Imagine settling in for an elegant fish dinner and you’re asked to hold a seashell to your ear. You abide, and hear the incessant squawking of seagulls. You’re not likely to forget that meal.
Restaurants and chefs have all sorts of escamotages they hope will ensure that your experience is memorable and meaningful. That seashell stunt, for example, is chef Heston Blumenthal’s signature plate, Sound of the Sea, and it uses those additional elements to enhance your perception of the meal. Cooking is, after all, the intersection of science and art, and eating is a unique experience strongly influenced by many sensory systems. Sure, the gustatory system plays a role, but only a small one—some researchers think it may even comprise less than half of the whole tasting experience.
“We never put anything in our mouth without looking at it first, and our brains have already decided what it is or what we think it is, and very often those orthonasal smell cues are, again, setting our expectations,” says Charles Spence, experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. “And then when we actually taste, we’re mostly just kind of occasionally comparing what we taste to our expectation of what we think we should be tasting.”
Chefs, scientists, and sociologists have spent years trying to decipher the formula for the perfect meal and developing new ways to dazzle guests. Standing on the shoulders of those giants, you can replicate such wonder too. So the next time you want to treat your guests to an indulgent, entertaining, scrumptious, and memorable experience, plan to engage all their senses.
Make them forget their quotidian life
When you’re hosting, you control the setting. Create one that will help your guests transition from their everyday routines into a realm solely dedicated to a single pleasurable moment: your party. You can do this by decorating the room to fit the theme of your food—there’s an experimental restaurant in Shanghai that serves fish and chips while projecting a Union Jack on the table, for example. Or you can try to create some sort of “mental barrier” for your guests, like letting them play a board game while you prepare the meal, so they stop thinking about what happened during their day and start transitioning into this new moment.
“Do something funny or tell a joke to get people to switch out of whatever state they might’ve been in and make sure they’re in a good mood,” says Spence. “I call it a mental palate cleanser. The better the mood the better the food will taste.”
Personalize their experience
Tailoring the experience to your guests is an easy way to make a meal memorable. Memory is key, because you will be able to measure how successful your party was by how much people remember it afterward.
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If you’re all old friends, try providing a sense of nostalgia or comfort: a modern take on something you used to eat together, ingredients linked to where people are from, food from a country you visited as a group—show intention and thoughtfulness. If it’s someone’s birthday, center certain aspects on them, like a special dessert that’s their favorite. If a guest is left-handed, lay out the cutlery that way. “Maybe they notice, maybe they don’t, but even if they don’t notice, it’s probably a more fluid experience,” Spence says.
Creating some sort of surprise or giving guests a peek behind the scenes can also help. Spence suggests showing some of the preparation, or adding a finishing touch once the plate has already been served, all to establish an element of theatricality—think how popular Salt Bae (real name: Nusret Gökçe) got with his quirky salt sprinkle.
Plate to impress
Beautiful plating is crucial, and some chefs take it to the next level by presenting their food on all sorts of unusual things, like bricks, flat caps, or trowels, Spence says. Try to ensure the color of the food you’re serving contrasts with its plate—research has shown that chocolate mousse tastes sweeter and more intense on a white plate, for example. Spence also took part in a study that found people liked their salad better if it looked like a Kandinsky painting.
And don’t forget some sturdy cutlery alongside your carefully crafted plate, as there’s evidence that the heft of utensils can heavily influence how much people enjoy a meal.
Name your dishes, and go all-out
Give your dishes names, using descriptive, elaborate adjectives to really drive home the crunch, crisp, seasonality, or provenance of the food. “Storytelling sort of knits it all together,” says Spence. “Calling them ‘twisted zingy carrots’ rather than just ‘healthy carrots’ really makes a difference to the experience.” Another cheeky tip from Spence: telling people how expensive the wine is makes them think it tastes better too.
