. The Rise of Vegetarianism at Events | Northstar Meetings Group

The Rise of Vegetarianism at Events

The importance of offering more than meat at meetings

Hilton offers a "Cut & Create Salad Bar" for a healthy meeting break.

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, and though that doesn't mean there's a sudden call-to-action for all meat-eaters to ditch their favorite proteins, the initiative is cause for appreciating some overlooked F&B options that are worth building into meeting menus. 

To raise awareness, let's explore the variety of plant-based diets, their benefits and how to incorporate more vegetarian meals into event menus. After all, plant-focused eating goes beyond blanched string beans and wilted spinach side dishes.

A Closer Look at Vegetarianism 

Serving vegetarian needs to extend beyond providing crudités (assorted raw vegetables) as an hors d’oeuvre or a bowl of pasta primavera as an entrée option. The initiative isn't that simple or trivial. There are different levels of vegetarianism that attendees might follow for a variety of reasons.

Studies on vegetarianism show that about 3.2 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarian. That equates to about 7.3 million people, according to the Vegetarian Times -- many of whom are attending your next meeting. Another 5.2 percent, 11.9 million people, are interested in following a veggie-based diet. Not only are people interested, but the vegetarian sector is "one of the fastest-growing categories in food publishing," according the magazine

Vegetarians eat grains, vegetables, fruit, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds; yet there is a variety of plant-based diets to choose from. The difference between dietary types is the absence or presence of other animal products:

  • A lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.), eggs and honey.
  • A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) and honey, but no eggs.
  • An ovo-vegetarian allows eggs and honey in their diets, but no dairy products.
  • A pescatarian eats eggs, honey, dairy products and seafood (fish or shellfish).
  • A vegan only consumes food from plant sources; no dairy, egg or honey allowed.
  • A flexitarian operates primarily as a vegetarian, but occasionally eats meat or fish.
  • A reducitarian mindfully reduces their consumption of meat, dairy, honey and eggs.
  • A climatarian opts to choose what they consume based on the carbon footprint of different foods.

Create an Inclusive Event Environment

Help attendees identify themselves at events based on their dietary needs by offering meal cards or lanyard badges. Not only will this assist the attendee, it will also help the catering staff identify and steer guests to meal options that align with their needs and specifications. A sampling of meal cards can be found here

Planners should also label food items. Ensuring that ingredients, allergy warnings and dietary information is clearly marked and labeled -- especially on buffet-style F&B setups -- is crucial to creating a safe and inclusive meal. Check out this Northstar Meetings Group article on food safety management for more information. 

Veggies and the Meeting Menu

Plant-based foods do not have to be -- nor should they be -- as boring or tasteless as planners and attendees have come to expect (and often still see) at events. Vegan and vegetarian menu items should be delicious and healthy. They should also make up, in my opinion, 20 to 30 percent of your F&B offerings.

Following are several veggie dishes from my archives. Consult with your venue chef or catering team to discuss adding some of these flavorful, fulfilling and veg-focused options to your next meeting menu.

  • Lemongrass hummus is vegan, vegetarian and gluten-friendly. It can be served as a coffee break snack and will provide lasting energy and fullness during a long day of education sessions and appointments.
  • Curried cauliflower soup is gluten-friendly, dairy-free, nut-free, vegetarian and vegan.
  • Peaches are sweet and can be served as a dessert or compliment to a savory dish. Consider serving peach and avocado salad or bourbon and spicy ginger-peach soda as a beverage option.
  • Zucchini is is a vegetable but can also be used for sweet or savory dishes. It pairs delightfully with garlic, tomatoes, leafy herbs, olives, roasted peppers, onions and various cheeses.
  • Watermelon might be season-specific, but it is also one of the most healthful foods we can offer our attendees. 
  • Corn is versatile and has one of the best reputations for being a "savior food" when it comes to sustainability (it can be grown almost anywhere).
  • Blueberries are one of the most celebrated fruits out there and can be used in many ways. Add them to quinoa or wheat berries to create a heart-healthy snack.
  • Plums are undervalued. There are so many varieties and an abundance of ways to feature them in a menu. They are great for adding flavor to dishes and beverages.
  • Asparagus is one of the most healthful foods. We often only think of grilling or sautéing this veggie as a side dish, but this Better Homes & Gardens article whips up a number of delicious, seasonal entrées.

Veggies and Sustainability

While there are many reasons beyond vegetarianism to adopt more meatless dishes for meeting menus -- such as animal rights and expansive health benefits -- sustainability is also a strong motivator. 

I mentioned climatarianism above. Originally introduced in an Audubon article, author and activist Mike Tidwell argued that this is not a fad, but a responsible and enlightened choice given the environmental condition of the planet.

"If we allow extreme global warming to become a reality, an impact on the U.S. diet could very well be a great reduction in the amount of meat on our tables -- a reduction imposed by nature," noted Tidwell. "The wide and guaranteed availability of agriculturally productive land might simply cease. The crop yields we see now could shrink significantly, thanks to everything from weird weather to pest invasions. Climatarianism could combat such endangerment."

In 2015, a social network called Climates popularized the term by categorizing it as a movement of those who make dietary changes to minimize carbon footprints. "Climatarian is an easy and meat-inclusive diet beneficial for the Earth and individual health."

The site discusses food as a massive contributor to greenhouse gases -- 20-30 percent -- due to the majority of crops being used to feed animals. However, the site does not advocate a vegan or vegetarian diet. Instead, the climatarian diet removes higher-emission beef and lamb with lower-emission pork and poultry products.

More than simply switching meat choices, the New York Times further defined the movement as "a diet whose primary goal is to reverse climate change. This includes eating locally produced food (to reduce energy spent in transportation), choosing pork and poultry instead of beef and lamb (to limit gas emissions) and using every part of ingredients (apple cores, cheese rinds, etc.) to limit food waste."

Embrace Vegetarian Choices

Regardless of the underlying value system, there many ways nonvegetarian planners and attendees can celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month and the benefits of opting for a more plant-based diet. Following are a few ways to support the use and awareness of veggie-focused diets. 

  • Commit to trying a meatless meal. They are creative, nutrient-rich and remarkably fast to prepare and cook, which saves our catering teams time in the event kitchen.
  • Use budget as a motivator. Eating or serving vegetables, grains and fruit in place of meat actually costs less. The more beans and grains planners can intersperse throughout a conference menu, the more they might be able to save on F&B costs.
  • Participate in the #MeatlessMonday hashtag. Get the brain thinking about event-menu design by honing inspiration from others sharing about meatless Monday. It's a great way to intentionally explore vegetarian practices and muster up ideas for veggie-focused dishes, without the pressure of "going vegetarian."

Tracy Stuckrath, of Thrive! Meetings and Events, is a speaker, trainer and meeting consultant. She works with organizations worldwide to understand how food and beverage affects risk, employee well-being, company culture and the bottom line. Whether delivering a keynote presentation, breakout session, interactive training seminar or cooking demonstration, Stuckrath prompts audiences to evaluate, refine and learn to use food and beverage served at meetings, in offices and company cafeterias and at home as a way to make every participant, guest, employee, friend or family member feel safe and included at the dining table.