Careful catering: Don't let food allergies spoil your wedding menu

Wedding Planning

cateringhhiYou can’t throw a spoon in a restaurant these days without hitting someone who has a food allergy, sensitivity or personal dietary restriction. Bringing a glutenfree dish to a dinner party or a batch of nut-free cookies to your child’s classroom is now the norm, not the exception.

So you can imagine how complicated it’s getting to cater a wedding.

The event planning publication Special Events recently polled 100 caterers about their changing business, and 95 percent said that in the past five years, the percentage of specialty orders they plan has steadily grown.

If you’re a bride who’s thinking of taking flour out of your festivities, you’re in good company. Tracy Stuckrath, founder of Thrive! Meeting & Events in Atlanta, says dietary restrictions and substitutions don’t have to be too complicated – or compromise the tastiness of what is offered to wedding guests.

“You can make a delicious wedding meal completely soy-free, dairy-free, shellfish-free and tree nut-free,” said Stuckrath, whose company’s motto is “Making the world healthier one event at a time.” Stuckrath became interested in educating the event planning industry after being diagnosed with a yeast allergy and realizing that she could rarely eat anything at the events she was planning.

cateringhhi04Stuckrath believes caterers shouldn’t have to, well, cater to every diet fad or strange preference out there, but says brides and grooms and their caterer should collectively want to make the event’s menu both enjoyable and safe for everyone.

“This is your wedding, and these are the people that you care about,” she said. “The last thing you want to do is have a wedding and a funeral the same day.”

A savvy caterer in today’s event planning world is educated on the various types of substitutions, the differences between vegan and vegetarian, and knows the eight most common food allergens (peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish), which cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions. But in order for the caterer to do a proper job, the bride and groom have to get specific with guests about the nature and severity of any food allergies they have.

“You have to ask your guests specific questions. ‘Is it a preference, a life-threatening food allergy, or nonlife- threatening sensitivity? Can you not be near (the specific food), or is it dangerous only if you ingest it?’” Stuckrath said. “The clearer you are, the better. I know there are brides who have 500-person weddings, and that’s hard, but it pays to take that extra step.”

Stuckrath has a few tips for building a healthy relationship with your wedding caterer and a healthy meal for your wedding guests.

cateringhhi03Pick the right caterer

The best time to talk about dietary needs with a caterer is before that caterer has been hired. If you already know that some of your wedding guests have dietary restrictions, ask the caterer how such a thing is handled.

You’ll get a feel for how familiar the caterer is with common substitutions and how comfortable the caterer seems to be with the idea of pleasing different palates.

Get a head start on the demands

Brides and grooms can help their caterer tackle this issue by being proactive with their guests.

“The most respectful thing is to definitely ask your guests in advance,” Stuckrath said. “The simplest thing for a wedding is to include a line that says, ‘Please note any dietary needs on the back of your RSVP card.’” Stuckrath says you may want to list the most common types – “Vegan. Vegetarian. Top allergens. Gluten-free.” – and allow guests to check what applies.

“When I talk to meeting centers about it, they leave that dietary restriction thing openended,” she said. “But if you make it more defined, you alleviate that conjecture.”

cateringhhi05Avoid last-minute changes to the menu

You and your caterer agree on a menu far enough in advance so the caterer has enough time to obtain the necessary ingredients and pull together a plan for how and when everything will be made. Throwing in last-minute changes to the mix pushes the timetable for everything else and could leave your caterer scrambling for new ingredients, which could end up compromising the timing and quality of the entire meal.

Don’t be afraid to speak up

When you realize your Aunt Sandi was too shy to mention her celiac disease on the RSVP card but is afraid to dive into the breaded chicken being served, let the caterer know as soon as possible. An experienced caterer understands that unforeseen needs and requests are sometimes part of the party, and is prepared to handle them.

“I have a caterer friend who brings a bucket of substitutions with her to events, so she can make alternatives to what she’s already making,” Stuckrath said.

The bucket includes lots of vegetables, quinoa and other grains, as well as specific ingredients she thinks would look or taste similar to what’s on the menu that day.