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Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal

Michael Maher

These pro food styling tips are the secret to cooking up delicious-looking video of the perfect holiday meal. Just remember not to eat the food!

Top image via Brooke Lark

RocketJump Film School put together a great piece on food styling, specifically for putting together a picture-perfect Thanksgiving dinner. It’s stuffed with tons of great food styling tips and tricks used by the pros. If your goal is capturing the ideal holiday meal on video (perhaps for Instagram glory), then you’re going to eat this up. Jump to the 3:30 mark to see how the food is put together for camera.

Food Styling: Tools of the Trade

If you’re looking to create the illusion of the perfect looking dinner, here are some must-have tools to work like a professional food stylist — most of which you likely already own!

  • Tweezers
  • T-pins
  • Paint brushes
  • Makeup brushes
  • Super glue
  • Small scissors
  • Paper towels
  • Sharp knives
  • Offset spatula
  • Heat gun
  • Cotton balls/Tampons
  • Hair spray

Craft a Camera-Ready Perfect Turkey

Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal: The Turkey
Image via Shutterstock

Most traditional holiday meals start with a nice, big, juicy turkey — or maybe it just looks that way. The on-camera turkey is, in fact, barely cooked.

In the above video, the RocketJump team started by using super glue to cover up any imperfections in the skin before gluing the wings into a fixed position. Then, a series of T-pins were placed to pin the skin down to prevent it from moving while in the oven. The turkey was then glazed in vegetable oil and “cooked” in the oven at 350-degrees for approximately thirty minutes.

While they turkey was in the oven, they created some browning liquid — a concoction used in a variety of food styling techniques. Here’s there recipe:

Make Your Own Browning Liquid 

  • 10 parts Angostura Bitters
  • 1 part Kitchen Bouquet
  • 2-3 drops of yellow food coloring
  • 2-3 drops of clear dishwashing liquid soap (to help the mixture stick to the turkey)

Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal: Painting the Turkey

After thirty minutes, pull the turkey from the oven. Start applying the browning liquid while the turkey is warm, as it will roll off if the bird is too cool. Use paint brushes to apply the browning liquid — each additional coat will make the turkey darker. For a garnished turkey, sprinkle a dry herb mixture and then add another coat of liquid to make it look baked in. Finally, dress your bird with some lettuce, cranberries, and other festive arrangements.

Sides Dishes

Now that you have a main dish ready, you’ll want to have a few à la carte items. For this meal, the team opted for some green beans and mashed potatoes.

Styling Green Beans for Camera

Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal: Spray the Green Beans

Look for fresh green beans with a good shape and color. Blanch them in unsalted boiling water in small batches for 1-3 minutes and then immediately shock them in ice water. Place them on a paper towel to dry. Arrange the green beans on a plate with the nicer looking ones up front and on top. To get that nice glistening look, spray the green beans with hair spray. Hair spray is great for all sorts of greens, including garnish, lettuce, and salads.

If you want to add some butter on top, opt for a stick of margarine. It’s a stronger yellow and holds its shape longer. Place a square of margarine on top of your sides, then use a heat gun (on a low setting) to slightly melt the square. If you don’t have a heat gun, hold a hot metal spatula above the the margarine. Don’t heat the margarine until you’re ready to shoot.

Mashed Potatoes: The Ultimate Food Styling Tool

Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal: Mashed Potatoes

For a side of mashed potatoes in a dish, the RocketJumpers first filled the dish about 3/4 of the way with clear gelatin. If you have time to make and refrigerate gelatin, this is a great tool. If you don’t have time, you can use styrofoam — similar to they kind used in artificial plant pots.

Ironically, actual mashed potatoes are frequently used by food stylists. Whenever you see a large bowl with any type of dish, there’s a good chance the bottom of the bowl is full of mashed potatoes. They are very malleable and easy to work with, plus they don’t really show on camera — unless you want them too.

As a side dish, you’ll see them place scoops of mashed potatoes on top of the gelatin. This makes it appear like there’s much more food in the dish. You can also push the mashed potatoes to one side for extra height. The empty space you create will actually come in handy when you need to add in steam. Before that, finish styling your mashed potatoes by adding some salt, pepper, and even a few green onions for color. You can use tweezers to ideally place the large seasonings. You can also add margarine as discussed above.

To add steam to a dish, you can use quite a few tools. On the more expensive end, you can use a clothing steamer hidden behind the dish. For a cheaper alternative, place some cotton balls, sponges, or tampons in a bowl of water. Then microwave the bowl for a couple minutes. Pull the cotton balls or tampons out of the bowl and hide them behind your dish — instant steam.

If you have plenty of mashed potatoes to work with, they’re also great for a variety of other dishes. With some food coloring, mashed potatoes can stand in for ice cream. They’re also used to add bulk to foods like burritos or injected into meats to make them look plump. Mashed potatoes can also be baked into pies and cakes to give them a strong interior and foundation.

Pumpkin Pie

Food Styling Tips for Capturing the Ideal Holiday Meal: Pumpkin Pie

Finally, you’ll want to capture a slice of something nice — like a piece of pumpkin pie. We previously mentioned that pies can be stuffed with mashed potatoes to help them keep their shape. If you want to add a dollop of whipped cream, you’ll need to keep the topping refrigerated. Of course, even if you do, it will melt quickly under camera lights. For a better option, try a can of shaving cream. In the video, they used Barbasol — which let them make several different toppers before moving the best one to the pie. Finally, apply some soy sauce or Kitchen Bouquet to darken the crust.

Ever tried to style food for a photo or video shoot? Share your experiences and tips in the comments below!