I can’t eat that. Should I have told you in advance?

November 17, 2017

Dana’s Meeting Minutes is based on the Meeting Planning Triangle©. Click here for a link.


Meeting professionals face the challenge of balancing their sanity with accommodating special food requests. However, it is our responsibility to meet participant needs and our goal is to create a memorable experience, which includes the food you serve.



Tip #1

Put yourself in control of special requests

  • Require each participant to identify any dietary restrictions. Include “No special requirements.”

  • Ask your caterer if they can create one meal that fulfills several requests. Could a vegan meal also fulfill the requirements for vegetarians, dairy intolerance, no red meat, and seafood allergies?

  • Some hotels are establishing gluten-free menus across the board. Ask about it and get references about the quality and creativity of the menus.

Tip #2

Labels are your friend

  • To facilitate serving, at registration distribute colored index cards labeled with special menu requests, e.g. GLUTEN-FREE, or VEGAN. Direct participants to place the cards on the table in front of them.

  • Require the catering department to label buffet items with identifiable allergens. For example, a label would say, Vegetarian—includes gluten, dairy, and tree nuts

Tip #3

  • Beware of additional fees for special menus

  • Some hotels are charging add-on fees to accommodate special menu requests. Review each contract. Negotiate and/or plan accordingly.

  • If your participants have multiple lifestyle requests (e.g. Paleo), consider charging an add-on fee to cover costs if needed, but also to get a solid commitment from the participant.

  • This does not include restrictions for allergies, which you must accommodate.



Buffets to the rescue

Until recently, I was a staunch opponent of buffets. I don’t care for the time it can take to serve and reseat people, the feeling that I’m scavenging for food, and the extra cost (yes, the per person price is frequently more than plated price). However, I can see the benefit for accommodating a variety of special food requests.


To make it work, choose a menu each guest can customize like a fajita bar with lots of add-ons or DIY Cobb salad. Examine options from the perspective of each common special diet to ensure that every participant will get a full meal, which should include starter (if served), entrée, and dessert choices for each.


Most participants will not have special requests, so don’t inadvertently limit their choices.



Most of what I have learned comes from Tracy Suckrath of Thrive! Meetings & Events, a meeting professional with food allergies, has become an expert trainer and consultant on addressing the needs of people with dietary restrictions. Check out her website, read Four Ways to be SMART When Managing Food Allergies, and see her Buffet Labels, Table Tents and Meal/Chef cards.


How to Plan for Attendees with Special Diets by Kelli White for EventManagerBlog.com asks and answers basic questions.


Learn about dietary choices vs needs

The Real Difference Between Dietary Choices and Dietary Needs by Tracy Suckrath.


Dietary Restrictions, Food Allergies, and Religious Restrictions from the Office of Special Events at Webster University.


Information disclaimer: WANT MORE? references do not imply an endorsement for any company, product, or service.




Dana L. Saal, CMP, CAE, has been planning meetings for associations for more than 30 years. She recently decided that coaching meeting planners is now more fun than proofing BEOs, counting coffee cups and writing scripts. If you think a bit of coaching could improve your meeting, send a message via her website.

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