With the winter holidays approaching, you’re likely hosting — and cooking — more often. You probably want to impress your guests and make them feel appreciated, which means serving dishes that look as good as they taste. So why is it that no matter how hard you try, your meals don’t look quite as mouthwatering as the ones at your favorite restaurant? The answer lies in the plating. Food looks more appetizing when it’s beautifully arranged on a plate. The question, of course, is how to plate food like a professional. Read on for tips from experts, as well as the reasons why we salivate at the sight of “pretty” food.
Why is plating important?
When you’re hungry, how your food is arranged on your plate probably isn’t top of mind. (And when you’re “hangry,” forget even using a plate.) That said, there are benefits to making your food look pretty. One of them is that it will taste better. The idea that food’s aesthetic appeal enhances its flavor isn’t new. In fact, it’s generally agreed that Apicius, a food connoisseur from first-century Rome, is responsible for the famous phrase, “We eat first with our eyes.” Two millennia later, science has proved him right.
A 2021 study found that study participants’ appetites were more stimulated by plates with a garnish — an element added to a dish primarily for decoration — than those without one; and a 2014 study found that food arranged for visual appeal was perceived as tasting better by participants.
In the latter study, researchers presented participants with three salads containing the same ingredients. One salad was plated with all ingredients tossed; one was plated with each ingredient neatly separated out, but with no artistic touches; and one was plated to look like a painting by famous Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky. Participants rated the Kandinsky salad as tasting the best, despite it containing the exact same ingredients as the other salads.
“The visual appeal of food has been, and will always be, an important matter to entice the appetite, ultimately enhancing the flavors of culinary creations,” said the researchers. If these studies aren’t enough proof that plating is important, take into consideration that you worked hard on making your food — and like a portrait deserves a frame, your masterpiece deserves appropriate presentation.
How do I plate my food well?
If you’ve been in the kitchen cooking your dish for a while, adding more time to the endeavor can feel like a lot to ask. But you don’t have to replicate a Kandinsky painting to make your plate more appetizing — in fact, you don’t even have to spend a lot of time on it. The plating tips below are quick and simple, and they’ll turn your homemade dishes into works of art.
Choose the right plate.
While you may not give your dishes a second thought when you’re eating alone, they’re an essential part of intentional plating. Dishes are your food’s canvas, and their size, shape, and color is important. If you’re worried that your plain white plates won’t work, good news: White is preferred by many chefs because it makes the food’s colors pop, says chef Michael Welch. In fact, in a 2011 study, participants preferred a pink dessert served on a white plate to the same pink dessert served on a black plate. Researchers believe that the participants linked the intensity of the dessert’s color contrast with the plate (pink against white plate versus pink against black plate) to the intensity of the dessert’s flavor, and thus attributed their preference for the white plate to this connection. As for colors to avoid: “Typically, chefs stay away from blue plates, as there isn’t any naturally blue food and it is thought to be an unappetizing color,” says Welch.
To make sure your dish looks — and tastes — the best, plate with the right portions. The main component of the dish should take center stage, and all the other elements should complement it. Sound complicated? Use the clock analogy, which is a classic plating method that ensures proper portioning. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts says to think of your plate as a clock: The meat component should be placed between 3 and 9 o’clock; the starch, between 9 and 12; and the veggies, between 12 and 3. In addition, use odd numbers when plating individual foods, recommends the culinary school, as “the human brain finds odd numbers more pleasing than even numbers.” For example, when serving ravioli, put five on a plate instead of six.
Play with colors.
Just as a work of art with a variety of colors is visually interesting, so too is a plate with vibrant and contrasting colors. Yes, the color of your plate is important, but what’s on it matters even more. Bright, vibrant food colors are associated with freshness and flavor. “Create a focal point and add a burst of color. You can use herbs, vegetables, or fruit as accent colors if the main dish seems a little bland,” says the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.
Prioritize simplicity and balance.
While variety is important, don’t let the elements of your dish crowd each other out. An uncluttered plate is more attractive than a busy one, and a dish with too many competing elements will confuse your guests. On the other hand, a dish without enough variety is boring. Professional chef Jack Coetzee recommends leaving space between the different parts of your dish and including “a hot element, a cold element, an element of texture, something crunchy, and something soft,” to keep your dish simple and well-balanced.
Perhaps the most important part of plating is that you enjoy it. Cooking and plating are art forms, and as such, should be avenues for creative expression. Plus, guests enjoy meals even more when they see their host enjoyed putting it together.
With these plating tips in your pocket, you’ll be ready to wow your guests at the next dinner party you host. To learn even more about what makes a plate of food look delicious from a professional food photographer, check out The Complete Guide to Food Photography by Lauren Caris Short (Buy on Amazon, $35.49).
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