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Food Rituals: Tap, Rap, Stir…Repeat

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

The Kichwa people of Ecuador drink a beverage made from guayusa leaves around a communal fire at sunrise; Uruguayans and Argentines share hollow gourds filled with yerba mate with their friends; the Japanese are famous for their complex tea ceremonies; and many people around the world blow out candles and make a wish before eating their birthday cake.

Such food rituals strengthen social ties, but might they also enhance the taste experience? Apparently, according to a series of studies in Psychological Science. And the good news is that the ritual can be short and simple—and done on your own.

The researchers, from the University of Minnesota and Harvard, looked at the effects of performing various rituals before consuming foods. They defined ritual as “a symbolic activity that often includes repeated and unusual behaviors occurring in fixed, episodic sequences.”

In the first experiment, one group of participants ate chocolate after following specific directions: “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then unwrap the other half and eat it.” The other group ate the chocolate however they liked. Those performing the ritual reported enjoying the experience more and found the chocolate more flavorful than those in the non-ritual (control) group.

In the second experiment, participants performed either ritual-like gestures (taking a deep breath, closing their eyes, and rapping their knuckles on a desk) or random movements before consuming carrots. Compared to the random-gesture group, those in the ritual group reported greater anticipated and actual enjoyment when they ate the carrots. Moreover, delaying consumption after performing the ritual gestures increased enjoyment of them even more.

Interestingly, as shown in the final experiments, performing the ritual (in this case making lemonade) increased the pleasure of consumption more than watching someone else do it. When you go through the motions yourself, you are more vested in the experience.

“Rituals have a surprising degree of influence over how people experience what comes next,” the researchers said. They often “make life better” by boosting involvement and enjoyment. Rituals may also increase pleasure in everyday activities, including eating and drinking, simply by making you more mindful.