8 Tips for Plating Food Like a Chef

Last Updated on June 9, 2024 | 0 Comments
food plating tips

Plating food properly is as important as cooking food properly when you really want to get the most out of a meal. The joy of eating involves all five senses from smell to taste, and the importance of sight can’t be underestimated. Have you ever noticed how the plating of food impacts your overall eating experience? Food presentation is a true art and what sets fine dining apart from fast and casual.

When you choose to make the splurge to eat out, you expect your meal to be neat and organized. But what about cooking at home? Is it worth the effort to think about plating food in your own kitchen? Learning a few simple tips about plating food at home is easier than you think, and it’s functional. When you’re entertaining guests or setting the holiday table, it’s only natural to consider presentation and decoration. Plating food is just an extension of what you’re doing already to make a great impression. 


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What Is Plating?

Plating food is simply the process of arranging all of the components of a meal onto a serving dish. It doesn’t have to be a work of art. When you dish out a serving of spaghetti and meatballs onto a dinner plate, you’re plating food. 

In restaurant terms, plating food involves putting a little more thought into how you're setting everything up so that it looks as good as possible. 

When was the last time you said, “That looks fantastic” when someone served you a meal? What made it look fantastic? Was it just the sizzling steak, or was there something about the way it was carefully placed next to the baked potato? Something about the appeal of the bright green side of asparagus?

steak and potatoes with green sauce
via Canva

Plating food has become an entire department in some fine dining restaurants, and cooking competitions are dedicated to the art. When you participate in cooking classes in NYC, cooking classes in Orlando or any cooking classes near you, plating food will always be part of the lesson.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes plating food so important.

Why Food Presentation Matters 

You may be thinking that plating food doesn’t matter — that only how the food tastes makes a difference to your enjoyment of it. But you’re wrong. 

Try closing your eyes next time you sit down to eat. Have someone put a bite of food on your fork. Take a sniff, then eat it. Chances are you won’t even be able to recognize what you just ate simply because you never saw it. Sight and smell working together allow your mouth to taste the food you eat. 

Sight also serves the very basic function of allowing you to survey food before you eat it to make sure it isn’t spoiled or burnt. But sight also sets your brain up to anticipate how food will taste. 

When you see a strawberry or an ice cream cone, your brain begins to anticipate the flavor before they even touch your tongue. Sight is what makes your mouth water when you see a chargrilled steak or a piece of fried chicken. Sight is why the buffet is so popular.

Southern-style chicken and waffles
via Canva

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8 Tips for Plating Food Like a Chef

1. Pick the Right Plate

If you’re going to learn to cook like a chef, you should learn how to plate food like a chef as well. It’s fun, it makes your food taste better and it’s a great excuse to use the serving platter you got last Christmas or that beautiful pasta bowl you found at the craft fair.

The go-to for plating dishes in most restaurants is the traditional round, white dinner plate because it works. Very few foods are white, so white plates showcase the food you just worked so hard to prepare. 

Pick a plate that is big enough to handle all your food but not too big to make it look lost. Got small food? Use small plates, or try a bowl instead. Don’t overload. 

Square plates make sense for square foods (cake slices, lasagna), but don’t be afraid to experiment. A round crab cake might look more interesting on a square plate. When it comes to food presentation ideas, there really are no rules. It’s the chef’s choice.

Choosing the right plate is important when plating food.
via Cozymeal

2. Center the Main Ingredient

In general, it makes sense to put the most important part of the meal in the center of the plate and then to arrange side dishes around it. Option two is to place the main ingredient off-center and use the central space for items with more color or texture. 

One of the top food trends you see when it comes to plating food is to stack. Starch on the bottom, then protein, then vegetable. Plating dishes that are a basic meat-and-potatoes style is a good place to start if you want to try stacking or when no one food item is an aesthetic standout.

Try stacking when plating food.
via Canva

3. Concentrate on Color

If you learn to think about food plating ideas and how your meal is going to look on the plate before you even start cooking, it may change your meal plan altogether. 

Just as with a work of art, the eye appreciates variety and balance of color. Choosing to serve foods that contrast in color is very common. For example, if you are serving salmon, it will look nice plated with a green or red vegetable, especially if you have a neutral-colored starch like potato or rice on the plate too.

On the other hand, there is a reason that monochrome is a popular choice when it comes to fashion. There is a sense of balance that comes with plating foods of the same color like kale, edamame and asparagus or bananas, pancakes and butter.

Consider the use of color when plating food.
via Cozymeal

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4. Garnish

If you don’t feel ready to get creative with how you are plating food, learn to garnish instead. A simple wedge of lime or lemon really brightens up a piece of fish. You could sprinkle the pre-grated Parmesan cheese on your spaghetti, but you can also buy stylish Parmesan shavings instead (or learn to make your own). 

Adding a sprig of parsley is a pretty dated choice for garnish, and it doesn’t really taste good on its own. Get more modern with a pinch of pea shoots or microgreens to add a hint of freshness to the plate. And if you really want to have fun plating food, check your local produce section for edible flowers. 

spaghetti with meatballs garnished with shaved Parmesan
via Canva

5. Give It a Drizzle

One of the most underutilized tools for plating food in the kitchen is quality olive oil. California is making great strides in producing true extra virgin olive oil right here in the United States so you don’t have to settle for the processed products on the grocery store shelf. Olive oil can be used to enhance the flavor of nearly any food.

In Mediterranean cultures, olive oil is used for finishing or plating food more often than for cooking. Whether it’s a drizzle over sliced vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh mozzarella or using it to add gloss and moisture to a roasted rack of lamb, olive oil is the great unifier.

olive oil drizzled over salad
via Canva

6. To Sauce or Not to Sauce

Plating food can get out of control quickly when there is a sauce involved. Instead of pouring sauces over other ingredients, try starting with a small amount of sauce on the bottom of your plate and adding other items on top. 

Sure, you could just put a bottle of ketchup or ranch dressing on the table. But investing in some simple plastic squeezable sauce containers will give you a chance to have a little more fun with squiggles and dollops. Online cooking classes are a good way to learn plating techniques when plating food with sauces.

Have fun with sauces when plating food.
via Cozymeal

7. Try for Texture

The eye and the mouth both appreciate a variety of textures as much as a good choice of color. Using chopped or toasted nuts is a great way to add texture to a plate. Chia seeds, hemp hearts and the ultra-trendy furikake (a mixture of seaweed flakes and sesame seeds) not only add dimension and flair to a dish, but they also add healthy protein.

On the flip side, consider plating food that is already crunchy, like a fried piece of fish or chicken, with creamier sides like puréed squash, riced cauliflower or polenta.

seared furikake tuna
via Canva

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8. Wipe the Edges

The final tip for plating food that really adds a finishing touch is to wipe the edges of the plate with a clean cloth before serving. There’s something very fine-dining about that simple step, but it really delivers a professional touch.

Wipe the edges of the plate when plating food.
via Canva

Some of us have a hard enough time getting food on a plate at all, so the idea of plating food with finesse may seem overwhelming at first. As with most things in life, keeping it simple is usually the best strategy. Plating food with a little extra care takes hardly any time but makes a lasting impression.

For even more ways to explore your favorite foods, check out other experiences happening on Cozymeal.