Special Dietary Requirements & Catering: 2023 Guide
As a restaurateur, you need to know and be careful with dietary issues because you’re cooking for the public, and everyone has their own choices and necessities regarding food.
In the UK, for example, any restaurant that, perhaps to make sales, conceals information about ingredients, despite knowing a customer’s dietary requirements, allergy or intolerance to some ingredient(s), can face serious legal actions. Other countries worldwide also penalise such restaurant malpractice that results in personal harm, be it out of negligence, failure to warn, or deliberate tampering.
We’ve put together this in-depth guide to get you up to speed on allergies and people’s divergent eating habits.
Understand Allergies and Special Dietary Requirements: The Basics
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of this topic, let’s quickly get familiar with some critical terms that appear throughout the text and similar articles you might read elsewhere. Unless you already know the meanings of these terms, properly digesting this article (or related ones) might pose a challenge to you owing to the confusion that might pop up here and there.
As a restaurateur in the 21st century, concerned diners would likely assume you know these concepts since unloading food is your business. Some customers will even ask you about it when they visit, especially those with strict dietary requirements. And if they figure out you don’t know what they’re asking about, would you blame them for leaving without eating?
That said, these terms are:
- Food allergens
- Food allergies
- Allergenic and Allergic
Allergens (singular, allergen) are certain constituents in foods and other substances that our body might reject even though these constituents aren’t naturally harmful. Allergens can have a poisonous effect that might cause serious illnesses or even death. However, they differ from poisons in that their harmful effect is NOT true for most people.
Foods aren’t the only carriers of allergens — drugs, insects, pollen, latex, pet, and mould can all host allergens. That’s why you’d find terms like food allergens, drug allergens, mould allergens, etc. They simply mean allergens from these items.
Since customers’ dietary requirements will come from your restaurant’s kitchen, we won’t talk about non-food allergens or mention them here. Our focus will be on allergens that exist in foods.
So, let’s quickly look at the examples of allergens that are common in restaurant dishes (including your restaurant):
Allergies (singular, allergy) are the discomforts or health conditions that arise from our contact with allergens.
Allergies can manifest in a wide array of symptoms. Some are mild, but others can be serious and life-threatening. You ought to understand these allergies and their health risks so that it serves as a reminder of the need to always be careful with customers’ health.
An excellent way to ensure you don’t serve the wrong food to a customer is by curating a digital menu for different special dietary requirements. Menuzen allows you to do this easily since you can easily collaborate with other team members and modify menus in real-time.
The effects mentioned earlier aren’t the only known consequences of eating allergens. Some allergens can awaken or worsen certain health conditions in people — they’re usually the most dangerous to victims. That’s why the list of dietary requirements for events or a restaurant needs to be carefully planned so that no one gets harmed.
Any food item that contains an allergen is a food allergen. But most times, the word “allergen” is dropped when mentioning a particular food allergen. For example, we don’t say “milk allergen”; we just say, milk, when talking about allergens in milk.
But why do we refer to milk itself as an allergen instead of just naming the particular proteins in milk (casein and whey) that cause the allergies? This is because milk serves as a host for these allergenic substances.
Any food and drink containing allergens is called an allergen, regardless of the types and quantities present. So, don’t be confused when you see some of your top dishes labelled as allergens.
Here’s an example list of the major food allergens you’d find in restaurants:
- Tree nuts
Food allergies are the health problems that we experience after eating certain foods. They’re called food allergies because they’re triggered by food, not medicine, pollen, insects, pets, and the like. In that light, it’s important to differentiate food allergies from other types of allergies to enable you to know when a particular food is the cause of any customer’s sudden health situation at your restaurant.
Sometimes, a person may take an allergenic medicine elsewhere, but the effects may not appear quickly. It could appear when they’re eating or just finished doing so at your restaurant. As a result, they’re likely to suspect your restaurant’s food to be a trigger. But when you know that the particular dish doesn’t trigger such an allergy, you’d have a better chance to convince the customer and save your restaurant from any potential scandal.
Here are common food allergies symptoms you should be aware of as a restaurant owner:
- Low blood pressure
- Itchy, watery, swollen eyes
- Troubled breathing
- Red spots
- Throat tightness
- Belly pain
- Loss of consciousness
Allergic & Allergenic: Differentiating the Two
The term allergic is used alongside allergens—in our case, food allergens—to refer to the person who experiences an adverse reaction whenever they eat certain foods. So, your customer with a list of dietary requirements may be allergic to some foods, say milk.
