As you approach catering for your upcoming event, consider: Have you asked your guests about dietary restrictions? Food allergies, intolerances and special diets are more prevalent than ever, and ignoring dietary needs during menu planning can pose a serious risk to the health and happiness of your guests. Whether the guest is opting out of certain foods or preparations for cultural, religious, medical or personal reasons, it’s important that they feel their needs are not only accommodated, but met with the same delicious attention to detail as their fellow attendees. 

What Are Special Dietary Needs?

Special dietary needs are food restrictions, which may be attributed to an allergy or food intolerance, cultural or religious beliefs, medical needs, personal beliefs, and beyond. For example, a person who follows a vegetarian diet would be considered a guest with a special dietary need.

Does It Cost Extra To Accommodate Dietary Needs?

Accommodating special dietary needs can come with additional costs. Querying guests about their dietary requests and restrictions early in the planning process, in addition to asking your caterer about special menu options, will help to eliminate anxiety regarding menu-planning and budget-planning. Most venues and caterers have dietary restrictions that they regularly accommodate, often without additional fees. 

While many companies choose to take on additional expenses themselves in order to meet guests’ special dietary considerations, it is not unheard of to consider charging guests with particularly extreme requests for the cost of their meal. 

Types of Special Diets And Dietary Requirements

Different types of special dietary needs necessarily require different approaches in menu-planning and food preparation. We’ve compiled a list of special diets and dietary requirement examples to help you navigate all the different dietary restrictions you may encounter as you plan your event.

Allergies and Intolerances

Food allergies and intolerances are especially important to accommodate because of the very real health implications therein. If a guest informs you they have special dietary needs for food allergies, it is vital to take those needs seriously and practice good food allergy etiquette. 

There are eight major food allergies to be aware of:

  • Peanuts – Generally, if a guest has a peanut allergy you should avoid any kind of nut (even artificial), but be sure to inquire about their specific nut allergy dietary requirements. Be mindful of dishes that may be cooked in peanut oil. Some unexpected sources of peanuts include egg rolls, hot sauce, pesto, salad dressings, pancakes, specialty pizzas and some meat substitutes. 
  • Tree nuts – A tree nut allergy is among the most common food allergies. It is best to avoid any kind of nut, even artificial. Nut butters, nut oils, and natural nut extracts are also off limits for people with tree nut allergies. Some unexpected sources of tree nuts include cookies, crackers, cereals, candy, chocolate, ice cream, flavored beverages, marinades, condiments, and even cold cuts and cheeses. 
  • Shellfish – There are two kinds of shellfish: crustacean (shrimp, crab and lobster) and mollusks (clams, mussels, oysters and scallops). It is also best to avoid all shellfish if there is an allergic reaction to any of them. 
  • Fish – Common allergies include salmon, tuna and halibut, although it is advised to avoid all fish. Some unexpected sources of fish include Caesar dressing, Worcestershire sauce, imitation fish or shellfish, barbecue sauce and caponata.
  • Milk – A milk allergy is different from a dairy intolerance. Cow’s milk and products should be avoided, though best practice is to avoid all types of dairy. Some unexpected sources of milk include baked goods, lunch meat and sausages, non-dairy products (casein is a common culprit), shellfish, and sauces or meats cooked with butter.
  • Eggs Chicken eggs and eggs from other birds should be avoided. Some unexpected sources of egg include egg substitutes, macaroni and pastas, marzipan, lecithin, marshmallows and pretzels.
  • Soy – Beyond obvious soy-based products like soy milk and tofu, some unexpected sources of soy include canned tuna and meats, cereals, cookies, crackers, protein bars, low-fat peanut butter, processed meats, sauces, and canned broths or soups. 
  • Wheat – A wheat allergy is different from a gluten intolerance. Many people with wheat allergies can tolerate other grains, but best practice is to avoid wheat and grains entirely. Some unexpected sources of wheat include flour, starch, beer, glucose syrup, soy sauce, cracker meal, couscous, processed meat, salad dressing, ice cream, potato chips, hot dogs and imitation crab meat. 

Major food intolerances you may encounter include: 

  • Lactose – A lactose intolerance occurs in people whose bodies cannot properly process lactose, a sugar present in dairy. Avoid all foods containing all types of dairy. Unexpected sources of lactose include wine and beer, canned tuna, gravy, sauces, sweeteners, potato chips and soy products. 
  • Gluten – Gluten is a combination of proteins commonly found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. Breads, cakes, cookies and pastries all contain gluten and should be avoided, as should pastas, couscous, cereals, imitation meats, beer and soy sauce. Remember that anything containing or prepared with or around flour may contain gluten. 

Religious and Cultural Food Restrictions

Religion and food restrictions often go hand in hand, and many cultures avoid certain foods or food groups. These restrictions are important to respect as religious and cultural beliefs are deeply held and honored by those who practice them. 

