We live in a world where you can get your Starbucks latte made with soymilk, almond milk, coconut milk or oat milk; adults of legal age congregate at “sober bars” to sip “mockapolitans,” drinking vinegars and sparkling water shots; and Burger King offers a meat-free Impossible WHOPPER featuring a flame-grilled soybean patty marbled with coconut and sunflower oils.
With wellness so deeply entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist, then, it’s no wonder meeting planners are leaning into it as a catering trend. “What started as an idea of having an organized group run or yoga class has turned into dedicated meditation lounges and reshaped food and beverage choices,” says Courtney Lohmann, CMP, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility with PRA, Inc. “It’s a transformation I’m happy to see. At meetings we are often sitting inside a building for long hours and using our brains in a high powered way to interact or digest large amounts of critical information. Keeping attendees alert and healthy at meetings is something we should all make a priority.”
Melissa Johnson, Vice President of Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, adds that “the catering client of today is savvier about, and places more attention on, the lifestyle choices of their guests or attendees.” Deliciousness matters, yes, but the options also need to check several boxes in terms of popular diet and eating preferences. “Even a ‘predictable’ chicken buffet will now be composed with dairy-free, gluten-free options,” Johnson says, “and [the] vegetarian option is often also vegan.” Meeting planners are requesting multiple salad options, along with fresh prepared vegetables that aren’t drowning in butter or oil. Having a considerate, healthful menu, she notes, “is one way of showing guests and attendees that the client is aware, responsible and caring. People value their time as much or more than other resources, and if they choose to invest it at an event and they feel taken care of, then they will most likely be willing to invest their time or other resources in the future also.”
With that in mind, here are three wellness-inspired catering trends to know about…
Looking to take some meat out of your meeting? According to a new Gallup survey, nearly a quarter of Americans report having cut back on their meat intake.
As more guests jump on the meat-free bandwagon, chefs are being charged with the task of creating dishes that deliver on flavor while also keeping guests satiated. (Protein, which is naturally plentiful in animal products, is filling, so one of the more common complaints cited by the newly plant-based is an inability to feel truly full.)
Soy and cashew are often at the top of the list when it comes to tasty, satisfying plant protein. But they’re also frequently listed as allergens by guests when RSVPing to an event, Johnson points out. To solve the problem, more chefs are incorporating peas, mung beans, hempseed and chickpeas, “in their whole state, mashed or blended in sauces to add texture. [This way, they] can incorporate interesting, healthy proteins; ensure guests are full; and avoid some of the more common allergens.”
Examples include mung beans added to soups or sprinkled on a salad and chickpeas toasted for texture or mashed to add a smooth thickness to sauces or soups.
The popularity of avocados continues to soar, too, and while they’re not especially high in protein, they do boast impressive amounts of heart-healthy fat, which is filling enough to keep stomachs from rumbling for hours. Johnson says their versatility makes them a simple meat swap in sandwiches, salads, eggs, toasts and more.
COCKTAILS & MOCKTAILS
Thoughtful zero-proof cocktails are trending. Whether it’s for health reasons, personal preference, religious beliefs, or counting calories, more and more Americans are avoiding alcohol these days, yet plenty of meeting planners continue to treat alcohol as the only option.
The truth, says Tracy Stuckrath, CMM, CSEP, CFPM, president and chief connecting officer of thrive! meetings & events, is that “lots of people don’t drink, or they want just one and don’t want any more. But typically, hotels and convention centers push the hosted bar, and the only ‘mocktail’ options are soda and bottled water. That’s it: sugar or water.”
But plenty of innovative, better-for-you, low-alcohol or no-alcohol options are available, capable of creating delicious, interesting drinks for the sober or sober-curious. A brand called Seedlip offers spirits made with spices, peels, barks, vegetables and herbs; Ceder’s sells an “alt-gin” distilled from real gin plus South African botanicals for flavor and depth.
“Some brands are even trying to replicate the ‘burn’ of alcohol by adding ingredients such as hot pepper extracts,” Stuckrath says. “Just like the Impossible Burger is making the plant-based burger taste like meat, you can make a mocktail that tastes like an old-fashioned but without the liquor.”
For wines, try this tip from Stuckrath: Create tasteful signage that lists the wines available along with their alcohol by volume (ABV) content. (i.e. Prosecco is 12% ABV…Chardonnay is 14%.) “It’s just like those little ‘GF’ or ‘V’ labels on food menus being used to denote what’s gluten-free or vegan,” she says. That way, “people can make informed choices without having to ask a lot of questions or call attention to themselves.”
You can also please the wellness-minded by including creatively flavored waters. “The options here are endless and fun!” Lohmann says. “You can do strawberry and mint one day, melon and cucumber the next.” If you really want to wow attendees, Lohmann recommends curating flavors that are reminiscent of your location. “Are you in Orlando? Think orange and vanilla. In Georgia, what about using peaches? In New Mexico, jalapeno and lime would be interesting and fun. Traveling out West? Try fig and rosemary. Talk to your partner to see what foods they have in season and how they can mix it up from day to day to give people a taste of their destination.”
On the full-proof cocktail front, Johnson predicts that ingredients such as matcha and hibiscus will stand out as new stars in creative mixed drinks. “Mixologists and bar chefs are bringing health and wellness trends into regular cocktails as well as zero-proof cocktails with interesting ingredients,” she says.
Hibiscus, for example, has blood pressure-lowering properties while adding a gorgeous magenta hue and subtle tart-floral flavor to a drink.
Matcha is hot, too. Unlike most green tea, this buzz-worthy variety comes in powdered form—the tea leaves themselves are dried and ground into a fine powder. Besides being high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, matcha has more caffeine than traditional green tea. Expect to see it mixed with spirits and juice. And yes, your drink will be green.
Disposable plastic water bottles come in handy when meeting attendees are moving from room to room, but consider this: Each bottle will sit in a landfill for more than 1000 years. Ditto for plastic straws and cutlery.
But thanks to a growing interest in keeping the earth green, it’s becoming easier to reduce plastic use at meetings. “Caterers are going after green certifications and highlighting sustainable practices and products on their websites,” Johnson says. Many caterers have eliminated plastic straws (though it’s wise to have a few on hand in case an attendee with a disability needs one), while others are experimenting with compostable paper or bamboo straws.
The Hotel Drisco, situated atop the city’s iconic Pacific Height neighborhood, recently made the switch from disposable plastic water bottles to reusable glass ones. In the process, they’re diverting between 70,000 and 90,000 plastic bottles from landfills every year – enough to stuff their entire hotel lobby from floor to ceiling. Besides becoming a regular fixture in guests’ rooms, the 17-ounce glass bottles, which slip inside a neoprene sleeve for drop protection, are now the default hydration offering at meetings and events, says Shay Howell, Hotel Drisco’s in-house Sustainability Coordinator.
Not sure if a hotel or meeting venue offers eco-friendly alternatives? “Just ask!” Howell says.
“We all want to tailor your event to match your vision, and we in the hospitality world rely on you the guest to tell us what it will take to make your event the very best it can be.”