Presentation may be everything in getting people to eat healthier, according to a new study. While arranging food on a plate into artsy, decorative patterns and shapes is nearly exclusive to finer dining establishments, doing so for an everyday plate of food may influence people to think it tastes better, even if the plate is full of nutritious foods.

“I’m very happy that chefs are now looking at things like this, because people eat out more and more, so to have chefs being aware that what they do may have a long lasting effect on people’s food choices is a good thing,” lead study author Debra Zellner, a researcher and professor at the psychology department of Montclair State University in New Jersey, told Reuters. “Chefs have all these ideas of what they should be doing and how they should be doing it — and they believe it matters to the consumer — but there’s no data. So they were really interested in doing something.”

In culinary school, many chefs learn the ins and outs of presentation. Many, if not all of them are judged not only by the flavor and consistency of their food — among many other things — but also on how they present it on a plate. Techniques, such a creating contrast between the foods colors, using an odd number of ingredients to “frame” a particular one, and searing the food to add markings adds concept and creativity, making the eating experience more enjoyable for the consumer.

Zellner and her colleagues tested how effective these plating techniques were in getting a group of 91 diners, ages 20 to 74, to enjoy eating their dinner — and a healthy one, at that. The diners were split into two groups, both of which ate the same foods for dinner — sautéed chicken breast, brown rice pilaf, and string beans with almonds — however, the first group was given the food in a regular way, with the sautéed sauce and chicken on one half of the plate, and the rice and string beans on the other half, next to each other. The second night, diners ate the same foods arranged in a spiraling pattern, with the sautéed sauce drizzled around the perimeter.

Prior to eating and once they were done, the diners filled out questionnaires where they rated the food’s appearance and likability, while also having the opportunity to write notes about the food. Although both plates were rated as “neat” the one with the spiraled food was rated as more “attractive,” and the brown rice and chicken on it was rated as better than those on the more traditional plate — the ratings for green beans didn’t differ between the plates.

Of all the foods, surprisingly, the brown rice got the most comments, with more of them being positive than negative. “Trying to get people to eat brown rice, as opposed to white rice, is a struggle sometimes,” Zellner told Reuters. “So it’s encouraging that if presented in a very attractive way, you might get people to eat things they normally wouldn’t, and that are actually healthy.”

For people who want to try eating healthier, or who want their kids to eat healthier, learning to present food on a plate isn’t difficult, Zellner said. Simply using nice plates, and taking a little extra time to arrange food on them could make all the difference. Still, it’s not all about presentation. Simply eating from smaller dishes could alter the way people eat, as they perceive there to be more food. A third tactic, eating from a red plate, has also been shown to reduce appetite.

Source: Zellner D, Loss C, Zearfoss J, et al. It tastes as good as it looks! The effect of food presentation on liking for the flavor of food. Appetite. 2014.