Inclusive event catering

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to the AdaCamp Toolkit.

As part of aiming to be an inclusive and accessible conference, AdaCamp aimed to cater tasty, nutritious food that all attendees could eat. But there are lots of tricks and traps to hitting all three of “tasty”, “nutritious” and “all attendees can eat”!

Our decision to provide mostly vegetarian and vegan food at AdaCamp was inspired by the Open Source Bridge conference.

The basics

  1. At registration time, ask attendees for dietary restrictions with an assurance that their restriction will be catered to. (As an example, see the AdaCamp application form.)
  2. As registrations come in, if you encounter a restriction you are not sure about, send the attendee a friendly email asking for more details, with an additional assurance that you will cater to their needs.
  3. Expect to cater two substantial meals (eg breakfast/brunch and lunch) and two snacks, one in the mid-morning and one in the mid-afternoon. See the example AdaCamp schedule for how AdaCamp usually timed our meals.
  4. Consider which meals to cater and find out their local names. This will be culture-dependent but some possibilities at either end of the day include:
    1. offering a breakfast meal in cultures where people eat breakfast later (past 9am)
    2. offering a meal-like afternoon snack in cultures where people eat dinner late in the evening
  5. When contacting caterers, communicate the dietary requirements and the numbers of attendees with each. Ask for sample menus including ingredient lists.
  6. Expect to ask even an enthusiastic caterer for three or more menu revisions before all needs are met and there is tasty nutritious food for everyone. Allow time for three menu revisions in your timeline. When working with caterers, be firm and unyielding and insist on a strict interpretation of common dietary restrictions.

Tips for providing inclusive catering

For common restrictions, e.g., vegetarianism at AdaCamp, expect that people will eat that food even if they don’t have that restriction. Have the bulk of the food catering to the common restriction, and only a small amount of food that those attendees can’t eat. For example, if your event is 50% vegetarian and 20% vegan, cater as if 80% of attendees are vegetarian and 50% are vegan. Then there is plenty of food for the people with the restriction and other attendees get to enjoy it as well. It is an uncommon pleasure for people with dietary restrictions to be over-catered to.

For uncommon restrictions among your attendees allow for a special meal to be prepared and reserved for that attendee. Let the attendee know that this is going to happen, provide them their specific menu to check, and at the event, make sure that they have found their reserved meal.

Consider using two or more caterers with different specialities, e.g., have vegan food provided by a specialist vegan caterer and the rest of the food provided by a different caterer. AdaCamp nearly always had to use two or more caterers to meet everyone’s food needs.

If possible, leave food out during the event for people to snack on at times of their own choosing.

Provide menus/ingredient lists to attendees ahead of time.

Provide ample beverages, including hot and cold, and caffeinated and non-caffeinated options. (For bonus points, include a selection of teas.)

Make sure you know whether your caterers are providing plates, eating utensils and serving utensils or if you will need to provide or hire them elsewhere.

Catering styles

AdaCamp usually served buffet food. Buffets allow attendees to eat as much food as they need, and to select foods that both meet their dietary restrictions and which taste good.

With each dish, place a card containing its ingredient list so that people with restrictions or simply strong preferences can choose their dishes. Place cards so that they are clearly visible to people in the buffet lines before they get to each item. Ask caterers to provide these cards and stands, but be prepared to do so yourself.


Conflict with caterers

More often than not, caterers will say they can fulfill your requirements, but when you get the first draft of the menu, you will discover all kinds of problems. You will have to have what feels like a fight with the caterer in order to get food that your attendees can eat, and often have to educate the caterer a great deal on various food restrictions. Don’t chicken out on this front; imagine what it will feel like for your attendees to believe they can be fed at your conference but then discover they can’t actually get enough food to eat.

Limited nutrition for veg*ns

The largest pitfall we ran into with catering over and over was providing nutritious food to vegetarians and vegans. The most typical initial dish that our caterers offered was along the lines of a green salad or grilled vegetables; sometimes tasty, but lacking in variety and more importantly, lacking in calories and specifically high-quality protein.

There should be a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat offered for everyone, including vegetarians and vegans. For every dietary requirement in your list, insist on a balanced distribution of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. We often gave caterers an explicit guideline that the vegan and vegetarian options must include 30% of their calories from protein. If you aren’t yourself vegan or vegetarian, calculate the calories and the source of those calories and compare them with the non-veg*n options to get a sense of whether your attendees will be hungry after they eat the proposed meal. For the most common dietary requirements (for AdaCamp, this was vegetarianism) provide two or more choices for every element of a meal.

Some nutritious vegan protein options you could ask for include:

  • tofu
  • nuts (including nut butters)
  • beans
  • lentils
  • chickpeas

These can be part of salads or salad bars and can also be part of dips and spreads. A popular, filling, cheap, vegan, and gluten-free snack at AdaCamp was sliced apples with a variety of nut butters.

