As someone who has gastroparesis, a stomach disorder that slows digestion, I have had many unpleasant experiences at food-centric events. Due to my restricted diet, I am often unable to eat the food served. Sometimes this is a minor inconvenience, such as at short events where I know I can eat afterward. Not being able to eat at an event can be troublesome, however, when the event is long (such as at a conference), when the event is your only source of food (such as at retreats), and when outside food is not allowed into the venue. If you are planning an event, you can make your event more friendly to people with dietary restrictions in the following five simple ways:
1. If possible, tell your guests about the menu ahead of time.
If the event you are planning is invite-only, or if it is publicized, tell guests about the menu ahead of time. Doing so will allow your guests to know if they need to eat before the event or bring their own food. Even if the menu items cannot be altered, allowing your guests to know in advance about what will be served will allow them to plan ahead properly.
2. At buffet-style events, label dishes and provide their allergen information.
Buffet-style events can be especially difficult to attend for people with dietary restrictions because of the uncertainty about how the food is prepared and about the ingredients used. Labeling the food, including the ingredients list, and providing the allergen information can help greatly in making your event accessible for people with dietary restrictions. Labeling the dishes ahead of time also helps the event run smoothly by allowing guests to determine for themselves if they can eat a dish, as opposed to the guest needing to ask the host about ingredients.
3. If the event requires an RSVP, include a space where guests can specify their dietary restrictions.
If your event has a guest list and requires an RSVP, you can make your event more accessible for people with dietary restrictions by allowing people to list their restrictions on the RSVP form. Many catered events with multiple entree options already include a space for guests to specify which entree they would like. Including space for guests to list their restrictions gives them an unobtrusive way to make their needs known. In some cases, dietary restrictions can be accommodated easily by preparing a guest’s meal without certain components, such as by leaving a cream-based sauce off of the plate of someone with a milk allergy or intolerance. Allowing people to list their restrictions in advance also allows the event planner to accommodate the specific diets of their guests, rather than having to guess which diets to accommodate. This can allow the event planner to avoid accommodating diets that their guests do not have, such as by going out of their way to provide a gluten-free option when none of the guests follow gluten-free diets.
4. If not all diets can be accommodated, allow people to decline the food ahead of time.
There are many medical conditions that cause people to have to follow special diets, from common conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome to lesser-known ones like Eosinophilic Esophagitis. It may not be feasible for all diets to be accommodated. While it can feel isolating to be the only person not served food at an event, it feels even worse to have to leave the food you were served untouched and wasted. Allowing people who cannot eat the provided food to decline it in advance reduces food waste. It also saves money by preventing unneeded meals from being purchased and prepared.
5. Allow people with medical conditions to bring their own food and drink into the venue.
Many people with medical conditions carry wallet-sized cards with them that explain their condition and the reasons for why they may need to bring food or drink into a venue. Even if the venue does not usually allow people to enter with outside food or drink, please make exceptions for people with medical needs. This can be important for a variety of situations. Some disorders, like gastroparesis, can limit the amount of food a person is able to eat at any one time. People with gastroparesis are encouraged to eat small portions throughout the day. It may not be possible for someone with a medical condition like gastroparesis to eat enough before an event to keep them full until the end. People with dietary restrictions who have co-morbid diabetes may need to bring food into a venue to prevent their blood sugar from dropping.
Through these five methods, you can make your events easier to attend for people with dietary restrictions. Informing guests about the menu ahead of time will allow them to plan ahead for the event more effectively. Labeling dishes at buffet-style events will allow guests to determine which dishes they can eat. Event planners will benefit from eliminating the need to guess which restrictions their guests have at events that require an RSVP by allowing their guests to list their restrictions on the RSVP form. Allowing guests to decline food that they cannot eat before the event will prevent food waste. Ensuring that guests on medical diets can bring their own food into the venue will allow them to manage their conditions more effectively.