If the sounds of soup slurping or popcorn munching make you cringe, be forewarned: the tactile food trend is here.
Tactile foods appeal to multiple senses—they’re foods that are pretty to look at, but also pleasantly noisy and full of texture. Think of a hot pink smoothie bowl topped with sweet yellow wedges of pineapple and crunchy pumpkin seeds. That variety of colors, flavors, and textures is way more exciting to look at (and eat!) than a boring ol’ plate of scrambled eggs, right?
But aside from being more fun to eat, tactile foods could get us to eat more healthfully and lose weight. In a small British study of preschoolers—the most notoriously picky age group of eaters—kids who were allowed to play with fruits and veggies were more apt to try them afterward.
So ignore what your parents told you, because playing with your food might actually be a good thing. Research says eating is a multi-sensory experience, and the way foods are eaten affects our ability to enjoy them. In a study published in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, people preferred foods presented in an even and balanced arrangement over the same foods arranged differently.
“Food that satisfies your visual perceptions, as well as taste and aroma, and that provides textural interest is more likely to be satisfying,” explains Martine I. Scannavino, DHSc, RDN, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Cedar Crest College. “Food color, texture, shape, flavor, aroma, and arrangement on a plate are all known to be influencing factors in how and how much a person will eat,” she says.
A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that it didn’t matter if a diet was low-fat or low-carb. “The most important thing was the quality of the food,” notes Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, founder of GreenGrown Meals. “Stimulating the senses—whether by looking at Instagram pictures or in essence ‘playing with your food’—can have a big influence on how satisfied you are with your meal,” she says. In other words, if you think a food will be satisfying because it looks beautiful, you will be satisfied even before that first bite. And a bonus? Many tactile foods—like almonds, broccoli, popcorn, and Brussels sprouts—are high in fiber, which is crucial for satiety and weight loss.
“Many people find eating healthy or losing weight difficult because they find the foods boring or not as enjoyable as unhealthy foods,” says Greebel. “With tactile foods, a whole variety of healthy foods make healthy eating more enjoyable. It’s also easier to stick with it when you have more options,” she says.
Of course, a plate of nachos is crunchy and pretty to look at (so it’s *technically* a tactile food), but we're focusing on making healthy foods more appealing and enjoyable through tactile eating. Think garlicky, lemony hummus served with colorful strips of bell pepper, sliced radishes, and striped cucumber slices, or a Miso-Ginger Noodle Bowl with squiggly noodles, crunchy kale, savory mushrooms, and a creamy egg yolk. These meals have a few things in common: They’re visually interesting, they're interactive, and they taste great.
Putting these things together forces you to naturally slow down and appreciate your meal—which has its own set of health benefits. A study in the journal Physiology & Behavior suggests that when we eat too quickly, we don’t taste our food as well and it becomes less satisfying. So enjoying a tactile meal could actually help us practice mindful eating, which has been shown to help with weight loss.
How to Build a Tactile Meal
First, eat the rainbow—crunchy slaws, fruit parfaits, tangy salsas, fruit and veggie smoothies, succulent kebabs, and interesting salads can showcase a variety of texture and colors, making them ideal tactile meals.
Next, listen to your food. I want you to munch so loudly (keeping good manners in check, of course) that polite dinner conversation has to wait its turn. Get your crunch on with healthy options like cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and fennel.
Now, smell your food. No matter where you live, you’re bound to encounter the signature smells of barbecues as their scents waft over the air. Get your own olfactory glands revving by tossing proteins, veggies, and fruit on the grill during the warmer months.
And finally, play with your food. Anything and everything you can eat with your hands is fair game. We especially love corn on the cob, stone fruit antipasto, peach hand pies crisped in an air fryer, and slabs of grilled watermelon (seriously, try it).
The bottom line: Go ahead and make an Instagram-worthy spread full of various textures, colors, and flavors—after all, science says it’s good for your health.