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December 22 2015

The Power of Food Rituals

By Mark Sisson
18 Comments

Friends having a toastFrom the intricacy of Japanese tea ceremonies to the ornateness of holiday dinners, food related customs hold big sway in every culture. They all reflect in some way an element of that culture’s values and common story—whether long inherited or deliberately chosen. While some of our rituals can be traced to particular religious traditions, others are more secularly instituted, family oriented or even individually constructed. Those grander social customs might evoke more conscious nostalgia, but science suggests even the small practices we enact around our eating can have surprising results.

Food ritual, of course, is literally written in our genetic expectations. In fact, how meat in particular was cut and shared over hundreds of thousands of years has been a central clue in how anthropologists track cultural evolution. Relics of early human culture highlight the magnitude of it. From the use of certain kinds of dishes for particular foods and drinks to the thoughtful, extravagant spreads for communal feasting, for example, shared food ritual came before the Agricultural Revolution, serving then (and today) as a integral tool for establishing and maintaining social cohesion.

But the impact isn’t just social….

Instructing subjects to perform a given ritual before eating University of Minnesota researchers constructed experiments in which they instructed one half of people to perform a simple ritual before eating an assigned food and gave the other group no such instruction except to relax for a time before eating.

Those who performed the ritual (literally just dividing and unwrapping a chocolate bar a certain way) reported more satisfaction from the eating experience. They not only assessed the chocolate as more tasty, but they took longer to eat it and reported being willing to pay more for it.

A second experiment revealed that a longer delay between ritual and eating enhanced the experience of the food further still. Even with carrots, the subjects reported enjoying the taste more after the longer ritual-delay interval. (Maybe Aunt Sylvie’s drawn-out prayers over the holiday dinner aren’t so bad after all.)

It’s important to note is that participation in the ritual was necessary as is “intrinsic interest.” It’s not enough to observe someone else do something (e.g. carve the turkey) or to do a ritual expecting an extra reward (e.g. “If I make myself bless the food I’ll let myself have an extra dollop of cream on my pie.). We have to let ourselves perform the practice for practice’s sake. This means letting go of the incessant distractibility, our reductive utilitarianism and our modern cynicism.

In fact, research on ritual suggests the more elaborate our rituals, the more effect they have on us. It’s just a hallmark of the human mind. As researchers explain, “[T]he characteristics of ritual are the product of an evolved cognitive system.” What appeals to our imagination often has more power than what addresses our intellect. Ritual, scientists have observed, is used by both animals and humans to alleviate anxiety.

Our modes of engaging with our experiences include more than strict empirical reasoning. They call upon eons of human history in which ritual evoked peace, belonging and safety. We’d do well to learn from traditional societies’ (and some contemporary religious groups’ flow experience with ritual. It’s not about the particular stories behind these but the universal forms our species evolved with.

And it has the power to reframe our relationship with food as well as pleasure.

Interested in seeing what they can do for your enjoyment, ease and fulfillment? (That’s the good life after all….)

Start simple by appreciating the ritual you already practice. Do you set the table a certain way? Do you make your coffee or tea way? Do you bring certain habits meals or meal prep? There’s a reason cooking can be a meditative art for some people. For all our focus on convenience food, we deny ourselves more than we know by scarfing down sandwiches in parking lots or grabbing plates so everyone can retreat to their separate corners of the house.

Just go with what you believe would add to the enjoyment of your food that’s about your own behavior rather than the food itself. Another irony of modern life: we’ll pay insane amounts of money to bring home five star food but give ourselves a zero star eating experience. Everyone’s personal taste varies, but this principle holds: bring mindfulness to the table first. It’s the difference between letting yourself receive the food versus unconsciously inhaling it.

As you sit down with family for the holiday, why not resurrect old (and funny) mealtime patterns from your early years. Take time for whatever prayer, blessings, story sharing or pre-eating custom has meaning for you and your family. If the typical religious practices aren’t your thing, hold hands and ask each person to go around and say something they’re grateful for this year (do we seriously need to limit gratitude Thanksgiving?) or read a poem, sing something or even simply observe a minute of silence together. What practice would get everyone involved and celebrate the community preparation to eat?

Thanks for reading, everyone. What food rituals have you observed—in the everyday sense or within holiday celebration? I’d love to hear your thoughts and practices. Have a good end to your week.

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18 thoughts on “The Power of Food Rituals”

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  1. Beautiful post, Mark!

    Ritual can be so powerful–and transformative–in the sense that it can transform our experience of something and our relationship with it…and thus impact outcomes.

    Practiced with intention and mindfulness, ritual offers such a beautiful, powerful place of slowing down, pausing, noticing…and then moving, mindfully, from that place. So wonderful to bring this into eating and mealtimes.

    My partner and I don’t say grace before dinner. But we do pause–no matter how hungry we are or how excited about the meal–to hold hands and say “I love you” before taking that first bite. We also eat slowly, savoring our food and our time together sharing it.

