Evidence of the trend toward a healthier lifestyle is everywhere — from magazine headlines to fashion, Fitbits to fitness-focused hotels. In the event industry, the place where it shows up most frequently is the demand for healthier food and beverages.
The need for more nourishing edibles is closely tied to two things: the number of people with food allergies and consumers’ growing realization that what they put in their bodies is directly tied to their overall wellness. Rachel Chadderdon, director of catering hospitality for Centerplate/NSBE, the premier catering partner for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., believes the growth of allergies or food intolerances is greatly overshadowed by people’s desire to make positive lifestyle changes.
“The trend to follow such famously followed diets as South Beach, keto and Plant Paradox are driving a significant increase in special meal requests at catered functions,” she says.
There’s another reason event participants are demanding healthier foods, though. “We’re hearing, ‘If you’re going to take me away from my family for five days and put me in a situation where I’m having to absorb tons of information, I want to be fed properly,’” says Holly Swanzy, CIS, senior program manager at Brightspot Incentives & Events in Irving, Texas. “There’s scientific proof that when you feed people the right things, they feel better and are happier and learn more. If you want them to pay attention, you don’t want to give them a fatty meal because after lunch, they’re going to fall asleep in the breakout room or go to their room and take a nap. If you’re just shoving them full of sweet muffins and croissants, people don’t feel good. And we don’t want hangry attendees, for sure.”
Some people still come to events expecting to splurge, so it’s important to strike a balance between offering healthy and more traditional conference foods. Greg Smith, director of food and beverage for the Halifax Convention Centre, perfectly illustrates the paradox of modern menu planning. “Our three most popular items are bacon and chocolate doughnuts, smoked cheddar and apricot sandwiches and poutine. The other one that’s popular is what we call a ‘Little Pick-Me-Up.’ It has almond and quinoa energy bars, fruit leather and spicy chickpeas. People want to be healthy, but they also want to give themselves a little jolt.”
“Having signage at meals is a good way of ensuring people understand … what the nutritional value is and what the calorie counts are.”
— Brian Stapleton
As with so many other elements within an event, the decision about how much healthy food to provide is largely dependent on your audience. “I definitely have clients who are much more concerned with what they put in their bodies,” says Swanzy. “Is it organic, is it local, is it non-genetically modified, are the foods they’re eating raised ethically? Then you have your other clients that don’t really care. They want substantial, hearty food, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be healthy.”
Chefs can be your best friend when it comes to planning a menu that’s full of healthy and exciting dishes. “What I like about this movement to more healthy food is that most of the time, chefs love it,” Swanzy says. “That’s why they are chefs. They like to be creative. Most of them will work for us and come up with a menu that’s something they don’t typically get to do.”
Christophe Luzeux, executive chef at the Halifax Convention Centre, says he’s trying to use more grains such as polenta and rice to give people both variety and an alternative to breads and other starchy foods. “We have the traditional roasted and gratin potatoes, which are not too healthy but so good. When we do that, we try to give another option.”
One of the biggest trends today is the move toward high-protein diets and high-fat meal plans such as the ketogenic or “keto” diet. “That’s changing how we look at food and beverages,” says Mary O’Connor, president of the strategic meetings management firm MOC&CO. “For example, breakfast should really be in its natural state. We are minimizing the sugar carbs and spending more time focusing on the healthy proteins, whether it’s turkey sausage or egg muffins with spinach and cheese that are completely gluten-free. Instead of the old blueberry muffins, we’re moving into egg frittatas, which are still grab and go.”
Carbohydrates — or at least the “bad” carbohydrates that were once staples on conference menus — are on the outs with many healthy eaters. “Cauliflower is super-hot right now because we’re trying to get to healthier, lower carbs,” says O’Connor. “There’s cauliflower rice and buffalo cauliflower bites. A lot more cheese is being eaten because it’s a protein with no carbs. Fruits are becoming almost mandated at all three meals because they’re a good carbohydrate. Beets are becoming very popular, too. While they do have carbs in them, they’re not considered a traditional carb the way that potatoes would be.”
The gluten-free craze is still going strong and is the most common dietary restriction Swanzy sees on registration forms. “It’s not necessarily because someone has celiac disease but because people are trying to avoid carbs and wheat,” she says.
The one place where carbs are still showing up in droves is in the now-ubiquitous avocado toast and similar snacks. “The toast craze is really part of breakfast and morning breaks,” says O’Connor. Almond butter on whole-grain bread is a popular breakfast choice,
Vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian and vegan eating have also moved into the mainstream. Swanzy is seeing plant-based proteins such as tofu, beans and quinoa used a lot more. Cauliflower mac and cheese and legume and mushroom meatloaf are just a few examples of vegan dishes that are popping up with some regularity. She’s also eager to try a new product called Impossible Burger, which is a vegetarian hamburger patty that’s supposed to taste exactly like its beef-based counterpart.
When planning a healthy menu, don’t forget about snacks. “For breakfast and breaks, people are requesting hard boiled eggs, nuts, hummus and veggies to snack on instead of the traditional cookies and brownies,” says Swanzy.
No matter what food you serve, one of the best ways to make meals healthier is to encourage attendees to eat appropriate portions. “If you’re serving chicken or salmon, and you have it portioned into your vessel on a buffet, generally people are going to take one of everything because they’re going to try it,” says Brian Stapleton, vice president of food and beverage for Aramark Parks and Destinations in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “If you cut that salmon into two-ounce portions instead of four-ounce, you’re able to manage the consumption level based on how you manage your product.” That may also cut down on food waste and expense for the event.
