A Food Stylist Shares Tips for Plating Family Dinner Like a Pro
So your food looks as good as it tastes.
Anticipating a homemade meal is enough to make anyone hungry, and that first moment when the dish is set down on the table really whets our appetites. To make sure your food looks as good on the plate as it tastes, try out a few food stylist tips—they are easier than you think. Our food editors always get asked, "Is the food real?" The answer is yes. All the food in Martha Stewart's magazines, books, TV shows, and the recipe images on this website is (or was) edible. I can attest to this: As soon as a shoot ends, we all dig in. What makes the presentation so outstanding? It's the tips and tricks we are about to share with you and a little bit of practice, nothing difficult.
Read on for easy plating ideas that are guaranteed to upgrade your meal presentation and make your dishes as tasty to look at as they are to eat.
It Starts in the Grocery Store
Beautiful ingredients—not necessarily perfect ingredients—create beautiful dishes. Especially for dishes that utilize raw fruits and vegetables, select ingredients that stand out with interesting shapes and eye-catching colors. You'll also want to double check that there are no blemishes, bruises, or rotten spots. And don't be afraid of what's different: The wonky shape of an imperfect heirloom tomato is more visually interesting than a perfectly engineered plump round red tomato. Opt for a twisty-shaped radish with pretty greens or lettuce leaves with curvy shapes and lots of character.
The Magic of a Garnish
In addition to adding flavor and texture, garnishes are a powerful tool that will help turn an ordinary dish into one that is irresistible. As a general rule, select garnishes that complement the flavors in the dish or use more of an ingredient already in a recipe. A handful of colorful green herbs like basil, parsley, and mint can help a dish pop while also subtly indicating its freshness. Sprinkle grated Parmesan and freshly grated black pepper to wake up the appearance of a dish that isn't overly colorful, like this Creamy Lemon Chicken with Spinach and Artichokes. A gooey cheesey top is the ultimate in comfort food chic. If the recipe is done, but the cheesy topping isn't quite there yet, make sure the food is in an oven-safe dish and broil it, just until the cheese is melted and golden—it shouldn’t take long, so keep an eye on it. Other garnishes to try fried shallots, sesame seeds, jalapeño, lemon zest, dried fruit, and nuts.
Pro tip: Take note when you see a food photo that you like. What are they garnishing the food with and how are those accents placed?
Plate with Care
Take time to thoughtfully place the meal in a platter, bowl, or plate. This doesn't mean using tweezers; it just means spooning or using tongs rather than dumping the food into the serving vessel. For a meal that looks like the No-Cook Tomato-Tuna Sauce with Spaghetti shown above, grab a bunch of spaghetti with tongs and as you place it on a plate, then twist your wrist or spin the plate to swirl the noodles. This gives the noodles a more orderly presentation and that signature twirl. Once you get the swing of it, you'll find that this is fun to do and impressive, too.
Add food by the spoonful, keeping the edges of the dish relatively clean. Pick the right vessel, and don't smash food down to fit it in—a natural fluffiness is more appealing. A very simple dish like these Instant Pot Mashed Potatoes looks incredibly appealing with a swoopy top, a dollop of butter, and a pop of color from chives.
Think Outside of the Box
Not all appealing presentations center around a food bullseye center on the plate. Take a cue from this Roasted Carrot dish and try swooping sauce on the side of the plate and then topping it with vegetables or meat. Or add an off center dollop of sauce on top like the ricotta on this gnocchi. Another note, exemplified in both of these dishes: Don't waste time perfectly placing or evenly spacing food. Instead, let it naturally fall when you place it on the plate, because the best look is natural. Notice how the herbs cascade over the gnocchi as if they were casually added—that's the goal.
Taking a Photo?
If you're plating for a photograph and not for dinner, when in doubt use a filter. Instagram and many other camera apps for the provide the option to add a filter to your photos. The filter bumps up color, contrast, and other camera settings that make a meal shot photo pop.