December 18, 2007

You Eat With Your Eyes

Last night’s dinner wasn’t looking too hot. I mean, it was delicious… but the picture just kind of looked like a pile of brown goo (yum!). I did toss some asparagus on there so there was a bit of green and brown, but come on, this isn’t Rydell (I can’t find a lyrics page to support this reference, so if you get it, post in comments and I’ll have a chuckle). Dark brown and green just do not go together in a very appealing way. I mean, what do you think of when you think of brown and green? I think of grass growing in dirt. Ew. Not quite what I wanted to eat.

Fortunately for me, Katie at Sister Skinny provided a gem of a post from Life in Digital Pixels, providing 8 Tips for Taking Mouth-Watering Food Pictures. I promise my food tastes great; hopefully these tips will enable me to take pictures that will make you want to try the recipes too!

This got me thinking… we all know that food taste is directly correlated to how it looks. For example, in Mindless Eating (I really really promise I will post a review of it soon – I know I talk about it a lot), they recount an experiment where people are told they’re going to try strawberry yogurt. They are put in a dark room so they can’t see, and are given chocolate yogurt. Most of the people came out saying it was great strawberry yogurt, the best strawberry yogurt they’ve ever had, and wanting the brand name of the fantastic strawberry yogurt. Without seeing it, they tricked their tastebuds. Other studies from the same book show that we eat more if it’s on a larger plate, more in the presence of certain colors, etc. Basically, we take our cues from what’s around us.

I know when I go to a fancy restaurant — you know, one of those snobby places that serves a bite-sized taste as an entree — I find myself getting full on less food. Whereas when I went to Crocodile Lounge last Saturday and they kept giving me a whole personal pizza every time I bought a beer (truly the best special ever from a munchies perspective, truly the worst special ever from a dieter’s perspective – AVOID), I ate about one regular-sized pizza. But if Domino’s came to my door with a pizza and said “this is for you… enjoy!”, there is no way I would have eaten that much.

Anyway, I’m not going to delve into all the ways you can trick yourself to eat less by making it look like it’s more; Brian Wansink already did an awesome job of that in Mindless Eating. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few ways you can make your food look tastier and more gourmet, so you feel like you’re eating decadently even if you’re just having some whole-wheat pasta with a little margarine and parsley.

Here’s a great article I found that teaches you about plating, arranging, garnishing, etc. Some of these tips I can’t really try – we already have a full set of dishes, and I’m not going to go buy more just to complement all the foods I make. However, I was pleased to see that they recommend criss-crossing your asparagus tic tac toe style… I’ve got that one down! (Kind of). Believe it or not, I found another great article about plating and presentation at Kraft. I expected it to be full of product placements and whatnot (“Always put your Kraft® Macaroni & Cheese on a blue bowl so it looks like it’s the cheesiest!”), but it’s surprisingly sophisticated. If you’re feeling really ambitious and have extra time, check out this list from on how to make various garnishes that you’d see at fancy restaurants.

A few tips I can share from personal experiences:

-When choosing ingredients and substitutions, think about ingredient color combinations, especially if you’re making a one-dish meal (e.g. chili, soup, stir-fry, etc). Different colors mean different nutrients, but they also make your food more exciting to eat than a monochrome dish. Let’s say I’m making chicken tortilla soup (recipe is here and it’s one of my favorites, though I haven’t posted it on the blog in full form yet). That’s tomato-based, so you have your red. And there’s a lot of corn in it, which gives you yellow. So if I’m trying to pick a bell pepper or a zucchini/squash, I might stick with the plain green variety for some contrast.

-Try to put things cleanly and neatly on the plate. If you’re serving something with gravy, put the main things on and drizzle the gravy on neatly rather than scooping a lot of meat and veggies with the gravy right from the pot. I messed this up with the top round yesterday, and it made the whole plate look muddy and dirty.

-If your plating isn’t perfect, cover it up with more food (healthy food, that is)! You can’t tell from the picture, but last night I put the asparagus where I did because it covered up the gravy smudges on that side of the plate 🙂 Remember, smaller plates make you feel full faster, so feel free to grab a tiny one and pile the food on. (Alternately, bigger plates with lots of space between the food look really fancy if you’re trying to impress and/or make your food seem better than it is. I really ought to start photographing my recipes on humongous dishes).

-Have fun with the spices. Sprinkle a little something on top when you’re done, and it gives the dish a nice finish that looks way more elegant.

For many people, cooking is a big ordeal, and it’s frustrating to slave away in the kitchen only to have your food come out looking like a Lean Cuisine. You may even wonder why bother! But your food tastes better and is much healthier than frozen convenience food, so give it the boost it deserves and take the last 30 seconds of your cooking time to make it look pretty.

Hopefully you guys will see the results of all this research when I post my dinner tonight!


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