You watch as your friend takes an Oreo from the trademark blue-and-white package, pulls it apart, and licks all the cream filling off the cookie. Only when the dark cookie halves are completely filling–free will he finally dunk them into a glass of milk and savor each slowly.
“What in the world is he doing?” you think to yourself. “Why doesn’t he just eat it already?”
How someone eats an Oreo is one example of a food ritual, a cultural phenomenon that can amplify the flavor and overall enjoyment of what you’re eating. Food rituals are unique to every person and every generation, and like any other aspect of our culture, they grow, evolve, and become a core part of who we are.
Why Food Rituals Matter
While different methods of dissecting an Oreo may seem insignificant, research shows certain rituals actually enhance our enjoyment of cooking and eating by making food seem more flavorful.
In one study, two groups of participants were told to eat the same chocolate bar. One group was told to break the bar in half, wrapper and all, and then open one half at a time and eat it. The other group relaxed for a while, then ate the bar however they pleased. The group that followed the two-step ritual rated the chocolate as more flavorful than the other group, even saying they’d be willing to pay an average of 25 cents more for it.
Another experiment tested whether a systematic movement ritual could make baby carrots more appealing. The result: Systematic gestures that made participants feel like they were partaking in a ritual, rather than random movements, made them anticipate the carrots and enjoy them more.
While these experiments might sound contrived, the truth is that rituals exist in all forms — from the extreme crust-cutters to the simple habits our parents taught us. Rituals mean more to some than others, but all of them drive our behaviors more than we realize.
People of similar backgrounds, generations, and locations share many food rituals. For example, people like me who grew up in the city are used to walking while eating our pizza slices, so we instinctually fold ours in half to avoid making a mess. This is different from someone who eats pizza at home or cuts it into squares. There is no wrong or right way to eat pizza, but each method is a ritual that enhances individual enjoyment.
Wining and Dining
When eating out, we engage in rituals from the moment we set a napkin in our laps. For instance, when a waiter pops a bottle of wine, we expect to inspect the cork, sniff, let the glass breathe, and take a sip. While this is a functional ritual at its core, it’s also an experiential one that can make a mediocre bottle of wine taste exceptional.
When we’re not out on the town, other rituals heighten our sense of anticipation and make us perceive food as tastier than it actually is. To some generations, this meant listening to their breakfast cereal snap, crackle, and pop. To others, it was finding the perfect first chip in a bag of Lay’s. To a Millennial, it might be ordering a “triple-shot, non-fat vanilla latte, no whip” or just “the usual.” Statements of personalization and anticipation like these lend a sense of commodity and ownership to our choices.
Millennials Have Their Own Dining Preferences
Years ago, beans didn’t come in cans. Soaking them was a ritual every household understood and performed on a regular basis. Now, this is rare.
Many young people don’t understand why their parents tap on a melon to pick one that is perfectly ripe. Everything in the produce aisle is already packaged. These food rituals are becoming a lost art.
Every generation has its rituals, but Millennials in particular have strong opinions about the ways they should and shouldn’t consume food. But, like any other generation, they’re far from homogenous. The Boston Consulting Group divides Millennials into three main subgroups: Gadget Gurus, Clean and Green Millennials, and Hip-ennials.
No matter their segment, Millennials tend to like to eat what they want, when they want it. They snack more than they consume full meals, and they eat at odd hours. Their ritual is the antithesis of ritual; they want fast, casual takeout at any time of day. They like to try new, exotic foods and have options. And they want to know where their food comes from.
But just because Millennials don’t soak their beans or pick out produce like their parents doesn’t mean they’re disconnected from their food. For them, going to the farmer’s market or getting a late-night Taco Bell fix is just as much of a food ritual.
You may not understand why your friend licks the icing off his Oreos, or even why a sandwich tastes better crustless. But understanding the “why” isn’t important — it’s about understanding that rituals exist and appreciating them as qualities that make each person’s and each generation’s food experience unique.
For nearly 30 years, Doug Austin has been studying the “art of observation” and filtering out the human truths. Whether digging for key customer/consumer insights or preparing the next national retail promotion, it’s all about the ability to “hear and see” what others may not and asking the hard questions that get us to the possibilities. Austin is the SVP of Growth & Innovation and leads product and brand innovation sessions for Marlin Network.