Elegant holiday meal planning: Tips to create an eye-catching holiday feast

Dec 10, 2010 at 7:06 p.m. ET

Looking to impress your holiday guests but not looking forward to spending a fortune on pricey holiday dinnerware and expensive ingredients for the festive feast? Good news – you can spend little and still dazzle your friends and family with the following holiday food styling tips from the experts at ShopSmart, a magazine from Consumers Union, who also publishes Consumer Reports.

Christmas dinner tablescape

Secrets from professional food stylists

A new guide in the December 2010 issue of ShopSmart, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, gives the dish on surprisingly simple – and budget-friendly – ways to turn your ordinary holiday meal into an extraordinary eye-catching feast. "Professional food stylists have their secrets to creating those glistening roasts and perfect pie wedges we see in TV ads and magazines. This month ShopSmart reveals their secrets just in time for the holidays," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. "The biggest surprise is that many of the tools you'll need to create gorgeous dishes and table settings are already in your closets and cupboards.".

Cheap and easy tips for an elegant holiday meal

1Build a showstopping tablescape

Garner interest at your holiday buffet by using footed serving pieces to display your holiday dishes at different heights. For example, use a cake stand to serve dinner rolls or fill a trifle bowl with a salad. You can also arrange serving platters on overturned bowls. Instead of using plain old bowls to serve finger foods, such as nuts or breadsticks, utilize the elegance of wine glasses or champagne flutes.

2Improvise with creative table linens

Traditional table linens can drain your wallet, so call on your creative side while strolling through your local fabric store. Consider eye-catching fabric remnants, on-sale curtain panels or bed covers. Create an elaborate tablescape by including garlands, ribbons, bows, or even a scarf or shawl from your own closet. The more unique, the more impressed your guests will be.

3Bring nature in

Place evergreen branches, pinecones, acorns, or colorful leaves on your tabletop to give your holiday meal a natural flair. To add glitz, spray-paint branches and pinecones with white or silver. Be sure to display fresh pomegranates, cranberries or other winter fruit in glass bowls.

4Make the holiday entrée even more appealing

No one is going to turn down a bite of roasted meat or turkey, but you can make your holiday centerpiece even more irresistible with a little oil and fresh herbs. Brush a roast with a mix of olive oil, pepper, and chopped herbs about 5 minutes before it has finished cooking to add flavor and a gorgeous sheen. For turkeys, brush the skin with butter as it roasts for a nice, burnished crust. Slide rosemary or sage sprigs under the skin of the turkey breast before roasting. As the turkey cooks, the herbs' silhouette shows through the skin.

5Make great garnishes

One of the reasons restaurant meals always seem so much more gourmet is the chef's knack at food styling and garnishing. Pears, kumquats, and apples effortlessly dress up ham, cheese boards, and individual plates. Simply cut fruit in half, brush lightly with cooking oil, and sprinkle with sugar. Also, you can sear lemon or orange slices on a grill pan until lightly charred (as a bonus, heated citrus is more aromatic) to make a pretty garnish for whole fish or poultry. A sprinkling of finely chopped fresh herbs across the rim of a plate is also a nice touch.

6Dress up desserts

The sweet finale of your holiday meal is the last bite your holiday guests will take. Make it mouthwateringly memorable with gorgeous presentation. To make perfect wedges of pie, place the whole pie in the freezer until it chills, or about 10 minutes. Then cut clean wedges using a sharp knife, and bring to room temperature before serving. For a glossy pie crust, remove the pie from the oven 10 minutes early, brush the top with cream, sprinkle on coarse sugar, and finish baking. Garnish desserts with fresh whipped cream, dustings of cocoa or cinnamon, and, if complementary, fresh mint sprigs. Simple and cheap elegance.

For more quick and inexpensive tips to spice up your holiday table, check out the December 2010 issue of ShopSmart or visit ShopSmartMag.org.

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