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Minding the Menu

Which do you fear most: a shark attack or a peanut snack?

Jaws aside, the more dangerous of the two is definitely the peanut. Each year, 150 to 200 Americans die from allergic reactions to peanuts and other common food allergens. Last year, sharks killed only nine people worldwide.

With 32 million people in the United States suffering from food allergies and millions more who restrict their diet for health, philosophical or religious reasons, it’s easy to see why meeting planners tread carefully when it comes to the food and beverage.

Attendee safety is the biggest consideration, but revenue and retention can also be affected by how dietary restrictions are handled, says former meeting planner Tracy Stuckrath. Her own food allergy inspired her to start her business, Thrive Meetings, aimed at helping meeting planners and others learn how to feed people safely and healthfully.

As Stuckrath points out, when dietary needs aren’t respected, the meeting attendee is likely to never again return to the annual conference and the corporate employee is likely to go looking for a new job — both costly to business and completely avoidable when care and attention are given to meal planning.

During a recent webinar called “F&B 101: Managing Attendee Food Preferences and Dietary Requirements from A to Z,” Stuckrath shared tips. The webinar is at, where you’ll also find interviews, a blog, videos and links to recent reports and research.

Food for thought: Ask the right questions.

As in-person meetings have returned, planners tell Stuckrath they have seen an uptick in registrants with dietary restrictions. No one knows exactly why, but the trend underscores the need to have an effective approach to planning meals that meet everyone’s needs. That starts with a registration form that collects valuable dietary information from each attendee. Questions should be clear and care should be taken to avoid asking open-ended ones. Questions should also make it easy to distinguish between food allergies/sensitivities and food preferences, like vegan and vegetarian. Stuckrath recommends including a checklist of the most common food allergies. (Nine food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and sesame — account for more than 90% of food allergies.) Below the list, a blank line could be added so that those whose food allergies go beyond the most common ones can write in theirs.

Dig into the data with relish.

Looking at all of the dietary information collected will give a planner a clearer picture of the crowd. After analyzing the information, planners are likely to have questions for specific attendees. A basic question might be whether an allergy is confined to eating the food or whether the allergy is triggered by simply being near the allergen. Follow-up calls demonstrate that the planner is a true professional who wants to meet attendees’ needs and keep them healthy. It might even lead to cost savings. Stuckrath once had three attendees who had noted on their registration forms they required kosher meals. She called each of them; as it turned out, only one really needed a kosher meal; the other two simply needed assurance that kosher foods would be properly labeled on the buffet.

Can F&B cater to dietary needs?

Before you sign a contract, have a thorough conversation with a venue’s food and beverage staff, Stuckrath recommends. Ask to see a banquet menu — if it doesn’t detail ingredients for the dishes, is the venue really up to speed on food allergies and other issues? It’s a good sign if chefs share that they have developed or are working on dishes and sauces that are gluten free or dairy free. Ask also about staffing. Have servers been on board for years, or is the venue relying heavily on part-timers? Ask if training can be done for staff who aren’t schooled on dietary restrictions. And, Stuckrath says, if there seem to be unjustified charges for special meals, planners should pull out the American with Disabilities Act, which includes protections for those with dietary issues.

Keep dishing up the information.

Communicating with attendees who have dietary restrictions doesn’t end with registration. One of the most important ways to keep things safe is through labeling foods and their ingredients so that attendees can avoid any problematic dishes. It’s especially important for meetings that include attendees from the EU member countries, where clear labeling is an EU requirement. Talk to your venue about how they label their foods and what measures they take in setting up buffets to avoid cross-contamination. Planners should also review a venue’s descriptions of gluten-free, vegan and other special meals to make sure they adhere to those diets, she said.

Strategies and websites serve planners well.

No doubt, planners have a lot to chew on as they come up with meals to suit everyone. It doesn’t have to be a chore, and Stuckrath has some strategies that make it less of a challenge. For example, since most food allergies are tied to nine foods, planners can ask a venue to create a menu that includes none of those allergens. Or, if attendees are allergic to outlier foods, food and beverage could simply make sure to eliminate those ingredients over the course of the entire meeting or conference.

Planners can also look to local sources for solutions. In Sandy Springs, Georgia, Stuckrath found a local gluten-free and soy-free bakery that supplied breads and muffins for a meeting. And, she points out, the internet provides many good resources. Among them are for finding kosher foods and suppliers; for its regularly updated catalog of commonly available foods free of allergens; and, a brand of baking products that are free of the top 14 allergens.