Take it from us: there are few things more exciting for a devoted foodie than having the opportunity to develop their dream menu. That could mean conjuring up a list of delectable dishes for a wedding, daily corporate meal program or cafeteria, or a social event such as a birthday, anniversary or even a business product launch. The type of gathering matters far less than the opportunity to create something special. But what happens when some guests have specific needs or preferences and you have to cater to their dietary restrictions? Scratch the record to a halt, cue the terrified looks and turn up the lights. Party’s over, right?
Not a chance. It’s extremely rare to find a guest list nowadays without some form of dietary restriction or preferences. From allergies and religious considerations, to medical needs and meals that align with weight-loss or fitness goals—think paleo or keto cuisine—we find that at least five to 10 per cent of party goers have some form of special meal request that needs to be addressed. Here’s the good news: catering to dietary restrictions is not only relatively simple, it can be a fun part of the menu-planning process. With the right caterer that has experience in menu customization on board (like Kiss the Cook Catering!), anything is possible.
In most cases making menu adjustments is more than just a courtesy.
In situations where invitees have a life-threatening allergy to foods such as nuts or shellfish, for example, it’s crucial for hosts and their caterers to do what it takes to make adjustments that ensure their guests’ nutritional safety. Failing to do so could be a matter of life and death at worse, or could result in a poke with an Epipen and a trip to the hospital, in less serious scenarios. And there’s nothing like a medical emergency to put a damper on an event.
In the workplace setting, where so many organizations are striving to incorporate daily catered meal programs into their company benefit packages, accommodating the needs of vegetarians—as just one example—could one day be compulsory. Just this week a firefighter in Ontario filed a human rights complaint alleging that his employer, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, was either unable or unwilling to accommodate his creed (he identifies as an ethical vegan), which is a protected ground under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, as he worked in a remote area fighting forest fires. That case is pending, but underscores the fact that employers should be proactive in thinking about ways to address employees’ needs before they’re eventually forced to modify their catered menus.
Whether your guests require accommodation for personal or medical reasons, making an inclusive, dietary restriction-compliant menu takes equal parts strategy and creativity. Here’s how to make it work:
Ask the right questions
The good news is that technology tools such as Survey Monkey, Facebook or Slack (in a workplace setting) are at everyone’s disposal. Whether you’re planning your event or having your caterer take the reins, consider using an online survey or communications platform to canvass for dietary restrictions. Be sure to be inclusive and ask the right questions about food allergies, religious accommodation, dietary preferences and the like. All it takes is asking an open-ended question as simple as, ‘Who has dietary restrictions?’—and then carefully documenting which guests require accommodation. Then share the information with your caterer who can work their culinary magic to create customized dishes (more on that in a moment).
Most catering firms will gladly modify their menus to suit guests’ needs. But not all caterers are created equally. Some will charge extra for any deviation from a set event menu. That’s why it’s important to ask those questions up front and determine whether it’s necessary to increase catering budgets to address dietary restrictions. The same applies to situations where an option such as seafood is made available to pescatarian guests when meat is the main course. If you choose to serve lobster as an alternative, for example, be prepared to increase your food budget.
Focus on the food
Catering to dietary restrictions is no reason to get bummed out. Accommodating your guests offers the chance to address their needs, put a smile on their faces and, in some cases, avoid the risk of having to break out a heart defibrillator before the first dance. The key to making a modified menu truly magical is to think creatively. There’s nothing worse than a vegan sitting down at a corporate cafeteria or a gorgeously adorned wedding table, then watching disappointedly as their fellow guests are served mouth-watering dishes while a plate of lettuce and cold veggies are shoved in front of their faces. This happens more often than you might think. It’s incumbent on a host to insist their caterer puts as much time and effort into preparing accommodated dishes as the plates being served to the majority of the room.
Take Kiss the Cook’s wedding menus as an example. We feature amazing vegan fare such as bruschetta-stuffed mushroom caps with polenta fries and our nonna-pleasing fire-roasted marinara sauce. That’s in addition to favourites such our eggplant parmesan and our signature poutine food station that can be served fully vegan. Our chefs put a tremendous amount of time and effort into preparing these dishes and every other served to accommodate dietary restrictions. Make sure your caterer does the same.
Take it seriously
Every meal accommodation request should be treated as a severe food allergy—no exceptions. Whether that’s a kosher or halal requirement, or demands for a low-sodium dinner to ensure that grandma’s blood pressure doesn’t spike to unacceptable levels before the night is out, dietary restrictions must be taken seriously. That’s the only way to ensure that guests are included and accommodated, and that life-risking, event-spoiling accidents don’t occur. Another important consideration is food handling and packaging. It’s absolutely critical that each meal is carefully packed and labelled for easy identification, particularly when food allergies are involved. This is a best practice that we follow here at Kiss the Cook Catering (as do most reputable caterers), but it’s by no means a universally-applied policy across our industry.
Work with an experienced caterer
I’ve already touched on the fact that service levels vary across our industry. If you know that your guest list will include one or more individuals with food allergies, or if you and your spouse are vegans and want your wedding to align with your culinary/ethical lifestyle, choose a caterer with experience both in creating distinctive menus and accommodating specific dietary restrictions. They also need to have a contingency plan in place (which you should confirm before the event) in case something goes wrong and the vegan meals that were being prepared for your event suddenly go missing minutes before dinner is served. For leading caterers, dealing with last-minute challenges or alternative menu requests shouldn’t be a problem. That’s simply not the case for everyone else.
Working with the right supplier will save you the stress and worry of fretting over menu details that should be your caterer’s responsibility to manage. When all goes according to plan, all that’ll be left for you to do is to live the moment and love the food.
Fia Pagnello, Founder and CEO
Contact us now to book catering for your next event!