Photo: Katherine Flynn; Prop Styling: Hannah Burkhalter

Try using food for fresh, updated holiday table decor. From the centerpiece, to place settings, to garland, you can incorporate the natural colors and flavor of winter with these simple decorations.

Hannah Burkhalter, MS, RD
December 15, 2016

Food itself is a central theme during the holidays. Apart from baked goods and dinner parities, food has a place in the celebration of the holiday season. Winter citrus, apple cider, cranberry, ginger, and other spices are all iconic flavors associated with wintertime. When eaten in another season, these flavors have the ability to carry you back to Christmas in past years. If these foods and flavors capture the essence of winter so well, why not bring them to the table before dinner is served?

That’s right—the secret to a quick and easy, yet gorgeous holiday table is in fact your local grocery store. Creating a show-stopping holiday centerpiece is as simple as picking up a few extra items when you shop for dinner’s ingredients. Sure, you could go to the floral shop and buy a centerpiece or use the nutcrackers that you got last year, but the idea of using food as decor is too easy and naturally beautiful to pass up. There is something fresh and inviting about the color and purity of winter’s harvest arranged on the table.

Welcome your family and guests with a  centerpiece of greenery, pomegranate, and citrus; or a simple, elegant place setting with herbs and cinnamon. Whatever you decide, your holiday table will be flawless with these food decor ideas:

Photo: Katherine Flynn

Decorate Each Place Setting

Use Rosemary and Cinnamon for a Napkin Holder

You will need:

  • rosemary twigs (you can buy from the store, or ask neighbors to see if any still have blooming shrubs)
  • cinnamon sticks
  • craft twine

Layer a full sprig of rosemary for length and a cinnamon stick on the center of a folded napkin. Wrap twine around the napkin to hold the rosemary and cinnamon in place. You can also use sage for a softer green or cut a small piece of greenery (like from your Christmas tree or wreaths) for a bright contrast against the cinnamon. Raffia or jute twine are also great, inexpensive options for natural-colored ties. Add a nametag for a personalized touch.

Photo: Katherine Flynn

Place a Satsuma in Each Plate Center

You will need:

  • Satsuma ot tangerine with leaves attached 
  • Optional nametag 

Adorn each plate with a "place-saver" such as whole satsuma or tangerine to add brightness and flair to each place setting. You could use any seasonal fruit really. Apples, pears, and even lemons would make great place settings. You can include a small nametag or menu card beside the fruit, if desired. For a less expensive option, use a sprig of rosemary or greenery instead of a whole fruit. 

You could also place a small bowl on top of each napkin and fill it with walnuts, pecans, or roasted chestnuts. Guests can munch on these nuts between courses.

Photo: Katherine Flynn

Create a Bountiful Centerpiece

Layer Greenery, Fruit, Nuts, and Cinnamon Sticks for a Full Look

You will need:

  • greenery 
  • assorted winter fruits such as pomegranates, mini apples, tangerines, persimmons, oranges, and cranberries
  • small add-ons such as hazelnuts, chesnuts, and cinnamon sticks

We chose a simple greenery bouquet from Whole Foods Market to create our centerpiece's base. Cut the long stems of the greenery to make it more manageable while arranging. After you have made a green base, add larger pieces of fruit to create a basic design. Next, sprinkle in the smaller add-ons, like the nuts and cinnamon sticks, to fill empty space. You can cut the pomegranate into sections or dry orange slices (see directions bellow) to add texture to the centerpiece. While arranging, don't worry about over crowding or exact placement. This centerpiece is about the color, fullness, and natural beauty of the food.

If guests ask if the centerpiece is edible, let them snack away. Ultimately you will reuse all the foods, so if a guests wants to bite into an apple after dessert, let them. It's part of the fun of decorating with food!

Add Height with a Tall, Slender Glass Jar or Cake Stand

Photo: Hannah Burkhalter; Prop Styling: Katherine Flynn

You will need:

  • glass jar(s)
  • cake stand(s)
  • hazelnuts, chestnuts, or walnuts
  • cranberries

Add height to your bountiful centerpiece with glass jars or cake stands. Fill a few jars with a mixture of hazelnuts and cranberries for a warm, festive touch. If you want to use multiple glass jars, use jars of various sizes and mix up the contents. Create a mini centerpiece-style presentation on the cake stand's top. You can use several cake stands of varying sizes, too.

Keep in mind: Tall objects can block the view of guests sitting across from one another. Keep everything 12 inches or shorter so everyone around the table can chat without obstruction.

Use a Glass Bowl of Clementines for a Pop of Color

Photo: Katherine Flynn; Prop Styling: Hannah Burkhalter

You will need:

  • clementines or small oranges
  • whole cloves
  • cinnamon and/or hazelnuts
  • wide-mouth glass jars or bowls

Insert whole cloves into the clementines by gently pressing them into the surface of the fruit. The look is rustic and the smell is divine. Fill a large, clear jar or bowl with the clove-studded clementines for height and color. Group a larger bowl or vase with two smaller jars filled half way with hazelnuts and cinnamon sticks on either side. This centerpiece pairs well with neutral flatware and simple greenery at each place setting.

Outline Vases and Bowls with an Herb "Wreath"

Photo: Katherine Flynn

You will need:

  • rosemary
  • sage
  • cranberries

Add instant holiday style to your food-inspired centerpiece by adding a rosemary and sage "wreath" around your decor. If you have some greenery from a tree or wreath, you can use it here too Simply layer the herbs in a circle at the base of your bowls or vases. Sprinkle cranberries on the greenery for a classic holiday look.

Photo: Hannah Burkhalter

Make a Garland  

For a simple orange garland, you will need:

  • large, just-ripe oranges
  • jute twine
  • upholstery needles

To make dried orange rounds, evenly slice your oranges into 1/4 inch-thick slices. Press each slice between paper towels to relieve moisture. Place slices on an oven-safe drying rack on a baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 200°F and dry the slices for 3 to 4 hours. They should be fragrant and visibly darker and dry when finished. Insert a long twine string into the eye of an upholstery needle. Use the needle to pierce the slices through their natural center. To create equal distance between the slices, tie a knot around each orange so that they do not slide. Repeat until garland reaches desired length. 

Hang the garland across a mantel or buffet, or change things up and hang several garlands vertically across a mirror or window. You can even use the garland to decorate the table. Spread your garlands loosely across the table to add to your centerpiece.

For a cranberry-range garland, you will need:

  • dried orange slices (see above)
  • cranberries
  • rosemary sprigs
  • thick thread or twine
  • upholstery needle

Thread your sewing needle with a neutral-colored heavy-duty thread, and make a knot at the end. We tied our knot 3 times to ensure that the garland would be secure. String 4 to 5 cranberries, followed by a short rosemary sprig and an orange slice. String each sprig of rosemary at the stem. If your orange slices are dry enough, the flesh shouldn't rip with the orange is strung. Repeat the pattern until the garland reaches the desired length. 

The best part about using food as decoration is that you can use it again when cooking later! Rather than tossing your decor, make Beef Filets with Pomegranate Pinot SauceSatsuma Orange Cheesecake, Pan-Grilled Chicken with Cranberry Salsa, Fettuccine with Mushroom and Hazelnuts, or use the cinnamon sticks in a holiday cider. Happy decorating!