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Tips for Innovative Culinary Ideas

As Americans barrel back into the ballroom, meeting planners might want to change their approach to keeping groups fed. As many people spent their days working from home, what and when they ate changed. Their bodies — and minds — also forgot what it is like to sit in conference rooms, listening and learning, for several days at a stretch. At meetings, food and drink do more than fight hunger. They are the fuel we need to recharge our brains.

To make sure your event’s food and beverage service is setting your attendees up for success, consider incorporating some of these innovative culinary ideas.

Show breakfast some love.

The pandemic has altered Americans’ eating patterns. A recent poll shows that since 2020, we’ve become more enthusiastic about breakfast — more than half of respondents said they loved breakfast more than they did before the pandemic. Who knows why? Maybe we’re not in such a rush to make the morning commute and can actually sit down to eat our Pop-Tarts. Perhaps a piece of warm toast or bowl of oatmeal was a comfort. The trend is something to keep in mind as planners create morning menus. Realizing that few Americans sit down to a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon each day, and that we eat lots of different foods for our morning meal, perhaps try breakfast stations with a more diverse selection: golden waffles with fresh fruit in one corner, an oatmeal bar with add-ins like nuts and berries in another corner, and breakfast burritos or avocado toast in a third.

Add a twist with local treats.

The pandemic also put a lot of pressure on local producers and restaurants, and now they could use the support of visitors to their city. Many meeting venues are helping out by using local products when possible. There’s a lot to be said for adding local twists to menus. Convention attendees in Savannah will remember that cobbler made with Georgia peaches. Green chiles, the pride of New Mexico, can spice up anything from cheeseburgers to breakfast burritos. Choose a sustainable-minded convention partner and your meeting’s leftovers might also benefit others. The Salem (Oregon) Convention Center, for example, donates an average of 600 meals a week to Union Gospel Mission. Those meals are concocted from unused food for conference clients. The center also composts all its food waste.

Think of food as brain fuel.

Working from home has offered the luxury of all-day snacking. By working with the catering department, you can ensure attendees have meals and snacks throughout the day. Consider the fuel needed to keep everyone alert and engaged. Mornings can deliver protein like eggs, yogurt and lean meats. To avoid the inevitable afternoon energy dip, steer clear of heavy and sugar-laden lunches. Mid-morning and afternoon caffeine pick-me-ups can take varied forms — espresso, traditional coffees, herbal and regular teas, energy drinks — but also dark chocolate. You could even double up on the energy-packing punch by offering chocolate-covered coffee beans. Simple snacks can be satisfying without being fattening. Fire up a popcorn machine; dress up yogurt, regular or frozen, with add-ins like trail mix or fresh fruit. 

Keep the water flowing.

As the Massachusetts public health office points out on its website, drinking too little water affects how you think and feel. “Being mildly dehydrated can contribute to low energy, anxiety, nervousness, depression and trouble thinking clearly,” the site says. Considering the time, effort and money spent on meetings, it certainly pays to keep brains engaged by investing in a low-cost commodity like water. 

Look for meeting venues that are forward thinking in terms of keeping the water flowing. Many hotels and convention centers have installed hydration stations, making it easy to keep water bottles filled without water waste. With 24 water bottle filling stations, the Oregon Convention Center in Portland ensures refills are easily accomplished.

 The Louisville Convention Center is rightly proud of its city’s water — deemed by experts as some of the most drinkable in the country. Hydration stations throughout the center supply this topnotch tap water. And don’t forget: There are souls who can’t abide water’s taste — or lack of taste. Convention centers like the Overland Park (Kansas) Convention Center will infuse water dispensers with fruit to inspire more sipping. 

Anticipate dietary differences.

Remember when “vegetarian” was the only alternative option at sit-down dinners? Today, a planner must be aware of and prepared for a long list of dietary needs and restrictions. Top of the list are food allergies like seafood, nuts, dairy and gluten, but most any crowd is also likely to include those who are vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans, as well as those following kosher or halal diets. Given the prevalence of diabetes, diners with the disease probably should get more consideration. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with diabetes, about 3 percent are undiagnosed and 38 percent of those 16 and older have prediabetes. That means that for better health, more than half of the adult population should shift away from sugar and carbohydrates. A good start might be to offer fewer sodas and sweetened beverages, more salads (without calorie-heavy dressings), fewer starches and breads, less fried food and healthier desserts like fresh fruit.