Focus on What you CAN CONTROL with Event Food & Beverage and Attendee’s Dietary Needs

Eating at a Meeting Podcast Episode 65

Woman with long brown hair pointing at words on the screenEating at a Meeting can be challenging for attendee’s with food allergies and other dietary needs. We are relying on someone else to order, prepare and serve us food and beverage. In this episode, which is published on Global Meetings Industry Day, Tracy goes through six ways attendees with dietary needs, meeting professionals and caterers can control about the food and beverage being served to create safe and inclusive dining experiences.

The six tips were prompted by Allie Bahn’s Miss Allergic Reactor Instagram story and blog post about traveling the world with food allergies.

Annually, April 8 is Global Meetings Industry Day which celebrates, educates and advocates for the value of hosting meetings. The 2021 theme is MeetSafe. How can we provide safe meeting experiences for everyone as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Listen in to see how Tracy turns Allie’s six tips into ways event planners, caterers and organizations can provide safer and more inclusive food and beverage experiences by understanding how those with dietary needs can feel safer.

  1. I CAN control what I KNOW — What do you know about the food being served?
  2. I CAN control what I EAT — How can you help attendees know what they are eating?
  3. I CAN control what I SAY — What do you, your staff, servers say to guests who share they have dietary needs?
  4. I CAN control how I ACT  How do you, your staff, chefs, servers act when preparing and serving food?
  5. I CAN control how I REACT When someone shares they have a dietary need, how do you react — roll your eyes, get frustrated?
  6. I CAN control where I GO  If event menus aren’t inclusive experiences, attendees can decide not to attend the event. If a caterer cannot provide options, select another one?

Check out other featured guests on the Eating at a Meeting podcast

Check out Episode #47, ” How to Live and Travel Confidently with Food Allergies” where Allie was the guest on the show.


Icon of a piece of paper with lines and a microphone to represent a transcriptFull Transcript


Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Eating at a Meeting podcast. I’m your host, Tracy Stuckrath. So this episode of the Eating at a Meeting podcast is dropping on April 8, which is Global Meetings Industry Day, and this is a worldwide effort throughout the meetings industry, events industry, hospitality industry, to promote meetings and events to promote the expertise and the value we bring to creating experiences whether in person or virtual. That is the importance of meeting with other people, and the theme of 2021 is meet safe. And today’s conversation, that I’m going to bring about, is about meeting safely but, as it focuses on food and beverage experiences.

So I hope you learn something from it, and let’s get started. In today’s show, I’m on my own. I’m the expert, and we’re going to focus on an Instagram story that I saw from my friend Allie Bahn, otherwise known as “Miss Allergic Reactor” on all social media platforms. Again, that’s @miss_allergic_reactor. She did an Instagram story last week that I thought was wonderful. The title of it was “Focus on What you can Control” when traveling with food allergies, and there’s a lot of things that we can control. So I want to focus on that because I think learning from her, a person who’s traveled the world with multiple food allergies, and environmental allergies, she has learned, teaches others and shares with others how she has traveled the world, the places that I just have dreamed about going, with these multiple food allergies, and environmental allergies, and she’s got a lot we can learn a lot from her.

So what I want to do today is go through the six steps that she’s outlined in a blog post that she then transformed into an Instagram story and see how we can learn from that as meeting professionals. Whether you’re the planner, the convention services manager, the chef, the server, the sales manager even really look at what we can do. She was a guest on my show last year, she was Episode Number 47, how to live and travel confidently with food allergies. So go back and listen to that one if you haven’t, but right now today, we’re going to talk about what we can control with managing dietary needs of our events.

