Sometimes the dinner plate is just boring. A beige canvas of mashed potatoes, brown gravy and a gray, nondescript meat doesn't activate the salivary glands - or satisfy your daily nutritional needs.
The good news is that making your meal look and taste more appetizing is simple. Adding color with healthful ingredients and boosting the flavor with simple ingredients can make a bland meal pop on the plate, says Bellingham personal chef Claire Niland Dunn, the owner of Cuisine Claire.
It's easy to find beautiful, nutritious food in Whatcom County, Niland Dunn says, with great farmers markets, grocery stores and a treasure trove of fruit and vegetable farmers. The key is making sure your meal is appealing when you serve it.
OFFSET APPETITE LOSS
As people age their senses can decline. Even slight declines in taste and smell can affect a person's appetite and lead to malnourishment, which can cause health problems.
Medications, medical issues such as dementia, and other health problems also can affect appetite and the sense of taste, according to the National Institutes of Health. Seniors and their caregivers should bring up eating habits with their doctor if any changes occur.
Niland Dunn says a portion of her business is making one- or two-person prepared meals for seniors who have health issues or who are recovering from illness or surgery. It's important, she says, to make the food not only nutritious, but also good-looking enough stimulate the senses if someone is struggling with poor appetite.
GO WITH GARNISHES
Leave that wilted piece of curly parsley and spiced apple ring off the corner of your plate. Today, garnishes such as herbs, flavored oils and sauces are meant to be incorporated into the dish.
A simple tablespoon of chopped, flat Italian parsley not only brings brightness to the drabbest meals, it's also rich in calcium and anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Niland Dunn says she adds fresh herbs to many meals to add both flavor and color. Basil, tarragon, rosemary and thyme all add some green to the plate.
Sauces like a bright-green pesto or a pureed, roasted red pepper can be added to a simple chicken breast or minestrone for a burst of flavor and a colorful addition.
Niland Dunn also adds herbs and shallots to butter in a mixer or food processor. She rolls it into a cylinder shape and freezes it, then puts a coin-shaped slice on a steak, where it melts into its own sauce.
Don't be afraid to add colorful vegetables to your starches. Niland Dunn says one of her favorite side dishes is roasted potatoes. But she adds purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots or winter squash to make the meal more colorful.
Grated or chopped vegetables can be added to brown rice, quinoa or other grains. And cooking those grains in stock increases the flavor even more.
A simple chicken breast or pork loin or steak can be served on greens that are not only a garnish on the plate. Some baby spinach or arugula wilt slightly under the heat of the meat, adding another layer of color and vegetables to a meal, she says.
For a pasta dish, delicate bitter greens such as Swiss chard, spinach, dandelion greens or arugula can be tossed with hot pasta and some garlic-infused olive oil for a simple dish with more interest. The hot pasta wilts the greens slightly, so no additional cooking is necessary, Niland Dunn says. Top the pasta with grated Parmesan.
INFUSE FLAVOR WITH OILS, CITRUS
Flavored oils are an easy way to get a two-fer when cooking. Look for garlic-, lemon- or herb-infused oils in a grocery or specialty store. Vegetables such as peppers, zucchini and eggplant can be sautéed or roasted in the infused oils, particularly if a diner's taste buds need some extra flavor to bring them to the table.
A garnish of citrus zest, such as lemon, lime, orange or even grapefruit, across a piece of chicken that's been marinated in citrus juice or atop some brown rice, adds flavor and color, she says. Niland Dunn is also a fan of reduced chicken, beef or vegetable stocks for deeper flavors in sauces and gravies.
COLOR COORDINATE YOUR PLATES
There's no right color for your plates to make you eat either more or less. But the contrast of the plate color to your food counts when it comes to portion size.
A study released last year by the Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab found that people whose food and plate were similarly colored - such as Alfredo pasta on a white plate - ate nearly 25 percent more food than someone who used a contrasting color plate. The contrasting colors helped diners visualize the size of the helping of food more easily.
The idea can be helpful for people trying to increase their portion sizes, or for those trying to lose weight. Then again, if you're trying to add more leafy greens to your diet, a green plate might be just what the dietician ordered.
FOR EYE APPEAL, EAT HEALTHY
For Niland Dunn, whole grains, multicolored vegetables and lean meats are the easiest foods to add color and texture to a plate. So eating healthier is more visually appealing.
She likes to add color with vegetables, using graters and mandolin slicers for items like carrots, which can be cut into coins, matchsticks or grated. She suggests getting over your boredom with a vegetable by simply cutting it differently.
"A lot of people don't like beets, but they'll eat a grated beet salad with a vinaigrette," she says.
Niland Dunn also likes to add vegetables to the grill, even cauliflower, which she cuts into slices like a steak.
"There's something about grill marks that always makes food look good," she says.
The best part about eating more vegetables and grains is that you get more food for the same calories, Niland Dunn says.
"There's literally more food there," she says.
Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.