Thinking Differently about Dietary Needs

By Alan Wight

As event planners one of the routine questions we ask our delegates and guest is about special dietary requirements. We ask this to ensure that no individual is served something that they cannot eat. But it goes a little deeper than that, we ask the question before we decide the menu, so that we understand the variety of dietary needs we are catering for - because in an ideal world every one of our guests would enjoy the same meal or as close to the same meal as everyone else.

We consider these five categories in this priority order:

No dietary requirement

Usually the majority of people - so we plan the core menu around them - what is the cultural mix, the theme of the event, the style of service, what have they eaten before and so on.

Allergy or medical intolerance

People who cannot eat certain foods for medical reasons are a particular challenge - because often they are not eating things they would love to have but can't. They don't choose to be that way, they can't change religion or decide on a different diet - if they eat the wrong thing, they become ill. For that reason, we do everything we can to ensure that the menu is planned and the food prepared to enable everyone to eat the same thing as far as possible or with simple substitutes where appropriate.

The menu solutions are often straightforward, using lactose free milk and butter, using cornflower in sauces in place of wheat flour, avoiding nuts, providing alternatives to fish or cheese within the same salad or dish. Whatever it takes, we try to avoid these guests from feeling 'special', we want them to feel a normal part of the event.

Religious beliefs

In many religions the preparation and selection of food is very important. The biggest religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism all have differing rituals, fasts and beliefs with regard to food. This doesn't just include prohibited meats, commonly pork and beef, also the manner of the slaughter and blessing - Halal and Kosher for example, some margarines, gelatine and other cooking substances often contain prohibited foods. Fasts and festivals are important in planning too, so that those fasting during daylight hours have the means to eat after sunset.

Lifestyle choice

Ironically, those who have special dietary needs through choice are often the best catered for. Wherever possible we aim to ensure that the vegetarian dish is the same as the main dish, with a meat substitute - it should present as the same dish. Vegan, gluten free (not for medical reasons) and other lifestyle choices are catered for as far as possible by removing ingredients from the main dish or if necessary prepare a separate dish.

Dislikes

When we ask the dietary question there are inevitably those who tell us what they do or don't like i.e. 'only eat beef' or 'don't like fish' or 'don't eat broccoli'. We will review these answers as part of the menu design with an awareness of the number of individuals expressing the same preference, but usually we would hope to accommodate the needs of everyone through the main menu and the vegetarian alternative.

For us, understanding dietary requirements, the motivations and the importance to the individual is paramount - working closely with the chef and the catering team and trying to treat everyone the same is what works best.

Joanne Madeley