How to Style Your Restaurant’s Food for Instagram

By Katie McCann

Person photographing a styled food dish

The saying “you eat first with your eyes” has only gotten more true with time.

As social media use continues to rise, so has the standard for food. It can’t just taste good. It also has to look good. 

Following this trend, food Instagram has grown as well. Foodie accounts decorated with rainbow bagels and latte art are a dime a dozen, and restaurants are pumping out eye-catching food creations to try and grab your attention as you scroll. 

So the big question for restaurant owner is, “How do I make my food look good on Instagram?” 

Anybody can take a picture of their food, but making it look delicious enough for somebody to check out your restaurant is a little trickier. Luckily, we have some food Instagram tips to make sure your dish looks as good as it tastes.  

Hopping on the Insta Bandwagon

Like any skill, taking great pictures and writing engaging captions will take some practice, but it is worth putting in the time.

Why? When used properly, Instagram can expose you to new customers and keep you connected to returning guests.

Your target demographic is most likely on Instagram, which means they’re already engaged with what they’re seeing. Instagram is not only one of the most popular social networks, but also has one of the highest engagements rates – including engagement with business accounts.

Up to 80% of active Instagram users follow business accounts on Instagram and 60% have heard about a new product or service using the platform.

For millennials, 69% are taking pictures of their food and posting before they eat. Just a millennial trend? Not so fast. The same goes for close to half of diners ages 35 to 49. If the food on your Instagram is full of mouth-watering dishes they can photograph and enjoy, you’re more likely to make the list of places they want to try.

That’s why you need to include Instagram in your marketing plan. The smallest thing can help diners choose you instead of a competitor, so start with having your Instagram active with regular updates. Once you’ve got into the flow of posting regularly, focus on boosting the quality.

Who’s Posting What?

Photographing coffee and pastry with smartphone

Before you start posting, revisit your brand strategy and decide how you want to portray that through Instagram photos. Is your restaurant a fun, family burger joint? Maybe having all black and white imagery on your Instagram isn’t the best idea. Flesh out your restaurant’s personality and use that to influence your content.  

Once you know what you want to post, consider who is posting.

You may not want every employee having free reign of what goes up on your page. Pick a few trusted team members and review your social media strategy with them, so you’re confident that what they post will line up with your brand. By limiting who has access, you’re also limiting the chance of mistakes being made on your profile. 

If you’re completely uncomfortable with staff posting photos or content on their own, use a social media management software like SproutSocial or Hootsuite. You can pre-populate the images and captions you want posted ahead of time, or if you have other staff adding posts to your account and have them set the post to need admin approval. This way, you don’t have to do all the posting manually, but you’re still in control of the content going out.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much #Posting?

According to Buffer, most major brands share one to two posts per day.

This doesn’t mean you have to post that often if the content isn’t there. Some brands posted three to four times a week, while others have updates as often as as 10 times a day

When deciding how often you should post, there are a couple key points you’ll want to consider:

  1. Is the frequency sustainable for you? As mentioned above, try to pick a standard that you’re able to maintain. Don’t aim to post twice a day if you don’t have enough content.
  2. When are you posting? Once you’ve decided how often to post, decide what times. The best times to post on Instagram for engagement are 8am, 1pm, and 9pm. Start with focusing on these times and make adjustment as you notice patterns with your audience patterns. If you notice your posts at 1pm get a lot of engagement, but nothing at 8am, adjust! It’s all about what works best for your business. 

Also, focus your posting schedule around some recurring themes, like every Tuesday post a picture of your mouth-watering tacos or every Wednesday feature your Hump Day treats. This gives your followers something consistent to look forward to and something you can prepare for every week, because you know what’s coming.   

Getting Your Customers Involved

Photographing chimney cakes for instagram

Like we’ve talked about previous, the first and most obvious step to using your food on Instagram as a marketing tool is to be more active. This way people have something to engage with.

Posting content regularly also sets a precedent, gives customers something to get on board with when it comes to their own posts. They’ll be more likely to post an image or story and tag you when they come eat (helping you advertise in the process).

Encourage this organic sharing by placing your social media details around the restaurant, so it’s easy for diners to share and tag you when they get that perfect shot. Consider placing these details directly on your menu or on a display near the entrance. Don’t make them search for it. 

You can also encourage diners to share posts of your food on Instagram by offering free wifi in your restaurant. You can even go one step further and set up your wifi with social media login which makes it even easier to connect on Instagram. This way you can promote your own social channels serving up a reminder that diners can engage with you on Instagram without using up their data.

Also, don’t forget to engage with what your customers are posting. If you see a story you’re mentioned in, share it on your own Instagram story. If you’re tagged in a photo, comment on it.

This activity not only shows your audience you’re engaged, but also improves their experience and shows your appreciation. Plus – bonus! – people sharing your food on their Instagram accounts is essentially giving all their followers the thumbs-up on your restaurant and a sneak peek at your menu. 

