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Food for Thought: Planning Inclusive Menus for Holiday Staff Gatherings

A group of people in santa hats at an office holiday party.

’Tis the season for holiday parties in the workplace.

Planning what food to serve at employee gatherings can be equal parts fun and stressful. About 1 in 10 Americans have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. Gallup's latest Consumption Habits poll reveals 4 percent of Americans say they are vegetarian and 1 percent say they are vegan, in terms of their eating preferences. It's also essential to consider individuals with religious dietary restrictions.

Ultimately, employers want to host an event everyone enjoys. Food plays a central role in achieving that goal. Two certified meeting planners offer tips HR leaders can consider to ensure there's something on the menu for everyone, whether it's a winter celebration or midyear staff meeting.

The Bigger Picture

Planning an inclusive menu means adopting 360-degree thinking, according to Heidi Longton, director of convention and events at the New York State School Boards Association. And you can't do that by yourself. It requires conversations, informal surveys and research.

"Ask a Muslim, a diabetic, a celiac, a dairy-free, a vegan and an alcoholic in recovery what experiences they've had at food and beverage events," she said. "It will be eye-opening."

Start a "watercooler chat" on your organization's platform of choice to ask staff about how they celebrate holidays. The responses can provide insight into dietary restrictions or preferences, Longton noted. Planning an office potluck and seeing what employees bring to share is another way to keep up with employees' food needs.

Directly asking employees in a survey or on the RSVP form is the most direct method for learning this information. Many people are comfortable sharing their food preferences and restrictions, but a confidential questionnaire can capture input from those who prefer to keep it private.

Menu Planning Tips

When Longton begins menu planning, she starts with a vegan offering. In most cases, this provides gluten-free options and always meets dairy-free needs.

"I like to see all guests eating the same item but [am] prepared for their dietary restriction," she said. "Many times, the specialty orders are a different item and are not presented with the same energy that went into the main items. This screams exclusion."

Food stations with dedicated utensils for toppings are a popular option for meeting varying dietary needs. For example, a salad bar or baked potato bar with toppings and dressings offered on the side allows individuals to choose items that match their needs and preferences.

Susan Baker,  director of sales at the Saratoga Springs City Center, often encourages groups to offer a Saratoga-style potato chip station with a variety of nacho-like toppings. Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is the self-proclaimed birthplace of flash-fried potato chips. This food option offers flexibility and celebrates local cuisine, especially when employees travel in from remote locations.

"People enjoy something that is a little bit different," Baker said. "I also think anytime you can help people know where they are at an event is always a nice thing."

For desserts, fruit tends to be the fallback for those who can't eat gluten or dairy. Again, though, it appears to be an afterthought, Longton said. Usually, the guest must wait for the dish and by the time it arrives, the rest of the table has finished dessert.

"If it has to be fruit, I like to see it skewered or fanned for a great presentation," Longton said.

Room For Improvement

When it comes to beverages, there is still much work to do. Hosted bars, with beer, wine and soda, do control costs but don't leave much room for inclusivity.

Longton recommends requesting a nonalcoholic beer or wine and sparkling or flavored waters. If serving mixed drinks, include two or three mocktail choices.

"Or theme it," she said. "If it is a summer event, serve iced tea and lemonade—a spiked and unspiked version."

Food For Thought

Leaders of small teams often opt for restaurants over catered events. While some dining establishments are prepared to make accommodations, this is not universally the case and requires research to determine if a particular restaurant is fit for the group.

"It's important to recognize that restaurants aren't always able to accommodate some of the religious restrictions," Baker said. "If you're going to a restaurant, a kosher meal may not be an option in that kitchen."

It's also not uncommon for staff without dietary restrictions to eat some of the same items as colleagues who do.

"If your vegetarian option is a popular one, like tomato and mozzarella wraps, you will have nonvegetarians opt for this over the regular items, and then when the vegetarians get there, they have nothing to eat," Longton said. "We manage vegetarians by holding back these options and present on request only." 

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.