Before I get in, one more thing, before I get in, I know that this is a challenge. I am a meeting planner. I am also someone who has food allergies, but when I started my eating in a meeting Facebook group last year, and if you haven’t joined go find it, it’s free to join the eating into meeting Facebook group, I asked all people who enter the group or want to join the group: what are your biggest challenges with event food and beverage, and what do you want to learn about event food and beverage? Hands down the number one answer for both questions is how do I feed everybody? How do I make sure that I accommodate my attendees with different dietary restrictions? How do I make sure that I keep people safe? It literally is about the dietary restrictions because meeting planners are getting requests left and right from attendees wanting to saying, “hey, I’m allergic to this or I’m kosher and this,” and it’s a challenge when you’re trying to feed, you know, 50,000 or 100,000 people at one time, you know, and you have a bunch of people with different dietary restrictions. So how do you do that? The number two and three responses in the for those two questions are safety, and because I launched it in COVID, during the middle of the pandemic, the third reason was how do I accommodate people during COVID? How do I make sure that everybody feels safe?

So, I know that I’m not the only one that finds a challenge in this, my almost 1000 members of that group have said the same thing. So again, we’re going to look at what we can control with dietary restrictions and how we can help our attendees control their experience and feel safe and included when they’re eating at our events.

So let’s get started.

The number one thing that Allie points out is that she can control what she knows. Again, I love this because it is about knowing your food allergies, and knowing your other dietary needs, if it’s celiac, or if it’s kosher, or you know, veganism, even, know more about your dietary needs. She does a lot of research on what that is. An example would be if she was allergic to eggs, or if you had somebody allergic to eggs, you would know that when you’re looking at a pre packaged item, and you’re trying to find out if it contains eggs, you’re going to look for the word egg, of course. In the US, Canada, and the European Union, and actually, I think it’s 22 countries around the world, egg is one of the top allergens that must be labeled on pre packaged foods and in the EU on unpackaged foods as well. But, when you’re looking at a pre packaged item it needs to spell out that it does contain eggs, but words like globulin, and ovo globulin and anything that begins with the word ovo means that there’s egg in that item. Or, if you’re thinking about milk, somebody says they’re allergic to dairy, that would include milk and ice cream and whey and casein and lactose, those are words that mean that they contain milk. So we need to learn those words, and understand that when we’re when we’re preparing something, if somebody says they’re allergic to something, we need to know what to look for. So this includes learning what kinds of food you’re allergic to, and what other names are there for that allergen, as well as where they are usually used in other food products, and if you have environmental allergies, if they’re in your shampoos, or your soaps and things like that. So as somebody who is allergic to something you can control by knowing more about your allergen, or your or veganism, or gluten free etc.

Now, if you’re on your new meeting planner side, and even the chef side, the same thing actually applies to you. You know, if you’re responsible for serving food and beverage, or selecting food and beverage, paying for food and beverage, that’s going to be served to someone who has food allergies, or to anyone, it’s really important to know what you’re serving. So that means educating yourself, using reliable resources, to know that quiche contains eggs, or that frittata contains eggs, and knowing those things, or your muffins, or your salads, if it’s got crumpled eggs on it, you know, understanding what those ingredients are.

An example that I use a lot is from my friend, Christina, she posted it on my Facebook Group a long time ago, or a Facebook page, you know, hey, “we’re serving salad, a gluten free salad,” but the salad was served in a cone. That cone was actually like an ice cream cone, not a paper cone, but an ice cream cone, and it had dried onions on top of it. Well, it wasn’t spelled out on the banquet event order or on the menu, that this gluten free salad was being served this way, except for the word cone, and nobody, you know, checked on what that meant. That’s where we need to control what we know, and that means asking a lot of questions of our catering partners and of our chefs, and to me, if you’re a chef and you’re serving food, you should know what you’re serving. That may require keeping the labels of prepackaged food that you’re using in your dishes. That may mean jotting down the recipe for your servers to know or your banquet captains to know, to make sure that if you’ve altered the recipe in any sort of way that that information is documented.

A story that comes to mind on that is an event that I attended last year, and actually was one I was speaking at, and it was a green drink It said kale and such and such on it, but when I took a sip of it, it was very frothy, and I was like, this smells, this tastes like pineapple. I looked at the label on the buffet, and there was no pineapple in it listed on that buffet label, and I’m like this has got pineapple in it. But I, you know, I took it by what was on the label that there’s no pineapple in it, so I kept drinking it.

