Today, offering a wide variety of dietary options at catered events is the rule, rather than the exception it once was. No blank looks allowed when a client requests keto-friendly options for their guests. Top event planners must have a deep knowledge of dietary restrictions and specialty foods.
Additionally, states are passing food allergy regulations requiring staff training, signage about allergies, and certified food protection managers—often managers and senior kitchen staff.
Keeping up can be a challenge, but we’ve got you covered with this primer on specialty catering. Learn the dietary restrictions, religious dietary laws, nutritional choices and requirements, and food allergies you need to know to provide an exceptional, respectful, and safe culinary experience for all your clients.
The Most Popular Special Diets Event Planners Should Know
These are the special diets some event guests may follow because of personal and moral beliefs, for health reasons, or weight loss goals (with three sample dishes for each category):
1. Vegetarian diet for events
A primarily plant-based diet. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, seafood, or poultry, but may eat food derived from animals, such as eggs, dairy, or honey. Vegetarian varieties include those who eat eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarian); those who eat eggs but no dairy (ovo vegetarian); and those who eat dairy but no eggs (lacto-vegetarian).
- Mini sundried tomato and goat cheese quiche
- Char-grilled brussel sprouts with lemon zest
- Portabella mushroom street tacos
2. Vegan diet for event catering
A completely plant-based diet. Vegans don’t eat any meat, seafood, or poultry, or any foods derived from animals, such as eggs, dairy, and gelatin. Honey consumption is controversial among vegans, with many vegans avoiding it because bees produce it. Vegan menus should exclude honey as a rule, unless explicitly requested by a client.
- Tomato, red onion salad with balsamic vinaigrette
- Grilled tofu and vegetable stir-fry
- Cauliflower steak lemon picatta
3. Pescetarian diet for event planning
A mostly vegetarian diet that includes seafood.
- Blackened salmon with scalloped zucchini
- Eggplant rollatini
- Wild mushroom risotto
4. Keto diet for events
A low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet meant to cause ketosis, in which the body burns fat instead of sugar for energy. People on keto diets eat nuts, avocados, tofu, lean and high-fat proteins, as well as saturated fats, such as butter and coconut oil. Carbohydrates are kept between 20 and 50 grams per day.
- Shrimp scampi
- BBQ baby back ribs
- Pancetta frittata with fanned avocado slices
5. Paleo diet for events
Based on the diet of our Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer ancestors, the paleo diet consists primarily of lean meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Dairy, beans, and grains—all of which became widespread with the advent of farming—are off the menu for paleo guests.
- Filet mignon and sauteed spinach
- Vegetable-stuffed roasted chicken breast
- Pulled pork with butter lettuce wraps
6. Raw food diet for events
Mostly uncooked, unprocessed foods free from additives. Because the foods are uncooked and unprocessed, the raw food diet is typically plant-based.
- Salad with lime-avocado dressing
- Zucchini noodle pasta salad
- Cauliflower ‘non-fried’ rice
7. Clean eating for event catering
Fresh, minimally processed foods prepared without additives. May include cooked meats that are not processed—roasted chicken, yes; salami, no.
- Arugula, beet, goat cheese, and walnut salad
- Shrimp tacos with pickled red onions
- Roasted herb-crusted chicken breast
8. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet for events
This is a diet designed to lower blood pressure, with a focus on low-sodium foods and foods that contain calcium, magnesium, and calcium.
- Low-sodium spicy seared swordfish
- Low-sodium Tuscan bean soup
- Bananas foster
9. Other diet types trending right now:
Top Google searches for diets in 2018 included many established and familiar diets, plus some new ones gaining popularity, including:
- The Carnivore diet – A primarily meat-based diet.
- Dr. Gundry – A somewhat controversial diet that calls for minimizing foods high in lectin, such as beans and specific vegetables.
- The Shepherd’s Diet – Keeps carbohydrates low and focuses on fats available in Biblical times.
- Mediterranean – The traditional diet of the Mediterranean region, with healthy oils and seafood, and a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
The Top 9 Religious Dietary Restrictions to Know for Event Catering
The holy texts of many religions outline clear dietary guidelines and restrictions, while other faiths offer strong suggestions and guidance for healthy and wholesome eating.
Jewish dietary guidelines (known as ‘kashrut’) require foods that are kosher (‘appropriate’ in Hebrew) as defined in the Hebrew Bible. Kosher animals must be slaughtered in a particular manner. Pork and shellfish are not kosher, and the mixing of meat and dairy is not kosher—which means there must be separate utensils, cooking tools, and serving plates for foods with meat and foods with dairy.
Halal means ‘permissible’ in Arabic, and halal food refers to food permitted by the Quran (the Muslim holy book). For meat to be considered halal, the animal must be slaughtered in a specific manner. Pork and alcohol are not halal.
Many Buddhists are vegetarian, but not all abstain from eating meat.
Many Hindus follow a lacto-vegetarian diet (no meat or eggs, but yes dairy), while others eat meat.
Observers are typically vegetarian, with a focus on unprocessed foods. Some Rastafarians may eat fish, but not shellfish.
6. Roman Catholicism
Observant Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.
7. Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon)
No alcohol, coffee, or tea. Menus should avoid foods cooked with alcohol, coffee, or tea as an ingredient (e.g. coq au vin or tiramisu).
8. Seventh-day Adventists
The church leaves it up to individuals to decide, but encourages a lacto-vegetarian diet.
Food within Sikh temples must be lacto-vegetarian. Sikhs are allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to include meat in their diet, though some sects call for a lacto-vegetarian diet. Sikhs are NOT allowed to eat meat from animals who were slaughtered according to religious precepts, such as Kosher and Halal meat.
Special Dietary Needs for People with Allergies and Disabilities for Events
Food allergies are considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and people with allergies face serious health risks from cross-contamination and mislabeled foods. An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies, and of those 5.6 million are children under age 18.
The most common food allergies and food intolerances:
- Tree nuts
- Cow’s milk
Education and clear communication are essential to keeping people safe from allergic reactions during catered events. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology points out that event guests with food allergies are particularly vulnerable as a “captive audience.” At a restaurant they can assess the situation and leave if they must, whereas events are often important family, social, or professional moments that aren’t so easy to leave.
Additionally, some guests with disabilities may have conditions that require liquid or soft-food options on the menu. Planning accessible events means keeping these concerns on your radar as well. Make sure to include soups and smoothies on the menu for guests with disabilities whenever needed, and always keep plastic straws available for guests who ask for them.
Making Sure Caterers and Event Staff Are Conscientious About Dietary Restrictions and Allergens
Whether it’s a tree-nut exclusion, a special dietary request, or a religion-based restriction—the caterers you contract with are critical partners for obvious reasons. You must exercise due diligence with every new catering company and hotel or venue kitchen you consider hiring. Whenever possible, add a site visit and kitchen walkthrough to your event planning checklist.
Here’s how to ensure every menu meets the dietary requirements of every guest:
- Research catering companies and hotel event kitchens to find those with a strong reputation for outstanding food safety and compliance.
- Give preference to caterers with food allergy training, such as AllerTrain or ServSafe. Make sure a certified staff member is present for every event.
- Get allergy certification for yourself and key members of your team.
- Give your guest-facing staff training so they know the symptoms of allergic reactions to food and anaphylaxis—a life-threatening allergic reaction. You and your staff should also know the first-aid and procedures to follow in the event of an emergency.
- Check online reviews—high numbers of complaints about unknowledgeable staff members can be an indication a particular caterer falls short.
- Talk with your network about caterers who are unfailingly responsive to special requests.
- Ask for proof of food-service licenses, health certificates, and certifications for food handling and safety.
- Discuss caterers’ food practices and methods for avoiding cross-contamination.
- Ask to see Kosher and Halal food-preparation certifications during your walkthrough or via email.
- Ask to see dated delivery receipts for Halal meats and Kosher foods.
Don’t worry about insulting your catering contacts by asking too many questions or establishing clear compliance thresholds for your caterers of choice. These are serious issues—catering companies that respect their importance will gladly provide proof of their certifications and demonstrate their food handling best practices.
How To Ask Clients About Dietary Restrictions, Accommodate Special Requests, and Prioritize Safety
The best way to manage dietary restrictions and allergies is to be prepared, ask questions, and let your clients know you respect and take their special requests seriously.
Be patient with client concerns, doublechecking, and even anxiety around dietary issues. Many people with allergies and dietary restrictions have negative experiences with people who are careless or dismissive of their restrictions.
Follow these tips to ensure you meet all of your clients’ dietary restrictions and special requests:
Before the event:
- Give your clients a questionnaire to clarify special nutritional needs and food allergies among their guests.
- Include a food allergy and dietary restrictions box for guests to fill out on their RSVP cards or online invite responses.
- Build the menu with food allergies and dietary restrictions in mind. Steering clear of them will minimize the chance of an emergency, and increase the peace of mind of guests.
- Note guests with allergies on the event table seating chart.
- Always use specialty caterers for halal and kosher events.
- Huddle up with the entire team before the event kick-off, so everyone knows which items contain possible allergens and so they can answer guest questions with confidence.
During the event:
- Offer a wide variety of foods so that there are safe options for guests with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Offer bruschetta with AND without parmesan cheese, so vegan guests can enjoy the staple appetizer. Offer abundant nut-free dessert options, so people with allergies can also visit the sweets table.
- Label all menu items containing allergens, and have a complete list of ingredients for every menu item to reference if guests want more details.
- Give guests the option to speak with the head chef about how they manage food allergies, religious dietary restrictions, and special diets.
- Place foods with known allergens far from the menu items that are free from allergens.
- Offer varied menu items for every course, so guests with restrictions and allergies have options.
- If a buffet-style event has a large number of vegetarians, consider creating a separate vegetarian buffet table. This would be open to all guests, but help vegetarians know which items are for them.
All of your event guests should enjoy the meal from beginning to end. With some vetting, awareness, specialty training, and sensitivity—no one will feel left out of the festivities.
Learn 31 tricks for setting an outstanding buffet table at an event. Or, learn how Social Tables event diagramming tool can help you keep track of guests with food allergies and restrictions—the software is free and easy to use!