Unless you’ve been living under a rock all these years, you will have noticed the proliferation of food photos on Instagram, Facebook and various social media. And chances are you have spotted some diner furtively taking photos of their meals at fancy restaurants. Whether or not you think that’s crossing the line in social etiquette, it’s clear that many of us are beginning to pay attention not only to how our food tastes, but to how it looks. That’s good, because we’re going to talk about how looks matter (yes, it’s ok to say that), and we’ll share 10 tips on How to Plate Your Home Cooked Meal so that you’ll feel like you’re dining at a fine restaurant without stepping foot outside your house.
1. Go For Color
One of the easiest and healthiest ways to beautify your meal is to be colorful. Instead of boring chicken (beige) with mashed potatoes (yellow) and gravy (brown), wouldn’t you rather have a meal of: Salmon (orange) with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds (black) served with Broccoli (greens) and Tomatoes (red) and a side of Quinoa (beige)?
The Japanese use a 5 color guideline for food presentation based on the tradition of not only visual aesthetics but of eating with full sensory experience. You don’t always have to have all 5 colors, but it’s a fun goal to have and it is quite gratifying to behold. Wow factor aside, nutritionists agree that colorful food is also healthy and highly recommend we use it as a guide in choosing what we eat. Wild salmon is often touted as one the healthiest super foods not only because of its high content of Omega 3 fatty acids, but because it's loaded with disease-fighting carotenoids which gives it its orange hue. Similarly, the orange from carrots, mangoes and cantaloupe, as explained in this New York Times article, The Color of Nutrition: Fruits and Vegetables, is filled with cancer-fighter alpha carotene, along with beta carotene that protects the skin against free-radical damage and promotes repair of damaged DNA. Green in greens like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and bok choy means a wealth of cancer-blocking chemicals like sulforaphane, isocyanate and indoles, which inhibit the action of carcinogens. So next time, be sure to include a rainbow of food on your grocery list.
2. Don’t forget the garnish
Since I always keep cilantro or parsley on hand, they serve as my instant garnish when needed, especially since they look like green flowers. But you can use pretty much any fresh herb—thyme, marjoram, rosemary, dill or for more of a bite-- scallions and chives. Nuts and cheese (grated or shaved) are excellent too. And don’t forget edible flowers like roses, tulips, violas (Johnny- jump up), alliums (chives, leeks) —they’re pretty and whimsical and add color to any plate.
Mixed Green salad with Mango and toasted Pecans garnished with Chive and Viola flowers from the garden make a pretty colorful statement.
3. Make portions look small
Ok, really…when did a heaping plate of food ever look elegant? Notice how restaurants can charge a mint for beautiful but tiny servings? You know you’re paying a price for that minimalist design sensibility, but you’re out of luck if you came hungry. But at home, you can achieve this look and still go back for seconds! To make portions look small, you can either dish out sparingly or cheat and use a larger plate to make your serving look smaller. The added advantage of serving small is that you might find you’re actually full at the end of the meal, which means it’s also a weight loss trick.
4. Use Plain and Neutral Plates
If you’re wondering why most fine dining restaurants use white plates, it’s so they can get all creative with their designs without having to worry about clashing with the plate’s design.
5. Height is Right
I’ve heard chefs say time and again, “go for height!” What they mean is, layer food on top of each other. I’m sure there’s a design sensibility to explain this, but to me it’s akin to the fascination of seeing river rocks precariously stacked on top of each other waiting to collapse into a heap. So I think it’s the suspense, or a sense of (possible) movement which makes the dish all the more interesting. So you might have a bed of rice as a base and a layer of braised bok choy on top followed by breaded halibut perched on top and at an angle. Also, when you build upwards instead of sprawling all over the plate, more plate surface area is exposed giving the illusion that your portions are smaller.
L- A simple Pan-fried Cod Loin with Sage Butter Sauce and steamed Broccoli and Carrots on the side look more appetizing on a white plate, and the small portion adds appeal. R- Going for height through layering with my Miso Organic Salmon on a bed of Stir fried Baby Bok Choy and Tomatoes with Chili sauce. Note the black and white sesame seeds for effect!
