Yesterday’s cooking contests used to be 4-H cookie bake-offs at the county fair. Today’s cooking contests have Iron chefs being broadcast globally on TV specials. Tomorrow’s cooking contests will be an Olympic sport. An apron-wearing Betty Crocker look-alike will run into Olympic stadium with the Olympic torch. As she reaches the pinnacle and reaches the torch out to light the Olympic flame, it will be in the shape of a large grill that signals the beginning of the Hamburger Cook-off event.
To watch the crazy number of cooking competition TV shows or read the crazy number of websites on cooking contests, you might come away with the idea that winning a cooking contest is all about the recipe and ingredients. Not so. If you think this, you’re cooking with one hand tied behind your back.
The best cook doesn’t always win, and the best recipe doesn’t always win. If you understand what the judges are going through as they taste and judge, you can use three teaspoons of psychology to increase the chance that you Bring Home the Gold.
Most cooking competitions and bake-offs and recipe contests don’t have Bobby Flay or French chefs judging them. Most have either a judging panel of amateur cooks, or they are judged by popular vote. In either of the last two cases, the judges are trying all – or at least many – of the entries. This means that they are starting to get a little bored and the entries are starting to taste an awful lot the same. Here’s what you can do.
Use Taste Contrast. After tasting eleven versions of the same pasta, sensory-specific satiety sets in, and pasta starts tasting monotonous. You win by making your recipe stand out in contrast from the others, and you win by having contrast – taste contrast and texture contrast – within your own recipe. A chili that stands out by adding some steak chunks along with the hamburger, has a taste contrast compared to other chilis. One that uses onion that’s cut into large long pieces (instead of diced), makes every bite stand out in contrast to the next.
Use Visual Contrast. At Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, they say “You taste first with your eyes.” If it looks great, the judges are thinking it’s going to taste great. By including colorful or high contrasting colors or shapes, it makes it look less boring compared the previous 11 things they just tried. The pasta recipe that uses with two kinds or pasta, black olive slices, two types of meat, and a broiler-browned top is going to look a lot more award-winning than the 11 family recipe spaghettis they just tasted.
Give it the Right Name. Tables full of eating psychology research show that you taste what you expect you’ll taste. If someone says something is sweet, you start focusing on what’s sweet about the food. If they say something is creamy, it seems to taste creamier to you. You can make your Olympic entry look good by having it in a nice dish and making it look great (using contrast like browning, parsley, or whatever). You can also give it a name that evokes what you want people to taste. Calling your favorite dessert entry “Sugar Cookies” won’t be doing you a favor, but calling them “Vanilla Sugar Cookies” (because you put a drop of vanilla in the recipe) just raised the Las Vegas betting average that you’ll place higher in the sugar cookie race.
If you’re interested in how this might look in action. Here’s an example. There was a Casserole Cook-off at our mini-country fair this week. Being from the Midwest, I love casseroles. We were going to go to the fair that Saturday to ride on carnival rides, and my daughters said, “You should make something for the casserole contest.’
Step 1. Grab Ingredients. I took a basic boring crab casserole recipe off the internet, and defrosted about $3 worth of fake crab meat from the freezer. I grabbed other stuff from the cupboards that would give it taste contrast or visual contrast.
Step 2. Add Taste Contrast. I figured the judges would be eating lots of casseroles with pasta, rice, or potatoes as the starch. I wanted to this to stand out a different. I substituted soft bread cubes and sliced hard-boiled eggs instead of the pasta. Then I put a cup of celery in it gave each bite taste contrast. I would have sautéed garlic, but I didn’t think of it until I was backing out of the garage.
Step 3. Add Visual Contrast. Sliced black olives – in the shape of rings – would have it some nice contrast. Not everyone likes black olives, but they would be worth the risk. I also finished the casserole off under the broiler to brown it for contrast.
Step 4. Give it the Right Name. Instead of calling it Crab Casserole, I called it “Crab-a-gonza Casserole” which was silly given that there’s no actual crab in the recipe. To take the silliness over the top, I put a little crab icon next to the name, and printed out a color name plate, in case they put the descriptions in front of entry (which they ended up doing).
Step 5. Collect Your Prize. This prize was larger than the first kitchen I had.
There are a lot of other ideas you can use, but these will get you started on your journey to bring home the gold. If you’re looking for ideas that work well for names or how to turn your comfort foods into cash and prizes, I’ve included the links to some scientific articles – including one called “Engineering Comfort Foods.” [They are a bit detailed and boring, so don’t read them while driving or operating heavy machinery.]
April Fool’s Day is a goofy holiday for most people. But my Mom loved April Fool’s Day so much, she’d plan ahead for it.