Well, my throat started to close up, and I went back to the buffet to double check again. Again, it said there was no pineapple in it, but one of the servers came out, and someone else was asking what was in it. She pulled out of her pocket, a piece of paper that she had hand written down what the chef was putting into that drink, and came to find out that the hotel had two different versions of a recipe with the same exact name. The chef that made it the first time did not use the one that contains pineapple, but the chef that made the fresh batch when they were running low, used a different one that did contain pineapple. This wasn’t communicated, you know, and that change wasn’t made on the label. So, again, that goes back to controlling what we know, and that means taking responsibility for what we are serving and knowing that. Controlling what you know, that is item number one.

Number two on Allie’s list here is: I can control what I eat. That is true when you’re going out or you’re making something for yourself at home or when you’re choosing a restaurant, but when you’re going to an event where a meeting planner and a chef and are responsible for ordering, making, and serving you food and beverage, I with the dietary needs, don’t have as much control over what I’m going to eat because someone else is picking that food out.

So for me, the way I advise my clients is that when we’re designing our event registration system, we need to ask a lot of questions of our attendees about their dietary needs. What are you allergic to? Do you have any food allergies? Do you have any other dietary needs that we need to be concerned about when we’re designing our menus? Asking these questions up front from our attendees is really, really important because we want to be able to control what we’re serving. This reminds me of banquet event orders. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with banquet event orders and menus, is that when you’re looking at approving the banquet event order it says you know there is a Capri sea salad and then it’s then it says, filet mignon, and shrimp with a side of gratin potatoes. This is not the best sounding meal, and then dessert is tiramisu. Alright, none of those things would go really well together, but that’s what it says, and at the bottom, it says 25 vegetarians, five vegan, 30 gluten free, 25 no shellfish. We don’t know what those people are getting.

Right, at that point, you should red flag that that means Chef’s Choice. You have no idea what’s going to be served to those individuals who have dietary restrictions, and so what we need to do is take more control of what we’re serving, so that the attendees have more control of what they’re eating. That means getting the hotel, the convention center, the catering company to spell out what those meals are. You can control what’s being served because you need to know that your CEO is not going to be served a Cornish game hen stuffed with rice that contains mushrooms when he’s allergic to mushrooms. Thank you to my friend who gave me that example from one of her events. So when we’re trying to help our attendees control what they eat at an event, no matter what their dietary needs are, we need to control what we’re serving by knowing more. That goes back to number one, which is knowing more about what we’re serving, and providing information out there for our attendees, really helping others. Being able to control what we eat is knowing that we need to know what we’re serving.

Now number three: is I can control what I say. I think this is an interesting concept from Alli, and for when we’re trying to describe to people what we’re allergic to. In her blog post, she says, food allergies are the worst health issue that she has ever had to deal with. She says I will feel forever grateful for her mom and her dad for providing a safe experience and life experience teaching her how to advocate for herself. Her allergies are life threatening, and so she needs to know how to do that. When she speaks about her food allergies, she wants to do it as an educational opportunity, as well as an educational learning experience. She doesn’t want to have a pity party. She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She wants to own it, and she wants to educate you at the same time.

So when we, when we control what we say, we need to be empowered to share our dietary needs, don’t be afraid of them, but don’t come at them as being defensive, and also don’t come at them as being shy and apprehensive. As a meeting planner, if you’re one of my attendees with those food allergies, I don’t want to kill you. So I need you to advocate for yourself. I need you to stand up and say, “hey, I need these foods,” and actually, last night, I went to dinner with my parents at a restaurant. I asked for a big potato with nothing on it. I, unfortunately, this is not what I should have done. Unfortunately, I didn’t say to her, “I have food allergies, I want this baked potato free of everything except the potato itself.” I did not communicate that I had an allergy. I’ve just said this is how I want to order it.

