience. When it comes to choosing beverage selections to accompany a meal that are both appetizing and appealing, research confirms the power of pairings.
Guilia Buodo et al. (2019) examined how food-drink pairings impact the appeal of food.[iii] Specifically, they studied how cultural conventions about food-beverage pairings impacted behavioral, subjective, and neural responses to meat, pizza, and dessert. They discovered that conventional pairings were more appetizing than unconventional appetizing for pizza and dessert, but not for meat.
Overall, conventional pairings (red meat with red wine) elicited a higher degree of arousal, pleasantness, and appetite than unconventional pairings (red meat with beer). Despite these findings, the motivational value of the food was unaffected.
And on a subjective level, Buodo et al. note that it was only pizza and dessert that were sensitive to the impact of cultural conventions. Meat, on the other hand, was rated as equally appetizing, arousing, and pleasant in both pairing conditions.
Regarding attention, unconventional pairings prompted longer viewing times, which the authors note suggest that people pay more attention to unusual or unfamiliar combinations of food and drink.
The takeaway? If you want to create a memorable dining experience, enhance appeal and appetite through ambiance, which involves scene selection, music, and pairing strategy. Bon appetit.
[i]Fiegel, Alexandra, Jean-François Meullenet, Robert J. Harrington, Rachel Humble, and Han-Seok Seo. “Background Music Genre Can Modulate Flavor Pleasantness and Overall Impression of Food Stimuli.” Appetite 76 (2014): 144–52.
[ii]Reinoso Carvalho, Felipe, Qian (Janice) Wang, Raymond van Ee, Dominique Persoone, and Charles Spence. “‘Smooth Operator’: Music Modulates the Perceived Creaminess, Sweetness, and Bitterness of Chocolate.” Appetite 108 (2017): 383–90.
[iii]Buodo, Giulia, Rino Rumiati, Lorella Lotto, and Michela Sarlo. “Does Food-Drink Pairings Affect Appetitive Processing of Food Cues with Different Rewarding Properties? Evidence from Subjective, Behavioral, and Neural Measures.” Food Quality and Preference 75 (2019): 124–32.