On the other hand, allergenic describes any food or substance that triggers an allergy.
Just 8 Foods Account for 90% of All Allergies: A Cause for Concern
We don’t mean 90% of all “food allergies,” but 90% of all allergies (including those from non-food substances). We’ve already listed these eight foods above when discussing “Food Allergens.”
These food allergens are some of the reasons for special dietary requirements being devised by more and more people. While these aren’t the only allergenic foods, they’re the most prominent ones.
Let’s discuss the top 3 food allergens you’re likely to encounter as a restaurateur and how to manage guests that react to them.
Let’s Talk About Milk!
All animal-based milk contains casein and whey, albeit in varying amounts; the same applies to food items containing animal milk. Some sources put the number of major cow-milk proteins at six, with up to 25 classifications. However, we know for sure that there are five primary types of protein in cow milk, two of which are known to cause allergic reactions (casein and whey).
You may wonder whether it’s possible to separate these two proteins from milk so that your allergic customers can consume milk without any problems. While casein and whey are separatable from milk, what remains won’t, by any standards, qualify as milk. It’s startling since casein and whey constitute less than 4% of milk; still, the truth is “milk isn’t milk without them.”
All proteins share some common characteristics but have differences that make them allergenic or not. Moreover, the proteinous foods you sell at your restaurant can have any of these proteins.
An excellent idea when creating a digital menu for your restaurant is to highlight those milk-devoid foods as “safe for those allergic to milk.”
The following food items are typically allergenic since they’re highly likely to contain casein:
- Half and half
- Sour cream
- Cream-based soups
- Pudding and custard
If you want to offer milk to customers allergic to it, consider plant-based milk.
Milk alternatives that don’t naturally have casein can be obtained from the following:
- Even potato milk!
However, when ordering these milk alternatives from your supplier, don’t just tell them soy milk, almond milk, etc. Rather, make it clear you want milk alternatives that contain neither casein nor whey.
Casein occurs in negligible quantities in some foods, but these foods can still trigger allergies when consumed in sufficient quantities.
Examples of such foods are:
- Coffee creamer
- Cereal bars
- Baked foods
What About Eggs?
People allergic to eggs will typically experience the same allergy when they eat foods containing any of the following constituents:
Any dish that contains eggs will likely have all the allergens listed above.
Suppose your customers comprise those with dietary restrictions on eggs, and you want to offer them egg-like dishes that won’t provoke an allergic reaction. In that case, you can consider the following:
- Mashed banana
- Chia seed
- Commercial egg replacer
- Silken tofu
The Fish Allergen
The protein responsible for fish allergy is called parvalbumin. Its content varies across different species but generally has the same effect on victims. However, cartilaginous fish like sharks and rays have less of this allergenic protein and, therefore, are more tolerated by people allergic to fish.
Symptoms of a fish allergy include:
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Skin rash
- Anaphylaxis (less common but deadly)
Here’s How to Handle All Allergens in Your Restaurant
Start by listing all the ingredients you use to prepare your dishes. Study the allergenicity of each ingredient and their allergic symptoms by researching the food item online.
This will make it easier to figure out the cause of any allergies in customers. You’ll also have a good idea as to the severity of the allergen.
Usually, suppose a customer orders a particular dish. In that case, it means they aren’t allergic to it, or the allergy is tolerable for them. But when a customer needs suggestions from your staff, they should confirm that the customer isn’t allergic to the dish recommended to them.
Overall, always remember the following key points:
- Food allergies can be deadly.
- Allergies currently have no cure (they can only be managed or avoided).
- Allergens can worsen some health conditions (such as sleep apnea, asthma, and upper respiratory tract infections).
Dietary Requirements Unrelated to Allergies
Different diets exist in the modern era. Hence, you ought to know your diets if your restaurant must compete favourably in today’s cutthroat competition.
To emphasise how much attention dietary requirements are gaining today, the IACC’s 2017 Trends in Nutrition & Delegate Wellbeing survey revealed that vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and other alternatives must be included on menus as a minimum due to the increasing adoption of these diets.