Well, my mom had ordered a baked potato loaded with everything on it, and when they brought my baked potato, they also loaded everything on it. I got mad. I wasn’t happy. People with food allergies, this is important. When you know what was put into the menu, or what was put into the register to communicate that, I needed this baked potato free of everything, and then the chef did not read that. I don’t know what the waitress put into the cash register or to the POS system, and I don’t know what the chef read, but to me, I failed in communicating my needs. We need to give individuals who have food allergies and other dietary needs the opportunity to say what they need, and this comes with designing our registration systems. My recommendation is to use checkboxes, and not to use open ended boxes for people just to fill in. Because as a planner, I’ve gotten those boxes filled in and it’s just somebody telling me that, “I only eat chocolate,” right, and that’s time consuming. But if you give them checkboxes, hey, I’m allergic to this and this and this. Utilizing the top eight allergens, preferably 14 or 22, that are regulated around the world, as top allergens, use your checkboxes with then another box for them to fill in with foods that are not included on that list, that would be like onions and corn, or escargot or kelp, or whatever they’re allergic to filling that in. Helping you streamline it with checkboxes is really a great opportunity for you for them to share and say what they need. Then also maybe put a box saying, hey, if you need to talk to me, please check here and we’ll have a conversation. As a planner, we need to provide them the opportunity to say what they need to say.

Then on the flip side, as a planner, you also need to provide and say what you need from your catering teams. You know, hey, we’ve got attendees that are vegan, we’ve got attendees that are gluten free, and this is how many people that we have and we need you to provide a safe experience. We need your help to create a safe experience for these individuals so that they get a meal that is of equal quality and value, and ensure that they feel included in this food and beverage experience. So meeting planners, we can control how we say it and request it from our catering teams. Catering teams and meeting planners, the other flip side of it is, when we’re communicating to our clients, and to our attendees, we can control what we say. We can say, “hey, this is not a certified allergen free environment that we’re renting; it’s not a certified gluten free environment; it’s not a certified kosher kitchen, so please, when you’re communicating your needs to us, please keep this in your mind. We are going to do the utmost best that we can to make you a meal that meets your needs. But please know, our limitations in providing you a completely free, allergen free environment.”

You can also control what you say, by giving them the menus up front, working with that attendee to say, “hey, what can you eat? What do you feel comfortable eating away from home? And let us make that for you.” So looking at it in what we’re communicating to our attendees about our capabilities, as well as giving them the opportunity to say what they need to say. Now, you might think that by saying that, hey, we don’t have a certified allergen free environment, or we don’t have a certified kosher environment, or gluten free environment, you don’t have to provide them food and beverage.

Well, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and this is a whole other conversation that we can have on a different day, but under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the word eating, as well as all of our bodily functions, immune system, digestive tract, were added to the ADA in 2008, as major life activities, we as meeting planners have a duty of care to provide for our attendees who do have dietary restrictions because they must eat a specific way as not to be harmed or potentially die from eating that foreign substance that their body does not like. So we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do, and control what we say, but we also at the same time have to provide a safe experience. That’s going to say, if you’re a restaurant, and it is an Italian restaurant, and you make your pasta fresh in that environment, putting a disclaimer on there saying, we’ve got flour in the kitchen. If you want gluten free pasta, we’re buying it out of a box, and we’re putting it in a pot of water. That pot of water will be a fresh pot of water not cooked in the same water as our other pasta, but know that there is potentially flour in the air and can come down as dust. So, it would be really hard to do something like that in a specific environment. It’s a hard thing to manage, but I hope you get my drift. We still should try to provide something unless it’s an undue burden, extreme change of, I have to redo my entire restaurant to make sure that it’s 100% gluten free, that’s going to be an undue burden. So that’s another longer conversation as well.

