Presentation is Everything

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Food doesn’t need to be expensive to look special. In fact, the way you present the simplest, cheapest eats can deliver a powerful punch. 

This post was originally posted on June 26, 2009. The lessons still hold true.

Presentation is Everything | Good Cheap Eats - Food doesn't need to be expensive to look special. In fact, the way you present the simplest, cheapest eats can deliver a powerful punch.

Years ago I worked in a catering kitchen, assembling deli and cheese trays, preparing cocktail sandwiches, and displaying fruit in attractive ways. Except for the hair net and the ugly apron, I enjoyed the job immensely — especially since I love food and I love feeding people. My culinary knowledge exploded during those years.

One of the mantras that my manager repeated to me often was, “Presentation is everything.”

What he meant was, it doesn’t matter how good it tastes if it looks bad. And in the same vein, if the food’s not up to par, we’ll make up for it by making it pretty.

While those theories certainly breakdown at some point in home cooking, they’re helpful to think about. Even if we’re eating on a budget, it can still look pretty. And a pretty plate makes one feel rich. Even if you aren’t.

How to make your plates look prettier:

Take, for example, the chimichangas pictured here. That meal is a very inexpensive one. But, the presentation of the crispy burritos, fresh salsa, and other toppings makes a very pretty – and delicious looking – presentation. It feels “special” even if it’s just plain ol’ burritos.

Here are some ways that you can make your plates a little more inviting:

Use the freshest ingredients you can.

Talk to the produce guy and ask him to teach you how to select ripe produce. Alternatively, you can also request that he help you select the best items. If you have a plan for when you’ll serve it, that will help him determine the right stage of ripeness.

Pay attention to color.

Reds and greens liven up a plate immensely. Even a sprinkle of chopped parsley over the top can make a difference in the dish’s appearance.

Presentation is Everything | Good Cheap Eats - Food doesn't need to be expensive to look special. In fact, the way you present the simplest, cheapest eats can deliver a powerful punch.

Use pretty serving dishes and linens.

You don’t have to spend a ton on new serving ware, just keep your eyes open at garage sales and thrift stores. Pretty is as pretty does, not how much pretty costs.

Make friends with ramekins.

Ramekins are little glass dishes often used in baking. They also make great serving vessels for condiments and side salads. Buy them whenever you see a good deal and use them often.

Serve condiments in dishes rather than their original containers.

While this may make more work for the dishwasher, it makes a huge difference to the table you set. It takes the focus away from the brand of sour cream and the advertising plastered across its packaging and allows you to think more about the food and the company.

What do you do to make meals look a little more special?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe great meals don't have to be complicated or expensive. There's a better way, and it won't take all afternoon.

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  1. Stephanie M. says:

    This is a topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about especially when my husband and I have a dinner party. We have several dinner parties each year and when we do, our goal is to make all of our guests feel like they’re in a fine dining establishment and we treat them all like royalty. I completely agree with you that food needs to look pretty and appetizing no matter if you’re having guests or if you’re serving a weeknight meal to your family. Depending on what you’re serving, garnishes always add interest to a dish. If I’m serving a dish with a lemon sauce, I like to have fresh lemons on top as a garnish. Curly parsley always looks nice on just about everything. Many times, I will sprinkle dried parsley and paprika on the rim of the dish when we are serving guests for added color and interest. I NEVER serve condiments or salad dressings in their original bottles. I always put them in some kind of small glass bowl. When I serve family dinner for just ourselves, unless we are having something like soup, stew, or anything that takes up the whole plate or bowl, I always mentally divide the dinner plates into 4 sections; one for the meat or fish, one for the starch, (potato, pasta, rice), and two for veggies and I try to use two different color veggies to make the plate more colorful. Depending on what the meal is, I sometimes garnish the food with chopped chives or scallions. One thing is for sure though: I love food and cooking for people and I want my passion for feeding people both family and guests to reflect in the way I present it. When we have a dinner party, we typically serve everyone restaurant style. I am in the kitchen plating the food and my husband brings the meals to each guest. Nothing make me feel so good as when I’m in the kitchen and as he hands out the meals, I hear everyone stop talking to say, “Oh my Goodness, this looks delicious!”
    Doesn’t get any better than that! 🙂

  2. I completely agree with you that we eat with our eyes first. This was something I learned from my grandmothers who were each young brides during the depression. No matter how humble the food, you can still make the meal an occasion. They could make hotdogs and French fries look like and feel like a gourmet meal. I try to set a nice table – placemats, pretty dishes, glasses and silverware. One of the Christmas gifts my husband gave me early in our marriage was a set of silver condiment cups, which add a bit of sparkle to each place setting. I have several sets of salt and peppershakers, which I change throughout the year. Our favorite is a set from the early 1960s.

    I do not usually use garnishes. With a tight food budget, I want to know that everything served will get eaten. I am the only one in the family that would eat parsley, green onions or most fresh green herbs such as basil so they would go to waste.

    We almost always serve family style. To make the meal look appetizing I try to make sure that in addition to the entrée every meal includes at least two side dishes of fresh fruit or vegetables, which adds lots of color to the table. I often add fresh fruit slices to the water glasses, which also adds a dash of color in addition to making the water taste good.

    • These are some great strategies. Do you have a trick for placemats not getting all mucked up?

      • It is only in the past year that I have gone back to using cloth place mats. I have been using plastic place mats since my oldest was a toddler. The first set I bought years ago on a summer clearance sale for just 10 cents each. I simply wash them in a sink of dishwater and dry them with a towel after each meal. Some of our favorites over the years included Veggie Tales, Disney princesses and swimming goldfish. We also had educational sets with the 50 states, U.S. presidents, etc.

  3. I’ve always decanted foods from their original containers into serving dishes. That’s how I grew up and I used to believe that it was a southern “thing.” Nice to know that others do this as well. I find it particularly useful when serving snacks. It reduces mindless eating and you don’t have someone rooting around in an empty bag because they can’t believe they ate it all!

  4. Carolyn Stutz says:

    Oh, how lazy I’ve become! Mostly because when my husband was moved to a different department at work several years ago, he was always working overtime and NEVER knew when he’d come home. My children (now 21 and 19) have full-time jobs but not 9-5 hours – so again, no telling when they’ll be home. I honestly don’t remember the last time the four of us sat down to eat a meal together. However! in days past (oh how fast they went) I always served our meals in pretty dishes. I don’t have a dishwasher (well, not an automatic one – haha) so I made a LOT of extra dishes by moving everything from what I cooked and baked in, to pretty serving dishes. If I EVER placed a saucepan of food on the table my family knew I wasn’t feeling well!
    Nowadays, it seems it’s just me and a book – good thing I love my books 🙂 Invariably as soon as the kitchen is all cleaned up my husband either comes in from work, or calls and says he’s on the way home. I confess to never bothering prettying things up at that point. I just try to make sure the kitchen is cleaned up again before I go to bed.
    Ah, you make me want to set a pretty table again… well, if nothing else, thanks for the good memories you stirred up 🙂 you’ve done that numerous times and it’s a nice thing to happen – thank you.

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