February 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Changing Course - February 2000 Current Issue
February 2000

Changing Course

How to provide tasteful alternatives for those with special dietary needs

By Lisa Grimaldi

I magine attending an elegant black-tie affair, and while the rest of crowd digs into filet mignon or lobster Newburg, you’re offered a plate of steamed vegetables, a bland pasta dish or even a drab, undressed salad. “I hate to say how many times attendees with special dietary restrictions end up those choices,” says Lauren Love, director of food and beverage for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp.

Requests for special meals are on the rise, according to Tracy Carnes, director of catering and conference services at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Georgia. “It’s not just that people are more health-conscious today; they’re not shy anymore about speaking up about their needs and preferences.” For the average group, 5 to 10 percent of attendees will request special meals, say food and beverage sources, and in many cases that number will be much higher. How can planners be sure attendees aren’t served double helpings of side dishes while their colleagues dine sumptuously? Following are tips from industry professionals.

Prep work
Ask about dietary restrictions as soon as possible. “Give attendees several opportunities to tell you their requirements,” says Jerry Edwards, owner of Chef’s Expression, a Baltimore-based catering firm. He suggests including a detailed dietary-needs form in preregistration information and registration packets.

Next, share the information with the chef or F&B contact as soon as possible. Carnes of the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead advises planners to provide a general group profile (who they are, where they are from) and an attendee list noting special requests.

Armed with these specifics, says Hyatt’s Love, “planners should work out the special meals for attendees at the same time they’re doing their regular meal planning for the event.”

Always discuss specific alternative dishes. “Don’t let the caterer say, ‘Oh, there will be a vegetarian option,’ and leave it at that,” cautions Edwards. “They’ll do a dish that’s easiest for them, which usually ends up being steamed vegetables.”

For several-day meetings or incentive programs, planners should coordinate special menus with all F&B contacts, including chefs at the property and caterers handling off-site functions. This way, special-diet participants have some variety in their meals. Carnes recommends offering two alternative choices: one a fish dish with no dairy; the other a vegetable-only entree. “The dish presentation should look as much like the main entree as possible,” she says. “And the special meals should be served at the same time as the others, so no one at the table feels uncomfortable.”

Be prepared for copycats who see the special meal being delivered to their tablemates and decide they do not want the filet mignon after all. “Most chefs and caterers prepare for the situation, making sure there are extras available for those folks,” says Carnes.

Covering most bases
Although specific dietary preferences come in countless forms, Hyatt’s Love says she most often is called upon to meet vegetarian, kosher, low-salt and low-fat requirements.

Attendees who request low-salt or low-fat meals are the easiest to accommodate, according to Love. “They can get what the rest of group is getting, but the dish can be altered to their needs. For example, instead of a rich sauce or dressing, the chef can use fresh herbs or vinegar,” she says.

Then there are the vegetarians. Do not assume they eschew anything that did not grow out of the ground. According to Pamela Powell, assistant director of the Catering Research Institute of Houston-based National Association of Catering Executives, there are six classifications for vegetarians, ranging from almost-vegetarians, who eat dairy foods, eggs, poultry and fish but avoid red meat, to vegans, who eat no foods that come from animals. (See “Vegan Verve,” above, for vegan menu suggestions.)

Providing kosher meals, those sanctioned by Jewish law, requires a lot more legwork on both the planner’s and F&B professionals’ parts. Those keeping kosher cannot eat pork, shellfish, octopus or squid. Meat and dairy cannot be served at the same meal, but fish and dairy can be served together. Meat must be slaughtered by a kosher butcher, called a shohet. Some kosher observers will wait four to six hours after eating meat before having dairy products, so when serving coffee after a steak dinner, be sure to offer nondairy creamer. Even wine must be kosher (kosher wines are so labeled), although hard liquor need not be.

Some hotels have kosher kitchens, which are certified by a rabbi and are not used for nonkosher cooking, so food preparation can be done on site. But in most cases, meals must be ordered from local kosher caterers. This is the best means of ensuring the food will be fresh and interesting, says Hyatt’s Love.

For a four-day incentive program in Cancun, Donna Skowronski, contracts manager for San Diego-based World Travel Meetings & Incentives, had to arrange for an Orthodox Jewish couple to have kosher meals. The hotel could not provide the meals, and there were no kosher caterers in the area. “Fortunately, I knew about it ahead of time and was able to track down a food broker in Mexico City who carried prepared kosher meals. He took care of everything packing them in dry ice, shipping them to the hotel,” she says.

Edwards of Chef’s Expressions says frozen kosher meals come in handy, particularly when a planner has little advance notice that a kosher meal is required. “We always keep a couple on hand, just in case,” he says. (For sources, see “Virtually Kosher,” below.)

Muslim and more
Powell of the NACE Catering Research Institute says in the past year she has had numerous inquiries from chefs and caterers about how to accommodate Muslim dietary restrictions. Among the foods considered haram, the Arabic word for “forbidden,” are pork and pork by-products, carnivorous animals, animals dead before slaughtering and all forms of alcohol. On the list of mashbooh (questionable) foods are items containing gelatin, enzymes and emulsifiers.

Asian attendees also might require special meal considerations at U.S.-based meetings. “We do a number of meetings that include Japanese guests,” says the Ritz-Carlton’s Carnes. “We recommend offering them a miso soup and fish option for breakfast. for the rest of the meals, they’ll pretty much eat what the rest of the group does.”

Alternative breakfasts also might appeal to European attendees. “They usually prefer hard rolls instead of pastries. Attendees from Germany and northern Europe tend to eat hearty items like cheeses, cold meats and pâtés in the morning, so we advise planners to include those items on breakfast menus or buffets,” adds Carnes.

Calendar Check
Planners must keep in mind key religious holidays when planning menus. Even attendees who normally would not have special requirements might adhere to religious restrictions during these periods. Among them: Passover (a weeklong observance when many Jews eat only kosher foods), Ramadan (a monthlong holy period when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset) and Good Friday (when Catholics do not eat meat).


Vegan dishes, consisting only of plant products, are the most difficult to make interesting, says Lauren Love, director of food and beverage for Hyatt Hotels Corp. But with a little inspiration and cunning, planners and chefs can create vegan meals to whet the appetites of the most stringent plant-eaters. Some suggestions follow.

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