How to Make Party Food Look Pretty

Merrily discusses the art (and science) of presenting scrumptious-looking food.

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

As a proud member of our town’s Junior League, my “placement” for a couple of years was to serve as design and production chair for our cookbook, Above & Beyond Parsley. A benefit of the position was getting to sit in as “the client” on a number of photo shoots with an art director, a food photographer, and a professional food stylist. It was my first exposure to the dark arts of professional food styling, where things seldom are as they appear. You’ve probably heard the stories. The milk in a bowl of cereal? Glue. Condensation on a frosty margarita? A dulling spray followed up by glycerine drops. 

Exit the Radish Rose
Of course, this was back in the days when lacquered, intricately embellished food was more the thing. Now, cookbooks, food blogs, and magazines rarely present you with a fanned strawberry or an over-engineered lemon slice. You are more likely to see extreme close-ups of rustic, home-cooked food, the more imperfect looking, the better.

For the servantless American cook (as Julia Child called her audience) and time-crunched party-giver, this trend toward unfussiness in food presentation is a liberating thing. 

But still. Although you may not have time to fashion a lime camellia for each plate, you want your guests to look at the food you serve them and feel cherished—and hungry. Here are some ideas for tricking out the food you serve your guests. 

First, a Drink
While it may sound trivial, the garnish on the first cocktail you serve your dinner guests is a key matter to tend to. Pay attention to this detail, and it tells your guests you’ve paid attention to everything else. 

When having a crowd over (say, four or more), I recommend offering a cocktail before dinner that can be mixed in quantity before people arrive. A pitcher of freshly made mojitos or pink sangria (email me for these recipes) looks inviting garnished with citrus slices, berries, and a few elegant wisps of lemon zest. You could doll up each glass—hurricanes are perfect, but a water goblet or rocks glass will do—with whisper-thin wheels of lime and lemon, and a sprig of mint or basil.

If you’re simply serving drinks from your bar, have freshly sliced wedges of lemon and lime in supply, along with pimento-less green olives, and, depending on the crowd, pearl onions and maraschino cherries (with stems, please). Don’t forget cocktail napkins; you want to always have a generous supply on hand.

If one of your guests is known to be fond of a particular cocktail, he or she will never forget your thoughtfulness if you make a point of having all the ingredients, and the proper garnish in supply.

Noshes with Cocktails
Over the years I’ve collected an assortment of serving pieces for the presentation of pre-party nibbles. Interesting trays, colorful little bowls, and serving implements—they need to be small in scale—miniature tongs, skewers, serving spoons, forks, spreaders. Nothing matches, but that’s kind of the point. I’m not a matchy-matchy person, but I do admire the more restrained look of all-white serving pieces, which better allow the food to be the star.

I like to have an array of simple little savories to set out when guests arrive, such as cheeses, crackers, sliced baguette, nuts, baby gherkins, sliced salami, mustards, grapes, kettle chips, olives, pistachio nuts (the latter two need extra little bowls for pits and shells), I wait to assemble the entirety until just before the guests arrive, so everything looks fresh, fresh, fresh. If you have fresh herbs, add a few pretty sprigs to your serving trays. All the tidbits I listed are easy because they are store-bought, but if I have some extra time, I make the Dirty Martini Dip, see recipe below. 

I put out little appetizer plates so guests can serve themselves. When people are busy talking and drinking, I offer to make a snackie plate for them, that’s how selfless a hostess I am.

Plating Can Be Fun
How food is arranged on a plate figures deeply in how we think it will taste. When you plan your dinner menu, imagine how the food will look together. Will there be a variety of colors, shapes, and textures?

When I have a group over for a seated dinner, I prefer to plate the food rather than serve it buffet style. I enroll a guest or two to help, we’ve got the tunes going in the kitchen, we’ve got our cocktails—at this point not as carefully garnished—and it’s the best part of the evening for me. I usually have an idea of how I want the food to look on the plate and will assemble a “demo plate.” Invariably, my dictatorial kitchen help has a few artistic tweaks; we collaborate on the final presentation. 

So that dinner doesn’t get cold, it helps to heat the plates in the oven or warming drawer. Not every food needs a garnish, but I always try to add one last thing that gives the plate that fresh-out-of-the-kitchen look—a grating of Parmesan cheese or lemon zest, a sprinkling of freshly chopped chives, a drizzle of olive oil. 

Don’t overload the plate—it’s best to leave about a third of it empty—and make sure the rim is wiped clean with a paper towel. 

Hi, Sweetie
When I go to the trouble of making a dessert, I want it to look homemade; I don’t want anyone to think it came from the bakery, not that there’s anything wrong with serving a store-bought dessert. 

Most desserts, store-bought or otherwise, are so pretty in themselves they don’t need a lot of embellishment. But if you want to dazzle your guests, you can always do the trick with the sauce (crème anglaise and chocolate or strawberry) in the plastic squeeze bottles You make concentric circles on the plate, and then you drag a toothpick through them and plop a little cake or cheesecake on top. Your guests will feel loved, even if they’ve seen it on the Food Network. 

I’m always impressed by a layered dessert in a footed glass, because they look so labor-intensive, but they are pretty easy to put together, especially if you have a lot of dessert odds and ends on hand. You can do layers of whipped cream or softened ice cream; berries and other fruits; caramel and chocolate sauces; mini cupcakes, cheesecakes, brownies, and lemon bars; crushed candies, sprinkles, toffee and chocolate chips. You can put virtually anything yummy in a stemmed glass and it will look elegant. Just make sure everything is bite-size.

Or you can make my very favorite dessert to serve my guests: my Buenavista Coconut Cake. It looks beautiful (but homemade) and tastes dreamy. And the best part is, it’s a doctored-up cake mix. Email me and I’ll send you the recipe. 

Dirty Martini Dip 

My friend Bernie Ashcraft brought this dip to a ladies gathering, along with a bowl of pita chips. We descended upon and devoured it like a ring of feeding hyenas. I asked Bernie for the recipe—we all did—and she agreed to give it to me for my column only if I acknowledged that she originally got the recipe from Taylor Smith, marketing director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, where Bernie serves as a board member.

You don’t have to like dirty martinis to enjoy this dip. And it does not contain booze, just creamy, packed-with-flavor goodness.

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
  • 3/4 cup pimiento stuffed green olives, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive juice
  • ¼ teaspoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder

In a large mixing bowl, combine the softened cream cheese, sour cream, olive juice, onion powder, garlic powder, and half of the blue cheese. Use a hand mixer on medium speed to fully combine the ingredients.

Stir in the chopped olives and remaining blue cheese by hand. (Bernie garnished her dip with several green olives on a small skewer.)

Transfer the dip to a serving bowl, surround it with your favorite dippers, and enjoy!

Serves ten to twelve as an appetizer.

Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at

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