How to Accommodate Guests With Dietary Restrictions

Tracy Stuckrath, President, Thrive Meetings & Events

Tracy Stuckrath is the president and chief connecting officer of Thrive Meetings & Events, a seven-year-old consulting firm that focuses on helping planners, organizations, and venues create healthier and greener menus and events. After working as an event producer for 20 years, Stuckrath drew from her own experience with food allergies to launch her firm; she now travels the world educating and training event professionals and caterers. She is based in Atlanta.

1. Ask guests about dietary needs, take them seriously, and follow through.
During pre-event registration, ask attendees if they have any dietary needs. I recommend using check boxes versus open-ended questions for sorting and clarifying needs—vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, gluten-friendly, and specific food allergens. Be sure to provide any needs to the caterer well in advance so thoughtful and safe meals can be prepared, and to confirm that all needs can be met. Verify all special meals are detailed on catering event orders, at pre-conference meetings, and on the day of the event. You don’t want someone to sit down to dinner and find there is nothing for them to eat or all you have to offer is a roasted carrot.

2. Incorporate dietary needs into the overall menu design.
Work with chefs to incorporate as many dietary needs as possible without compromising on taste, quality, or presentation. Not only can it help reduce costs and save time, it helps pare down extra plates and lessens the risk of cross-contamination. It also helps all attendees feel included rather than excluded. Once the menu is designed, put down your “I can eat anything” fork and go through the menu as someone who is vegan, kosher, or has celiac disease. Are you able to have a hearty and delicious meal, or is there only crudités, pork, or crostini to eat?

3. Create meal cards for attendees and buffet labels to identify allergens.
If the menu does not provide for specific needs, provide attendees with meal cards they can use discreetly to identify themselves to the serving staff. Whether plated or buffet, menu cards and buffet labels should identify if any of the top eight to 14 allergens are in the menu item (not absent from it) and whether it meets preferences (vegan, vegetarian, gluten-friendly, contains pork). Utilize digital seating charts like Social Tables to note where guests are seated in the room.

 “Go through the menu as someone who is vegan, kosher, or has celiac disease. Are you able to have a hearty and delicious meal?”

4. Reduce food waste.
Forty percent of all food is wasted in the United States. Most of the waste comes not from what was uneaten by guests, but what was leftover in kitchen prep, what was not used before expiration, or what was prepared but not served. Caterers, evaluate processes in the kitchen to minimize waste: Purchase food wisely to maximize usage; reduce portion sizes to help guests finish their plates, to chop your food costs, and to increase profits; and use vegetable scraps (skins and greens) to create fresh stock for future use. Planners, know your F&B history to know what your guests like and don’t like from previous menus; ask about dietary needs so you don’t order food someone can’t eat for medical, value, or religious reasons; don’t over-order; and be okay with running out of food (after everyone is fed). Work together to identify organizations that can take prepared but not served food that follows local regulations and practices safe food handling.

5. Create experiences based on intentions.
Why are you or your client hosting the event? What feelings should it invoke? What actions should it encourage? What knowledge should be acquired? Identifying and clarifying the measurable objectives for each of your stakeholders should drive how the event is designed. Without clear and measurable goals, money will be squandered without a return.

6. Treat everyone on your team the same, and address them by name.
Whether it’s the guy loading in your audiovisual [equipment], the server providing breaks, or your catering services manager, they are there to support you. Knowing their name, acknowledging their role in executing your event, and thanking them for a job well done creates an event that is welcoming, fun, and engaging. When staff are engaged, their enthusiasm will be projected to attendees as well.

7. Be flexible and figure it out.
Events are all about planning and anticipating every detail. From linen colors, sight lines, acoustics, and food-service styles to accessibility for attendees with disabilities and disaster and evacuation plans, everything needs to be thought through. Despite all the planning, you also have to be flexible and have the ability to think on your feet and handle changes on the fly. Changes and crises will happen. It’s how you manage them that reflects on how your staff and attendees react and the overall success of the event.