Principle 3: Environment – External Factors to the Food Experience

The principle of environment can be defined as the surroundings and the circumstances in which you eat. It includes the external factors associated with your food experience.

Your environment is your surroundings – the interactions, the people, the location, the time of year, and the weather. It includes how things around you are set up, how the meal is presented and looks, whether you are with friends or a loved one or all by yourself. All of those things are part of the environment. Lighting is part of environment. All of those are external pieces. The external pieces make up the environment. You could be in the most beautiful place ever, for example, and be all by yourself, but you may not be having an enjoyable experience. You may not be experiencing things the way you would with other pieces of the environment.

The environment is a factor in the food experience in that it affects your overall ability to record an enjoyable experience.

How Situations Can Make or Break the Food Experience

Your environment affects your mental state. It affects how you record and enjoy the overall food experience. If you are with family and friends, for example, and you are laughing and having a good time, plus you are enjoying a good meal on top of it, all of those things together create an overall enjoyable experience with the food, with the people, etc. You can have an enjoyable food experience with just your spouse in a quiet environment, say at home or in a restaurant. The food could be awesome. The company could be great. The conversation could be intriguing. The environment affects that overall experience. It affects your mental state. Your mental state helps to enhance your experience. Environment affects your mental state and whether you can enjoy the experience.

The situation we are in as we eat often makes a big difference in our food experience.

Depending on the circumstances, the situation may override or negate any positive food experiences we otherwise would have had. If you are in a very dirty restaurant, for example, you may have great food, but the experience is not as enjoyable because you are not comfortable with the environment. There are a lot of factors to environment, but your state of mind at the time, as well as how the environment is interacting or affecting your state of mind, is what helps create a recorded, enjoyable experience.

An Environment Example

Prepared food from a grocery store as an example of how the environment can make or break a positive food experience

What makes the difference between a positive food experience and a generic meal is the environment.

A recent example of how the environment can override seemingly positive food experiences is the situation leading up to and following the death of my mother-in-law. Her health had been gradually declining over the last 5-6 years. Her declining health reached a point where she was on hospice care at a local assisted living center for the last year of her life. A couple of weeks before she passed away, she had a heart attack that rendered her incapacitated. Upon receiving word of my mother-in-law’s health situation, my husband and I immediately traveled back to my husband’s hometown where my mother-in-law resided, as well as where my husband’s siblings live. My husband and I, along with several of his siblings, spent the next two weeks trying to help my mother-in-law feel as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. We each would take shifts throughout the day and into the evening sitting in her room as nurses, nursing assistants, and other attendants helped to administer medication and keep her clean and relaxed. Throughout this time, we had access to a variety of foods. Attendants at the assisted living center where my mother-in-law resided brought in vegetable trays, fruit trays, and various desserts for us to eat during the day. We brought in water bottles each morning to keep ourselves hydrated. In the evenings, we rotated among eating at local restaurants, cooking some food at home, and bringing in prepared foods from a local grocery store. Many of these foods were inspiring, noteworthy meals. We had a delicious tilapia filet from a local grocery store, for example, that was lightly breaded and seasoned with chipotle and other spices. We had a Greek pasta salad from that same grocery store that was both tasty and inspirational. These and other foods made me want to emulate the dishes and create my own recipes and variations thereof. Except for the restaurant meals, however, none of those foods or meals resulted in any positive food experiences.

What Made the Difference

It wasn’t that the food looked, smelled, or tasted bad. The people around us were certainly friendly, supportive, or dynamic. We were not unfamiliar with the foods we cooked and ate, or inexperienced with the techniques we used when we did cook a meal. It wasn’t that we did not have enough interaction with the food. Our motivation for improvement was not lacking.

What made the difference between a positive food experience and just a generic meal in this situation was the environment.

Because of the circumstances surrounding my mother-in-law’s death (the time scheduling, the decisions that needed to be made regarding her medication, food, water, and hygiene, the medical and legal paperwork and procedures that needed to be handled, the funeral arrangements, the many visits from family, friends, and associates, etc.), we were physically, mentally, and emotionally caught up in that situation to the extent that food and food experiences took a back seat to the environmental factors at hand. The environmental situation turned our focus from the food to the situation.

This is the power that the principle of environment has on food experiences (or potential food experiences). The environmental situation can often make or break the food experience.

How We Can Change Our Environment

The restaurant meals, however, were different in that they brought us into a whole new environment separate from our current circumstances. While we still faced the day-to-day physical, emotional, and social pressures surrounding the death of my mother-in-law, we were able to briefly pull out of that environment. We were able to nourish our bodies and be enlightened as we created positive food experiences. For example, we visited Carmella’s Italian Bistro in Appleton, Wisconsin for a mid-week getaway meal. Thankfully there was no waiting time at the restaurant. We were anxious to just eat and return to my mother-in-law. They keep the lights low in the dining area, and they place small candles on each table. They also have some flowers and other décor, to create a quiet, even romantic, and relaxing atmosphere. We were initially seated by the door, which was rather chilly in the late November weather. Luckily they were able to accommodate our request to change tables to a location further back in the restaurant and away from any drafty fall air. The food was definitely the main focus there at the restaurant. We started with some rustic Italian bread with oil and balsamic vinegar. Then we delved into the rich, bold flavors and textures of our entrée dishes. The fusilli dish with shrimp, fresh artichokes, and sundried tomatoes with a tangy lemon sauce had just the right blend of flavors to tantalize the palate.  The Ariana dish with chicken and eggplant parmigiana on a bed of linguine with their house marinara sauce was filled with complementary flavors and textures. A lovely dessert of walnut baklava helped to finish the meal. At the restaurant, my husband and I focused on each other and on the meal. The relaxing and welcoming environment helped us turn our attention to our culinary needs. The restaurant did not eliminate the challenging, stressful, and emotional situation surrounding the death of my mother-in-law. However, moving to a relaxing environment, even if for just a couple of hours, helped to create a positive food experience.

Creating the Right Environment

We cannot overstate the importance of creating an environment conducive to positive food experiences. Positive food environments are not solely about the location where you eat, although that is a big part of the environment. Your circumstances and situation in which you eat also plays a strong role in building a positive environment.

That does not, however, mean that you are captive to your environment. You have the power to step out of your normal environment, even for a short time. When you detach yourself from a chaotic, crazy, or otherwise negative environment, you can create an environment conducive to positive food experiences. No matter what your circumstances, you can make the time and the effort to create a positive food environment. For some people, that positive food environment may mean going out to a local restaurant. For others, it may mean sending the kids off to a relative’s home and cooking a romantic candlelight dinner with just you and your spouse. Still for others, it may mean packing a picnic meal to eat at a park, pier, or pavilion. Regardless of what scenario you employ, you can take control over your environment. You can create, beautiful, positive food experiences that can help start good habits and rich traditions. They can propel you forward in life better than you ever thought possible. FOOD FOR THOUGHT: What is the current environment in which you eat? What locations and situations work best for you in creating positive food experiences? What steps can you take to create a more relaxed, focused environment conducive to having positive food experiences?

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