Meal Intentionality

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Meal Intentionality and Wellnes Outcomes

While anyone can cook, chefs have known for a long time that using intentionality in plating the food is key to the dining experience — not only their own intent in the presentation of the meal, but how that interacts with the intentionality of the eater. More recently, there have been numerous psychological studies that show that intentionally choosing the size, shape, color, and even the material of the plateware can encourage a healthy diet in children and adults alike. Below is a deep dive into our findings.


The fact that the appearance of a meal is crucial to how it is enjoyed is well-known to chefs and has even been the subject of academic works published in journals and magazines like Psychology Today, which notes, "Anyone can cook a steak, and some may be very skilled at doing so," but that a "gourmet meal infuses creativity into the craft of cooking across the meal preparation process and along many dimensions of value (taste, preparation, presentation, and so on)." In other words, what sets a gourmet chef apart from a common cook is the intentional application of his or her creativity into every aspect of the meal, including its presentation.

The importance of the appearance of the meal and the dishes on which it is served (known as "plating") is summarized by one chef as, "We eat with our eyes." Given that half our brain power is involved in visual processing, it should be no surprise that an appealing dish must be intentionally arranged in a pleasing fashion. While discussions on plating tend to be focused on the arrangement of the food on the plate (e.g., noting that diners are willing to pay twice as much for food when it is artistically arranged), the plateware itself is key to the presentation.


Research shows that the choice of plateware actually has an influence on how the food tastes. For example, one study found that "people rated the same pinkish strawberry mousse as tasting 7% sweeter, 13% more flavourful and 9% more liked when served off a white plate than off a black plate." Even registered dietitian nutritionists agree that white plates are best for making the meal appealing: "Having a blank canvas allows the colors of your food to pop and even makes it seem more flavorful." This is why most restaurants serve their food on simple white, round dishes.

However, other studies show that non-white plates can actually increase the amount of food eaten. More specifically, if the food is the same color as the plate, a person will eat an average of 18% more. A parent with a picky child might intentionally exploit this to get them to eat their vegetables, as might an adult who is trying to get more kale into their own diet. Conversely, someone dieting might deliberately choose plate colors that contrast with the meal--or serve food on a red plate, which "tends to reduce the amount diners eat," possibly (though this is entirely speculative) because humans tend to associate red with danger.

Yet another study shows that cocoa served out of a mug with either an orange exterior and white interior or "dark-cream colored cups enhanced the chocolate flavor of the drink and consequently improved people’s acceptance of the beverage." While not directly backed by research as yet, some speculate that this is why so many have a "favorite" mug. Cold drinks, on the other hand, become more "thirst-quenching" simply by being served in a blue glass.

Likewise, deliberately choosing simple patterns for plateware, cutlery, and even tablecloths keeps the eater's attention on the food and avoids a sense of overcrowding. (This is particularly important in photography.)


Even the shape of the plateware can be intentionally chosen, in conjunction with the color, to enhance the flavor of the food set on it. Researchers have found that round, white plates enhance sweet flavors, while dark, angular plates set off savory flavors.


The very texture and material texture of the plateware matters to the perceived taste and texture of the food, with "ginger biscuits served from a sandpaper-rough plate" rated to be "significantly crunchier and spicier" than those served on smooth plates. On the other hand, eating off of a paper plate, let alone a napkin, automatically makes food less appealing.

Even utensils make a difference, with yogurt being rated 15% tastier and likely to be expensive simply by offering it on a silver spoon rather than a plastic one. Likewise, cheeses taste saltier when eaten from a knife versus from a toothpick or even a fork. Researchers call this phenomenon "mental seasoning."

The very material that the plateware is made of can be used to communicate the nature of the dish to the eater. "For example, broth served in a cup or a glass — as opposed to a bowl — indicates that it’s a standalone dish in terms of strength of flavor." This form of silent communication can be used to guide guests on how they should eat the meal without embarrassing or offending them.


The size of the plate makes a difference as well: Larger plates allow more food to be placed on them without overwhelming the eye. Conversely--and this is a crucial tip to those trying to diet--deliberately using smaller dishes makes less food seem like more. This is known as an offshoot of the Delboeuf illusion, in which two identical circles appear to be different sizes when one is surrounded by a larger circle. In one study, participants at a health and fitness camp were offered two different bowl sizes for their breakfast cereal. Those who had the larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those with the smaller bowls — but judged incorrectly that they had eaten 7% less!


Being intentional with the arrangement of the dinner table has been shown to have immense benefits with children. For example, children will actually eat more vegetables if the initial servings on their plates are small and more of them are deliberately set close at hand where the child can easily take more for themselves. Likewise, younger girls (ages 7-8) tend to prefer that the food be served so that different elements do not touch each other, while boys of the same age tend not to care. Consequently, intentionally arranging food on a child's plate so that different elements don't touch (as they can always mix them together themselves if they wish) is more likely to make the meal appeal to the child, encouraging healthier eating.


When it comes to dietary health and wellness benefits, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, every element of the meal must be carefully chosen to obtain the desired result right down to the plateware used. Whether using smaller plates and contrasting colors to develop better portion control, specific colors and shapes to make healthy food more appealing, or using specific types of vessels to help guide guests through a meal, the intentionality of both the cook and the eater is critical. Indeed, it's what sets the gourmet chefs apart from lesser cooks.

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