Here’s how it’s done in restaurants.
When it comes to building a healthy entree like the restaurants do, Chef Jason Fullilove promotes one essential word: balance.
When you want to whip up a healthy meal that looks as good as it tastes, aim to have balance of textures, colors, flavors, and nutrients. A dish that’s all brown, all green, all heavy, or all light, is going to bore your taste buds. No surprise: It may also be lacking in certain necessary nutrients. Specific vitamins and minerals create the various hues of fresh fruits and vegetables (consider how most orange-colored veggies are high in vitamin A, or red-hued produce is high in lycopene), so eating a rainbow of foods could prevent unwanted nutrient deficiencies.
Somewhere on your plate, try to have something crunchy, something creamy, and something chewy. While fried food may be appealing, an entire plate of crispy fried breading will eventually get boring or even unpleasant. (Even fried chicken joints get this: That’s why they serve a side of coleslaw or potato salad!)
When it comes to taste, balance different flavors while making sure they complement each other. You could start by trying to have some sort of unifying ingredients throughout the plate—like onion, garlic, or a specific herb. For example, look at how a Mexican dish combines different components with varying flavors and textures, yet they all have a hint of lime, chopped cilantro, or raw onion. Similarly, Italian dishes will have side dishes that utilize garlic, oregano, tomatoes, or Parmesan, just like the pasta they accompany.
Consider your taste buds when coming up with side dish ideas: Counter something bitter (like broccoli) with something zesty (like a lemony salmon), and balance a warm, nutty grain (like brown rice) with a bit of sweetness (like balsamic-roasted beets).
Whatever you do, don’t disregard the recommended food groups! Be sure to fill your plate with veggies, grains, and proteins, and you’ll be off to a great start.
To plate your entree like the pros, try stacking. Artists, interior designers, and food stylists alike have long touted the benefits of using vertical layers to add visual appeal.
Chef Jason uses a fresh, vibrant sauce or vegetable puree at the bottom of the plate, which adds a colorful backdrop to the items that will be stacked above it. Next, he stacks the grains, veggies, and main protein at different angles so all components can still be seen. Finally, he finishes with a garnish—fresh herbs, microgreens, or something a little surprising, like a few radish slivers or some pickled onion.