We were a small, cozy group this year for Christmas Dinner –  myself, my husband, and our two teenage sons – and it was suggested that we simply load our plates and eat at the kitchen bar / table.  Now it is a beautiful table, built by the boys as a Christmas gift, and I do love sitting at it.  And while it didn’t quite fit my vision for an intimate Christmas gathering, it did get me thinking about the how and where of our meals, and why it affects our experience so much.

I can tell you that I have absolutely enjoyed lobster dinner sitting around a campfire with paper plates and plastic utensils, and would easily say that it was one of my best meals ever.  However, move that to our dining room table or into a 5 star restaurant with the same plates and utensils, and it’s not quite the same experience. Buckets of fried chicken, greasy burgers in foil envelopes, campfire coffee out of sippy cups, and red wine in sytrofoam cups can all be meals to remember when you put them in context; surrounded by great friends around the fire pit, or maybe sitting on a piece of driftwood and watching the sunset over the ocean horizon. It would be hard to deny that there are many times when the food itself does not take the lead role of the meal.

So if food is only part of the overall experience, what makes up the rest?

Brian Wansink, Professor and Director of the famed Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, is the author of the book “Mindless Eating”, and is a leading expert of eating behaviors using principles of behavioral science. While his focus is primarily on the amount that people tend to eat, he claims that “package size, plate or glass shape, lighting, socializing, and variety are only a few of the environmental factors that can influence the consumption volume of food far more than most people realize. Although such environmental factors appear unrelated, they generally influence consumption volume by inhibiting consumption monitoring and by suggesting alternative consumption norms. For researchers, this suggests that redirecting the focus of investigations to the psychological mechanisms behind consumption will raise the profile and impact of research. For health professionals, this underscores how small structural changes in personal environments can reduce the unknowing overconsumption of food.” But, for restaurant owners, chefs, and home cooks, this can impact the length of time your guests will linger over a meal, whether they will ask for seconds, stay for dessert, or open that second bottle of wine!

Endless studies can be found linking paint colours, room design, music, furniture style, plate shape, glass size, lighting, probably even the clothing that we wear – all play a role in the psychology of the family meal.  While I really cannot imagine the hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into such research, I do find it all fascinating.  And when you link it to other relevant issues such as nutritional health, obesity, relationships, politics and religion – it becomes obvious that the food itself is a very small piece of the overall picture.

Back to my Christmas dinner – while the traditional turkey dinner may have tasted exactly the same whether we sat in front of the television, up at the kitchen table, or in the larger dining room, I will go on a limb and say that my teenage boys sat for 10 minutes longer, engaged just a tiny bit more in our conversation, and maybe even had a second helping of veggies simply because of where we sat for dinner. Okay, I made up that last  part  – but I’ll still take what I can get!