We know that serving sustainably sourced food that is fresh, great quality and cooked beautifully are vital elements of our role as a school caterer. We understand too, however, that the pleasure all of us take in mealtimes (adults, children and teenagers included) goes further than these more obvious parts of the ‘meal enjoyment’ equation.
It is here that our comprehension of the complex elements of multisensory perception at the dining table come to the fore and find their way into how and why we create a holistic dining experience within a school dining room.
What shapes our food choices?
Children’s food choices are naturally shaped, to a large extent, by what and how meals are eaten at home, what their contemporaries select at school, as well as, of course, by pure and simple personal likes and dislikes. But it is also vital to see the larger picture and to acknowledge that as humans, we respond to food through all our senses.
To the look, feel and sounds within the environment in which we eat. To the layout and print on the menu and even to the shape, colour and weight of the plates. All play a role in our enjoyment, or not, of a meal, long before our taste buds get involved.
Over the coming series, we will look at each of these elements in more detail. Experts in the multisensory aspects of dining acknowledge that it is hard to put a percentage on the extent to which our enjoyment of the food we eat originates in and can be attributed directly to the food and drink itself, and how much comes from what Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, describes as the ‘everything else’.
Having studied the evidence we have to date, Spence is prepared, however, to estimate that a ‘good half’ of the pleasure we derive from our meals does in fact find its roots in this seemingly nebulous ‘everything else’ category, which also includes, for example, the acoustics and/or music being played in the room in which we eat.
We all know how quieter, more peaceful music creates a calmer environment within a restaurant compared with a pulsating hard rock track. We know too that gentle, natural light creates a more relaxing ambiance, compared with bright neon strips. Equally, the way the food smells, how it is displayed and garnished, the feel of the cutlery in our hands and the manner and demeanour, if we can see them, of those responsible for preparing and most certainly of those serving us, affects how we feel about the meal we are ultimately to have in front of us.
Scientists have realised that such ‘everything else’ factors can quite literally alter the way our brain perceives the texture and flavour of food on our plate and can even make predictions of our overall enjoyment of the meal, before even taking our first bite. Again, as we all know, if a meal disappoints, the outcome can be immediate and long lasting. Anyone of a certain age who still simply cannot face cabbage since school days, put off just by the very memory of its smell, will know that emotion only too well.
Expectations are everything. We take them seriously, whatever a child’s age, because we know that nutritious and positive food experiences in comfortable settings that encourage happy social interaction not only give young people pleasure in the short term, but help to provide them with the confidence to make well-informed food choices throughout their lives.
It’s our role to inspire and nurture their future through our dining experiences. The future of food is here.