    1. well said–beautiful post indeed, and your ritual sounds great as well

  2. Good article. I think almost all rituals are an attempt to recreate past experiences that were deeply pleasurable in one way or another. Ritualistic foods are almost always comfort foods that probably go back to early childhood, passed down from generation to generation. A “ritual” that isn’t particularly enjoyable because it isn’t linked to good times and happy memories doesn’t remain a ritual for long.

    Actually, it doesn’t take much to wreck a ritual. Take the yearly Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, for instance. Suppose the hostess decides to serve hot dogs and cornmeal mush with popsicles for dessert, instead of the anticipated turkey with trimmings. Suppose the disappointed guests take exception to this non-ritual meal and get into a fight over it. Wouldn’t people be inclined to say, “Yikes, let’s not do THAT again”? Many people would, because the ritual has been changed. It’s no longer the deeply enjoyable get-together that memory tells them it’s supposed to be.

  3. Excellent post! The image of someone carving the beef reminded me of this hilarious poem at ‘Diagnosis: Diet’ about the Grinch, the WHO’s and believing meat causes cancer.

  4. I have a simple morning ritual that starts the night before. I set up my French press for my coffee the next morning, and put the ghee and coconut oil in my Vitamix, to blend with the coffee. I also set up my lemon squeezer, a lemon, and a glass of water. It makes my morning go much more smoothly. I drink the coffee while I have some prayer/meditation/gratitude time. One very pleasant ritual that sets the tone for my day. And it actually starts the night before.

    1. That sounds lovely, Elizabeth.

      My morning beverages look pretty much the same as yours…but I could benefit from a bit more mindfulness and sense of ritual around the preparation. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. My morning ritual is the most pleasant of all, drink warm water while stretching my back in a squat in the low light before my shower. Shower in low light and then brighten it up for the hair and make up after I make lunches for the family. Coffee is next and finish off the hair and make up. I’m the only one up for the first hour, sigh, feels so good to be in the dark and silence by myself.

    Our dinner had our thankfulness ritual until my husband “left the family” in that way, now we all have to eat “alone” in front of the TV that he’s replaced us with. I may need to instill a new ritual with my son after he washes his hands and before eating that can increase his appreciation and enjoyment of what he was served, hopefully reducing all the complaining about having to eat healthy, tasty food.

    Good idea Mark, thanks!

  6. Since we don’t observe religious rituals, we haven’t said prayers or paused before eating except for a communal toast–which we usually do only when company is over. For a while we tried to get a gratitude ritual going around the table, but with adolescent kids, it was tough to force. Having read this post, I think a good idea would be to have that gratitude moment together before eating…I think it will work!

  7. We started doing a gratitude ritual before dinner. Each of us states one thing we’re grateful for. I recommend it – it’s an easy was to get the kids to focus on what’s really wonderful in our lives.
    Eating dinner at the table each night also helps with this – 2Rae got me thinking of my friend whose family also eat in front of the TV and how frustrating that is for her (also a husband-led choice), and I’m so grateful we don’t!!

  8. It’s so annoying when my family tries to talk to me when I eat my dinner in front of the TV watching sports. They are disturbing my ritual. 🙂

  9. I don’t know if I’d call it a ritual but I do love sharing the kitchen cooking with my girlfriend as we are both good cooks and its something we do together creatively from the planning and preparation to the actual cooking, listening to music, talking about the day and having a glass of wine. We flip a coin for dishes of course. Can’t have too much fun. 🙂

  10. I light candles every night, as soon as I arrive home from work, pour a glass of wine, and then begin making dinner!
    Cooking is cathartic! It’s a great way to relax and have “family” time with our cats, and provide us with great nutrition. (the cats don’t contribute much to the cooking, but they enjoy the scraps! 🙂

  11. I think I do too many things the same way each day! But during the prep of our meals when I have a knife sharpening steel in one hand and a knife in the other, well the tone is set.

  12. This inspires me to restart a ritual that somehow got lost: “kiss the cook.” Now it’s evidence-based!

    We do light a candle at dinner and eat with heirloom plates and flatware and that means something to me every day.

    Recently, after much back and forth, we established that I serve myself first. My husband, who is usually the cook, insisted on this, and I find it very touching. Although it’s eliminated the “you go, no you go” ritual.

    Nice post, good food for thought at this time of the year ;).

  13. Punctuation matters: “Instructing subjects to perform a given ritual before eating University of Minnesota researchers constructed experiments in which they instructed one half of people to perform a simple ritual before eating an assigned food and gave the other group no such instruction except to relax for a time before eating.”

    Hopefully, none of the U of MN researchers actually got eaten. That is taking this Primal thing to a whole new level.

    Read more: https://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-power-of-food-rituals/#ixzz3vAhIULMY

    1. I noticed that too! It made me laugh out loud. It’s the editor in me.

      Good call.