Christmas traditions can be controversial, and none more so than the main event – dinner. What time do you have it? What meat do you eat? Is Nut Roast the way to go? Is cauliflower traditional? Should you have a Yorkshire pudding with turkey? The food often comes down to long-held traditions and preferences but do you pile it high or do you consider how things should be arranged on your plate to get the most of this once-a-year-delight?
In a world where Insta-foodies are abundant, research has shown that the sight of a beautiful plate of food can entice the appetite and set expectations of how much we are going to enjoy it – it seems we eat with our eyes first. Well, this year, M&S – famed for their ‘beautiful food’ ads – have teamed up with culinary artist and scientist, Charles Michel to explore the science behind a beautiful Christmas dinner.
Charles has undertaken extensive research on multisensory perception applied to food at the experimental psychology department of Oxford University. He has co-published over a dozen papers in scientific journals on “food aesthetics” – the space between food, art and science, and he’s shared his insight on the perfect plating of Christmas food just in time to surprise your family and friends.
We say surprise because it’s probably not what you’d expect to see come December 25th! Charles’ recommendations include keeping the amount of food down, so each item can be shown and enjoyed in all its glory. As our video below shows, the best ‘food aesthetics’ include:
- Only one roast potato should be placed on the plate and should be turned upright to give height to the plate
- Add further height by leaning the parsnips against the potato
- Cushion one Brussels sprout on a bed of pancetta and chestnuts to give a burst of colour
- Place slices of turkey on a bed of red cabbage to provide contrasting colours and a blend of flavours and textures
- Pour only a small circle of gravy in one area of the plate, rather than all over everything
But whilst it may be beautiful, singular roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts would no doubt outrage Christmas dinner devotees nationwide – while Northerners would not be the only ones up in arms about the lack of gravy!
So whether you like fancy food or piled-high plates, when it comes to Christmas dinner, it truly is each to their own. But if you’re open to change, here are Charles Michel’s top five tips on help you plate up something truly beautiful this Christmas:
1. The plate is the canvas
First things first. Choose your canvas wisely. Round plates are often preferred to angular ones. The more space you have on the plate, the more neat and less messy your plating will be. The colour matters too: plate colour has been proven to affect food taste, but also, change the colour contrast balance.
2. Colour complexity
There’s nothing more exciting than a plate filled with highly contrasted colours. From an evolutionary perspective, colour diversity indicates to our brains the presence of a richness in nutrients, which our body needs for a healthy diet. Add colourful berries, or a few leaves of one of the recipes’ ingredients (think rosemary or thyme tops, or edible flowers!). Be careful of not using unnecessary or flavourless elements (the parsley leaf on top is out of fashion!)
3. Neatness and skill
Every element of the plate has to be skillfully placed. A “messy” arrangement simply kills the beauty of the dish. Better to place a circular dot of the gravy by pouring in one spot only, rather than drizzling all over and make the plating look as if shaken by an earthquake.
Do not put too much food on the plate! This will make it look messy, and also sometimes we tend to have one’s eyes are bigger than one’s stomach! Better to serve less in a beautiful way, than too much.
5. Height and movement
A beautiful plate of food has to have height, and “grace”. For instance, a sprig of rosemary on the stuffing should be reaching heights. The different slices of turkey should be arranged in a way that is not too linear, in order to reach “movement” which quite literally makes the plate feel more alive.
About the expert
Charles Michel is a Culinary Artist and Experince Designer who uses experimental psychology, multisensory science, human-centered design, culinary art and ritual to create around the idea of community and human development. He has given over 30 talks on the future of food and eating, on stages such as The Royal Society, The Royal Institution, Tech conferences, and TEDxHackney and TEDxMogadishu. Leanr more at charlesmichel.co