Okay, so number four on Allie’s list. Let’s recap the first three, number one was I can control what I know. So what can you control that you know, what information can you gather about dietary needs, so that you’re smarter and can communicate clearly on what your needs are and/or what you’re serving. Number two: is I can control what I eat. So it’s for the meeting for the attendee is, I can control what I eat, but for the meeting planner on the chef, you can control what you’re serving and how you communicate that. Number three was I can control what I say. Again, this is the attendee saying, these are my needs and meeting planners and Chefs saying this is what we can do for you, and here’s the way that we want you to communicate with us about your needs. Those are number one, two, and three.

Number four on Allie’s list, and again, this is Allie Bahn. She is with and I am taking her tips that she can control things as a food allergic person, and educating and turning this into a conversation about how we can serve people with dietary needs in our events. So again, number four is I can control how I act. It’s interesting in her, um, in her blog posts, when somebody has food allergies, we don’t want to live in a bubble. We don’t want to stay in our house the whole time. So we choose to go out. We make the decision to go out. We make the decision to go to an event or to live life. We choose to do that outside of our homes and rely on other people to make us food, but there are things that we can control and how we act.

One of the things that she does is that she wears an allergy bracelet, medical alert bracelet, so in case she does have an allergic reaction, it’s there, so that other people can see it, if she’s not able to speak for herself. She travels the world with this, remember, and so she’s really good at communicating how she acts. It’s not about just about what you say, but it’s also what you do that shows, you know how you feel about your food allergies. It’s owning it; it’s standing up for yourself and participating as a human being in a manner. Saying, “hey, I’m allergic to this, I hope you understand, what can you do? What can you work with me on to provide me with something that doesn’t have any of these items? Can I help you read a label to educate you?” How do you act, and how do you portray yourself? For me, how do you act, when you’re somebody with food allergies or dietary needs, is communicating that form of action, of communicating your needs, owning it and standing up for yourself.

Whereas not communicating that in advance, sitting down a server hands you something in front of you, and you go, “Oh, I’m allergic to such and such, I can’t eat this,” and you’ve now thrown that server into a loop. They have to go to the banquet captain. They have to go to the back of the house and say, “hey, I’ve got somebody that’s allergic to such and such, they can’t eat this,” but you didn’t communicate that in advance. So that is a form of action. If you’re a server, you’re a meeting planner, you’re the chef, the reactions that a lot of people with food allergies and different dietary restrictions get is a roll of the eyes, or “oh my gosh, I’ve got somebody else that’s asking for a customization of my meals”. That’s a bad action. I mean, that’s an action that can look negatively against you and towards that person.

It’s not Allie’s fault her body is allergic to these things, and if she eats them, she’ll die. So it’s not something that she can control. To think that we’re providing food and beverage for her and we’re frustrated by her needs, that’s just an action that is negative in the perception. So, how can you resolve that? How can you provide training to your staff, to the servers that are serving food, to your line cooks, to educate them? Going back to number one, knowing you know about different dietary needs, and what this means is really important.

Number five on this list, is I can control how I react. So again, the first one just before this is I can control how I act, and this is one how I react. So that story of what happened to me the other day, actually, last night when that server brought out a potato that was loaded and not free of everything that I asked for. I got mad. I didn’t need to react that way. I can just say, “Hey, I actually asked for a potato with nothing on it, can you give me a new one?” Instead, I got angry.

Another example of that for me personally, is a couple of years ago, I went to a conference on the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was to learn more about the ADA and what regulations have to be put into place to provide for people with different disabilities. They had asked in advance about my dietary needs, there was a box to input them, but nothing was communicated at the registration desk. Nobody confirmed those needs at the registration desk when I checked in. When I went to the food function, there was one person standing there, but nothing was labeled. There was not even any assigned to tell me what was being served at all, the name of the dish. I asked the woman, “what’s in this?” it’s Chicken cacciatore, whatever it was, I don’t even remember, and I just got frustrated. I left and I was hangry. I was hungry, so I left hangry.

Thankfully my friend Elisa Hayes, was like “Tracy, you own this. You go back there and you say, I requested a meal without this, this, and this on the registration form was this communicated to you?”

