How to Plan for Attendees with Special Diets

Vegan, Gluten Free, Paleo, Nut Allergy… it seems everyone has a special dietary requirement these days! As the eventprof you must be knowledgeable and prepared to meet the special dietary needs of your attendees.

It seems more and more often our attendees are speaking up about their dietary needs and restrictions. Food allergies are becoming increasingly common, guests are becoming more health conscious and standing strong in their religious or personal beliefs on how food should be prepared.

This can become a major headache for eventprofs trying to plan a menu for a large group of attendees. The good news is that most venues are prepared for these dietary requests and they can be accommodating as long as they have some advance warning. As the planner you should be prepared for the diets you might encounter and the steps you need to take to ensure your guests are happy! A little preparation and education will serve you well when planning your next menu.

How to Plan for Attendees with Special Diets

How do you know if your attendees have special dietary needs?

Doing your research on the front end will help you to avoid any major surprises. If you will be serving any preset meals at your event be sure to ask your attendees if they have any dietary requirements or allow them to choose their dish. By giving people options you can provide a variety of selections and ensure that most guests can be accommodated.

The best time to collect any meal specific information is when the guest initially registers for the event. Include a section on your registration form that covers anything and everything you would need to collect regarding meal preference. Questions like, what is your meal preference for a specific dinner, do you have any food allergies, special dietary requirements, etc, are all topics you could look to cover on the front end. Keep the questions clear and to the point and don’t ask anything unnecessary.

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Who should pay?

Depending on the needs of your client this can be a tough question to answer. If the attendee’s request is fairly reasonable and affordable, in most cases the host of the event should foot the bill.

On occasion, attendees or even presenters can be very specific with their food and beverage choices and in some extreme circumstances they should be asked to foot the bill or absorb some sort of fee for their additional request. Examples of this would be asking you to bring in an expensive or rare ingredient that isn’t already a part of your menu. I recently read about a planner that had to have the chef make an extra late night shopping trip just to fill the extravagant needs of a client. These are situations where you might include an upcharge on the meal.

How accommodating should you be?

When you are hosting an event the customer service you provide will have a significant impact on your attendees. Long after the food is served and the party favors are forgotten, your guests will always remember how your event made them feel.

If you do a stellar job and go above and beyond to make them feel welcomed, they will surely remember and share this with others. The same goes for any negative experience that a guest has and most of the time they share the details of bad experiences much more freely.

This being the case, you should always do your best to be as accommodating as possible. If your guest has a last minute dietary request see what you can do to try and fit their needs. Work with your caterer or venue and find something that works for your guest and remains within your budget. You may not be able to get them exactly what they request, but most of the time making an effort and trying your best will go a long way with your attendees.

What should you discuss with your venue?

Before your event is even scheduled you should be sure to have an in depth meal planning conversation with your venue. You want to be aware of how the food will be served, buffet, plated, stations, etc.

You should also know the type of meal options your attendees will have. Will the food be labeled with ingredients? Will they be able to choose their dishes or if plated will the staff be knowledgeable on the food being served?

Sometimes we see dietary choices as a personal option but most of the time they are very important and should be taken seriously. Dietary restrictions should not be taken lightly everyone should know that they can pose a safety hazard if someone is served the wrong ingredient.

What are some of the special diets you might encounter?

Nut Free

This has become a more common allergy and can be very serious. If even one person at your event is allergic to nuts, you may consider keeping them off the entire menu or need guarantee that it is a nut-free kitchen if the allergy is particularly severe. Often times on planes they will ask you to refrain from eating nut based foods if someone on the flight has an allergy. This extra precaution will protect you, the venue and the attendee from any unfortunate events.

Gluten and Wheat Free

Gluten Free is a very common dietary need where people avoid eating foods that contain gluten. Gluten is the general name for the proteins found in wheat and is most commonly found in bread products, but can be hidden in many other items. It is also known commonly as celiac disease.

Wheat Free is also a dietary restriction where you cannot have wheat and wheat by-products. Thus, there are some differences between gluten and wheat. Be careful to know which ingredients are allowed and which are restricted depending on your guests needs.

It can be possible to be on a wheat free diet and still have gluten. However, if someone is on a gluten free diet, they will also be on a wheat free diet because all wheat has gluten.

Luckily many menus have found a way to exclude these items all together. Talk to your caterer and try to come up with some options that will please the crowd and also be gluten/wheat free. If all of your food options have gluten or wheat you could be in for a tough night as you will most likely have more than one request for this type of meal.

Paleo

The Paleo diet (or lifestyle as it is often called) has been gaining in popularity and is a diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans. The food choices consist mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excluding dairy or grain products and processed food. While it can be a bit complicated, most Paleo dieters can find something on your menu without too much trouble, as long as you have a fairly clean meat and vegetable choice that isn’t covered in cheese, sauce, butter, etc.

Kosher

Kosher foods are defined as those that are accepted by Jewish law as fit for eating or drinking. There are many strict specifications within this diet that can involve the food used (meat, dairy, etc.) and also the style of preparation.

It is best to consult a professional chef or caterer if you or your attendees have questions about the meal you are providing. These type of meals can become very pricey to cater in and most venues do not provide kosher meals in house, unless they are a religiously affiliated location.

Halal

Halal is when a type of an animal (or its meat) is slaughtered or prepared in the manner prescribed by Islamic law. This meat must have the halal certification and you should also be aware that Muslims will not eat meat derived from pigs for religious reasons. In addition, be aware that during the celebration of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide fast from sunrise to sunset during this time.

Vegetarian

Most of us are familiar with the vegetarian diet. Vegetarians are usually very easy to accommodate at any event. Vegetarians eat a diet that does not include meat of any kind.

There can be variations of this diet as some people choose to enjoy eggs or limited dairy choices. Here are a few examples:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can eat both eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products.

Pescatarian

The pescatarian diet includes fish, but no other meats. As most event menus have a fish option available this diet doesn’t normally pose an issue. Having some sort of fish or vegetarian option readily available is a good practice as the pescatarian diet is fairly common.

Vegan

People who enjoy a vegan diet do not eat any food that comes from animals. This includes items such as eggs, butter, milk, etc. Because of this restriction the vegan diet can be a bit more challenging to accommodate, but proper planning can ensure you have an available choice for a vegan attendee.

Other Considerations

Pregnancy

During this time many women eliminate certain items from their diet such as certain types of fish, caffeine, etc.  This can vary according to guidelines from country to country and person to person, but be as accommodating as possible.

Drinks

Be sure to provide a good variety of beverage options to your guests. Not everyone drinks alcohol, soda or even caffeine. Having a nice selection decaf and herbal drink options is always a good practice.

Other Considerations

Take every dietary request seriously! Ask questions and don’t make any assumptions. Guests can be allergic to many different items and it is always worth double checking.

In Conclusion

When planning a meal for any group, it can be difficult to please everyone. It is important to stay up to date and knowledgeable on the different diets you might encounter. The more you know about the food choices people are making, the easier it will be for you to prepare and think ahead when planning your menus.

Always do your best to be accommodating within reason. Most attendees requesting a special menu will be appreciative of your extra efforts to ensure they have a great experience. By working with your attendees and being proactive early on you will set yourself up for success.

About The Author
Kelli White
Kelli White has 10 years experience in event management, creative marketing, volunteer coordination and non-profit fundraising. You can follow her at @kellimwhite.
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Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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