How Food Presentation Can Transform Your Meals

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Food doesn’t need to be expensive to be special. In fact, food presentation can make the simplest, cheapest eats seem like a feast for a king.

white platter with fruit, meat, cheese, bread, eggs, and pickles

While few of us have unlimited grocery budgets, it’s not that hard to put out a fancy spread.

Oh sure, you can spend a small fortune on groceries, but the cost isn’t really what puts a dish’s best food forward. Even the simplest meals can dress to impress. It’s all a question of food presentation.

Food presentation? What’s that?

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.

Why is food presentation important?

They say that you eat with your eyes first. If a dish is colorful, fresh-looking, and appealing to your eyes, it’s already tempted you and made you want to taste it. It gets you ready for the act of eating and enjoying the food.

Just as a food with a pleasant aroma beckons you to taste it, so does the food with a nice presentation.

What is a garnish used for?

A garnish is something added to a prepared dish to make it more appealing, to add color, texture, or a contrasting flavor. Think of lemon slices, chopped herbs, or sliced avocado as something that will make the plate pretty and add some color. All these things add to a prettier food presentation.

Is a garnish edible?

Yes. Anything that you add to a plate should, in theory, be edible. It would be unsafe to assume that your guests know not to eat the decorations you’ve put on their plate, so be sure to serve only garnishes that are edible.

plates of burritos and toppings alongside bowl of salsa

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.

How do you plate a dish?

Here are some ways that you can make your plates and your food presentation in general a little more inviting:

Use the freshest ingredients you can.

Fresh ingredients make for a prettier food presentation. No one wants wilted lettuce! So be sure to buy the freshest available.

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.

The closer you can buy your product to the source (ie, from the butcher, the dairy, or the farm) the fresher it should be. Your mileage may vary depending on where you live.

Pay attention to color.

For some reason brown, white, yellow, and orange foods don’t really tempt our senses. Reds and greens liven up a plate immensely.

Add diced tomato to a salad, chopped red pepper to a pizza, or a cherry atop the sundae.

Even a sprinkle of chopped parsley, basil, or cilantro over the top of a savory recipe can make a difference in the food presentation. People will be more likely to want to eat your food. That’s always a good thing!

blueberry crumble served in individual red dishes with lids

Personal Blueberry Crumbles

Use pretty serving dishes and linens.

Pretty serving dishes and linens make a big difference in the food presentation, even though they aren’t edible. Food stands out nicely on white dishes, so don’t think you need to invest in fancy decorated dishes.

You also 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.

Your dishes don’t even need to be fancy for the food to feel special. Whenever anyone sees my lunches served in these meal prep containers, they always ask about the containers. There’s just something about the presentation of the simple salad in a black box that makes it more attractive.

Make friends with ramekins.

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

Again, a stroll through a thrift store may garner you a decent collection for just a few pennies.

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 and to your food presentation in general.

Serving condiments in dishes 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. It also prevents cross contamination of a larger container.

A little thought into your food presentation can make a huge difference in how those at your table feel about the meal. It attracts all their senses and gets them ready to enjoy what you’ve prepared, even if it’s budget fare.

Food presentation is worth your while. And not hard to accomplish!

Ease your holiday stress!

Speaking of beautiful meals…. Want to make the holiday season a little brighter this year?

Ease your seasonal stress by planning in advance how you will handle your holiday kitchen.

Take the Celebrate Simply workshop and get ready to jingle all the way.

Learn more here.

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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Comments

  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! 🙂

    • I seriously think you should start teaching home ec classes. I bet there are tons of young people in your community who would love to learn all this.

      • Stephanie M. says:

        Thanks for the kind words, Jessica. You are always so encouraging!! 🙂

  2. Janet says:

    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?

      • Janet says:

        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. Sue says:

    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!

    • Great tip on portion control. And that’s interesting about the regional thing. I wonder about that.

  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.

    • Ah, sweet. Maybe you can set a fancy table this week, just for old times’ sake. 🙂

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