Attention association and chamber meeting planners, I know your secret. You want attendees to enjoy the meals during a meeting even more than they want to enjoy them. We’ve all been at conferences where we hear endless complaints about the food served, and we know that as a meeting planner, your goal is to provide the best meals possible. How do you achieve this in 2014 when creating exciting meal plans takes a great deal of imagination, as well as a healthy amount concern?
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, 1 percent of the U.S. population has a celiac intolerance. A 2011 survey done by PETA (whose numbers are echoed closely by this Gallup poll) lists 5 percent of the U.S. population as vegetarian and another 2.5 percent as vegans. Next, take into consideration those with religious reasons for abstaining from certain foods, and before you even get to personal preferences and allergies, you are looking at almost 10 percent of the population with some sort of special diet request.
So how do you make sure everyone’s needs are getting met?
1. Ask them
If at all possible prior to the event either in the registration form or in a pre-event survey, ask what their special diet requests are. If the responses are not clear, follow up with them to make sure that everyone understands. Then, and most importantly, make sure to share this list with the catering department where your event is being held.
The easiest way to feed multiple dietary requests at one time is by allowing attendees to self-select from a buffet with plenty of options. Make sure to include a vegan protein such as black beans or chickpeas. Chances are the vast majority of attendees will be able to find something they can make a substantial meal out of amongst the variety of options. Another idea is to make sure as many items are served deconstructed as possible; having the cheese, meat, and croutons served separately allows more people the opportunity to enjoy the item and allows those who do eat those items to control how much they want on their portion.
3. Work with the Chef and Seek Advice
Make sure you work closely with the catering staff, and if possible the chef, to make sure everyone is aware of important allergies and food preferences. The more in the loop and prepared those in the kitchen are, the better off everyone will be. Make sure to ask the catering staff what they have done with similar allergies in the past. Many times they will have menu options or suggestions that are not listed.
4. Keep It Simple
If you are feeding a large number of people, you should be aiming to choose the items that will please the most people. Yes, it’s sometimes boring and sometimes it’s bland, but the reason you see chicken at every event you go to is that most people eat chicken. Chicken is easy to prepare in manners that fit most diet requests and it is often well priced.
Following the four tips above will go a long way toward pleasing your pickiest of conference attendees.