The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines interaction as a “mutual or reciprocal action or influence”. We all interact with people, events, and circumstances every day. We browse Facebook, text our friends, chat on the phone. Sometimes we meet up for group lunches, dinners, and other events. With each interaction, we give and receive information, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Our interactions with others create either positive or negative effects depending on the situation.
With regard to positive food experiences, interaction refers to what role a person has in the planning, preparation, and consumption of the food, as well as in the overall food experience.
Since interaction is two-way communication, we both affect and are affected by food. Getting a meal via the drive-thru of a local fast food chain, however, yields a much different level of interaction than taking a class on how to make sushi from a cooking school. Different interactions yield different responses, that in turn yields different impressions about food, about the food experience, and our future interactions with that food.
There are many factors that influence our interaction with food. We can liken factors that influence our interaction with food to looking through a window. If you picture yourself looking through a window at some food, you may notice that the window itself is not completely transparent.
There are many things that act as filters that may alter our view of the food. Each of these factors may help or hinder our interaction with food. Let’s examine some of them more closely.
Memories of Past Experiences with Food
One of the most influential factors is memory of past experiences with food. A good memory may increase your longing to recreate that experience of eating a certain food in a particular setting. For example, you may have great memories of eating peanut butter sandwiches at a picnic in the park with your grandmother. While the food itself is very simple, the memories of that situation can create a desire for a peanut butter sandwich or can develop in us a love of picnics.
A bad or negative memory may make us hesitant to eat a certain food for fear that doing so will stir up more bad memories and hurt feelings. Perhaps you had a bad experience as a child with being forced to eat a certain food. If so, as an adult, you have a greater likelihood of not liking that food just because of the bad memories from your childhood.
Opinions of Others About Food
The opinions of others about food also act as a filter to positive food interactions. If those around you are excited about the food they cook and eat, and if they can talk to you about the great benefits thereof, you may be more inclined to want to partake of that food. On the other hand, if those around you make disgusted faces and say, “eeeeewww” when you offer a certain food, that reaction may make you shy away from a certain food item.
An interesting study of how emotion affects food desirability presents social interaction as an external factor that influences food choices. Among other areas, the study looked at the reactions of participants after they were offered a slice of pizza. While many participants liked pizza, and were eager to eat it, many were dissuaded from eating the pizza simply by watching the reactions of others. The study helps us understand the importance of food interaction and the interactions that result from various interpretations of the same situation (the desirability of the pizza from the point of view of the different study participants).
Sensory Appeal of Food
The factor of sensory appeal also plays a big part in influencing how we interact with food. How does the food look, smell, and taste? Is it appealing to the senses? How is the texture of the food? Can you taste the different flavors? What is the food quality?
Media Presentation of Food
According to the 2016 Temkin Emotion Ratings (part of the Temkin experience ratings survey), grocery stores received some of the highest scores in terms of generating positive emotions in customers. According to the survey, “emotion is the component of customer experience that is the most significant driver of customer loyalty.” Food displays in grocery stores, advertisements on radio, television, the Internet, and in newspapers and magazines are all designed to generate food desirability and subsequent food purchase. Food displays show the potential for various dishes and cuisines. They help to generate new food ideas and innovations. Media presentations expand our imagination.
Your own self-confidence also plays a role in how you interact with food. Do you like to blaze your own trail with your culinary skills or are you limited in terms of your knowledge base? Your level of confidence in your ability to select, prepare, and cook various foods affects your level of interaction with that food. If you do not have a lot of cooking skills, for example, you may shy away from various foods, or select pre-prepared foods as opposed to making them from scratch.
Time also influences your level of interaction. If you are having a busy week, for example, you are less likely to make a complicated recipe that may take more time. You may instead decide on something quick and easy, or decide to get takeout from a local restaurant. If you are less rushed or are preparing a meal for a special occasion such as a birthday anniversary or other occasion, you may be more inclined to select a more interactive recipe.
What is your time factor involved in the cooking process? Are you hurrying from one event to another? The food may be great, but because of your time factor, it may not be doable in terms of making and eating it so your view of that food becomes distorted.
What is your budget for food? There are many delicious and healthy meals that can be purchased, cooked, and eaten on a limited budget. No matter what your budget is, it still skews our view of food. We may say we don’t like certain foods simply because we feel they are outside our budget. Whether your food budget is $1.00, $1,000,000, or somewhere in between, you can create beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and fun meals that develop your love of food.
Level of Food Importance
The level of food importance is another factor that influences what how you interact with food. What is the level of food importance? How important is that food to eat? A processed food item may be of less importance to you than a home cooked meal. A meal at a certain restaurant may be more appealing to you in terms of importance. A fast food meal may in some cases be more important than other foods.
Level of Effort
What is the level of effort that you would make in order to have that food? Is there a lot of preparation involved in the dish? A recent study called Rejecting Responsibility: Low Physical Involvement in Obtaining Food Promotes Unhealthy Eating addressed the notion that the greater the physical involvement a person has in obtaining and preparing food, the greater the likelihood that person will make healthy food choices.
Our ability to have positive food experiences is affected by the degree to which we’re able to control these factors of interaction.
We must minimize any negative feelings that we may have towards the food or a food experience, and move forward to create our own positive food experience. Seeing a prepared food at a grocery store, for example, may not create a higher level of interaction, but be more motivating to select that food if the budget and time is a factor.
A commercial for Life cereal, created several years ago, exemplifies the degree of influence that people have on one another as far as our interaction with food is concerned. A bowl of Life cereal was presented to a group of children. Most of them said they would not eat the cereal. They decided to pawn it off on one child who they thought hated everything. They were surprised to find that the child liked that cereal. That child’s reaction motivated the other children to try the cereal also.
Similarly if you or other members of your family dislike a certain food, you will likely not be inclined to want to make and serve that food. You may decide that it’s not worth your time, effort, money, or the emotional reactions that would arise from that food. You presuppose that based on the past experiences, you and your family will not like that food, so you don’t make it.
On the other hand, perhaps you went to a friend’s house for dinner. They asked you to help in the kitchen preparing a certain dish. They were excited about it. You felt an excitement as you helped prepare it. You enjoyed that dish as you ate with family and friends at the dinner. Because of that interaction, both with the people and with the food, you are more inclined to have a positive food experience.
We use all five senses in the food experience process.
We see the appeal of a food item and the degree to which that food is appetizing to us. Sometimes we hear the sizzle of that food being cooked. Smelling the food may conjure up certain memories or anticipation of an appetizing meal. We taste the food. We feel and touch the texture of the food. All of our senses help to influence our degree of positive food experiences and our degree of interaction with the food.
The higher your level of interaction with the food, the more likely you are to have a positive food experience.
Prepared food may not require as much interaction, but still may yield a positive food experience. For example, you may see a prepared food item at your local grocery store that conjures up memories of your childhood. Because of time or budget constraints, you may not have the ability to make it from scratch. Purchasing that food and doing whatever cooking for it is necessary still provides a level of interaction. It may still generate a positive food experience.
These factors are not mutually exclusive. There is some degree of overlap among all of them. All of them can contribute to positive food experiences. Each one of these factors is within our control. Each time we make a food choice we decide what level of influence each of these factors will have in our interaction with that food.
Similarly, we must not let negative experiences with food dictate our future. Each of these influences requires some degree of effort. We may not be able to eliminate all the negative influences, but we can do our best to make good choices regardless of our circumstances. We can then magnify our level of interaction with that food to increase our success in having positive experiences.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: What factors influence your interaction with food? How have you been able to change that level of influence to create positive food experiences?