DIET | Plates, Cups And Takeaway Containers Shape What (And How) We Eat

Home cooks have been trying out their skills during isolation. But the way food taste depends on more than your ability to follow a recipe.

Our surroundings, the people we share food with and the design of our tableware – our cups, bowls and plates, cutlery and containers – affect the way we experienced food.

For example, eating from a heavier bowl can make you feel food is more filling and tastes better than eating from a lighter one.

Contrast this with fast food, which is most commonly served in lightweight disposable containers, which encourages fast eating, underestimating how much food you’re eating, and has even been linked to becoming impatient.

These are just some examples of the vital, but largely unconscious, relationship between the design of out tableware – including size, shape, weight and color – and how we eat.

In design, this relationship is referred to as an object’s ‘affordances’. Affordances guide interactions between objects and people.

As Australian sociologist Jenny Davis writes, affordances: ‘…push, pull, enable, and constrain. Affordances are how objects shape behavior for socially situated subjects’.

Designed objects don’t make us do things.

The Color Of Your Crockery

When you visit a restaurant, the chances are your dinner will be served on a plain white plate.

But French chef Sebastien Lepinoy has staff paint the plates to match the daily menu and ‘entice the appetite’.

Research seems to back him up. Colored plates can enhance flavors to actually change the dining experience.

In one study, salted popcorn eaten from a colored bowl tasted sweeter than popcorn eaten from a white bowl. In another, a café latte served in a colored mug tasted sweeter than one in a white mug.

The association between color and taste seems to apply to people from Germany to China.

A review of multiple studies conducted in many countries over 30 years finds people constantly associated particular colors with specific tastes.

Red, orange or pink is most often associated with sweetness, black with bitterness, yellow or green with sourness, and white and blue with saltiness.

The Size Of Your Plate

The influence of plate size on meal portions depends on the dining experience and whether you are serving yourself. In a buffet, for example, people armed with a small plate may eat more because they can go back for multiple helping.

Nonetheless, average plate and portion sizes have increased over the years. Back in her day, grandma used to serve meals on plates 25 cm in diameter. Now, the average dinner plate is 28 cm, and many restaurant dinner plates have expanded to 30cm.

Our waistlines have also expanded. Research confirms we tend to eat more calories when our plates are larger, because  a large capacity plate affords a greater portion size.

Plastic Is Too Often Ignored

The pace of our busy lives has led many people to rely on those handy takeaways in disposable plastic food containers just ready to pop into microwave. And it’s tempting to use plastic cutlery and cups at barbecues, picnics and kids’ birthday parties.

In contrast to heavy, fragile ceramic tableware, plastic tableware is designed to be ignored. It is so lightweight, ubiquitous and cheap we don’t notice it and pay little mind to its disposal.

Plastics have also changed how eat and drink. An aversion to the strong smell of plastic containers that once might have caused people to wrap their sandwiches before placing them in Tupperware seems to have disappeared. We drink hot coffee though plastic lids.

Australian economic sociologist Gay Hawkins and her colleagues argue lightweight, plastic water bottles have created entirely new habits, such as ‘constant sipping’ on the go. New products are then designed to fit and reinforce this habit.

Aesthetics Matter

Healthy eating is not only characterized by what we eat but how we eat.

For instance, eating mindfully – more thoughtfully and slowly by focusing on the experience of eating – can help you feel full faster and make a difference to how we eat.

And the Japanese cuisine Kaiseki values this mindful, slower approach to eating. It consists of small portions of beautifully arranged food presented in a grouping of small, attractive, individual plates and bowls.

This encourages the diner to eat more slowly and mindfully while appreciating not only the food but the variety and setting of the tableware.

Japanese people’s slower eating practices even apply to ‘fast food’.

One study found Japanese people were more likely to eat in groups, to stay at fast food restaurants for longer and to share fast food, compared with their North American  counterparts. Affordance theory is only now starting to account for cultural diversity in the ways in which designed objects shape practices and experiences.

The studies we have reviewed show tableware influence how we eat. Size, shape, weight, color and aesthetics all play a part in our experience of eating.

This has wide implications for how we design for healthier eating – whether that’s to encourage eating well when we are out and about, or so we can better appreciate a tastier, healthier and more convivial meal at home.


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