Why Birthday Cake Tastes Better

sisters kissing mom at birthday's party

Ever notice how birthday cake just seems to taste better than other desserts? Singing “Happy Birthday” might be responsible for the flavor boost. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science reports that performing small rituals prior to eating enhances taste, promotes savoring and even makes us willing to pay more for our food.

Researchers found that making repetitive, ritualized motions before chowing down increased enjoyment of foods as varied as lemonade, carrots and chocolate. In the study’s first experiment, participants were given a chocolate bar, told to break it in half, unwrap one half and eat it, and then unwrap and eat the other half. A control group was simply told to relax for a similar amount of time, and then eat the bar all at once.

The group that ate the bar more ceremoniously reported enjoying the chocolate more and spent more time savoring the candy. Interestingly, they were also willing to pay 25 cents more than the group that ate the chocolate straight out, suggesting that the careful unwrapping actually made people value the food more.

The ritual’s effect on food enjoyment wasn’t limited to sweets, either. Researchers found that purposefully ritualized behavior even made baby carrots more appealing. Participants who performed repetitive knocking and deep breathing before eating enjoyed the carrots more than people who were assigned to make random gestures that changed before eating each carrot.

Adding a delay into the routine enhanced consumption even further. If participants were forced to wait before eating their final carrot, they reported anticipating the carrot more. The next time you ‘re enjoying a snack try slowing down if you want the full effect of that next bite.

But you won’t get any benefits from watching someone else perform a ritual before you eat – you actually have to be involved yourself. When the study’s participants mixed themselves a glass of lemonade from a powder, they found the lemonade to be more flavorful than people who watched someone else prepare the lemonade before gulping it down.

The study’s authors think that rituals enrich the eating experience because they “lead to greater involvement” in the food, making food seem more “intrinsically interesting.” While certain rituals also carry heavy social and cultural importance (as singing “Happy Birthday” usually does), this research shows that people can use seemingly unrelated actions to improve their dining experiences, even if they’re on their own. So maybe a little song and dance can help you and your kids enjoy your vegetables even more.