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Monique Keiran: Plate size and colour influence how much we eat

“I’m setting out the small dinner plates,” Nature Boy announced the other evening as we prepared to welcome guests. “It will help pace us through the meal.” Nature Boy recently assumed responsibility for setting the table for evening meals.

“I’m setting out the small dinner plates,” Nature Boy announced the other evening as we prepared to welcome guests. “It will help pace us through the meal.”

Nature Boy recently assumed responsibility for setting the table for evening meals. With meals round these parts typically being the quick and informal sort, choice of dinnerware rarely receives much thought.

But the task becomes more complicated when, as with the evening in question, guests are expected, menus encompass multiple courses and appetites must be managed throughout the evening.

Such occasions call upon Nature Boy to tune up his geometry and social-engineering skills. It’s not just a matter of how to seat so many people around a limited dining surface, but (he asserts) incorporating the latest social and neurological science into the effects of the setting — and the setting of the table — on the perception and enjoyment of the food served.

Nature Boy’s efforts at table landscaping have climbed to new intellectual and socially manipulative heights.

The studies Nature Boy called on when he selected smaller plates determined that plate size affects how much food people serve themselves and how much they think they’re eating. Dutch researchers found that larger plates and bowls cause the human brain to underestimate the amount of food placed thereon.

In one study, the researchers found that people who were given larger bowls served and ate about 15 per cent more breakfast cereal than those given smaller bowls.

Not only did large-bowl people eat more than their small-bowl counterparts, they estimated they ate much less — much less, even, than the amounts the small-bowl people ate.

The optical illusion/food delusion is, say the researchers, accentuated when the colour of the dinnerware contrasts with the colour of the table. For example, when a white plate is placed on a seasonally festive red tablecloth, diners tend to serve themselves as much as 10 per cent more food than the target serving size if the plate is large, compared to 13 per cent less than the target serving size when the plate is small.

“We need to think about this if you insist on serving six courses,” Nature Boy tells me.

However, when little contrast exists between the colour of table and dinnerware — when a white tablecloth is used with white plates, for instance — the tendency to over- or underserve oneself diminishes.

To further complicate Nature Boy’s table-landscaping efforts, the researchers found in a related study that high contrast between the colour of food and the colour of dinnerware kept serving size down.

At a meal where white-coloured foods were provided, people given white plates served themselves more than did people who were given, for example, red plates. By the same token, when the meal consisted of red-coloured foods, people with red plates served themselves greater amounts than did people with white plates.

Because our dishes are white, Nature Boy now forbids me to serve white foods.

The studies in contrasts and perception continue. Other researchers have found that the colour of the dish a food is served on influences how we perceive the food’s flavour and how much we enjoy it.

In one case, the researchers found that people served strawberry mousse on a white plate found it tasted sweeter and more intensely strawberry-like than did the same batch of strawberry mousse served on a black plate.

The researchers believe the visual illusion at play here is the one the Impressionist painters employed on canvas 140 years ago and interior designers and Color Your World paint mixers use today. Colour is affected by surrounding colours. Our brains just happen to perceive the pink of strawberry mousse to be more intense against white than against black.

Our brains then cross sensory boundaries by translating that perceived colour intensity into a correspondingly greater flavour intensity.

Nature Boy is now navigating so many perceptual tabletop minefields, I am considering handing over responsibility for engineering the evenings’ menus.

Of course, all this socio-neurological manipulation might just be a ploy to ensure that he has leftovers for lunch the next day.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com