Along with portion control is balancing heavier meals with lighter ones. “For example, if you are having a heavy three-course dinner, then go lighter during lunch with a salad bar and plenty of protein options,” says Swanzy.
Putting a positive spin on healthy food can make it more appealing to doubters. “Embrace proper adjectives in menu descriptions so that what otherwise may be bland food is not produced, sold or marketed in any way that is bland,” says Chadderdon. “Instead of saying ‘arugula goat cheese salad,’ advertise it as ‘fresh baby arugula with pine nuts, Meyer lemon essence, sea salt and goat cheese snow.’”
It remains important to tell people what’s in their food, both so they can avoid allergens and control their own portions. “Having signage at meals is a good way of ensuring people understand what’s in each dish, what the nutritional value is and what the calorie counts are so they can make informed choices,” says Stapleton.
Doing this is a lot easier if the kitchen cooks from scratch rather than using pre-packaged products. That’s one of the many reasons Luzeux prepares nearly everything in-house. “We know what’s in every piece of pastry. If someone has a question about what’s inside, we know because we made it. In the kitchen, we’re working with knives, not box cutters.”
The type of food that’s served at meetings and conventions makes a big difference in how attendees feel and function. But how the meal is served can also have an impact. Many planners are moving toward offering standing or grazing meals instead of the traditional sit-down ones.
“It’s a health trend, but it’s also attached to millennials’ wish to network,” says O’Connor. “The Europeans have always done standing executive lunches, and it’s just becoming a preference in the U.S. because everyone can stand up, stretch their legs and network.” This model seems especially appealing given new research showing that sitting for long periods of time can be detrimental to your health.
For a grazing lunch to work, both the portion size and presentation of food are important. Meals are often served in grab-and-go cups or jars so they are easy to carry. (This also allows people to sample a lot of different foods, which they appreciate.) Salads such as watermelon salad, ancient grain salads, even build-your-own-salad bars work great for this, O’Connor says. Sandwiches can be cut into smaller pieces so it’s easy to eat them with one hand.
“Part of the equation is not only the food, but having people move,” says Smith. “Planners will need a bigger space for people to stand up and walk around.”
Even though healthy food is a must, O’Connor says she would never take cookies or other sweets off the menu entirely. “In the old days, you might do 70 percent traditional food and 30 percent healthy, and I think that’s flipped. I’d take those percentages to the bank because there are so many options that are healthy and still satisfy the need for sweet.”
Her examples include popsicles made with puréed fresh fruit, fruit tarts with nut crusts and chocolate desserts laced with tart cherries. “The trend isn’t there quite yet, but tart cherries are going to start showing up in baked goods because they’re a superfood,” she says.
Chadderdon recommends combining fresh fruit with natural sweeteners for healthy dessert options. “An example would be minced Asian pear tossed with macerated blackberry and 100 percent agave nectar drizzle,” she says. “Also, introduce healthier chocolate, which would be at least 90 percent dark cocoa nibs that can be used as a sauce topping, an accoutrement to a dessert dish or simply by itself, such as a dark chocolate truffle.” For the right event, frozen desserts made with almond or coconut milk and sweetened with natural products can be a big hit.
Satisfy traditionalists and fans of healthy eating by keeping the dessert portions small. “Do varied desserts like chocolate tarts or coconut cream pie in bite-sized portions or the tall tasting cups,” says Swanzy. “Some people don’t want a whole piece of pie, but they do want something sweet at the end of a meal.”
“Water, water everywhere” is the mantra when it comes to healthy beverages. “It’s the single largest segment of the beverage world and the highest-growing segment,” says Stapleton. Although many folks are happy with plain water, there’s a big trend toward water infused with healthy and natural ingredients, including detoxifying spices such
as cinnamon and turmeric.
“We use lots of infused water with things like raspberries, pineapple, ginger, rosemary or lemon,” says Smith. “Everyone is pushing away from bottled water, so we’re making that in nice dispensers, and you get that water with our coffee break.”
These infused waters are typically still, but Chadderdon points out that sparkling water with flavors such as cucumber and berry is popular, too. She also makes electrolyte-infused water, like LifeWater, available to health-conscious guests. “Cold-pressed juices are all the rage,” she adds. “Sugary beverages such as soft drinks, bottled juices and artificially flavored beverages are becoming the least attractive options.”
Many groups are still requesting smoothie stations, but O’Connor is seeing attendees put a new twist on them. Instead of being so fruit-focused, people are making them high in protein and fat by adding ingredients such as chocolate, yogurt and almond milk.
“Probiotics and gut health are on people’s minds as scientists are finding more and more correlation to good bacteria and staying healthy and staving off health-related issues,” says Swanzy. “To that effect, try offering a smoothie station for breakfast with options for fresh fruit, kefir, kombucha or acacia. Bone broth and collagen powders can be incorporated into these shakes as well. Don’t forget the tart cherries in those smoothies either, as they are on the top of the list of fruits which fight free radicals and repair cell damage.”
There are even a few things that can be done to lighten up alcoholic beverages. Although craft beers continue to be quite popular, “it appears that people are starting to drink lighter beers and not so much the IPAs,” says Stapleton. “They’re interested in reducing calories and that heavy feeling you get after having a few beers.”
Mixed drinks can be made with fresh juice (O’Connor recommends trying a beet bloody Mary) or fruit and vegetable-infused alcohol. “We tend to make simple cocktails as signature drinks with infused products,” says Smith. “We’re trying to use fresh juices more than in the past, when you’d get a rum and Coke at the bar. Now we do some different martinis, which makes it more fun.” C&IT