BONE UP. Get familiar with common food allergens, religious observations, the different types of diets and how these foods must be prepared. This will help you plan menus and knowledgeably discuss food issues with attendees, caterers and kitchen staff.
CONSIDER THE BIG PICTURE. For every event with food and beverage, consider how dietary restrictions may affect the event date, menus, registration process and on-site logistics, says Lindsay Krause, senior meeting and event manager, Special D Events. If your event falls over Passover, for instance, offer an alternative to bread as many Jewish people avoid bread during this holiday.
PROFILE. “Group demographics can and should influence what you put on your menu,” says Jennifer Berkemeier, catering and special events sales manager of Cobo Center. As such, develop a detailed profile, drawing on a group’s past events, cultural make-up, adherence to religious customs and other insights. Professionals age 35 and younger, for instance, tend to eat more vegan and vegetarian meals, says Berkemeier, a vegetarian herself.
ASK EARLY. Collecting information about attendees’ dietary restrictions should always be part of the initial invitation process, says Linda Bahr, market event manager for PwC in Detroit. Include speakers, sponsors and exhibitors, too. Follow up to get more specifics and to make sure guests’ allergies aren’t airborne, which can be as much of a trigger as consumption for some people, says Lori Shepard of Simply Scrumptious Catering. She has catered onion-free events for this very reason.
COMMUNICATE. Share profiles and special meal requests with catering staff as soon as possible. “The more information you can give the venue—the kitchen staff, the chef—about your special requirements, the better,” Berkemeier says. Poor communication creates conflict between you and the venue, with guests suffering the fall-out.
LABEL, LABEL, LABEL. Identify food that contains major allergens and whether it is vegan, vegetarian or contains gluten, Krause says. Special D Events has a contract clause that requires caterers to clearly label food for participants. Post signs at food stations and buffets; identify attendees who need special meals by color-coded ticket, wristband, name tag, seating chart or table tent.
EXPECT MORE. Always order extra gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian meals. “Planners need to anticipate that there will be some participants who have dietary restrictions regardless of whether they mentioned them during registration,” Krause says. Shepard agrees: After seeing beautifully prepared alternatives to the main entrée, “I will guarantee someone else will ‘need’ (a special meal) at the last minute.”
COACH SERVERS. Meet with servers to review what’s being served and how to handle special meal requests; otherwise, all your planning could be for naught, says Berkemeier, who once attended a breakfast event where a server told a vegetarian guest, “Just scrape the sausages off your plate.” Assign the most experienced servers to attend to guests with severe dietary restrictions and ensure that chefs are available to discuss guests’ concerns about ingredients.
BE STRATEGIC. Leave sauces as side options; serve a variety of dishes at strolling receptions and always fresh vegetables (because most everybody can eat them), and provide whole fruit and packaged snacks for conference breaks. “Familiarity and labels make people with dietary restrictions feel comfortable,” Krause says. Also be careful of food placement on buffets: A pecan pie may cross-contaminate a nearby tray of nut-free brownies, making it too close for comfort for someone with a nut allergy.
HAVE AN EMERGENCY PLAN. Ask guests with life-threatening allergies to provide contact information and what to do in an emergency, and learn how to use an epi pen. Krause had a guest eat a passed hors d’oeuvre containing shellfish (the server was misinformed) but decline medical care because she had no immediate reaction. “But sometimes reactions take time,” Krause says. She discussed emergency procedures with hotel staff and the guest’s roommate provided information on who to call should the guest feel worse and made sure someone was with her at all times. “Sure enough, a delayed reaction kept her in the hospital for two days after the event,” Krause says.
Common Special Diets
Gluten-free: Free of gluten-containing cereals: wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye and triticale. This includes gluten-based flavoring, stabiliz
Vegetarian: Food derived from plants, with or without eggs, dairy products, and/or honey.
Lacto-Vegetarian: Allows plant foods and milk products but excludes eggs; common among followers of Hinduism and Jainism.
Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian: Eats plant food plus eggs and milk products.
Pescetarian: Similar to vegetarian but includes fish
Vegan: Excludes eating any animal products (flesh, eggs, dairy, honey).
Fruitarian: Similar to vegan but eats only foods that don’t kill the plant (e.g., apples but not carrots).
Kosher: Food made according to a complex set of Jewish dietary laws.
Halal: Food permissible and prepared according to Islamic law.
Eight Top Food Allergens
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions in people. The most common allergenic foods are:
1. MILK 2. EGGS 3. SHELLFISH 4. FISH
5. TREE NUTS 6. PEANUTS 7. WHEAT 8. SOYBEANS