Gluten-Free ∙ Lactose Intolerant ∙ Allergic to Eggs ∙ Milk Sensitivity ∙ Shellfish Restriction ∙ Severe Peanut Allergy!
Have you noticed an increase in requests for special diet meals? If so, you’re not alone. Food allergies and intolerances are a growing health concern – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted an 18% increase in the United States between 1997 and 2007. Food allergy awareness and advocacy are also growing, leading to increased demand for allergy-friendly meals when dining outside the home. In the special events industry, where just a few years ago menu exceptions tended towards religious or lifestyle needs such as vegetarian or Kosher plates, caterers are seeing increased requests to accommodate allergy-related dietary needs – often multiple exceptions at a single event.
So how do caterers meet the challenge of providing several special plates without incurring unreasonable costs, interfering with streamlined operations, or risking slighting food allergy-sufferers with unimaginative “plain” food? A food consultant and ICA members share some tips below:
Event planner and food and beverage consultant Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC of Thrive! Meetings and Events provides education on dietary practices within the realm of special events. She recommends asking specific questions to determine the exact nature of the allergy – directly to the planner or even the guest. Maybe two or three guests with special dietary needs can receive the same meal. Think about ingredient substitutes, she continues, such as cashew “cheese” sauce or various gluten-free flours for baking to provide a dish equal in quality to the contracted menu. Consider being proactive when preparing seasonal menus, says Stuckrath. Creating two or three versions of recipes will save time when you receive requests shortly before the event.
Heidi Vail of Tempe, AZ-based Heidi’s Events encourages clients who themselves have dietary restrictions to plan a menu for all based on their own requirements. Where multiple guests need a special meal, when appropriate Vail suggests increasing variety to allow guests to make their own choices.
It’s not just about menu selection, says Stuckrath. To avoid cross contact with allergens, it’s important to consider exactly how the food will be prepared and brought to the guest. Based on specific requirements and available resources, this may involve cooking the allergic person’s food first, using separate utensils and surfaces or even dedicating a sous chef to prepare the special plates and nothing else.
Puff ‘n Stuff in Florida has an operational plan to minimize risk of cross contact. Regardless of the reported severity of allergies, prepared special meals are transported separately, clearly labeled, then finished on-site first or separately from the main dishes. The person receiving the special plate is indicated on the seating chart and staff apprised before service.
From a risk management perspective, you may consider devising a written plan for dietary restrictions outlining how special requests will be handled. Welcoming Guests With Food Allergies is a guide for restaurants, much of which also applies to on-site and off-site caterers. Created by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an allergy advocate group, the complete guide is available at www.foodallergy.org .
As the incidence of food allergies continues to grow, caterers are discovering that education and acceptance are key to the management of special requests. Some embrace the challenge as an opportunity for creativity and exploring new ingredients. Others market their ability to work with dietary restrictions to attract this growing customer base, surprising and delighting clients with complete menus for common dietary conditions.
Despite fervent work in the research community, it is clear that food-related allergies are not going away any time soon. Responding appropriately is not only legally necessary but also demonstrates your commitment to customer service and desire to excel.
It is important to remember that allergies and intolerances are disorders, not food preferences. There is no cure or medicine; strict avoidance of the allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction. For some, the sensitivity is so great that even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a reaction from mild discomfort to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Not a responsibility that caterers eagerly bear, but a reality to those afflicted. Food allergies are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and guests with food allergies should be able to enjoy the same quality of food as other guests.
Photographer credits: Grains – Kathleen Brennan; Flourless Hazelnut Pear Torte – Annabelle Breakey
Thrive! Meetings & Events: www.thrivemeetings.com
Heidi’s Events: www.heidisevents.com
Puff ‘n Stuff: www.puffnstuff.com