Now that you’re armed with why your food Instagram is a key player in your restaurant’s marketing plan, let’s move on to the fun stuff – the how.

Check out our six tips on what makes a photo great, so you can style your food for its Insta debut.

Getting The Perfect Shot

1. Find Your Subject

Just because something tastes good, doesn’t mean it photographs well.

Your food Instagram is all about featuring the dishes that look great. Consider what dishes on your menu have colors or textures that could really pop on camera.

Here are some tips:

  • Primary colors are hard to shoot. Try to avoid pure reds, blues, and yellows in the background, food, or drink.
  • Use the color wheel to reference background color for your food and embrace contrast. Orange and turquoise are opposite on the wheel, so a dish with orange undertones will really pop on a turquoise background!
  • Mix and match your textures. The contrast will add dimension to your photos. 

Just take Black Tap in New York City, who rose to Instagram fame with their milkshake masterpieces. The fact that they’re so fun to photograph is what made them burst in popularity, but because they’re also delicious keeps people coming back. 

Row of colorful milkshakes styled for instagram

Black Tap Instagram 

2. Plate with Love 

Now that you know what dish you’re going to photograph, you need to make that dish with some extra TLC.

It’s not normally a big deal when a dish is plated unevenly or has some sauce splattered where it shouldn’t. But Instagram photos, it matters.

Maybe you need to plate differently (maybe even a smaller portion to make it all fit) or wipe the edges of the dish to make sure the dish looks sharp, but those minor details will make a big difference on your feeds.

You can almost see how carefully Food Dudes plated this delicious dessert from the image, down to every crumb.

Slices of chocolate cake styled for instagram

The Food Dudes

3. Embrace Your Space

Think about your whole space and how it can be adjusted just a bit for more appealing food Instagram photos – for both and your customers.

Add a cool neon sign people can take pictures of, floor tiles that make a great backdrop, or pops of color on the walls – these are all touches that can elevate your food Instagram’s popularity.

If you’re looking for the best restaurant Instagram to get the tips and tricks from, look no further than Pietro Nolita in New York City. Pietro Nolita turned the whole restaurant into their signature pink. Their store entrance is an Instagram post waiting to happen.

Person seated in front of pink, painted storefront

The Whole World Is A Playground

4. Lights, Camera, Action!

You’ve found the perfect dish. It’s been plated with the utmost care and placed in your photo-friendly space. Now that you’re putting your best dish forward, it’s time to capture the picture. 

You’re going to want to try to get your dishes in natural lighting as often as possible. Fake lighting can create an orange or yellow shadow on your images, while natural lighting is more neutral, avoiding the tinge of unwanted color to your images. 

If you’re photographing indoors, we have some tips on how to mimic that natural light and capture the perfect shot:

  • Photograph near an open window to let that natural light in.
  • Turn off harsh overhead lights where you can.
  • Use reflectors to bounce natural light back onto the dish your photographing.
  • Find a white backdrop – it brings out the light!

5. Change Up Your Angles

The wrong angle can ruin a picture, even if you capture perfect lighting on the perfect dish.

Be mindful of what your food is before you decide what angle to capture it at. For example, photographing a cocktail is going to look great from the side. You’ll capture the details of glassware and the delicious drink in it. If you capture a soup from the side, you’re just going to see a bowl instead of what’s in it. Be strategic with the angles!

Check out how The Peached Tortilla captures their food at different angles to highlight the dish. An awesome picture from above of their soup features the delicious stuff in the dish, instead of just a picture of the bowl holding the dish. Use your angles to really showcase your dishes. 

Bowl of soup styled for instagram

The Peached Tortilla

6. Feature Your Customers

Give your Instagram food photos a splash of life by featuring your customers enjoying your food.

If it’s in the budget, bring a photographer in to take some pictures professionally. If that’s a little out of your price range, try taking your own pictures or just sharing the photos your customers post to add a touch of life to your feed without the additional cost.

After catering a wedding, Kelly’s Bake Shoppe shared this sweet shot of a happy couple sharing their cupcakes. The food may not be front and center, but the good feelings associated with the couple enjoying the treats – and by extension your brand – sure are the focal point. 

Bride and groom in front of dessert table

Kelly’s Bake Shoppe

It can be overwhelming to add another thing to do your to-do list, but food Instagram is an area of marketing where a little strategy goes a long way. You’re proud of the food you create at your restaurant. This is another chance for you to show it off with your best foot – and photo – forward. 

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Photo of Katie McCann
by Katie McCann

Katie is a former Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro where she writes about food and restaurant experiences. She doesn’t shy away from the finer things in life, but no matter how much success she continues to acquire, she stays true to her roots and still considers imitation crab as gourmet. If she isn’t writing, you can find her on a patio with friends and a pitcher of white wine sangria.

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