Let’s build a pretty long list of dietary requirements examples below. You needn’t add all to your menu; just choose according to demand.
- Ovo (allows eggs)
- Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian (allows some animal products)
- Lacto (allows dairy)
- Paleo Diet
- Pescatarian (eats fish, but not meat)
- Ketogenic (low carbohydrate, high fat)
- Flexitarian (adopts a largely vegetarian diet but may eat meat)
- Low GI (limits carbohydrate intake)
- Low sugar
- Whole 30 (avoids all inflammatory foods and beverages)
- Locally sourced
How to Decide What Diets to Cater for
Before you start peddling any special diet, ensure there are potential buyers, or at least you have a plan to bring them in. Don’t start cooking all kinds of dishes hoping to satisfy everyone’s dietary needs. You’ll end up incurring a huge deficit that might harm your business for a long time due to excessive food waste.
How about you start by surveying your present customers? If that’s a bit of a task for you, there’s no harm in politely asking diners whether they have any special dietary requirements.
While some people will inquire from your staff whether the restaurant caters to certain diets, most will probably only examine your menu. If they don’t see their kind of food on your menu, chances are they won’t remain a customer for long.
If a good number of customers are asking about or requesting a particular diet, try introducing it into the kitchen, even if it’s on a small scale. Not only will it provide more market exposure, but it will also help retain those customers. The truth is many people will leave for good if they spend a long time requesting that diet without getting it.
You can also get ideas about what special diets to offer by studying your competition. Ultimately, surveys are the best way to know for sure which special diets will enjoy the most patronage.
Why Offer Special Dietary Requirements?
There are three logical reasons why restaurants cater to special dietary requirements:
- Customer retention
Profit would be your top goal for every new diet launched — you want people to buy it at a high margin. Still, there are steps to take before you get there. We won’t say much about these steps, but you can get many helpful tips from our articles on how to increase restaurant sales and how to design a menu.
Speaking of designing a menu, Menuzen offers you the luxury of creating a digital variant for free. You can select from our various design templates to get started.
In a nutshell, research your competitors and devise ways to outdo them. Moreover, ensure there’s a market for the diet you want to launch and take adequate measures to prepare and price it to be profitable yet competitive.
Managing Allergies When Catering in Your Restaurant
This can be tough because you’ll be feeding a multitude. You’ll manage people’s dietary requirements before, during, and probably even after the event.
Every stage of the catering process demands a lot of effort on your part. In summary, you need to get in touch with the VIPs or invitees to learn of any special dietary requirements they may have.
How about dropping this as a question on the online invitation you send to their emails? If the invitation is well-designed with dietary questions in mind, organising and analysing the feedback won’t be a problem. Of course, you can’t plug all dietary holes. Still, you can take care of most, which is essential to delivering a successful event at your restaurant.
The Sales Angle of Allergies & Special Diets
Even though the body would typically react aggressively to any unwelcome food, among people are those who fail to connect the dots between their diet and allergies. So, they’d keep eating a certain food item despite their system rejecting it.
However, such a person is likely to discover that a particular food makes them uncomfortable whenever they eat it. They may read, see, or hear about that uncomfortable experience and the foods that cause it.
If this person is among your regular customers and you’re well-known for that dish that causes them the allergy, the probability of them no longer visiting your restaurant is high. This underscores why your restaurant mustn’t be famous for a highly allergenic dish. Needless to say, such a reputation can imply a commensurate decline in sales.
If your food items and ingredients come from a corporate catering supplier, ensure the company provides for any special dietary requirements of your customers. A zero catering policy towards special diets or allergens isn’t a bright business idea.
Nine (9) Dietary Restrictions Every Restaurateur Should Be Aware of
Some major reasons people lean towards particular diets or adhere to dietary restrictions include food allergies or sensitivities, religious beliefs, and ideological convictions. Certain restrictions serve to protect people’s lives, while others align with your customer’s moral and philosophical principles.
Here are nine dietary restrictions every restaurateur and event planner should know:
1. Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is a condition where you experience digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, and gas after consuming foods or beverages that have lactose. Lactose can show up in different foods because it can be added artificially.
Lactose intolerance levels vary among allergic people.
