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Jana Skarnulis was diagnosed with celiac disease — a digestive disorder triggered by the protein gluten — in 2005 and has had to give up one of the benefits of her job as an event planner — the tastings. She now helps chefs design menus when a food allergy or special diet is a concern. Here, she offers tips on adapting event menus for guests with food issues who are still eager to join the party.

As professionals in the special event industry, it is our job to transform the clients' visions into perfection. Often, special events means tackling special needs. With the increasing incidence of food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, special needs mean special diets. Even so, creating menus that “wow” the clients and cater to their guests can be achieved easily.


Preparation is the key to success. There is nothing worse than a guest showing up to a dinner and having to wait while a special meal is prepared. The table of attendees sits and waits for the missing plate, while the guest with the special diet anxiously shifts in his or her seat, and the wait staff apologizes for the delay. At last the plate of food arrives, and it usually arouses either envy or pity.

We can avert this by doing one simple thing: A response card should accompany all invitations. Adding a sentence of inquiry on all response cards asking for information on “special dietary needs” would be a great problem-solver. Being properly prepared is half the battle! Using such a card means we know before the event that there are special dietary needs, and we know who has them.

Printed menus are exquisite. They add an element of elegance to any event. But take them a step further — not only list the courses but also the ingredients within the courses. Let the guests who may not have expressed their nutritional concerns on their RSVP have the opportunity to make individual choices in keeping with their dietary concerns.


As of January, new labeling laws in the United States have changed the way packaged foods are identified. How about using cue cards for cuisine at events? This is a novel idea that would show extra consideration for everyone. This works great at cocktail hour when hors d'oeuvre are either at stations or being passed. Instead of the mundane question servers hear — “What do you have there?” — a printed card on every tray will avoid concerns of “What is in that?”

Ahh, the beautiful squiggles a chef adds to the plate using his spectacular sauces make for an extravagant presentation. However, the risk of adding a potentially health-threatening ingredient means that sauces, dressings, dips and dazzles should be left on the side.

Recently, an event planner in Indiana was giving a small dinner party for prospective clients. She had the most amazing menu planned, or at least so she thought. Instead, one guest could not eat the salad because it contained goat cheese. Another could not eat the salad because of ingredients in the dressing. Yet a third guest could not eat the pork entree due to the spices it contained. Four out of the 12 guests could not eat the breads or the dessert for reasons related to their dairy or wheat allergies. One attendee subsisted on martinis, eating the olives that accompanied the cocktail.

The planner now sends a “culinary questionnaire” to every invitee. Extreme? A little, but to avoid such hazards, let us learn the basics.


You may be familiar with diet preferences such as kosher, vegetarian, vegan, low sodium and sodium-free. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, there are more than 12 million people in the United States alone who are affected with one or more food allergies. FAAN also states that 90 percent of food allergies are caused by only eight foods: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

Although it is impossible to create a menu to fit all needs, keeping a list of special menus handy will not only help you keep your sanity but will give your business another area of expertise that your clients will truly appreciate. Remember, you are in a position to advocate for your client. You are not dealing with “picky eaters.” These requests may be allergy-related or related to other health concerns and should not be taken lightly.

Without getting completely scientific, here are the basics on special menus:

Gluten-free diets are commonly recommended for those with celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, gluten intolerance and wheat allergies. Gluten is a protein found in foods such as wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats. It can also be hidden in other foods such as sauces, dips, soups, salad dressings and condiments. Yes, to those on a gluten-free diet, it seems that gluten is everywhere! Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, free-range poultry and fish are all good. Organic beef and pork are safe on gluten-free diets.

Casein-free diets have been making news recently as a possible help for those afflicted with autism, and many people following casein-free diets also avoid gluten. Casein, a protein found in milk, can be hidden in fillers in sausages, stews, soups and, of course, anything made with dairy products.

Soy milk and casein-free items are available yet are hardly foods we can expect venues and caterers to have at hand. An easy answer is substituting water or apple juice in a recipe that calls for milk. Kosher meats are great for casein-free eating.

Lactose, a simple sugar in milk and milk products, is a concern with creating a menu when dairy is an ingredient, especially recipes calling for butter. More and more lactose-free products are available commercially.

Corn-free diets exclude corn, corn syrup, cornstarch, cornmeal and dextrose.

There are many other food concerns and diets being introduced as fast as trends change. Just keep in mind the eight “danger” foods and have at least two dishes that everyone can eat.

The menu items suggested here are basic recipes that can be adapted to meet the needs of various specific diets. The great chefs and caterers in the event world can concoct palate perfection when given enough notice about the concerns to address. These examples show that even the simplest of menus can show consideration for the food-challenged.

It is up to you to decide how little or how much you will cater to those with food allergies, intolerances or preferences. Adjusting your approach to special-needs diets will require you to expend more effort on your event, sometimes for the sake of just one person. But then, nothing compares to the adjustments made by individuals who are forced into following a special diet. Your efforts will be noted, appreciated and recognized for having created the perfect party.


NOTE: Bear in mind that the menus suggested below address individual food concerns; a gluten-free menu may not be safe for an individual with both gluten and corn sensitivities.


Cream of Spinach Soup
Made with soy milk, water, fresh spinach leaves, sunflower oil, garlic, onion, salt, pepper and tapioca (for thickening), garnished with tomato puree

Grilled Chicken and Avocado Salad
Made with grilled free-range chicken, sliced avocado, fresh green leaf lettuce and sliced yellow bell peppers, dressed with lemon juice, cider vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

Sassy Citrus Pork
Grilled organic pork with garlic, scallions and 100-percent-pure orange juice

Mashed Sweet Potatoes
With 100-percent-pure maple syrup and cream

Fresh Steamed Asparagus
Berry Delight Dessert

Fresh berry sorbet with whipped organic cream or whipped soy milk, garnished with mint leaves


Pumpkin Soup
Made with canned pumpkin, apple juice, green onions, garlic, salt and pepper

Pear Salad
Made with pear slices, sliced seedless grapes, fresh green lettuce and nuts (optional or on the side); dressing made with balsamic vinegar, garlic salt and extra virgin olive oil

Zesty Fish Entree
Made with fish, white wine, lemon juice, orange zest, lemon zest, mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil and kosher salt

Baked Caramel Apple Dessert
Made with apples, vanilla, apple juice, cinnamon and sugar


In this case, the names themselves are self-explanatory. But beware: The word “vegetable” can be problematic. Be wary of vegetable shortenings, oils and flavorings, as they may contain products made from corn or soy.

Cream of Broccoli Soup
Made with cream, chopped broccoli, chicken broth, onion, butter, sea salt and pepper

Spinach and Goat Cheese Salad
Made with fresh spinach leaves, sliced goat cheese and sliced tomatoes; dressing made with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pepper

Surf and Turf Entree
Lobster tail with melted butter and filet of beef with garlic and rosemary

Mashed Potatoes with Cheddar Cheese and Chives
Fresh Green Beans with Almonds
(optional or on the side)
Cheesecake with Apricot Topping
Filling made with cream cheese, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, canned apricots, orange juice and lemon juice in a graham-cracker-crumb crust

Jana Skarnulis can be reached at Detailed Events, P.O. Box 275, Frankfort, IL 60423; 877/DTL-EVNT (385-3868); [email protected].

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