  • Islam (Halal) – Halal dietary restrictions apply largely to meat products as the term “halal” describes something that has been slaughtered “permissibly” according to Islamic guidelines. Muslims do not consume meat that is not halal; they also do not consume pork or pork products of any kind or anything prepared with blood. Alcohol is prohibited. Also avoid any products containing gelatin, which may include gummy products, marshmallows and some desserts. Check with your caterer to see if they can provide a meal that includes proteins from a certified halal butcher. Be aware that during some religious celebrations like Ramadan, Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset. 
  • Judaism (Kosher) – Much like halal foods, “kosher” refers to foods prepared under conditions deemed appropriate by Judaic guidelines. Under Hebrew dietary restrictions, certain foods are forbidden, particularly pork and shellfish. Meat and dairy may not be combined. Meat must be ritually slaughtered and salted to remove all traces of blood. To accomodate Jews who keep kosher, meat and poultry must be certified Kosher. Discuss these restrictions with your caterer early, as kosher meals can become expensive, and most venues do not provide kosher meals in-house unless they are religiously affiliated.
  • Hinduism – Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion, widely practiced across India and parts of southeast Asia. The majority of Hindus are lacto-vegetarian, avoiding meat and eggs. Some may eat lamb, chicken, or fish, so check with your guests regarding their specific restrictions. Beef is always avoided because the cow is considered a holy animal, but dairy products are eaten. Animal-derived fats are not permitted. Some Hindus do not eat ghee, milk, onions, eggs, coconut, garlic, domestic fowl or salted pork. Alcohol is generally avoided.

Special Diets 

Some guests will ascribe to special diets due to medical or health reasons, personal beliefs, or other considerations. Types of special diets include:

  • Vegetarianism – Vegetarians avoid animal products in varying degrees. Types of vegetarian diets include:
  • Ovo-vegetarianism. Ovo-vegetarians eat mostly plants in addition to eggs. They do not eat dairy products, meat, or fish.
  • Lacto-vegetarianism. Lacto-vegetarians eat mostly plants in addition to dairy products. They do not eat eggs, meat, or fish. 
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plants in addition to eggs and dairy. They do not eat meat or fish. 
  • Veganism – Vegans eat a plant-based diet with no animal products included. They do not eat eggs, dairy, meat, or fish or anything prepared with those products. Some vegans also will not consume honey or gelatin.
  • Pescetarianism – Pescetarians eat mostly plants and fish. They do not eat meat. Most pescetarians eat dairy and eggs, but be sure to check with your guest regarding their specific restrictions.
  • Keto – “Keto”, or the ketogenic diet, is a very low-carb, high-fat diet. Avoid high-carb products like breads, baked goods, potatoes, pastas and rice. Meat and seafood, dairy, low-carb fruits and vegetables, eggs, and nuts are all keto-friendly. 
  • Paleo – “Paleo”, or the paleolithic diet or “the caveman diet,” is a specialty diet focused on avoiding processed foods and eating “clean.” This diet consists mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit and excludes dairy or grain products, processed/packaged foods, and foods with sugar substitutes.
  • FODMAP – “FODMAP” is an acronym for the short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that appear in foods, either naturally or as an additive. This diet is often followed by people who suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses or issues. Avoid beans, lentils, wheat, dairy products with lactose, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. People on a low-FODMAP diet often have highly-specialized restrictions, so be sure to talk to your guests about their personal needs.

The variety of special diets you may encounter during event- and menu-planning can seem overwhelming, so it can be simplest to ask individual guests with special dietary needs about the specifics of their restrictions. 

Other Special Dietary Considerations

Some dietary considerations do not fall under the umbrellas of religion, culture or health. They may include:

  • Pregnancy  – During pregnancy, foods like fish, shellfish, alcohol and others may be avoided. Be sure to ask your guest about their specific needs.
  • Alcohol-free  – Some guests may request alcohol-free beverage and food options. These guests may or may not also consume products with caffeine, so be sure to have a variety of caffeine-free options available beyond water. 

Planning a Menu Around Food Restrictions

Ask guests about their dietary needs as early as possible in the menu-planning process. Even before you have a comprehensive list of the dietary requirements necessitated by your guests, talk to your caterer about what options they have for food restrictions and their associated costs. And remember: Your guests with dietary restrictions want to enjoy their meal just as much as those without restrictions! Work with your caterer and their chefs to find delicious alternatives.

Communicating Your Needs & Determining Guests’ Dietary Preferences

Communication is paramount when it comes to successfully navigating food restrictions. Event planners should give guests ample opportunity to communicate their needs. Provide space on your guests’ R.S.V.P. to note special diets and restrictions, and follow up with the guests for whom you have questions regarding specific accommodations. 

Discussing Dietary Requirements With Your Venue/Caterer

If you are aware of guests with special dietary needs before R.S.V.P. responses start to flow in, give your caterer an estimated number of those guests requiring special meals. Many venues offer a separate menu of food allergy-friendly or special diet-friendly offerings. Ask your caterer early about these options and note any additional costs associated with those accommodations. If you know you will have a guest with a restriction or preference that is not among your caterer’s current offerings, discuss those considerations early. In most cases, your caterer will be able to provide a meal for that guest — though you should be prepared to pay a little extra if the request is outside their normal repertoire. 

Once you know exactly how many guests will require special meals and what restrictions must be honored, provide your caterer with a detailed list of those requirements. The more you communicate with your caterer and your guests, the better the more successful the event will be! 

Don’t Forget

Dietary restrictions and requirements are often deeply personal. In general, they should largely be respected and accommodated without question. In every case of a food allergy, restriction or request, communication is key! You are the link between your guests and your caterer, so be sure to ask questions of both early and often. With a little thoughtful planning, every guest can enjoy a delicious, stress-free meal at your event!