At dinner that night, she’d love to tell us about who laughed hardest at her April Fool’s joke that day. The people she mentioned weren't always the the funniest or most gregarious people in the office; they were often the quietest. What came to be oddly predictable was that the same people who laughed the most were also the ones she felt friendlier toward, and they were the ones she seemed to repeatedly bring up in other conversations on the other 364 days of the year.
One of the best quotes about friendship is also one of the best quotes about laughter: “We choose our friends not because they make us laugh but because we make them laugh.” The most fun person to be around isn’t the funniest person in the room, but it’s the person who believes you are the funniest person in the room.
It seems less cool to laugh than it used to be. In social media, LOL stands for Laugh Out Loud (I’m hip to these acronym things, just like I know WTF stands for Way Too Funny).
What I often see happen – especially with my daughters’ friends – is that instead of laughing during a conversation, someone who's not even smiling will actually say “LOL." It’s weird. It’s sort of like having someone compliment you on your sweater or haircut without looking at it. It' robotic.
On April’s Fools Day my wife and I were having lunch at Panera. At the table next to us, a senior manager was meeting with three employees who worked remotely for the company. He clearly knew all of them, but not very well. They were all earnest, and they asked good questions and seemed prepared. But one of them stood out -- even to me at 10 feet away -- because she genuinely chuckled and laughed very easily. Not leg-slapping guffaws, but just happy chuckles at what either the manager said, or what the others said, or what she said. As their meeting progressed, more and more of the manager’s general comments and advice came to be directed to this woman instead of 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 to each of them. I don’t know if she was the most productive, smartest, interesting of the three employees, but she was the one who stood out.
Who do you like most in your groups -- who makes it most worth sticking around? Over the years I’ve played saxophone in several rock bands, and my favorite people in those bands weren’t the greatest musicians – they were the ones who laughed the most during rehearsals or shows. I’m in a men’s group, and the two or three guys who make it most compelling to return to each week aren’t the ones who are necessarily the most insightful or most successful, they are the ones who laugh the easiest. My favorite colleagues, students, and post-docs have also been the ones who laughed the most. My Mom’s genetics speaking.
I don’t know if that chuckling Panera woman was the best of those three employees, or if the people who laughed at my Mom’s goofy April Fools jokes were the best in the office. They are, however, the ones who are the most memorable.
Sometimes people say, “To find a friend you need to close one eye. To keep them you must close both.” If your eyes are closed, you’ll still be able to find them if they are laughing.
Happy April 2nd.
We have discovered more than 100 changes that lunchrooms can make to nudge students to eat better. For instance, if you show a kid three consecutive pans of vegetables--green beans, corn, and carrots--they’ll take 11 percent more of whatever vegetable is in the first pan. It doesn’t matter what it is. They’re hungry, and what’s first looks best. To help schools visualize how they could go through their lunchrooms and make a bunch of low-cost/no cost changes, I wrote an infographic editorial for the New York Times.[i] One teacher said she even printed this out for her students and had them color it in class. High school math class just isn’t what it used to be.
Shortly after the op-ed was published, a television producer wanted to film us doing a before-and-after Smarter Lunchroom Makeover of a middle school. Why a middle school? Apparently elementary students act too random in front of TV cameras (remember that picnic for squirrels?), and most high schoolers aren’t photogenic enough for television--too many strange clothes, weird hair colors, piercings, and uninterested looks. The TV people wanted us to find a middle school that would do a total lunchroom makeover for less than $50--and film it all MTV-style.[ii]
After finding the perfect middle school and watching students eat lunches for a week, we isolated ten changes we could easily make for less than $50 total that would probably help them eat better without even realizing it--things like changing the location of the fruit, giving fun names to healthy foods, moving the cookies behind the counter, putting the vegetables first, and so on. The food service director and producer were cool with the changes, so we got to work.[iii]Twenty-five kids were hand-picked to be secretly filmed by three hidden cameras. We hid cameras in a ceiling tile, a hat, and even in our fake water bottle. Everything was set--and then came the catch. We were asked, with the cameras rolling, to predict the sales for each food item.
After lunch was over, the smoke cleared, and the dishes washed, we were able to calculate just what had happened. The makeover was a nutritional victory--kids took a lot more salads, fruit sales doubled, white milk sales went up 38 percent, sugary drinks sales dropped by 17 percent, and they ran out of the healthy bean burritos--renamed Big Bad Bean Burritos--for the first time ever. These kids ate an average of 18 percent fewer calories, and they ate better than they typically did.[iv]
What didn’t work was putting the cookies behind the counter. We thought this would decrease sales by 30 percent, but it did nothing. Even worse, we predicted that moving vegetables to the front of the line would increase sales by 11 percent, but it instead dropped by 30 percent.[v]What happened?