On the one hand, as little as a sip of lactose-containing food may trigger allergic symptoms in some individuals. On the other hand, research indicates that some individuals with lactose intolerance may ingest up to 12 g of lactose daily and not experience symptoms. This is almost equivalent to the lactose content in a 240 mL cup of milk.
Here are some suggestions for milk products to consider while creating a menu for your restaurant or event:
- Lactose-free milk
- Fermented dairy products
- Hard-mature cheeses
2. Gluten Intolerance or Sensitivity
One of the critical wheat proteins is gluten, which is also present in rye and barley. This protein provides the viscosity and elasticity found in baked foods.
Worldwide, between 1% and 7% of persons live with gluten-related disorders (GRDs) — non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease inclusive.
People with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity sometimes exhibit several food intolerances (cow milk inclusive) in addition to reacting to foods that contain gluten.
The current treatment for both conditions is a rigorous, lifetime gluten-free diet that includes foods like rice, corn, quinoa, tapioca, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, potatoes, sorghum, yucca, beans, plantain, chickpeas, and lentils. So, you should consider including these options in your menu if you have guests that are allergic to gluten.
A diet that prioritises plant-based foods while avoiding meat, fish, and poultry is termed vegetarianism. However, certain modifications permit some animal-sourced foods, such as:
- Lacto-vegetarians: Include milk and its products but avoid meat, poultry, and fish.
- Ovo-vegetarians: This doesn’t include fish, poultry, and meat, but eggs are included.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarians: Include milk (and its products) and eggs but omit meat, fish, and poultry.
- Pescatarians: Eggs, milk (and its products), and fish are included, while meat and fowl are not.
- Flexitarians or semi-vegetarians: Occasionally include meat, animal products, fowl, and fish, but lean towards plant-based foods more.
Strengthening your menu with plant-based proteins is an excellent idea because animal-based protein sources are restricted or avoided in a vegetarian diet.
Veganism is a dietary requirement and is similar to vegetarianism. However, the former is stricter in that it forbids the consumption of any foods derived from animals. For example, gelatin and sauces made from fish, honey, whey, casein, and bee pollen are prohibited in a vegan diet.
Veganism has its varieties, just like vegetarianism does. These include:
- The raw vegan diet: mainly consists of uncooked plant-based foods, and
- The fruitarian diet: relies on nuts, fruits, certain vegetables, and seeds.
If you decide to offer a vegan mix in your restaurant or event menu, ensure to provide a variety of healthful grains, fruits, veggies, and plant-sourced protein.
Kosher is a term that describes the dietary regulations set down by Jewish law. A kosher diet often revolves around these three key elements:
- permitted animals,
- Banning of blood, and
- Prohibiting a meat & dairy mix.
The following is a summary of the key factors to take into account while creating a kosher menu for your restaurant or event:
- Meat: The forequarters of split hooves-bearing ruminant animals, such as lambs, cows, goats, deer, oxen, and sheep, must be used to produce meat and meat products.
- Dairy: Dairy products like cheese, milk, and yoghurt are obtained strictly from kosher animals and shouldn’t be combined with poultry or meat. After consuming meat or poultry, some people undergo breaks as long as 6 hours before consuming dairy.
- Fish: To be kosher, a fish must possess fins and scales. This comprises salmon, tuna, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and more.
- Poultry: It’s okay to eat chicken, geese, turkey, dove, and quail.
- Slaughtering Method: A licensed butcher must follow specified procedures when slaughtering animals for meat, poultry, and dairy products.
- Ban on blood: To ensure the food is clean, eggs, poultry, and meat must be devoid of blood before cooking.
- Pareve: Foods classified as pareve can be served with either dairy or meat because they’re considered neutral for mixing. Fish, cereals, eggs, nuts, vegetables, and fruits are common pareve foods.
- Equipment: To prevent cross-contamination with non-kosher meals, utensils used for food preparation, cleaning, and service should be retained for kosher foods only. The same tools can’t be used in preparing dairy and meat.
A meal plan that’s rich in fat—but extremely low in carb—that has recently gained popularity is the ketogenic, or keto, diet. Although weight loss is among the primary drivers of the diet’s widespread adoption, some people may also adhere to it for its favourable effects on blood sugar and other metabolic processes.
