There is truth in the saying that we ‘eat with our eyes’. Beautifully prepared and presented ingredients look appetising and trigger the desire to tuck in by stimulating various senses, including how we perceive a food’s flavour and aroma, before we have taken our first bite.
But in most eating environments, the school dining room included, long before pupils catch sight of the dishes on offer, there are dozens of other visual cues influencing their emotions, appetite and expectation of the quality, taste and overall pleasure to be gained from the meal which awaits them.
Studies reveal that bright colours like vibrant reds and yellows – think McDonald’s interiors and furniture – tend to rate as being stimulating and exciting; cool, neutral colours, on the other hand, are perceived as spacious and restful, evoking calmer and more peaceful emotions.
Such insights have led experts to predict that opting for walls, furniture and lighting which reflect the calming end of the colour spectrum help to lower stress, improve behaviour and, in turn, may lead to more considered, rounded food choices in a dining environment.
Bringing nature inside
Experts in the field of biophilic studies, meanwhile, reveal that we can take this concept of engineering a calm visual atmosphere one stage further by bringing nature into the school dining room. Research from around the world is proving that spending time outside in nature, green spaces and specifically forests, can relieve stress whilst boosting mood and happiness.
Given the limited opportunities to dine outdoors in the UK, we can instead look at creative ways to incorporate the calming visual impact of the natural world into our internal environments.
Indoor plants and potted trees are a great place to start, but there are other options too. Inexpensive natural materials like hessian and wood, for example, can be incorporated into artwork on walls, while strategically placed pot plant holders, decorations, light shades or room dividers made from wicker can be situated around the dining hall.
It is worth considering too images of natural landscapes, including oceans, rivers, waterfalls and forests, being projected onto walls to help calm the mood of pupils and prepare their bodies for a delicious, nourishing eating experience ahead.
A welcoming face
Many of us will remember the negative impact of an unwelcoming, grumpy member of staff in a restaurant. They can affect your perception of every aspect of your dining experience, and ultimately, quite literally, ruin your meal.
Not surprisingly then, the appearance and welcome given by catering and wider teams to pupils can have a profound effect on setting the mood of a school dining hall too. Fear, as anyone who remembers an overbearing school cook of old, scowling and glaring at them from the kitchen during their own school days will attest, can blunt appetite in a nanosecond.
Training teams to be aware that a happy, bright face can go a long way in helping to put pupils at ease and enhance the multisensory experience of their school meal can be the first step, but they can also learn that their impact does not need to end here.
Despite our attachment to the spontaneous assumption that ‘unhealthy’ food options are associated with greater happiness than healthy ones – put simply a ‘chocolate cake boosts our mood more than apples’ – Australian researchers have proven otherwise.
On interviewing over 12,000 young people, they revealed how consumption of fruits and vegetables evoked high in-the-moment happiness experiences, which were at least comparable and, in some cases, even higher in their hedonic values, when compared with stereotypical ‘unhealthy’ choices.
It feels like a win-win situation then, to work closely with catering teams to encourage and then harness the visual impact of beautifully presented and positioned vegetables, fruits and healthy choices at mealtimes. Combine this with a happy smile and gentle suggestion to give these colourful options a try, they can further impact not just the nutritional benefits, but overall enjoyment of a pupil’s school dining experience.