How to Plan an Event Menu in the Age of Allergies

In the Fall of 2018, I attended an all-day networking event for event planners. On the RSVP, there was no space to indicate food intolerances. Onsite at the event, when it came time for lunch (which was included in the price of the ticket), I walked up to the staff member in charge of the catering team and asked for a vegan and gluten free option. I was shocked when their response was, “We only have a vegetarian option.” I asked if it could be made without dairy, they said “no.”

The venue was large and self-contained, not really close to places to go and get food. Plus, if I left, I may have missed talks that I was excited about.

I went without eating lunch, and had to leave the event early in search of food.

Honestly, I was shocked that a group of event planners did not consider the growing need to accommodate food allergies and dietary preferences at events. Since I began my career, allergies and special requests have become more and more prevalent, and I am sure I’m not the only one. When I worked at the Palm Restaurant in Philly, the Chef and Management Team used to joke that I was the ‘pied piper’ of vegan, gluten-free diners, because they saw an increase in requests each of the three years that I worked there.

This past summer, when I was planning a three-day conference, we had thousands of requests for special meals. From vegetarian to Kosher, to the Big 8 allergens, to vegan, gluten free and everything in between, we needed to accommodate. If you find yourself in this same situation, here is some advice:

  1. Make your vegetarian option vegan and gluten free. Even for the most basic of dishes, a pasta primavera, it’s very simple to use oil instead of butter when cooking the vegetables, and substitute a rice pasta instead of wheat. You can add parmigiana cheese on the tables, if you feel that this aspect of the meal would be missed. In a similar fashion, have a salad option without cheese and croutons.

  2. Consider ‘build your own’ options with every meal and snack. Modifications are so commonplace now, which is why companies like Sweetgreen and Honeygrow are thriving. If 5 people go out to lunch, inevitably one person will have an intolerance, one diner will have an ingredient they’re not crazy about, and one person will want the dressing on the side. By offering a ‘build your own’ option, like a salad station, stir-fry action station or build your own trail mix station, your guests can choose from a variety of items to create the best option for themselves.

  3. Fresh fruits and vegetables win for snacks and sides. If you prepare hot veggie sides with oil instead of butter, you can easily create a vegetable plate on the spot for those who are vegan or vegetarian. If you can offer a vegan protein, such as chickpeas, that’s even better. Fresh fruit and fresh, cut vegetables make an easy, colorful display that won’t leave your guests hungry.

  4. Make sure you consider the Big 8. The eight major allergenic foods are known as the Big 8. Milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy are not always easy to avoid, but if your venue has a creative and considerate chef, avoiding these, or at least having one or two options that avoid them, is a great way to be considerate of your guests—and your budget.

  5. Consider the diversity of your audience, and cultural or religious guidelines. In addition to giving attendees the option to list their food intolerances or dietary lifestyles, consider from your first contact with the catering company. Being sensitive to your guest’s level of comfort from the beginning is essential.

Another way to make sure that you accommodate all guests is to give some guests the option to bring their own food, especially those who are on a diet that is prescribed by a doctor or difficult to accommodate at the venue that was chosen.

Gone are the days where a meat, starch and vegetable will do the trick for all events. These conversations should be had by the management team from the very beginning, to ensure that no guest is left hungry leaving your event.