Eating With Your Eyes. How to Plate Food Like A Pro.


Do you spend hours or even days planning your weekly menu? Do you spend entire evenings pinning recipes on Pinterest? How about fantasizing making recipes from a TV cooking show or in a magazine, only to end up having it look like a cat's supper when you put it on a plate?

What do the professional cooks and food stylists know that you don't? How hard can it be to make your food look like it does when a pro prepares it? It's not just all that extra fat and salt restaurants use to make food taste so good. Chefs and food stylists are artists. Not just with flavor trickery but also with visual plating skills to make food look as good as it tastes. That wow moment you have when a waiter places a dish in front of you has quite a bit of thought behind it. Probably more than you've ever considered.

Professional chefs put intentional thought into how the food will look before it is presented in front of you and many times that thought process happens during the conceptualization process of creating the dish. One flavor component may be turned into a garnish. A textural contrast may be created specifically for that dish, like a crispy sage leaf on your risotto or tuile adorning your dessert. The kitchens stock an array of plate shapes and sizes so that the portion size and plating presentation is shown in the best light. How can you make your food look its best next time you have guests, to impress your family or even just a lovely meal for yourself? Let's think like a pro and make a pretty plate.



Keep the colors of the rainbow in mind when you're composing your dish but don't use all of them! Two to four are plenty. Different colors, not different shades of the same. Three shades of brown or red won't stimulate your eye like one each of yellow, red and green. If the meal you're making isn't colorful on its own, this is where you can use garnishes with a complimenting flavor. You will find many recipes end with "garnish with xyz" for two reasons: it enhances flavor as well as appearance. Garnishes that add flavor like minced chives, chopped parsley, lemon slices, shaved cheese, basil leaves and diced red bell pepper can really make a dish come more alive not only visually but with more flavor. These add a brightness, herbaciousness or balance that would be missing were they left off altogether. If you really want to get creative you can make carrot curls, tomato flowers or cucumber spirals if they work with your dish. If it's not meant to be eaten, then leave it off the plate.

Tuna salad sandwich is brightened up by slicing it on the diagonal and adding spears of celery or pickles.

  • A berry garnish on a dark chocolate dessert is a classic.
  • Transform a simple glass of tea by adding the dimension of shaped ice cubes and a slice of bright lemon or sprig of mint and it's an entirely new enticing proper cold drink.
  • Snipped chives or a bit of caviar over deviled eggs adds color and flavor
  • Chopped nuts add texture and flavor to both sweet and savory dishes

Go vertical


When you layer or stack food, there is immediate visual interest. Varying how high one element on the plate is, or building the whole dish to have height, are other ways to add interest to your plating design. You can do this by creating things like salad stacks, resting one half of a sandwich against the other, skewering toothpicks into items, or pressing rice into a cup or mold. These will layer your dish components, and will all give the food some eye-catching height contrast.




Having a variety of textures in a plated dish is important when you bite into it, but it's also important to the eye. A plate of mushy food doesn't look good or taste good. Try topping soups and risotto with fresh complimenting herbs, croutons and grated cheese. Mashed root vegetables come alive with some crispy shallots on top. Macaroni and cheese is always more appealing with a browned top or broiled bread crumbs. You can get really fancy by using a pastry brush to do a paint stroke on your plate of melted chocolate, beet or pea puree, or even store bought hummus. Just remember to keep the color contrast in mind.




This is your canvas. Chefs love a blank slate to create their art and this is why restaurant plates are pure white. No overly complicated borders, no obnoxious print. They are not red, yellow, blue, green, speckled, or checkered. Just plain white to show off the vibrant colors of your dish.

Here I plated a blue wedge salad and poached pear on a client's simple china. Do you want that perfectly seared piece of fish or vegetable stir fry lost in the pattern of grandma's ornate china or deeply colored glass? Save those for display and use white plates for everyday plating. You can also get some added visual interest by trying different shaped plates and platters or even use unconventional but food safe vessels like wood or slate. Warming your plates prior to putting food on them is another professional touch.




Have you ever looked at a plate of food and realized everything is the same shape? Probably not. A platter of raw vegetables potentially could be just eight items all cut into rounds. That likely wouldn't get as much attention as the platter where each vegetable has been cut into its own unique shape. Medallions of beef or pork wouldn't look as appealing with sliced au gratin potatoes so you would opt to plate that with a puree or coarsely chopped roasted vegetables and maybe a fanned out spread of asparagus or green beans off to one side. Spaghetti with meatballs is a great play of shapes. Round balls of seasoned meat, long slender pasta, and a chunky red sauce.  Here I shaped the rice into a form and let the free form protein be my uncontrolled variable while keeping the vegetables colorful yet controlled.


Odd numbers


Odd numbers will always beat out even numbers in the food plating game. Three of anything will look better than two or four. Five beats six. Your square plate may have four corners but keep your food odd. One, three, five, or even seven if you're greedy.  Here we see three components: egg, bread and tomato.

Now, next time you cook your meal think about what plate or bowl will showcase it best, eat at the table and really ENJOY your meal both with your eyes and taste buds.

Originally featured on now closed as of 6.7.17