by David Scalise | June 01, 2016
Restrictive diets and dining trends are not new phenomena, but with the ever-increasing number of consumers requesting gluten-free, paleo and vegan options, planners should be prepared to offer selections that meet these needs.
Executive chef David Scalise at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas offers the following tips for developing a meeting menu that is diet-safe -- and also innovative and delicious.

• Rely on experts. Planners who involve a chef in the planning process are less likely to have F&B issues or changes upon arrival.

• Know your numbers. When possible, enter the menu-selection process armed with the number of attendees who will require special  meals. This information can be gathered easily as part of the registration questionnaire. About 3.2 percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian, with another 0.5 percent vegan. Among meeting-goers, however, figure about 10 percent don't eat meat.

• Understand the basics. The most common dietary requirements are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or celiac, and dairy-free, with others like the paleo diet continuing to rise in popularity. Note the possibility of religious restrictions such as halal or kosher, and prominent allergies such as peanut and shellfish.

• Go neutral. Rather than providing separate options for every concern, select a variety of menu options that address all of the most common restrictions. For example, at the Hilton Anatole, all sauces and dressings are prepared gluten-free for large-scale events.

• Don't leave anyone hungry. Ensure that all options are as nutrient-rich and filling as their nonrestricted counterparts. For example, a dinner should contain approximately 650 calories; meet that mark by using protein-rich ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes or lentils.

• Stick with the theme. An easy mistake is to stray from the overall aesthetic in order to provide a suitable replacement, but this can leave those with restrictions feeling alienated. Opt for trendy substitutions such as cauliflower rice in place of rice or other starch.  

• Embrace ethnic foods. Tacos can easily be prepared as vegan and gluten-free with corn tortillas and a bean or tofu base, and many Indian dishes, such as vegetable samosas and many curries, are traditionally vegan. Ethnic  meals are a diet-friendly meeting trend.

• Ensure full flavor. A common complaint is that specialty meals lack flavor. In lieu of traditional vegetables and grains, select fresh, seasonal ingredients such as okra or farrow.

• Don't forget the drinks. Restricted ingredients can be hiding in beverage options as well; a wide variety of gluten-free ciders and beers offer tasty alternatives.

• Think small. Choose smaller, attractive tapas-style plates in place of plated entrées. This provides more options for guests and allows for easy self-customization.

• Label everything. A small way to make a big impact is to mark every buffet or self-serve item according to common dietary concerns, such as GF (gluten free) or V (vegetarian).


• Education is key. Attendees will have questions. Work with your event contact to ensure that all food-service staff are educated about the menu options and can point guests to diet-friendly options.

• Have backup. At our property, we prepare an additional 10 percent vegetarian or vegan entrées when plating for a large group. Calculate your own "safety net" using group demographics or historical data.