There are no hard and fast rules to determine how a dish is to be plated, but there are standards and guidelines that have been proven to work. Balance is the key element to success in the creation of any dish and that element applies to many areas of the plating process as well.
Achieving Balance: Proteins, Starches and Vegetables
One primary consideration when putting together a dish is nutritional balance. It has long been stated that a nutritionally balanced plate contains a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. As nutritional guidelines change and the understanding of the human body becomes more refined, dietary recommendations have become more specific. The old standard of protein, vegetable, and starch has been broken down further to emphasize lean cuts of meat, starches that are high in fiber, and vegetables that are prepared in a way that does not diminish their nutritive value. Until recently, protein was believed to be the most important part of a dish and should therefore be the predominant component--making up 50 percent of the overall plate. That belief has shifted, however, and recommendations today are that vegetables and whole grains should predominate with protein coming in much smaller portions.
Consider Taste and Texture
When it comes to plating, texture and taste are each important to consider. A well balanced dish might feature one main flavor, but that should be complemented by other flavors that are intended to accent and enhance. If you are serving a spicy dish such as curry, for example, it would be good to balance it out with something that cools the mouth, like yogurt and perhaps something neutral to balance out the spice, such as rice. Texture is another component to factor in and a well thought out dish has more than one texture. The multiple textures in a dish should play off of and enhance each other. A smooth, creamy soup accompanied by crispy crackers is a good example of this.
Pretty Plating Pays Off
Visual appeal is another thing to consider. A good chef envisions how a dish is going to be plated long before the food actually gets to the plate. Some chefs go so far as to make a sketch of a dish when they begin to conceptualize it, which assists them in determining what is needed to make a dish visually enticing. How food is placed on the plate greatly influences how the dish is received by the diner. A plate of food should look full and satisfying, but should never appear overflowing or sloppy. Leaving a little bit of space between items helps a plate to look clean and uncluttered. In addition to the spacing of the food, the height of various items on a plate can offer some nice visual appeal. Giant towers of food are overly contrived and impossible to navigate. Flat, one dimensional plates are boring and offer little in the way of appeal. Once again the concept of balance comes into play and it might be a good idea to have certain items on a plate mounded higher or molded into shapes in order to offer contrast to other items the a plate.
When balance, based on nutrition; flavor; texture; and appearance is factored into the creation of a dish, you are presenting a plate of food that is appealing to the diner from all angles.