You don't have to be a celebrity chef to make your meals as visually appealing as they are tasty -- and healthy. Just ask Brian Hill, currently seen on the Bravo reality series Top Chef, and also the personal chef to singer Mary J. Blige.
"It's so easy," he says. "Just remember to do what you like … whatever you are and whatever you do, put it on the plate." If you make pottery, for example, says Hill, serve your veggies in your favorite handmade bowl. If you're a gardener, layer a colorful piece of salmon on a bed of edible homegrown flowers.
This technique, known in the culinary world as "plating," inspires professional chefs to create what they think of as "edible art."
"Presentation is crucial when serving any meal," says Michael Crane, corporate executive chef of ARAMARK, which provides food services to hospitals, universities, stadiums, and businesses around the world. "You need to create 'art' to make your food interesting. If it looks good, they will want to try it, and that goes for healthier meals too."
To create your own culinary work of art, Crane advises that you treat the plate as one unified "canvas," keeping in mind the balance of the composition, the colors, the flow, the patterns, or lines. "This will give your presentation as much depth as possible," he says.
Why 'Small' Is Smart
Mimic upscale restaurants, adds Timothy Ferriss, a member of the Institute of Food Technologists. Using plates that have a small basin for holding food but a large rim makes the serving appear 50% bigger than it actually is, says Ferriss, who also offers this "insider" trick: Drizzle sauce on the rim to visually expand the portion without actually increasing the calories.
Think small, Ferris continues. Use teaspoons instead of tablespoons, appetizer plates in place of larger main course plates, and small sauce or mixing bowls in favor of normal "Goliath-sized" cereal bowls. "This will make smaller portions appear bigger," he says.
And, when you're thinking color, it's not just what's on the plate that counts, says Ferris, but the color of the plate itself. "Black is back," he says. "For whatever reasons, we have found that people eat less and feel more sated when using darker-color containers."
When he was the chef at the Culinary Institute of America's nutritionally-based restaurant, St. Andrew's Café, Ron De Santis made sure that a recommended 4-ounce deck-of-card-sized serving of protein looked attractive and filling. To do that, Santis, currently the director of the institute's Industry Solutions Group, would slice the meat so that it fanned out to cover the surface of the plate, making the portion appear larger. He also suggests stacking food so it looks more exciting and plentiful, and recommends being generous with accompaniments -- such as vegetables -- that are bright, in season, and meet caloric requirements.
Why Food Should Be Fun
"We eat with our eyes," says Lisa Katic, RD, an advisory board member of the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition and a member of the Food Culinary Professionals Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. Color and texture are as important as taste, says Katic.
That's true for both kids and adults. Even that tried-and-true kids' favorite, macaroni and cheese, can be made healthier and more attractive by adding, for example, diced green, yellow, and red peppers. Easy-to-use kitchen tools can also help you turn ho-hum fruits and veggies into zucchini "ribbons," tomato "flowers," or pineapple "hearts."
"Kids like their food to be fun," says Hill.
Take a tip from the pros and season your dishes as well as your food, adds Katic. Sprinkle herbs, coffee grounds, even dark cocoa on your plate to add what Katic calls "a layer of flavor."
No need to stick with the same old round plates either, Katic adds. Mix and match your dinnerware -- square or triangular dishes can help fool the eye and create visual interest on your table.
And why not create your own tapas meal, says Katic, referring to the Spanish style of eating a variety of small-plate appetizers. Fill small bowls with vegetables, grains, and protein dishes to bring interest and variety to your lunch or dinner -- while keeping serving portions under control.
Finally, the most important point to remember, says Hill, is just to have fun. "Do what you like," he says. "You're not trying to win an Oscar."
Or in Hill's case, the title of "Top Chef."