by Natalee Giamalis, Event Manager
At the beginning of my career as a meeting planner I remember feeling burdened by attendees with dietary restrictions. I shamefully recall rolling my eyes or audibly sighing. The lists seemed to get more specific and longer, going far beyond your common peanut allergy.
These days, as people gain knowledge about which foods support their health and which erupt into an internal mob scene, I found I have way more patience. Because you will now find me on that guest list of dietary restrictions.
Now I view the attendee dietary restrictions differently. When I register for a conference, I actually become anxious when I submit my dietary restrictions; which, by the way, are limited to animal proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables – not too difficult, right? But I worry about what sad thing I will be served.
Food is emotional. Food is personal. Food is important. Food is how we show we care. Food is an important element to any event; it affects guests’ attentions spans, energy levels, and how they view the success of your meeting.
When planning your next meeting or event, don’t be frightened about special dietary needs. There are so many delicious foods and knowledgeable chefs that allow for “mainstream” meals that accommodate several needs.
Here is the condensed version of the framework I use for menu planning in my daily work, keeping all guests in mind.
Begin by asking questions of your chef/caterer. These are to keep your guests safe.
How do they handle guests with severe food allergies?
Do they have designated kitchen space for food preparation of allergy-friendly food?
Are their servers trained in addressing the questions from guests with allergies?
How do they store food designated for guests with severe food allergies?
How do they serve food designated for guests with severe food allergies?
Consider the most common allergies and build entrees with these in mind. Avoid:
Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.)
Fish and shellfish
Layer allergens over common dietary restrictions. These could stem from a lifestyle choice or a religious belief:
Halal meat *
*Note: For some attendees, religious beliefs or extreme allergies might need a completely separate meal or preparation. Those specifics are for another discussion!
Based on those lists, I’d request the chef/caterer to design a menu like this:
Starter or side that is mainly made with plant-based items. There are SO many options here: all vegetables, all fruits and fruit juices, olive oil, and avocado oil to name a few.
Main course Option A is chicken or beef with a fresh plant-based sauce. Think flavors from lemon juice, wine, olive oil, avocado oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, shallots, onion, etc.
Main course Option B contains no animal products. This can be tricky, because a delicious and hearty meatless option can sometimes lead to common allergens being included.
Personally, I feel that a heartier, tastier meal is a worthwhile cause and that including one allergen is a risk worth taking. A couple of examples are a coconut-milk based vegetable curry, a sautéed starch with a nut or dairy-based sauce, or a gluten-free vegetable bake that uses nut-based flours or cheese.
Dessert Option A is gluten-free and strictly plant-based. Some ideas: flourless chocolate torte, wine-poached pear, or maple-baked apple.
Dessert Option B is gluten-free, but includes nuts. A couple ideas: French macarons (my all-time favorite, but always confirm the chef only uses the traditional almond flour method, they are not always gluten-free), or a coconut milk-based pudding or whipped item
This menu outline acts as a great foundation for keeping a menu delicious but accommodating to many food preferences. A couple of additional tips:
ALWAYS clarify with the chef what is in the marinade, sauce or dressing of a menu item; this is where something like animal broth, gluten or soy can slip in, but they can be swapped out to be more allergen-friendly.
When in doubt, take it out and serve it on the side. Examples of this would be crumbled cheese on a salad, a dairy or soy-based dressing, and nut toppings on a dessert.
This is a similar approach to the daily eating plan I follow to care for my immune system. When people ask me, “What DO you eat?” I assure them I enjoy a variety of delicious meals.
So, when you hit a wall trying to accommodate all the restrictions you encounter with a meeting, step away and eat a meal that you really enjoy. During your meal reconnect to how that delicious food is affecting your mood and energy. Remember that’s what you want for all your attendees. It is an effort to make the puzzle of dietary restrictions work into an event menu, but it is truly a worthy cause.