Some nutritious ovo-lacto vegetarian options you could ask for include:

  • cheese and other dairy products
  • eggs

Allergies and intolerances

Despite how widespread some allergies and intolerances are, some caterers are not accustomed to designing menus around them. Serving food containing an allergen can in some cases be life-threatening to your attendees.

Common allergens and intolerances:

  • lactose (around 65% of people worldwide are intolerant)
  • nuts (particularly peanuts and tree nuts)
  • egg
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • wheat and gluten-containing products
  • soy

Many other allergies are possible.

The degree to which people with allergies and intolerances need to avoid food with that ingredient varies. Strategies for designing and checking menus include:

  • have an event free of that ingredient: ask that not only is it not included in catering menus but that attendees do not bring any food containing it
  • do not include that ingredient in any food you offer
  • provide several options that are free of that ingredient, and clearly label any food that contains it
  • provide a separate meal to the attendee with the allergy or intolerance prepared by a caterer who can work with their needs
  • provide a food allowance to that attendee to compensate them for not being able to eat your catered food (not preferred)

If the attendee’s response on your registration form is not clear on the degree to which they need to avoid that ingredient, ask them which of those options would make them safer.

When providing foods that are free of an allergen, not only should you check ingredient lists, but ask the caterers about the potential for cross-contamination: is the ingredient in question used in their kitchen at all and if so do they take steps to prevent cross-contamination?

Presence of disallowed ingredients

The other pitfall we regularly ran into was catering menus that included disallowed ingredients in certain dishes that notionally catered to a particular requirement. You should ask for a full ingredient list, read it over, and check for disallowed ingredients. This list of disallowed ingredients is not exhaustive, please research information for each dietary requirement disclosed to you.

Vegetarian and vegan dishes should not contain:

  • meat (pork, lamb, beef) including stocks and sauces
  • poultry/birds (chicken, etc) including stocks and sauces
  • fish and seafood (check flavourings for eg. shrimp paste, fish sauce, anchovy extract, etc)
  • gelatin
  • cheeses containing animal rennet (found in some hard cheeses)

Additionally, vegan dishes should not contain:

  • eggs
  • dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter, ghee)
  • honey
  • gelatin

You may need to ask the caterer to break down ingredients to check for vegan status, eg, “chocolate” likely contains dairy.

Gluten free meals should not contain:

  • barley, barley malt or extract, bran, bulgur, couscous, durum, farina, faro, kamut, malt, matzo flour or meal, orzo, panko, rye, seitan, semolina, spelt, triticale, udon, wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, or wheat starch

Watch out for pasta, breadcrumbs, etc made of any of the above. Check flavourings and sauces for gluten-free status (e.g., soy sauce contains wheat).

Kosher meals should not contain:

  • pork or pork products
  • dairy and meat in the same meal
  • seafood such as shrimp
  • meat from animals that were not killed in observance with kosher law

Halal meals should not contain:

  • alcohol
  • pork or pork products
  • meat from animals that were not killed in observance with Islamic law

Also, attendees may observe additional kosher and halal restrictions at some times of the year. Some attendees who observe kosher or halal restrictions will choose to eat veg*n at events as this can be easier for them than worrying about the meat content of meals.

All vegetarian menus

It can be tempting to do all-vegetarian catering, but check your attendee’s dietary requirements first. Some attendees with other dietary restrictions — e.g. gluten-free, low fructose, autoimmune protocol — may need to eat meat to obtain enough protein.

In-house catering

Some venues insist on you using their caterer, or an approved caterer. If you choose a venue that requires this, you will need to discuss menus and dietary restrictions with them before contracting with the venue. One way to do this is to ask for sample menus for vegetarians or other dietary restrictions that they have prepared in the past. The less this menu hits the basics — do they have any such menu at all? is there any protein in the veg*n dishes? does the vegetarian dish have meat? does the vegan dish have dairy cheese? — the less likely it is that you can work productively with this venue.

Minimizing waste

Try to order the right amount of food.  This will depend somewhat on how many no-shows you are expecting.

Have a buffet rather than individual lunchboxes. Lunchboxes tend to produce more waste than a buffet style meal, as you need to be more conservative in making sure everyone gets one, and it’s hard for people to take a little more food for seconds.

If you are using lunchboxes, ask the caterers to provide cardboard boxes for preference over plastic (even recyclable plastic).

Check whether the venue has drinking water facilities (eg. a water filter, or taps). If so, suggest that attendees bring a water bottle, and do not provide bottled water (or provide far less bottled water, and encourage people to refill).

Check with the venue, caterers, or the web to find a food bank who will take leftover food. If there is no food bank, offer leftovers to attendees or, if your event is being hosted by a workplace, see whether they might like leftovers left in the fridge for their staff.