Eat, play, love: how food rituals help us enjoy mealtimes more

Tiny Teddy amputation is a peculiar food ritual.
Tiny Teddy amputation is a peculiar food ritual. Photo: Paul Jones

When Jacqui Newling's daughter eats Tiny Teddies, she nibbles the ears first, then the face, and finally, the teddy's body. "It's the way she's always done it," says Newling. "She'd never think of doing it another way."

What may seem like a childlike quirk is actually a valuable food ritual – valuable because it helps us enhance our enjoyment of the food we are eating.

A study by the University of Minnesota and Harvard University has shown that performing food rituals increases our pleasure when eating. Consider the enjoyment we derive from eating at top-dollar restaurants – it's not simply about the food, we reason. We're there for the experience.

Could knocking on a table be the key to getting kids to eat broccoli?
Could knocking on a table be the key to getting kids to eat broccoli? Photo: Jennifer Soo

And at the other end of the spectrum, eating Cheezels is just that much more fun when we pop them on our fingers and bite them off.

The study showed that both meaningful and irrelevant actions made eating more fun. In one study, people were instructed to take a chocolate bar, break it in half, unwrap one half and eat it. They then did the same to the second half. A second group ate the chocolate without instructions.

Those who followed the two-step ritual said they found the experience more enjoyable, and said the chocolate tasted better.

Once upon a time, hard-tack biscuits required serious dunkage.
Once upon a time, hard-tack biscuits required serious dunkage. 

Another study confirmed that even carrots are tastier when eaten following a random action. Participants knocked on a table before eating the carrots, and even this seemingly silly action heightened their anticipation – and it might be a good way to get your kids to eat broccoli!

When you start thinking about food rituals, you begin to see them everywhere. Some are peculiarly personal (like Tiny Teddy amputation), but many are traditional and communal. Religion is an obvious place to look, and history is dotted with stories of food being far more than sustenance.

Aztec women used to blow on maize, for example, before heating it, so that it would be prepared for the fire. Breaking the wishbone of a chicken or turkey was once considered sacrilege but is now traditional after a Sunday roast.


Food and celebration are closely linked, too. We eat cakes for birthdays, drink champagne at weddings and smoke cigars when a baby is born (OK, not strictly a food, but people do chomp on them).

Some food rituals are born of superstition. In China, breaking noodles is said to shorten one's life, so the Chinese slurp theirs rather than bite them. And there was a time when women would avoid putting milk in their tea before the water, lest they remained single forever.

There are countless more, but perhaps because food and ritual are so intertwined, we rarely notice them or think about their relationship, says Newling, the resident gastronomer at Sydney Living Museums.

"There are things that have become part of pop culture," she says, "like Tim Tam Slams or eating Cheezels off your fingers. But most of these rituals are highly individual."

For instance, we all have unique ways of putting sauce on a pie (under the lid, on the lid or for dipping on the side), which we follow automatically and subconsciously.

"We even look at the way others do these things and shake our head," she says. "It's a way of making the food our own. So it's not surprising that it helps us enjoy it more."

It situates us in the moment, slows the process and helps us become more mindful of what we're doing, she says – whether we're making a pot of tea or tucking into a Four'n Twenty.

It's also no coincidence, says Newling, that many of the foods we associate with rituals – such as biting the bottom of a Cornetto first, then racing to finish the ice-cream before it becomes a dripping, oozy mess – are treats or snacks.

"They're almost always sweet and part of our childhoods," she says. "I used to slurp the bottom of my milkshake just to hear the sound it made."

It was a way of savouring the treat but it's also a sign that we want to interact with our food more than merely eating it. "Eating is a really sensorial experience. We see the shapes, hear the sounds, notice the form food takes, and find ways of engaging with those."

It's a fancy way to explain why children make Vegemite worms from squishing their Vita-Weats together.

There are also functional explanations for some of our food rituals. Dunking our bikkies in tea has its roots in the hard-tack biscuits soldiers would eat on long journeys. Made to survive months at war or at sea, the biscuits required serious dunkage to be edible.

We don't have that problem today but we remain a nation of committed dunkers, so much so that we created the Tim Tam Slam. While nobody seems to quite know it began, it's recognised everywhere the biscuits are sold (and if you've been living under a Mint Slice-shaped rock, it's when you bite off the four corners of a Tim Tam, dunk one half in a hot drink and slurp the now-gooey biscuit out.

Even tapping a soft-drink can or scraping disposable chopsticks to remove splinters are rituals that allow us to enjoy the ensuing meal more – functional, yes, but also ways of prolonging the experience and inserting ourselves into it.

And if you still doubt the power of these rituals, consider the ways marketers and restaurateurs take advantage of them. Remember that annoying ad for Oreos, where the child taught his older brother "first you twist it, then you lick it ... "? And how about Cheesybite, a Vegemite product that merged the yeast paste with cheese, because that's how thousands of people were eating it?

After all, says Newling, we have to eat but we don't really have to make it fun. The fact that we do says a lot about how much we love it. Remember that next time you nibble on a Tiny Teddy.

What's you food ritual? Let us know in the comments below.