Accommodating Your Guests Different Dietary Needs
Back in the day, catering menus for corporate meetings consisted of salad, chicken, starch, and a pre-set dessert. Those days are as obsolete as the fixed menus themselves. Today's meeting attendees have varying palates, whether by choice or medically required.
We asked one of our colleagues and industry expert, Tracy Stuckrath, to weigh in. Tracy is a dietary needs expert, Certified Special Events Professional, and founder of thrive! meetings events. She works with event planners and organizations worldwide to create safe, sustainable, and inclusive food and beverage events that deliver experiences where everyone is fed and feels valued.
Which special diet is most common?
How should planners address the requirements of this diet? Before we talk about "special" diets, I want to stop using the word "special" when talking about our attendees and guests' dietary needs, preferences, and requirements.
We take for granted that we all MUST eat to survive. While some of us eat differently because of medical, ethical, cultural, and religious reasons, that doesn't make our needs "special". It's just different.
If you're responsible for feeding attendees at an event, we must accept that how some attendees eat is different than the standard "American diet" or standard "event diet". We should learn to incorporate these different eating styles into the overall menu plan or create personalized plates of equal quality and value.
As for the most common, I believe plant-based vegan currently takes the top spot. Whether for health, religious, ethical, or environmental reasons, the number of people eating plant-based is increasing rapidly. In fact, according to Innova's Global Lifestyle & Attitude Survey, the growing interest in personal health, global sustainability, and dietary variation led to a 59% increase in new plant-based products in just the first half of 2021.
A 2019 report from the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) found that 10% of American adults (26 Million) have a life-threatening food allergy. That is more than double what was previously reported. So the need and desire to understand how food and beverage impact our bodies are here to stay.
To address these dietary needs, planners should work with chefs to first design plant-based menus and then second, free-from allergens. When you start with vegan, you've already eliminated four of the nine top allergens: wheat, soy, egg, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and sesame. Of course, I don't expect every menu to be free from all of those ingredients, but creating combinations can eliminate the need for as many personalized plates.
What can event planners do ahead of time to ensure they accommodate their guests' various dietary needs?
1. Ask all stakeholders - attendees, staff, vendors, speakers — if they have any dietary requirements needed at the event.
2. Communicate with catering partners far in advance so menus can be proactively designed to meet the needs of everyone.
3. Talk to attendees about their needs, communicate what can and cannot be done, explain the process of serving them, and give them someone to call if there is an issue.
If you don't know the status of all your guests' dietary needs, which menu items should be avoided? Which should be included?
I suggest planning menus plant-forward and free-from at the beginning. Then, if necessary, add animal-based items — dairy (cheese), egg, and meats — as accompaniments or the finishing touch on a dish. This allows the culinary team to build the meal for all instead of stressing about having to eliminate items from a previously designed menu.
Food and beverage choices are very personal, especially when a specific ingredient may be harmful. It's important to respect others; needs and plan accordingly. It will not only save you money and reduce waste, but it will also enhance the experience and make you a hero. We understand that knowing your attendees; needs ahead of time can be challenging, which is why food trucks are the perfect solution because they offer your guest an exciting variety of menus and ingredients from which to choose.
Looking for some additional tips on accommodating specialized diets at your next event? Click here.