A little bit of sleuthing showed that cookies were the cafeteria’s big “destination food.” They were five inches of hot, freshly baked gooey goodness--the main reason some kids ate school lunch. Wild horses couldn’t have pulled these kids away from the cookies without pulling them away from eating lunch there altogether.
The vegetables were a different story. As I mentioned, our lab studies showed that lunchgoers were 11 percent more likely to take whatever vegetable they saw first compared to whatever they saw third. Well, that’s true when three vegetables are in the middleof the serving line, but here we put them in the frontof the line. Nobody scoops up a plate of green beans and then looks for the entrée that goes with it. People pick out the entrée and thenthe vegetable. They didn’t want to take a veggie until they knew what they were having for a main course.
When the interview got to this point, the producer asked, “You’ve been doing eating research for twenty-five years. Sales didn’t increase by 11 percent, they dropped by 30. Why were you so far off?” I said, “Well, if we always knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” (He seemed amused enough by this answer to not report these missed predictions in his story.)
Still, nailing five out of seven predictions was pretty decent. Our prediction report card wasn’t straight As, but it was better than the report cards I got in high school. Most important, we were able to show in real-TV-time how only $38 and two hours of tweaking made a bigger difference than hefty expert commission reports.
Where should a school start? Start with the Smarter Lunchroom Movement Checklist below and choose three easy changes to get the ball rolling. When we sit down with the food service directors and managers, we specifically tell them what they’re doing exceptionally well. We then mention that these are some other ideas they can consider, but we ask them to pick no more than three. Some schools want to try everything, but while ambition may soar in the heat of the moment, when it comes to implementation, making more than three changes can seem so overwhelming that often nothing gets changed. Focus on three and save the rest for later.
The Smarter Lunchroom Starter List
When we do Smarter Lunchroom makeovers, it’s easy to find ten or more easy changes a lunchroom can make overnight or over a weekend for less than $50. Yet for most, even making a couple small changes can have a dramatic impact. Here are easy changes we’ve designed to get you started:
To Increase Fruit Sales . . .
Display fruit in two locations, one near the register
Display whole fruits in a nice bowl or basket
Employ signs and suggestive selling to draw attention to the fruit
To Increase Vegetable Sales . . .
Give them creative/descriptive names[vi]
Display the names on menu boards and at point-of-purchase
To increase White Milk Sales . . .
 Place white milk first in the cooler
 Place white milk in every cooler
 Make sure fat-free (skim) white milk accounts for at least 1/3 of all milk displayed
To Increase Healthy Entrée Sales . . .
 Make the healthy entrée the first or most prominent in the lunch line.
 Give the targeted entrée a creative or descriptive name
 Feature it on a menu board outside the cafeteria
To Increase the Number of Complete Healthy Meals Sold . . .
 Place key meal items at the snack window2
 Move chips and cookies behind the serving counter and offer them by request only
 Create a healthy-items-only “grab and go” convenience line[vii]
A Full Description of How to Make Your Lunchroom a Smarter Lunchroom can be found in the free chapter below (Chapter 6 in Slim by Design), and additional resources can be found at this link.
[i] A nice visual of lunch line redesign is titled just that: Brian Wansink, David R. Just and Joe McKendry (2010), “Lunch Line Redesign,” New York Times, October 22, p. A10 .
[ii]The specific show is the MTV-owned show called Channel One. It’s a hip, almost too-cool-for-school program that actually is for school. It shows a 10-minute news feature every morning during homeroom to 5 million kids in America – typically those in the big cities.
[iii]The video of this can be found at SmarterLunchrooms.org. Thanks to the Ithaca Food Service Director, Denise Agati for making this happen and sticking with the changes.
[iv]This is a great two-part (before/after) video with a lot of energy, good lessons, and some modest laughs. You can find it at YouTube at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-one and the “after” version at healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/healthierus-school.../lunchd-part-two
[v]This works great in the lab, but that’s when you have three vegetables in a row: Brian Wansink and David Just (2011), “Healthy Foods First: Students Take the First Lunchroom Food 11% More Often Than the Third,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 43:4S1, S8.
[vi]These changes can be so easy even a high school kid could do them. We showed that by having a high schooler we never met implement a vegetable naming program 200 miles away from us.
[vii]Nothing makes it easier to choose the right food than when it’s convenient. Here’s some great tips here: Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, Laura E. Smith, and Brian Wansink (2012), “Healthy Convenience: Nudging Students Toward Healthier Choices in the Lunchroom,”
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