We all know the order in which we eat a meal: appetizers, main course, and dessert. But do you know why we eat this way? What is the science behind dinner menus? Believe it or not, there is logical and scientific reasoning behind the way we eat our meals.
We get appetizers before our meal for a reason. “The drive to eat is massively stimulated by the start of eating,” said Gareth Leng of the University of Edinburgh, who co-led an appetite study with Louise Johnstone. “This shows the appetizing effect of food itself as hunger circuits are acutely switched on.” It’s not until we actually taste food that we’re really ready to eat. Simply looking at food or smelling food also provokes our appetite and helps our bodies release digestive enzymes necessary to process our meals. So what are the best foods to stimulate our taste buds and get us ready for the meal to come? Try foods that are particularly pungent or colorful for appetizers, like pickled and fermented foods, cheese, olives, and sausages.
A salad course usually prompts a larger serving of food in American culture, but in Europe it’s common to eat a salad after the meal. Which is healthier? There are benefits to each way of eating. If you eat a salad before your entree you can better control the amount you eat during the meal. However, eating salad after your main course supports stable blood sugar by slowing down the effect of the carbohydrates in the salad. If you have a wickedly fast metabolism, following your meat with a salad can help you control your appetite by creating a slow rise in blood sugar.
There are also considerations you should take when you’re eating your entree. Try to keep servings small so that your blood sugar doesn’t crash rapidly. “The problem is, the bigger the meal, the bigger the crash – and the higher your need for sugary snacks to refuel your body,” says nutritionist Natalie Savona. And it’s not just energy and sugar levels that stay stable if you eat many tiny courses during your dinner. According to the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition unit, measurements of fatty acids in the blood also remain stable when you eat little and often. Instead of gorging yourself during a meal and having one large entree, spread your meal out into small portions to keep your blood sugar stable.
Dessert has, does, and always will come last. Why is this so in almost every culture? Time Magazine blames our need for “variety” for the dessert craving after dinner. “Even after eating a large meal, we often ‘make room’ for dessert, because a desire for sweets hasn’t been satisfied,” explains Ann Gaba, a registered dietitian at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Gaba recommends taking in a bit of fruit in a salad during a meal to curb sugar craving. You can also have cooked fruit as a dessert, which can satiate sugar cravings. Another option is to follow your main course with cheese or a hot milk beverage, rather than dessert. The French often enjoy a cheese course in between the main course and dessert because dairy products aid digestion.
After the dessert plates have been cleared, many cultures are comforted by tea or coffee. While this isn’t as common of a practice in the U.S., some people enjoy taking an espresso after an Italian meal when they’re out to eat. Tea, particularly ginger-based tea, serves as a digestive aid to those who have just indulged in a large meal. Ginger aids digestion, which is why it’s eaten after sushi in Japanese restaurants. Additionally, “Drinking green tea or oolong tea offers the combined benefits of caffeine and catechins, substances shown to rev up the metabolism for a couple hours. Research suggests that drinking two to four cups of tea may push the body to burn 17% more calories than normal for a short period of time,” according to WebMD.com. Caffeine can, therefore, help you metabolize your food quicker. The same goes for a cup of coffee or an espresso after dinner.
Next time you’re preparing a meal, keep in mind that different cultures order meals in varying ways, but that some dinner menus cater better to blood sugar and digestion better than others. If you want to keep your blood sugar stable and metabolize your dinner faster, simply prepare a dinner menu with little courses and enjoy nice, long sips of hot tea after your meal for an enjoyable mealtime experience.