The Art of Food Presentation and Offering a Multisensory Experience

February 1, 2020 | by ashlynn reynolds-dyk

Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors - it's how you combine them that sets you apart. ~Wolfgang Puck

The Missing Piece? Food Presentation

It’s possible some of those New Year’s resolutions about food are already getting tired. Perhaps, rather than thinking about discipline, limitations, etc., you can reframe some of your #foodgoals to align with creativity and excitement. Or, maybe your New Year’s resolutions have nothing to do with food, or you have no resolutions at all, but you want to try something new or simply get your family or friends more interested in what’s for dinner (or lunch, breakfast, or snack), consider the role of food presentation.  This is an art, and if done properly, it will engage all of the senses—not just taste. Let’s consider how food events and dining experiences can engage the other four senses and how we can effectively put the art of food presentation into practice at home.

Engaging the Other Four Senses in a Food Event/Dining Experience

See/Sight (Visual Experience): Have you ever been out to dinner and ordered a food item based on something delicious-looking you saw on someone else’s plate? As the old adage goes, “We eat with our eyes first.” This reinforces the fact that the way our food looks, matters to us and might just be the deciding factor on what we choose to order/eat at a restaurant. Science has consistently shown that a food’s appearance can actually alter the brain’s chemistry thus influencing the way the food tastes. Think about it—food that is sprinkled with a light layer of shredded cheese and/or ground, course pepper, looks so much better than the same food item that isn’t.

Smell/Scent (Olfactory Experience): How a food smells is also directly related to your perception of how that food will taste; the aroma of food sets the atmosphere and expectation for the food event enough to sway a person’s food choice. If food does not smell appetizing, we are at best, hesitant to consume the food. On the flip side, if food smells good, we can’t wait to dive in. In fact, smell is the sense most keenly associated with taste, and it drives the appetite. While tasting food, we continue to smell the food which, combined, is what contributes to the overall pleasure (or not) of consuming the food item (think about when you are fighting congestion or stuffy nose and your sense of smell is decreased—food usually doesn’t taste as good which is because smell and taste or so closely intertwined).

Sound/Hear (Aural Experience): Boiling noodles, popping popcorn, a sizzling pan… you are likely familiar with the sound of each. The way our foods sound during preparation and when we eat them, impacts our food experience. When eating something that is traditionally crunchy—nuts, cereal, granola, chips, raw vegetables, etc.—we relate their level of crunchiness to quality. Typically, the louder the crunch (if it is supposed to be crunchy), the better. This has a lot to do with perceived freshness. The crunchiness of a food or the sizzling of a pan, lead us to believe that our food will be cold or hot (and again, fresh) engaging not only our aural senses but also our sense of touch which brings us to the fourth sense.

Feel/Touch (Oral Haptics): Temperature, texture, and weight - these are all important characteristics of food presentation and help determine how much one enjoys a food item. A room temperature salad—no matter how beautiful—is not as enjoyable as a cold, crisp salad, just as a room temperature bowl of soup is not as enjoyable as a piping hot bowl of soup. Now, imagine that piping hot bowl of soup topped with fresh, shredded cheese melting into the soup - this adds a dimension of texture in addition to the visual of layering and color contrast. Texture is often seen and felt, and combined with a food’s weight or density, effects a person’s level of enjoyment.

Tips for Plating your Food to Create a Multisensory Experience

(Hint: Your choice of dishes, cutlery, linens, and background music, etc. can also shape the dining experience - but that’s another topic for another time!)

  • Color - Choose contrast and avoid monochromatic color schemes
  • Texture - Kill two birds with one stone with this one. Texture not only engages and enhances the touch/haptics experience of food but also the visual experience, thus engaging two of the senses; like color, offer contrast when it comes to texture because different textures can work together to harmonize one another
  • Herbs and seasonings - A variety of seasonings can create just the right aroma while also enhancing the overall appearance of your food (these can also be used for “decorating” - see below)
  • Layering and shaping - Using an ice cream scoop to plate your rice, quinoa, or mashed potatoes can go a long way; cookie cutters can offer nice shapes for sandwiches and a variety of food items as well; clear dishes are nice when layering food that cannot stand on its own
  • Portioning - Start with moderate portions of food and then proportion accordingly. Vegetables should take up about ½ of the plate while a protein and starch take up ¼ of the plate, each
  • Rule of Odds and Framing - Serve an odd number of food items to help frame the food; work from the middle/inside of the dish to the outside
  • Decorating - Add a drizzle, swirl, zest, shavings, or garnish for the perfect finish

This may sound like a lot of work, but it does not have to be. Take something as simple as oatmeal - it’s a pretty plain, boring dish, but it doesn’t have to be. Top your oatmeal with some berries (blueberries and raspberries are great and offer two new colors) and some walnuts, almonds, or pecans. Now you’ve easily added new colors and textures to the dish. You can do the same with yogurt - put your yogurt in a bowl, add some granola, berries, and nuts, and you’ve created a visually appealing dish with a variety of textures and sounds. If you want to go a little further to impress the family or some guests, you can utilize layering for the same dish by simply serving your yogurt in a clear glass and layering the yogurt with granola, berries, nuts, etc. 

All in all, food presentation and engaging the senses is dynamic and interactive, like a complex web. Through various textures, you can engage both touch and sight. Through crunch or smoothness, you can engage both touch and the aural experience. Smell is combined with taste as one chews, further shaping the food experience.  

Originally printed in the February 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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