What you need to know about accommodating special diets in meetings

Event planners and venues are duty bound to ensure that special dietary requests are considered, and wherever possible, provided for during meetings, conferences and training events.

Delegates’ enjoyment ultimately affects the bottom line, so you want to ensure that your menus reflect and cater for guests’ dietary requirements wherever possible. The process of catering for dietary needs can be overwhelming. However, with careful planning, it doesn’t need to be complex or time-consuming.

Here are eight recommendations to help plan the process of accommodating delegates’ special dietary requirements.

1. Understand guests’ needs

Guests may have dietary needs based on religious restrictions, food allergies or intolerances. Whether guests’ requests are critical to their health or simply personal preferences, meeting and exceeding expectations is key. Whatever the reason, it’s important that delegates feel confident they can safely consume menu options presented for their needs. 

Meeting Delegate nutrition and dietary needs

It’s important to understand the dietary requirements of meeting delegates, especially those with food allergies, intolerances or health- or religious-based restrictions.

2. Review dietary requirements

Paleo, low sugar, macrobiotic, vegan… it’s hard to keep up with all the different diets and ever-evolving wellbeing trends. Such is the demand for gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options that IACC’s 2017 Trends in Nutrition & Delegate Wellbeing survey confirmed that menus must include gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan options as standard.

Food label legislation and rules differ worldwide. Businesses must be fully compliant and planners aware of their venue’s policy. 

Health-related diets include:

  • Gluten free
  • Celiac 
  • Diabetes

Common dietary requests include:

  • Dairy free
  • Vegetarian including Ovo (permits eggs), Lacto (permits dairy) and Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian (permits some animal products)
  • Vegan (eats a largely plant-based diet)
  • Pescatarian (eats fish, but not meat)
  • Flexitarian (adopts a largely vegetarian diet, but occasionally eats meat)
  • Ketogenic (low carb, high fat)
  • Paleo

Other dietary requests include:

  • Low sugar
  • LOW GI (limits carbohydrate intake)
  • Calorie-controlled
  • Locally sourced /Organic
  • Whole 30 (avoids all inflammatory foods and beverages)
  • Pregnancy related

Religious diets include:

  • Kosher
  • Halal
Halal Dietary Guide

Overview of Halal Dietary Restrictions. Additional charts are available in the IACC 2018 Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements.

People with food allergies who are exposed to certain allergens can face severe or even life-threatening side effects. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) defines a food allergy as “a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune response.’’

Mild allergies can cause reactions, such as hives and fevers. Severe allergies can lead to life threatening conditions (including anaphylaxis). 

There are 8 major food allergens:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Eggs 
  • Soy
  • Wheat

Sesame is also a common allergen.  Food businesses must declare if these ingredients feature in their food and drink offerings.

Food intolerances

According to NHS England, “a food intolerance is difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them.” Reactions include bloating and stomach pains.

Common intolerances include:

  • Lactose
  • Gluten
  • Histamine

Food allergens such as shellfish like shrimp prawns

Shellfish such as prawns are common food allergens. Offering alternatives for vegan, Halal and allergy is a good idea.

IACC’s 2018 Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements details an extensive list of special diets and provides tips on catering for these.

3. Prepare in advance

Planners should allow for advance notice to venues to accommodate special dietary requests. It’s vital that both parties discuss and consider dietary needs from the initial planning stage through to the post-event review. Early collaboration between planner and venue is key.

Adopting a structured approach to gathering delegates’ requests helps to simplify matters and lessens the risk of any last minute issues, such as menu changes. It also allows the venue time to source substitute ingredients and to adapt dishes. 

4. Budget carefully

Catering for dietary needs and preferences can prove costly. So, it’s especially important that planners check which special diets their venue accommodates and whether these will incur additional charges.

Venues now have to factor in dietary needs more than ever before. Many venues now design menus with multiple gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian choices as standard practice. This helps kitchen teams to operate a smoother service, with fewer last minute changes.

Vicki Montague, UK-based food scientist and ‘free-from’ blogger states “with so many people now following a gluten-free diet, altering menus to make them entirely gluten-free, or focusing on naturally gluten-free food can help save time and reduce costs.”

Obtaining guests’ requirements in the early stages of the registration process allows both parties to see where costs can be reduced. For example, can one dish cater for more than one type of diet? Often people requiring Kosher or Halal cuisine are happy to consume the vegetarian or vegan options.

It’s not unreasonable to consider charging guests with extreme requests for the cost of their meal. Particularly since specially prepared dishes (with expensive and specially sourced ingredients) often remain uncollected or uneaten.

5. Collaborate on the registration process

Work collaboratively to devise a menu that caters for all guests. Planner and venue should discuss and agree the following:

    1. Allergens/intolerances

    2. Special dietary requests

    3. Religion-based requests

  • The special diet menu options available (including snacks/grazing foods)

  • The venue’s deadline(s) for receiving menu choices (aim for at least 7 days in advance)

  • How any last-minute requests will be handled

  • How the kitchen and wait staff will be made aware of guests’ specific requests (especially allergy related)

Planning meeting menus

    Ensure that registration forms are carefully planned and don’t feature open-ended questions, such as “any dietary requirements?’’ Forms must allow for dietary requests to be clearly articulated and not open to misinterpretation. 

    Consider asking delegates to state the reason for their request. For example, is their request due to an allergy, an intolerance or simply a personal preference?

    6. Plan appealing menu alternatives

    Ensure that, wherever possible, any specially prepared meals are just as nourishing and appealing as the other options on offer. UK nutritional therapist Marissa-Catherine Carrarini finds that clients are often insulted or embarrassed when presented with smaller or lighter looking meals.

    Marissa stresses the importance of remembering that guests with special dietary requirements “do not have different nutritional needs to others.” Marissa explains, “If a person has Celiac Disease (an autoimmune disease caused by gluten), they still require a carbohydrate. A vegan still requires a protein. Remember that people with special dietary needs are not on a ‘diet’ and ensure their meals don’t lack key nutrients.’’

    7. Keep a close check on the day

    Be sure to ask guests if they have any special dietary requirements not covered by the food on offer during the meeting. Ensure that all food (be it plated, buffet style, silver service or snacks) clearly highlights relevant dietary information and any allergen contents. 

    Make sure that wait staff are informed of guests with special dietary needs and briefed about their menu choices.

    Waiter food service should know about allergens

    Make sure wait staff understand whether menu items contain potential allergens and which guests have requested alternatives.

    8. Glean insights for the future

    Ask guests with dietary requirements to provide feedback about how well they felt catered for. This will enable future menus to be more inclusive and appealing to guests with dietary needs. 

    As with any aspect of a meeting, high levels of customer service and satisfaction are key. Guests with dietary needs who feel listened to and well catered for are far more likely to provide positive feedback and become repeat customers.

    Get the guide

    IACC’s 2018 Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements helps simplify the process of catering for guests’ dietary requirements. 

    Produced in partnership with the World Obesity Foundation and with input from IACC’s industry partners and experts, the guide is a highly useful tool for planners and venues. The report also features advice on delegates’ health and wellbeing and provides recommendations to heighten guests’ enjoyment.

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