6. Be Picture-Perfect
Is it picture worthy? Would you post your creation on Facebook? If that misaligned asparagus spear is annoying to you, rearrange it. And don’t forget to wipe off that smear on the edge of your soup bowl.
7. Sauces--where do they go?
I use to serve my fish curry in one big heap on a plate. Yes, I would garnish it for color, but since I was going for a professional look (i.e., one you might want to pay for), and because I didn’t want my carefully breaded cod loin to get soggy, I decided to pour the sauce first on the plate and then place the fish on top (see photo below). I thought that was a nifty trick. But really, sauce can be anywhere—on top, around, under, on the side. Just make sure you don't put too much so that it becomes a gloppy mess.
8. Design, Drizzle and Sprinkle
On soups, I like to drizzle oil, vinegar or milk/cream using a teaspoon and then sprinkle freshly ground pepper or cayenne or perhaps add a garnish. It’s so easy and fun and takes a few seconds so it’s totally worth the effort.
You can do the same thing on your plates. A neat trick is to use a squeeze bottle. For cheap money you can release your inner artist and create all sorts of cool designs on your food.
L-R: 1) Nut-encrusted Cod Loin Curry with sauce on bottom. 2) Going garnish-crazy on my Creamy Cauliflower soup garnished with browned cauliflower florets, chives and drizzled browned butter. 3) One of my first attempts using a squeeze bottle on some Fresh Vegetable Spring rolls. You can tell I'm having fun with my peanut sauce.
9. Have Fun
Experiment, experiment, experiment. One day I wanted to do everything in miniature—sort of imagining myself as tiny Alice after imbibing some of that “Drink Me” potion. I made mini quiches using mini muffin pans and paired it with a mini spring roll and some micro greens. I just got a kick out of smaller versions of what I used to make. It really was a lot of trouble, but the whole idea tickled me for days.
Another time, I scored some awesome Spanish wooden pestle and mortars—they were being offloaded for $1 a piece at our neighborhood store and I bought a whole bunch just because they looked cool. I’ve used the mortars to serve curried chickpea appetizers after first lining with parchment paper and it was a hit.
My latest creation which I’m quite proud of is my Tomato Soup Macchiato (top photo). A few weeks ago I had a spontaneous dinner party and didn’t have enough of the soup to go around. I decided to serve it in demitasses and spooned frothed half and half with cumin and salt to give it a macchiato twist. It was quite elegant, really, especially since I got to use my fancy china.
L-R: 1) A hokey and fun Valentine's meal of Beef kebabs, Asparagus and Quinoa 2) Feeling elaborate with a Zucchini Fennel salad with shaved Parmesan 3) A campsite meal of Hash browns, Fried eggs, Avocado, Toast and Gruyere garnished with parsley can be a class act too!
10. Bring the Ambiance with you
Ok, technically this is not about plating per se. But since you’ve gone to the trouble of fixing yourself an elegant meal, you might as well go whole hog. Consider adding the following to take your dining experience to a whole new level of cool.
- Candles (makes everything look good)
- Cloth napkins (classy touch, and sustainable too since you can reuse several times before throwing into the wash)
- Decent China/Cutlery/Glasses (you’ll always use them, so might as well get some good ones--no plastic please!)
- Good Music (everyone has this)
- Great company (that’s you).
That’s pretty much my list for now. Try some or all of it and see how you can make home cooking and eating such a pleasurable experience for yourself and your loved ones. Anything you’d like to add to my list? We'd love to hear from you!
Marlene del Rosario is a Director and Home Chef at Home Chef Workshop. Originally from the Philippines, Marlene moved to the US to pursue her passion in music, and has since discovered other passions--the culinary arts, gardening and her husband, Jeff. She loves to travel, is an advocate of the SLOW food principles and hopes to encourage people towards a more sustainable lifestyle.