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Eat, Drink, And Be Wary

Best Food Choices For Business Meetings:
Keep Your Guests Alert, Happy, and Focused

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” — George Bernard Shaw

Food is love. It is a powerful way to show that you care. But even love can go wrong. Whether you are setting up the meeting, assigning it to someone else, or hiring a meeting planner, make sure the food choices reflect the depth of caring and attention to detail that your business guests deserve.

This is not just good manners; it's good business. The right food at a business event can make the difference between focused, appreciative, alert participants and angry, bloated, and drowsy ones.

Many factors affect these results. They range from personal nutritional preferences to allergies and religious restrictions. Other factors include how messy a dish is and the time and dexterity required to consume it. Also, certain foods tend to induce sleep more readily than others.

Overall, the choice of food and the manner in which it is presented can say a great deal about your professionalism and attention to detail.

People are always forming and adapting their perceptions of you and your business. Make sure your food choices say the right things about you. The menu is the message!

Hamburgers, for example, send a different signal than lobster tails. So at your next business function, remember to have good EATS!

  • Ease of consumption -Avoid messy and difficult-to-eat foods.
  • Audience- Be sensitive to your guests and their special needs.
  • Timing - When you serve can dictate what you serve.
  • Selection- Make sure you offer your guests a variety of menu options.

With these principles in mind, let's take a closer look at the nuts and bolts (or pretzels and bolts if you're allergic) of thorough and thoughtful business catering:

No Muss, No Fuss

Many a slip between the cup and the lip
There is an art to freeing a lobster from its shell. It takes talent to pull away the tiny tidbits of meat that cling to a quail's delicate bones. Pizza and long pastas can also test the dexterity of your guests. Make sure your diners don't need to struggle or acquire new skills to consume their meals. The less effort your guests must put into eating, the more they can focus on the conversation or the business at hand.

Please Pass the Fixodent
Many people have medical conditions that affect their ability to eat certain foods. Dentures are just one example. Other examples include sensitive teeth and temporo-mandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), which can make hard chewing or opening wide excruciating. Dental work (bridges, braces, etc.) can also create problems with sticky foods like gum and taffy. In general, avoid foods that are hard to chew or especially sticky.

Fight Drops that Spot
When foods splash, splatter, and drip on shirts, blouses, and laps, diners get annoyed, embarrassed, and stained. Not only will this make them unhappy, it will also make them less presentable. No one wants the camera to zoom in on the keynote speaker only to reveal a big blotch of barbecue sauce on a white collar. Overdressed salads, soupy sauces, long pasta, BBQ, pizza, foods sitting in broth, and unwieldy giant lettuce leaves are common culprits.

Respect and Sensitivity

“What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.” — Titus Lucretius Carus

I'll Just Die if I Eat That...
Allergies can kill. It's important to provide complete and accurate information on ingredients and preparations. Nut allergies are particularly insidious because nuts can sneak into foods through oils, dessert crumbles, and salads. Candy makers actually label their no-nut candies as containing nuts if they are made on the same machines as their nutty brethren. Some airlines won't even serve nuts for fear of a mid-air allergic attack.

Other common food allergies and sensitivities include fish, shellfish, strawberries, milk products, caffeine, chocolate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sulfites. In addition, certain drugs can make it dangerous to eat some foods. Spicy foods and alcohol can aggravate ulcers and other digestive problems. High-sugar foods can trouble diabetics and some people with high blood pressure need to avoid salt.

Let Them Eat Pork!
Several religions ban pork (including Judaism and Islam). Some require a strictly vegetarian diet. Others prohibit certain foods on certain days (such as meat on Fridays during Lent for Catholics or leavened bread during the Sabbath and Passover for Jews). While neither you nor even a professional meeting planner can anticipate all these concerns, it is important to know the most common ones and to be sensitive to the others.

Underdone and You're Done
While raw eggs may appeal to Rocky Balboa, your business guests may not be willing to risk exposure to salmonella. Caesar salads, sushi, steak tartar, and any other uncooked (or undercooked) meat, fish, or poultry can cause illness. Some of these foods are also on the fringe of typical palates so you may not want to test their limits. Let your guests try new foods that are less risky or wait until they are not attending your important event.

Avoid Mid-Meeting ZZZZZs

Perchance to Dream...
The last thing you want is to have people fall asleep during someone's talk, especially yours. You also do not want to accentuate the body's natural lull in energy after lunch. One way to reduce this risk is to avoid certain foods and drinks that make people sleepy.

Tryptophan is nature's sleeping pill. Turkey, milk, and milk products are high in tryptophan. Next, fatty foods take longer to digest. They sit in the stomach longer, churning around. This makes people uncomfortable, weighed-down, and fatigued.

Also, simple sugars give people a quick high but some come down hard. After an initial high, some people experience an extreme low in blood sugar in response to sweets, making them sleepy and dimming their concentration. Another more obvious culprit is alcohol. It "taketh away the performance." Therefore, it's not a good idea for the speaker or the audience to imbibe before a presentation.

Of course, if you'd rather no one pay attention when you get up to speak, a big turkey meal followed by ice cream is a good way to lull your audience into a steady slumber. For a real deep sleep, top it off with warm milk with a blast of Amaretto.

Fight Bad Breath and Baleful Bellies
Strong flavors can bring pizzazz to your meal... and big trouble. Spicy foods with powerful odors create discomfort for many people. They can upset stomachs, create bad breath, bloating, gas, and indigestion. Common culprits are curries, raw onions, garlic, jalapenos and other hot peppers.

Variety is the Spice of Life
Although it is impossible to cater to every individual's personal taste, as the person in charge, you have a responsibility to provide enough choice and variety so no one is forced to go hungry. Your guests will appreciate your consideration and courtesy.

First, make sure you gather information about special dietary needs or concerns. This should be an easy and confidential process, not a public show of hands. Then, honor the requests...many people include these questions on forms but then never follow through.

Lose Weight Now; Ask Me How
If you don't receive any special requests, this does not mean people don't care what you serve. For example, how many people do you know who are dieting or just trying to eat healthier? Don't force them to cheat or embarrass them by making them ask for a different menu in front of your other guests. Make certain that you offer alternatives. For example, provide fresh fruit at all meals and green salads at dinner and lunch. Most dieters will rejoice to find these options.

You can go a step further with low-fat or fat-free choices in entrees and desserts. Make certain that these preparations include little or no oils or butter, and that sauces and dressings are always on the side. Examples of low-fat options include grilled foods (like chicken breast and vegetables), swordfish, fresh vegetables, angel food cake, and fat-free frozen yogurt.

If you're offering snacks at breaks, pretzels are much better for dieters than potato chips. You should also offer plenty of spring water and regular, diet, and caffeine-free beverage choices available.

In addition to avoiding high-fat foods, don't succumb to the whimsy of your personal taste. There are some foods that people just don't like (lima beans and Brussels sprouts, for example). And others they may not be willing to try for the first time with business colleagues (e.g. rattlesnake, alligator, and monkey's brains). Even if the meal is tied to a theme, it is best to avoid exotic menu items or at least offer comfortable alternatives.

Informed Choices

As you start to plan the food for your next business function, here are two key questions to ask:

1. Who is the audience?

  • Dietary requirements (vegetarian options, religious, and cultural considerations)
  • Age
  • Industry
  • Expectations/perceptions about what you serve (e.g. lobster vs. sandwiches)

2. What is the context?

  • Time of day
  • Formal vs. informal
  • Purpose of meeting
  • Activity, participation, and alertness required

Reprinted from PS for Business Communicators®, ECG's client newsletter.

 

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