Ensure the following items are on your menu if you have customers or guests who are on a keto diet:
- Protein: Meat, poultry, fish, turkey, eggs, plant proteins (like tempeh or tofu), cheese, and processed meats.
- Fats: Avocado, cream cheese, almonds, seeds, butter, and nutritious oils like olive or coconut oil.
- Non-starchy vegetables: Broccoli, onions, leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.
- Low-sugar fruits: Berries in reasonable quantities.
Dietary advice for people with diabetes encourages a balanced diet with moderate serving sizes for all food groups. Leaning towards low glycemic index (GI) foods—unlikely to cause blood sugar surges following their intake—is a popular recommendation among some medical professionals.
In addition to fruits with lower sugar content, such as apples, melons, and berries, low-GI foods include high-fibre foods like whole grains and legumes. Lean proteins, dairy products, and non-starchy vegetables are all possible inclusions in a menu suitable for people with diabetes.
In contrast to a lactose-free diet, a dairy-free diet forbids consuming all dairy products (comprising fermented foods like butter and cream, yoghurt, and cheese). Dairy-free diets are frequently used to manage cow’s milk allergy, in contrast to lactose intolerance, where other milk components are readily tolerated.
Therefore, if you’re serving diners with this allergy, take all dairy products off the menu and consider using plant-sourced dairy alternatives made from non-dairy milk, seeds, and nuts.
9. Low Carb
Low-carb diets restrict carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels steady at all times of the day. As a result, numerous versions have differing carbohydrate limits — while some are strict, others may be lax. Still, they typically limit their daily carb intake to less than 120 g.
Overall, if you’re catering to guests with a low-carb diet, minimise the number of legumes, grains, and starchy vegetables in their meal options. Also, avoid dishing out white bread, sugary drinks, rice, and pasta. Instead, emphasise foods like olives and avocados high in healthy fats, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
FAQs about Special Dietary Requirements & Catering
What are dietary requirements?
Dietary requirements are people's restrictions regarding what they can or can’t eat. These restrictions are usually health-related, but others stem from religious beliefs, personal principles, or even just for fun.
What are the most common dietary requirements?
Dietary requirements that the majority of restaurant customers subscribe to barely exceed ten. We’ve listed more than that in this article, but here are the common ones you should consider first before any others:
- Lactose intolerance
- Gluten intolerance
- Low carb
- Food allergies
Why do people have different dietary requirements?
Many individuals are concerned about their diets for various reasons. These may include:
- religious or cultural beliefs,
- health issues (like diabetes, coeliac disease, or cardiovascular disease)
- attempts to increase their overall fitness and well-being by consuming foods tailored to their current health status.
How do you ask for dietary requirements for an event?
If you own a restaurant that also meddles in catering services, this is one of the first checkpoints you’ll face when preparing food for a crowd. As mentioned earlier in this guide, asking about what foods are safe or harmful to a guest isn’t going to cut it — you need a dietary requirements email template to do a stress-free job.
However, you can still obtain such info when you ask for guests’ relevant special dietary requirements during registration. Alternatively, a diet-inclined question can accompany any online invitations you send to guests for the event.
How do you accommodate guests with dietary restrictions?
Our advice would be to follow the steps outlined in this article and those summarised in the question immediately above. But if you want to be the perfect caterer, always have extra diets on standby in case some guests only remember their allergies after arriving at the venue.
What are the most popular food trends today?
Here are some of the popular foods today. You can offer them as specials and still keep your regular standby dishes:
- Urban farm produce
- Climate-conscious foods
- Island flavours
- Spicy bakes
- Reducetarian eating
- International BBQ
Although we won’t say these are independent diets, they can wildly influence a customer’s perception of your restaurant. Some customers can be put off if your restaurant lacks the most trendy dishes. But if you put out a lot of trendy foods, your restaurant traffic will continue to grow, provided you do other things right.
We’ve covered most known allergens and allergies in this extensive guide, including the symptoms and health conditions that allergens can trigger, especially the deadly ones. We’ve also covered any special diets your customers might subscribe to, with the ultimate aim of simplifying the task of meeting your guests’ dietary requirements.
When curating food options tailored to specific dietary requirements, a digital menu that allows for seamless edits and sharing is critical. This is where Menuzen comes in, enabling you to cater to your guests’ diet peculiarities — all for free!
Get started today at Menuzen.