Providing a range of healthy, nourishing foods and beverages made from locally sourced ingredients is one of the biggest trends in the meeting industry. There are many good reasons for attendees’ shift in thinking when it comes to food choices.
“I think we’re all just more informed,” says Megan Delaney, an independent meeting planner in Greenacres, Florida. “People are in general more health conscious. They’re moving from American-style big plates to enjoying food and making sure it works for their body. There’s also been a huge uptick in people finding out that they have a sensitivity to gluten or that dairy is what’s causing their GI issues. They’re realizing that with diet and exercise they can control their weight or prevent diabetes. And they’re finding that for religious or moral reasons they don’t want to eat red meat.”
While healthy food is a priority for many people attending conferences and incentive trips, not everyone has made this shift. Plenty still come to meetings expecting to splurge on comfort food and eat dessert after every meal. How do you balance these two expectations?
It may be easier than you think. A lot of it is about striking a balance between healthy and less healthy food. “Every single meal we’re looking at — does it appeal to our mass audience?” Delaney says. “If there are cupcakes, have we balanced that with whole fruit for people? Are we taking into account dietary needs? Does every meal have a vegetarian protein and something that’s vegan? We try to appease people with having some comfort food while at the same time making sure that healthy options are always available.”
Serving really good food made with real ingredients also can go a long way toward satisfying everyone. “As corporate budgets decrease for large-scale events, companies are really focusing on high-quality catering options and using more locally grown food,” says Shane Terenzi, senior event producer for High Beam Events, an Austin, Texas-based company that focuses on corporate meetings, experiential and social events and destination management. “We are seeing so many huge companies and small companies wanting to incorporate local ingredients as much as possible. Caterers want to give back to their communities and that includes working with local farmers to get the ingredients they need and working with ranchers to get locally raised meats.”
One of the most important things to remember when designing healthy menus is not to buy into old stereotypes about healthy food being boring or unappealing. “Don’t be constrained by any self-imposed limitations,” says Mike Schugt, president of Teneo Hospitality Group, a resort representation company in Orlando, Florida. “Attendees want healthy food, so give it to them and get very creative.”
Chefs can be your best friend in making this happen. In many cases they’re the ones leading the charge for healthier food and beverage options, says Tom Garcia, acting vice president, food and beverage for Benchmark, a global hospitality company. “They are engineering recipes and menus to include healthier options. Now the meeting planner or decision-maker of events and meetings can view healthier options when maybe it wasn’t top-of-mind prior to choosing the food offerings.”
Executive chef David Baron with Salt Wood Kitchen & Oysterette at Sanctuary Beach Resort in Marina, California, shares several healthy food trends he’s observed in recent years. “Red meat is less popular for some people,” he says. “They want white meat like chicken. We also do a lot of fish and seafood.”
Baron’s grain salads featuring quinoa, bulger and barley are very popular these days. He’s also using plenty of seasonal fruits and vegetables and fresh herbs. “Herbs are big for me in cooking,” he says. “They add a lot of fresh flavors.” One of his favorite things to do is coat melon with them and grill the slices. “It changes the structure of it and gives it some extra flavor.”
Healthy fats are in high demand, as are natural sugars such as honey and agave. Fermented foods continue to be popular as more people learn about the benefits of eating probiotic food. Baron is also using more nuts and seeds in dishes.
Delaney likes to allow people to build their own meals so they can choose exactly what goes into their food. As an example, she describes a lunch buffet that starts with simple salad greens. People can select their own protein, garnishes and dressing, depending on their tastes and dietary restrictions. “I can see 10 different people walking through that buffet line, and they’re all satisfied and have choices,” she says.
The “build you own meal” trend has gotten very popular in recent years, Terenzi says. “People are wanting to know what they’re consuming and they’re wanting to do things themselves.” Part of this is that more people view food as a form of entertainment, so they want to interact with it. But it also allows people with dietary restrictions to identify exactly what’s going into their meal or snack.
Terenzi shares a few of his favorite DIY meals and snacks. For stuffed avocado bars, caterers set out halved, pitted avocados and allow guests to add crème fresh, cotija cheese, queso dip, salsa and other ingredients. At canapé stations, guests are encouraged to top crostinis with seared ahi tuna, cooked meat and vegetable spreads. A client serving guests at South by Southwest eschewed their traditional early morning alcohol offerings and instead set up a create-your-own parfait station with dairy and nondairy yogurt, granola, fresh fruit and other add-ons.
“Meals now are much heavier on vegetarian options versus beef,” says Schugt. “Desserts are very small and more just to taste versus a piece of cake or pie. There’s a move to organic foods versus processed.” Attendees also are grateful to receive scratch-made foods when possible.
A big part of the move toward healthier food has to do with the growing number of dietary restrictions. Meeting planners and chefs are finding more ways to accommodate diners with food allergies or sensitivities; eating preferences such as Paleo, Mediterranean, vegetarian or vegan; or religious limitations such as halal or kosher.
Restaurants and caterers are increasingly setting out a full list of what each dish on a buffet contains. That way people can judge for themselves whether they can eat something or not. It also can be helpful to point out which foods contain allergens and which are appropriate for people with different dietary needs.
