How to make your drab meal look fab

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In the land of hot dish, long winters, and food on a stick — what we eat can begin to look as monochromatic as a box of potato flakes and frozen cauliflower (more about this later).

First impressions for many rely upon the light that is reflected off our food, transmitted through our optic nerve into our brain, and decoded.

While I can’t speak for you, when preparing a meal for family, friends, or neighbors, I am NOT attempting to inspire the flight response once eaters get a look at what I’m serving.

As a parent, I have seen the kiddo flight response to almost anything that resembles a one pot meal — chili, puréed soups, migas, frittatas and egg scrambles, and even pasta (cue the Psycho shower music).

So, whether your meal preparation is weeknight dinners, weekend entertaining, or tried-and-true comforts — we’ve put together some tips for making them less drab and more fab.

Garnish Green

Specifically, the green part of green onions (or spring onions or scallions) are my go-to favorite. Available year round, these beauties look great on mashed potatoes, chili, scrambled eggs, quesadillas and more.

The way you slice them also matters — you can go for the straight-up circles or angle cut and vary the length of the slice according to the dish. My unwritten rule is: for heartier soups or stews, go big; for lighter dishes, sprinkle small.

In the summer, grab a fistful of chives for the same effect. But don’t let their size fool you — chives can be packed with flavor.

Another green go-to is parsley and cilantro depending on the direction of the dish. Always available and although probably not chef-approved, I chop stems and all, or pull of a sprig or two for effect. Big-leaf herbs like basil can also be used full-leafed, chopped, or thinly sliced (chiffonade) to create a beautiful nest of green

Frozen Fix Ups

Other lackluster dishes that can use a little flare are frozen entrées and pizzas. Take plain cheese and dress up your ZA before or after you bake for dramatically different dining experiences. Favorites can be chosen by flavor or color or both and the possibilities are endless.

Pre-bake, here are a few at the top(pings) of my list:

  • Thinly sliced fresh tomato, zucchini, summer squash, Japanese eggplant or mushrooms of any or all kinds;
  • Dusting or crumbles of extra cheese in the refrigerator like Parmesan, bleu, feta, or Asiago;
  • Thick slices of brie or goat cheese rounds
  • Strips of red, yellow, green, or orange peppers tossed in a spoonful of pesto
  • Chopped fresh kale, tossed with a light drizzle of olive oil

Post-bake, some of the same toppers apply, but my recommendation is to try out dressed greens  with a little more vinegar than oil to combat the cheesy richness. Test out red wine vinegar, smashed garlic, as a base or go super simple with just a bit of salt and vinegar.

Color cues

When in doubt, take a look at the color wheel and mix and match. Let’s start with color opposites and do a rainbow of options — remember ROY G BIV for naming all of the colors — Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet

Garnishes and toppings:

Red pepper — top together with green pepper, green onion, greens in general

Roasting

Butternut squash (actually orange) — roast with, well, not actually any blue foods, so a close neighbor would be purple veggies like eggplant, purple onion, or purple carrots

Pasta

Fresh yellow sweet corn — meet squid ink pasta or purple potato salad — or invest in some blue crab when in season.

Risotto

Roasted red (think deep red velvet cake) beets, pureed and generously added to a basic risotto in winter or just a touch with a bit of cream in springtime.

Grilling and sautés

Red onion (actually purple) — grill or sauté yellow squash, fresh sweet corn, yellow pepper or pineapple chunks

The sky is truly the limit and the inspiration (after a rain of course!)

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Sarah Steil is a Minnesotan by way of Denver, CO and hails from the metropolis of Algona, IA (once home to the world’s largest Cheeto). Sarah puts her visual and communication nose to the design and brand grindstone each day as founder of a local brand and design agency.