I did that in a very calm fashion. A meal was brought out to me. It was not the most delicious looking meal or tastiest, but it was a meal that did meet my needs. My reaction should not have been to get frustrated and annoyed, but to go back and educate and ask the questions of the event registration, the team at the event registration desk, with the banquet captain, or the banquet team before I arrived, or before I went through that buffet. The young lady that was standing at the buffet didn’t know anything about what was being served except for the main line item. But again, nothing was labeled. So how can we control how I react, as an attendee. But also as a server or a meeting planner, we need to stop rolling our eyes, and we need to look at this as an opportunity to create a better experience for someone.

Okay, number six, this is the last one and Allie’s list, and this is, I can control where I go. I think this is an interesting thing to think about. As a person with food allergies, we can control where we eat, we can say, I’m not going to go eat at XYZ restaurant because they only have boring chicken with broccoli in it, and that’s the only thing on their four page menu that meets my needs. I don’t want to go there. I’m going to go to ABC restaurant because they have their food labeled, the server’s know what’s being served and understand and are very welcoming about it. They want to make sure that I’m fed something that’s nutritious and tasty, but when I’m going to an event, I don’t have control over what I’m going to eat. If food and beverage events are included in my registration form, there is somebody else responsible for ordering the food for me. There’s somebody else responsible for making the food for me, but I can control if I want to go there.

To me that looks like a meeting planner, an event saying, this is what we’re providing in food and beverage. These are our policies around food allergies and dietary restrictions. This is our menus, and this is how it’s going to be labeled. This is you know what you’re going to get when you arrive. You’re going to get a meal card or, and this is what I train and teach my clients. Let’s design the registration form so that it includes more information, so that I, as a consumer with different dietary restrictions, can make the decision to go to your event because I’m forking out $500, $800, $1000, $1200 to come to your conference, or my company is, and I need to feel comfortable. I need to be able to make a decision that I feel safe and will feel included in these food and beverage functions.

As a meeting planner, to help your attendees control where they can go, provide them options. If you’re not going to provide food and beverage at your event, list out food and beverage events or venues around the hotel or the conference center that are gluten free or kosher or vegan restaurants. Help them to make the decision to come attend your event so that they are learning from you, they are networking with your other attendees, etc. So how can you encourage them to make that decision to go to your event?

Again, let’s go through this. These examples are six tips I got from my friend Allie Bahn, who is also known as Miss Allergic Reactor. She travels the world with multiple food allergies and environmental allergies, and she’s just a wealth of knowledge. Her tips on controlling what she can control with food allergies are: number one was I can control what I know, number two was I can control what I eat, number three was I can control what I say, number four was I can control how I act, number five was I can control how I react, and number six was I can control where I go. So as a meeting professional, hospitality hosts, hospitality professional, how can you help your attendees control those factors if they’ve got different dietary needs? How can you control the environment to create an experience that they want to come and share with you and your organization?

You’re listening to this podcast, hopefully when it comes out, which is Thursday, April 8, and that is global meetings industry day. Global Meetings Industry Day is about promoting the meetings industry on what we do, how we create experiences for individuals. The theme for 2021 is meet safe. How are we coming out of the COVID experience to create meetings that are safe and make people want to go to them? How can we do that? Food and beverage is part of that. So as we think about creating our next event, how can you create it so that your attendees can meet safely and eat safely at your events?

So think about that, and let me know, send me a note at Tracy@thrive, go join the Eating at a Meeting Facebook group and make a comment on the video that talks about this as well, or just pick up the phone call, pick up the phone and call me. I’m here to help advocate and encourage that we create safe and inclusive food and beverage experiences. I want Eating at a Meeting to be all of those things for anyone who attends and that’s our attendees, our bosses, our stakeholders, our vendors, etc. So, thank you for listening to the eating at a meeting podcast. I really appreciate it. I hope you’ve learned something today. Please share it with others. You can find it on all podcast platforms, and I’ll see you next week. Thanks! Stay safe and eat well!