When it comes to working with corporate meeting planners, “I try to get the group’s rules — and by rules I mean dietary restrictions and aversions,” says Baron. “I like to get a background of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Then I tell them to let us do our job and our sourcing to do what we do best. We work within their price range to deliver what they want out of the meal.” He often ends up customizing menus to their tastes and needs.
Meeting food doesn’t have to be all healthy all the time. “Guests like to see the healthier options available, and may grab a little here and there, but the chips, pretzels and chicken wings are still going to be the most popular items,” says Garcia.
“The meeting planner has to have strong knowledge of what the client or group expects and enjoys,” he adds. After all, the ratio of healthy food to sweet and salty treats meeting attendees want will vary widely from group to group. “If healthy options are a priority, the meeting planner will need to deliver that message to the chef and catering manager.”
Striking the right balance between healthy options and indulgent ones can be fun. Given the popularity of small plates, Delaney likes to set up themed stations around the dining area to encourage participants to try a little of everything. “You can have one that’s fun healthy options, then one that’s for people who follow a halal or vegetarian diet,” she says.
This is a good way to serve ethnic cuisines without alienating people who are hesitant to try new things. “An ‘around the world’ feel gives everybody that little bit of satisfaction and little bit of healthy, and it helps broaden people’s horizons,” she says. “They can try some new spices or vegetarian foods and see how they like them.”
“I would definitely say the trend is to find more fun ways of bringing healthy food and beverage into events,” says Terenzi. One great way to do this is through eye-catching and entertaining displays.
“Colors can add a lot,” says Jarrod Salaiz, senior event producer with High Beam Events. So can edible flowers or Instagram-worthy plating. “When we think about selling a client on healthy food, it can seem a little scary. But if it’s beautiful and tastes great, people will go crazy for it. It will bring people in no matter what the food is.”
Creating more attractive food displays can be as easy at putting vegetables and fruits on more interesting platters or containers, Garcia says. Or it can be as involved as building an entire buffet around a clever theme and fun decorations. Work with your caterer and any event designers to create something no one has seen before (or everyone has been buzzing about on social media). No one will be able to resist digging in.
Healthy food should carry over from meals into snack time. Serving healthy, high-protein items will give people more energy to participate in events throughout the day.
“What people are snacking on and drinking in today’s world is getting adapted in banquet kitchens,” says Schugt. “Previously, you would have popcorn stations and ice cream stations. Now that’s been replaced with smoothie stations and many different and interesting presentations of coffees and espressos. Hotels have baristas for breaks and meals to prep coffee drinks like lattes. Instead of having bags of chips, you’ll find Kind bars.”
“Corporations and groups are not going for the meat platters as much anymore,” Baron says. “They’re going for vegetable and fruit plates with dips.” For the latter, cooks can offer plenty of alternatives to ranch dressing. Try hummus plain, blended with white or fava beans instead of garbanzos, or combined with vegetables like beets or roasted peppers. Yogurt-based dips have less fat than their sour cream-heavy counterparts.
Health-conscious consumption doesn’t stop at the break table. Consumers are more concerned than ever about what they drink. And food providers are responding with flavorful choices meeting participants can enjoy all day.
“The No. 1 thing you’re seeing, because we’re always trying to hydrate attendees, is flavored water or spa water,” says Delaney.
Baron backs this up. “We cut down coffee in the lobby and are doing infused water with citrus or fruit or berries,” he says.
Water stations provide some interesting opportunities to meet other meeting goals. Salaiz points out that many consumers who are interested in eating better are also concerned about lowering their carbon footprint. A water station that allows them to continually refill a water bottle is more eco-friendly than utilizing several plastic water bottles.
In addition, he says, companies can set out their own branded reusable water bottles (or sponsored water bottles) that attendees can pick up. This provides an additional opportunity to share a marketing message or sell a sponsorship.
“Coconut water is becoming more available for meetings and events,” says Garcia. “Teas are back in popularity and offered all day.” Kombucha, a fermented tea that contains probiotics (and a tiny bit of alcohol) may also be popular with some attendees.
For people who still crave that cup of coffee, there’s a new option that’s being called a healthier choice: butter coffee. “This was a hit in Austin a few years ago,” says Salaiz. “Instead of adding sugar and cream to your coffee there’s a special butter with healthy fat that you can add.”
“Fresh pressed juices are always a big hit,” says Delaney. Fruit isn’t the only thing being juiced anymore; drinks that contain vegetables such as beets, carrots, spinach and kale are also quite popular.
Juice is great for breakfasts or breaks, but it can also be used in mocktails, which are another healthy beverage trend. “People are serving less alcohol, but when they’re doing bars, instead of using traditional sweet and sour mixes they’re doing fresh juices,” says Terenzi.
Meeting attendees go crazy for smoothie bars. One twist is to allow people to make their own or choose from a list of ingredients, Terenzi says.
No matter what food and beverages you serve, the key is to keep it fun, Salaiz says. “There are so many caterers who want to experiment with different flavor profiles and different colors.” With their help, meeting-goers won’t even remember that they indulged in healthy treats on their trip. All they’ll remember are the flavors that tempted their taste buds day after flavorful day.” C&IT