Gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and more — event organizers have a growing list of food items they need to avoid in their attendees’ menus. While some of the restrictions are due to allergies — a study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston revealed that approximately 4 percent of Americans have food allergies — many adults have intolerances, sensitivities, and religious restrictions that dictate what they can and can’t eat. For event organizers, solving these challenges requires additional work. In a recent PCMA webinar, Andrea Metcalf, owner of Health Inspired Events and author of Naked Fitness, shared some tips on how to make this F&B challenge more palatable.
1) Make the Chef Your Best Friend.
“You really want to connect with the kitchen staff on a personal level to get some insights on what they’ve done in the past,” Metcalf said. “It’s not enough to know that they’re going to make a dairy-free meal. You need to know the ingredients that are going in the dish.”
Metcalf recommended asking the chef where the food will be made, whether separate utensils and cooking appliances will be used, how allergen-free food items will be packaged, and exactly how dishes will be prepared. While you don’t want to tell the chef how to do his or her job, you should be ready to make some suggestions for substitutions. For example, olive oil can take the place of butter, yeast flakes instead of cheese, and avocado instead of sour cream.
2) Take a Step Forward With Your Signage.
You and your culinary team shouldn’t be the only ones who know the specific ingredients in the dishes prepared — attendees should be privy to that information, too. Metcalf urged event organizers to do more than list the titles of dishes in buffet arrangements. “I challenge you to not only follow FDA guidelines, but go a step further to include ingredients, caloric information, and protein and fiber counts,” Metcalf said. “This can help all of your attendees make healthy diet decisions.”
3) Embrace a Personal Approach.
Eating meals at events is a communal experience, but attendees’ dietary restrictions can make them feel isolated. “The last thing you want to do,” Metcalf said, “is alienate someone at your event who has a food intolerance or allergy.”
To avoid this, Metcalf stressed the importance of individualized communication efforts and compared attendees at events to guests at your home. “When you’re inviting someone to a party and they tell you that they don’t like shrimp, we deal with those requests on a one-on-one basis,” she said. “Personally contact attendees before the event to let them know where their customized meal will be or who they’ll need to alert about their restrictions.”
That may sound like a lot of work for an event staff, but according to Metcalf, it has become necessary. “It’s not enough,” she said, “to put a placard at their table settings anymore.”