Secrets From Science to Make Thanksgiving (and Every Meal) Better

Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart, author of the Audible Original 'Off Menu,' shares little-known facts about food and dining that can improve your meal.

This is the time of year we start browsing recipe websites, looking for new pie ideas and deciding whether or not brining the turkey is worth it. Potatoes: mashed or roasted? Brussels sprouts: yay or nay? Many of us will spend hours trying to get our menu just right. Even though Thanksgiving will likely look a little different this year, we still want our meal to be special. While writing my Audible Original, Off Menu, I discovered a totally new way to make your Thanksgiving dinner (or any meal) taste incredible, without the need for new recipes, better ingredients, or even changing the food at all! In the past few years, scientists have found that tweaking our senses through small environmental changes can affect how our food and drink taste. These things can add or enhance flavor, make bad food more delicious, or even convince your taste buds you’re eating something sweeter than you are. Here are some of the easiest tweaks you can make to instantly upgrade your meal—and none involves learning how to use a blow torch.

Setting the Table

Here’s a surprise: recent studies have shown that everything from the weight of the fork in your hand to the shape of your plate can have an effect on how your food tastes. One big factor is color, which can help highlight things you want to emphasize. Want to add sweetness without calories? A white dish is your best friend; we think things taste sweeter when they come on a white plate. Forgot to add salt? A blue plate will make the food taste saltier. Trying to avoid that "why did I eat so much?" feeling that comes right after a big Thanksgiving feast? Try serving the meal on red plates, which have been shown to trick our brains into eating less.

If you simply want to impress your guests with the quality of your cooking, there’s no need to learn how to sous vide, or julienne vegetables until midnight. Just swap out your table setting. Scientists have tested the weight of bowls and silverware to see if it impacted what people thought of the food. It turns out that the heavier the bowl, the more they enjoyed the meal. And swapping out your everyday cutlery for a heavier set will automatically make the food more delicious. 

One last thing when it comes to setting the table for enhanced eating: pay attention to the shape of your stuff. As a general rule, round plates make things taste sweeter than square plates. If your apple pie didn’t come out of the oven perfectly, or if your carrot cake ended up a little smaller than expected, serve it on round plates so diners will find it sweeter, and perhaps even eat less of it.

Perfecting the Playlist

Another great way to enhance the flavors of your food is through music. There’s a ton of science behind the idea that what you’re hearing influences what you’re tasting. Here are the basic rules for pairing your music with your meal. If you want to bring out the sweetness in a dish, try a high-pitched album: Mariah Carey, Kate Bush, or Whitney Houston, or anything in a C major scale. If you want to bring out the bitterness of an IPA, a radicchio salad, or an espresso, try Wynton Marsalis or Nick Cave, or something with minor strings. Want to emphasize the umami-ness of your roasted tomatoes or sautéed mushrooms? Something low-pitched, like Miles Davis, will help.

You can even change how quickly your guests are eating by adjusting the tempo of the music. Studies have shown that people tend to eat more quickly to up-tempo music, so if you’re eager to move them on to the next course (or you want them to go home so you can put your feet up), try switching your playlist to fast-paced tunes.

One last thing: Pay attention to the volume of the music. If it’s too loud, it can make it hard to taste the food! On the other hand, if your meal turned out terribly, turn that volume to the max and your guests won’t even notice. 

Little Extras

Finally, add a frisson of flavor to your meal with these super-easy tips. 

  • Tie a bunch of herbs to a serving spoon to add aromas that enhance flavor. One idea: a few sprigs of fresh rosemary on the handle of the spoon you use to serve mashed potatoes adds a fab smell component that complements the potatoes perfectly.

  • If you’re opening wine, do it in front of your guests, not in the kitchen. The sound of the cork coming out of the bottle has been shown to prep their palates for enjoyment before they’ve even had their first sip.

  • When you’re garnishing your food with herbs or spices, do those final touches at the table. Something as simple as tearing up a handful of basil or grinding black pepper means that diners are getting freshness cues—through sight, sound, and smell—and that means they’ll find the food more delicious.

  • Make more food than you think you'll need! Studies show that we eat up to 33% more when we’re eating with someone else rather than alone, and that number goes up the more people you add to the table.

You’ll find lots more tips like this in Off Menu, which is designed to help even the least talented of chefs (like myself!) produce a meal that’s delicious—without having to spend hours in the kitchen.


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