Give your guests a good look at the food before they eat it
You may be tempted to serve your guests and let them dig in immediately, but there’s no guarantee they’ll take a moment to appreciate what’s in front of them. Make sure they behold its full glory by making a deliberate presentation—now’s a good time to rattle off the dish’s name and ingredients, too. This will also allow them to smell the meal if they haven’t already, activating a sense that’s incredibly important to how humans experience food.
“It’s a little bit paradoxical,” says Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida. “Even though scent has a stronger effect than visual cues in determining perception, the effect of the scent is actually stronger when you have a visual cue before it too.”
[Related: This weird trick can make an onion taste like an apple]
He would know: he and two colleagues recently conducted a study that asked almost 200 students to look at and smell—or just smell—some red strawberry-flavored fruit snacks before eating them. Overall, the participants enjoyed the treats more when they stared, then sniffed.
There’s an ongoing debate about exactly how much of a role scent plays in how we taste, but the percentage is high. Our sense of smell is incredibly powerful and catering to it can make or break the dining experience. If you really want your guests to indulge in the odor of your food, try using a cloche to keep the scent contained before opening it in front of them.
Certain scents will also make people feel certain ways: eucalyptus and peppermint make people feel cooler, while cedar and cinnamon make them feel warmer. Citrus can make you feel more alert, and lavender can make you feel more relaxed, Biswas says. Try to harness these smells to further set the mood—light some autumnal candles if you’re serving a hearty Thanksgiving meal, for example.
Use color as a cue
Warmer colors like red and orange tend to make people more excited and likely to choose more indulgent foods. Lighter colors, like blue or off-white, meanwhile, are more conducive to healthy eating, Biswas says. Certain colors also allude to certain tastes, like if you put coffee in a pink cup it’ll taste sweeter compared to some served in a black or green cup, Spence says.
The same goes for colorful ambient lighting. With color-changing light bulbs, you can manipulate the guests’ sensory experience. Red light will bring out the fruitiness of wine, while green light will make the vino suddenly taste sour and fresher, according to Spence. If you find your guests are polite enough to say the wine isn’t quite to their taste, it’s worth trying to adjust the color of the bulb before buying a new bottle.
Dim the lights
Speaking of lighting, darker rooms are typically associated with more upscale places. Simultaneously, dim lighting makes people choose more unhealthy foods because it dulls the senses and affects our melatonin production, Biswas says. So, dial down the brightness a bit if that helps the overall vibe.
Match music to mission
Research has shown that when restaurants play classical music, inciting notions of quality and class, guests are more likely to spend more. Your guests aren’t paying you, but matching music to the theme of your dinner or taste of each dish is still important. Or use some synesthesia and try going for sweet music, salty music, or music that’s bitter, creamy, spicy. This is easier said than done, but once you hear it you’ll know: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is definitely a sweet song, while Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water tracks as a more sour tune.
Loud music also makes us more excited, leading us to find indulgent foods more appealing, while low-volume background music can help with conversations and healthy eating, Biswas says.
Make sure everyone has a seat
In a 2019 study, Biswas tested 350 participants on how flavorful pita chips and coffee were while sitting down or standing up. He found that standing up prompts physical stress that mutes taste buds and reduces how much people eat. When you’re eating standing up, you’re less likely to be comfortable, and that feeling gets translated into not liking the food, Biswas says. You probably weren’t planning to make your guests eat on their feet, but please, count your seating options before anyone arrives.
Adjust your strategy depending on your guests
It’s hard to say whether any of these tips work because of natural reasons, cultural ones, or a little bit of both. Some are evolutionary and have been picked up from nature—like how scent and taste are so closely linked. Others have been manipulated by corporations, with companies likely amplifying our associations and banking on them: red is exciting, fun, energy-filled… What color is Coca-Cola branding?
Plus, each person’s senses are different: some have a stronger perception of scent, others may be colorblind, and some are supertasters. That’s why there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the perfect dinner party, even if you follow all of the best science. The bigger picture is that harnessing these new discoveries and tools can help people not only create more enjoyable meal experiences at home or in fancy restaurants, but also more memorable ones.