A few years ago, many caterers would look at you with a blank look when you mentioned your need for a gluten free meal. One actually asked me if I needed a “glucose-free meal?”. It didn’t inspire confidence.
These days, caterers are a lot more aware of the needs of people with celiac-disease or gluten intolerance. They may not know all the ins and outs, but they understand the basics and they understand that it is important. They are in the food service business and making clients sick is not good for business.
The larger the catering company, the more likely they are to be quite well educated about allergy free cooking. Gluten free is just one of the special meals they get asked for. Caterer Nick Lorenz listed the most common special meals he gets asked for: “No meat, no shellfish, no gluten, no sugar, no pork, no dairy, no bottom-feeder seafood”. The executive chef from Rideau Hall noted in an address to a celiac conference that he now counts on 25% special meal requests for any event.
Will things always work out? No. I have been served a plate of roasted vegetables and nothing else and I’ve been served plain chicken and a baked potato, but most often I have had a lovely meal. I’ve actually been at events when they noted that all the meals were gluten and dairy free because of the number of special meal requests they got. (It was in California and I certainly wouldn’t expect it as a regular event, but it was nice).
Here are some suggestions for getting a gluten-free meal at a catered event.
Let the organizer know that you need a gluten-free meal when you respond to the invitation. Three to four days before the event call and ask about the arrangements. If you do not feel comfortable with the response you get from the event organizer, ask to speak directly to the caterer or chef. “I have a severe reaction to any food that contains gluten and need to be sure that I won’t get ill at the conference. I would like to speak to the chef in person to make sure everything is OK. What is his phone number?” often works well. I sometimes use the word “allergy” even though celiac disease is not an allergy.
In response, I have sometimes been sent the list of ingredients for all the conference food, I have sometimes talked directly to the chef by phone or email, and I have sometimes been sent the plan for my gluten free meal from the event organizer. The nature of the response sometimes depends on the experience of the event planner – the larger the company and more experienced the planner the more aware they are of the issue.
Remember that although this is a big deal, and maybe new to you, it isn’t necessarily new to either the event organizer or the chef.
Be prepared to wait for your meal. Sometimes allergy meals are served before the rest, sometimes they are served after the rest of meals. Don’t let this panic you.
Be prepared for questions from your table mates. “I get ill if I eat anything with wheat, rye, or barley” is sometimes enough. Don’t be surprised if someone asks if you have celiac disease or tells you about their allergies. Often people will want to pursue the topic – you only have to go as far as you want in discussing celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but it can be an opportunity to do some awareness raising.
Be prepared for other people at the table to be very interested and often jealous of your meal. They got one of 300 identical meals; you got something special made just for you. Don’t worry about being looked at as being different – you are the special person at the table. Let it happen.
At one recent banquet, the main dessert was an apple tart. I got a dark chocolate mousse and it engendered so much envy that I thought about auctioning it off, since I don’t really like chocolate. More often dessert is a fruit plate but that can be nice too after a relatively heavy meal.
Another time I got a huge plate of shrimp as an entrée that was much better than the dry chicken the rest of the people were eating. I shared and won some friends for life!
Be prepared for something to go wrong. Have something in your purse or your pocket that you can eat safely if you need to. Crackers and cheese, pretzels and a dip, even a sandwich can work. If you are someone who tends to get frustrated when you see something you would like that you can’t eat, make sure you have a favorite treat with you. I love Hershey’s Skor® bars but I save them for events when I might be feeling a little bit deprived so that they remain a special treat.
Don’t feel pressured into eating something you don’t feel comfortable eating. If a mistake is made, the caterer may or may not be able to fix it. Get an extra serving of something safe and remember that every meal does not have to be perfectly balanced, nutritionally.
Remember why you are at the event – it is probably not for the food. If it is a business event, get up and network; if it is a social event, spend time talking to the people who mean something to you. Get up from the table and move around as soon as it is appropriate to do so.