Here are five tips to help you rise to the challenge of navigating food sensitivities and dietary restrictions.
With dietary restrictions, modern etiquette for culinary services has changed dramatically. Any invitation to dine or drink at your client’s home or special venue is an invitation to be cared for and treated like family.
Today, that personalized care has to take into consideration a host of dietary restrictions and allergies people deal with, from vegetarians to gluten-free or soy-free, and paleo-diets. For event and catering professionals, there may be a minefield of things to avoid and be aware of when planning a menu.
But catering effectively for customers with food intolerances and special requests can help set your business apart, potentially increasing your bottom line. It will also reinforce the high level of customer service you provide, which is always a win in a competitive industry. Here are five tips to navigate food sensitivities and dietary restrictions, and rise to the challenge.
1. Make Dietary Restrictions a Key Part of Your Client Communications
Catering to a number of different dietary requests takes time, planning and advance notice. You need to deliver a fantastic, delicious experience for everyone at the event. To make that happen, you can’t be caught off-guard at the last minute with special diet demands. Ask the client in your initial meetings if there are any special dietary needs while explaining the importance of knowing the needs in advance.
As the host, it’s crucial for the client to find out any dietary needs and communicate them to you as soon as possible. Give your client a deadline for this, put it in your contract, and let them know that if a request comes in after deadline, you will make every effort to accommodate it, but can’t guarantee the same level of gourmet quality and finesse of the meal.
2. Make Accommodating Dietary Restrictions Part of Your Business and Marketing
Stay one step ahead of the game so you will have a competitive edge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says as many as 15 million Americans have a food allergy. One in every 133 people has celiac disease, yet 90% have not been diagnosed. Additionally, there are the millions with diabetes, obesity and other diseases in which diet is a consideration.
You need to learn how to meet the various needs of these diet specifications in order to help these guests enjoy your meals, and build your business accordingly. Advocate what you do for people with intolerances and special dietary needs. Have separate online menus, for example, to promote your culinary expertise in this area.
While you’re not a dietitian, as an event-planner or caterer, you should be familiar with a list of dietary restrictions, including the following:
- Celiac disease (gluten-free): An autoimmune condition where the body can’t tolerate gluten, which is commonly found in wheat, rye and barley, and used as a food additive. Some people have gluten sensitivity, where they experience celiac-like symptoms when they are exposed to gluten, but it does not cause the same damage to the small intestine.
- Lactose intolerance: Sometimes labelled dairy intolerance, this occurs when the body can’t digest lactose, commonly found in milk and dairy products.
- Macrobiotics: Usually involves grains as the food staple, supplemented with local vegetables, and avoiding highly processed foods and most animal products.
- Nut allergy: A hypersensitivity to tree nuts where the immune system overreacts with severe symptoms. These nuts include almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, pecans and even coconut.
- Paleo: Based on the types of foods presumably eaten by early humans. Mostly meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, and excluding dairy or grain products and processed foods.
- Peanut allergy: This allergy is distinct from nut allergies because of its common severity. Exposure can cause anaphylaxis, which requires immediate treatment.
- Raw veganism: Combines veganism and raw foodism, which excludes all animal products and foods cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Soy allergy: More common in children than adults, this allergy is often outgrown. Soy is found in soy milk, tofu and soy protein added to hamburgers, for example, or soy flour used in commercial baked goods.
- Vegetarian: Following a plant-based diet with the strict exclusion of meat and fish.
- Vegan: Eliminating all animal products from the diet, including eggs, milk and dairy.
- Wheat intolerance: People with wheat intolerance can still experience adverse symptoms from gluten-free foods. They also may not be able to eat rye, oats and barley.
3. Treat *All* Dietary Restrictions As If They’re Allergies
Err on the side of caution. There is a distinction between medical sensitivities or allergies and preferences that reflect a philosophy or food trend. But oftentimes, this distinction can be a gray area. The best approach is to treat all requests as if they were all allergies, and respect and accommodate them. Make certain you know all the ingredients of any prepared or packaged foods you use in your food preparation.
Speak with your suppliers on a regular basis to make sure they are providing you with accurate written details about all ingredients and any changes. Made from scratch is your safest option, of course. Keep the lines of communication open among your staff members about food allergies to ensure you use best food safety practices to avoid any contamination or cross-contamination. Make sure servers, too, know about the ingredients in the dishes and can answer questions from guests knowledgeably.
If you don’t work in a certified gluten- or allergy-free catering kitchen, turn to legal experts to help you write a liability statement. This message will convey that though you take precautions, you cannot make guarantees. Also remember, your client’s guests are your captive audience. They can’t choose to eat elsewhere when they attend your client’s event, as they might when dining out at a restaurant.
4. Plan the Menu with Dietary Restrictions Top-of-Mind
Ideally, if you can have all guests enjoy the same fabulous meal, that makes your job easier. And it also makes guests with special requests feel less awkward. Let these guests know that you’ve gone this route and that they can enjoy the meal without worry. Or create several versions of the same meal, accommodating the requests, and showcase your culinary expertise.
You want the dishes respecting food sensitivities to be just as amazing as the mainstream menu, when possible. Review your existing menu too. Dishes that meet certain dietary requirements may surprise you.
5. Have a Back-up Plan
Inevitably, some guests will fail to inform the host about dietary requests. So prepare for special requests on the fly. If you can’t accommodate them with an entire meal, consider serving a larger portion of the starter salad. Or replacing the dairy dessert with sorbet you have in the freezer, on hand for just this type of situation. The meal may not be as perfect as you’d like. But it will still convey the level of service and courtesy you provide.
Food allergies are on the rise and food preferences are diverse. As a result, catering to these requests with thoughtfulness and preparedness is a necessity in the industry. Accommodate your guests’ requirements with grace, skill and practical know-how. And when the job is done, be sure to use free catering invoice templates that are as flexible as your approach.
about the author
National Post, contributing articles on business, food, culture, and travel for affiliated newspapers across Canada. She now writes from her home office in Toronto as a freelancer, and takes breaks to bounce with her son on the backyard trampoline. Connect with her on LinkedIn.Karen Hawthorne worked for 6 years as a digital editor for the