Meeting the demand for healthy meetings

We are what we eat — a pithy statement, but nevertheless, thoroughly and completely true. It has taken us decades — centuries even — to accumulate the dietary acumen and scientific data to point with certainty towards what foods promote wellness and which do not.

On the heels of this buildup of nutritional knowledge comes a widening public desire for healthier food options, often during meetings, in particular. I was lucky enough to sit down with Tracy Stuckrath, president and chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings & Events, to discuss what hotels can do to get caught up on this all-so-imperative trend.

Larry Mogelonsky: How important is food quality to meetings these days? Are a majority of people aware of how food can affect productivity?

Tracy Stuckrath: It’s vital. Food quality is becoming more important to meetings each day as sessions and articles on “brain food” are appearing, but the implementation is not yet at the forefront of catering menus. Some reasons for this include lack of nutritional education among those creating the foods and selecting the menus or budgetary constraints.

LM: Do hoteliers understand the full benefits of healthy eating?

TS: Some hoteliers understand the benefits of offering healthy eating options for their guests, but most still don’t, and the majority has not translated such healthier options into the banquet menus.

Last year’s groundbreaking partnership between Tulane University School of Medicine and Johnson & Wales University uniting doctors and chefs in improving the nation’s health through the instruction of culinary medicine is a great example of how hotels can improve their relationships and partnerships.

Frequent guest programs are also a great way to attend to guest needs. By collecting personal preferences of guests — food or environmental allergens, dietary preferences, exercise habits — hoteliers can ensure the needs of their guests are met. But, this takes training for front and back of house. Collecting the information is one thing, but making your staff aware of and understanding the customer service opportunities is a whole other aspect.

LM: Do you feel overt education about healthy eating augments the meeting experience?

TS: Education is key, but so is taste and comfort. Food that is supposed to be good for you still has a bad rap. So, for food to “do the talking,” flavor has to be a prerequisite in making something healthier and meeting special dietary needs. Just because it’s healthier or gluten-free doesn’t mean it needs to taste bad. Those options should meet the same quality and taste standards as everything else a hotel is serving.

Education also needs to include how to easily make healthier choices for ourselves at home and on the road, but also how to implement those changes to meeting menus. Some people think because they are on the road, it gives them the opportunity to eat poorly.

But that mindset it changing. The current oversized meeting menus loaded with carbs and sugar need to change to incorporate healthier options. They must meet the needs of guests with food allergies or other food intolerances and those who want to eat healthier.

An extremely important aspect of education is food safety. All staff must know the ingredients in the foods they’re serving, how they are prepared and how they are served. For instance, is the calamari with cornmeal crust fried in the same fryer as the chicken fingers with white flour? Is the chef using a separate sauté pan for the sausage and cheese-free omelets? Did you put the pastries on the shelf above the fruit and eggs of the vertical buffet? Crumbs from the pastries can fall on the fruit, making the fruit and eggs inedible for celiac and wheat-allergic guests.

LM: Where do hotels have yet to capitalize on the idea of healthy food for meetings?

TS: A few ways to capitalize include reviewing menus to find ways to use less processed options and add more fresh, local ingredients; training staff to know and understand the ingredients in what is being served as well as how to safely serve guests; evaluating options in sundry shops; and assessing current menus to find items which already meet dietary needs and creating versions of the same item so they can meet special needs.