When it comes to serving food, presentation may not be everything — there’s taste to consider, after all — but studies have shown it can have a surprisingly big impact on how the foods we prepare are perceived. When we cook and plate to please the eye, as it happens, we also please the palete.
This week’s news that Red Lobster, in order “to be seen as a purveyor of quality seafood,” would stack food “higher on plates, as is the style at fancier restaurants,” as the Associated Press put it, brings that point home. Whether arranging the same food — fish, rice and vegetables — vertically, rather than spread out on the plate, will boost the seafood chain’s bottom line remains to be seen. Still, you may find in it the impetus to experiment with your own meal presentation.
Here are a few tips:
Choose the Right Canvas: Colorful plates can be fun, and your grandma’s gilded wedding china makes a meal an occasion (at least until someone breaks something), but research has shown that simple round white plates and square black plates enhance people’s perception of food quality and how enjoyable the food is. Round white plates can also increase the perception of flavor intensity and sweetness.
Consider Color, As Well As Shape and Texture: When planning meals, aim to include vivid hues and contrasts. Fruits and veggies (blanched or steamed, perhaps) are visually, as well as nutritionally, important. No one gets excited about a plate full of blah browns and beiges.
Take a Big-Picture View: Before you put food on the plate, visualize how it will appear — play with symmetry, geometry, sequencing and unity, repetition, proportion, balance, focal points, lines and flow, as you apportion space to each meal element. (As you lay out the elements, some people recommend, think of your plate as the face of a clock.) Try placing an odd number of foods on the plate, which is thought to enhance food’s visual appeal.
Embrace White Space: Keep portions modest and allow plenty of white space on the plate, which highlight the food and make it look more valuable and worth savoring. You should leave at least a half inch — probably more — between the food and the inside edge of the plate’s outer rim.
Look to Layers: You, like Red Lobster, can get extra impact by stacking your protein, starches and/or veggies. Don’t overdo it on the verticality, though, or your Eiffel Tower may start to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Get Saucy, and Go for the Garnish: A dab or splash or drizzle of color can go a long way. Don’t drown your food or set it afloat in sauce. And make sure you choose a garnish or sauce with a flavor that matches — and enhances — the flavor of the dish. A good garnish never overpowers.
Get creative, but remember, presentation should never come at the cost of taste, temperature or practicality. No one likes a hot meal past its prime, no matter how pretty it looks on the plate.