We have all been there and so have our catering customers: the all day seminar or the multi-day conference.
Ideally it is time away from our businesses to learn and to network. In actuality, it can also be one long, very drawnout meal.
These events often begin with a breakfast of pastries, followed by a midmorning break of cookies and soft drinks.They move on to an enormous lunch with an indulgent dessert.
Is it any wonder that many of us have trouble keeping our eyes open for the mid-afternoon sessions? And that the problem becomes even worse after yet another break for chips and soda?
Inspired by my own lost afternoons, I went in search of caterers who do it better, offering food that energizes, and in sane serving sizes. They were not hard to find.
Here at USC, the very question of healthy options in catering was puzzling to Wendy Quinn and Sondra Hernandez, catering managers with USC's TrojanHospitality.
"Fresh fruit and vegetables are such a part of our customers' lifestyles that they don't ask for them, they take them for granted. Fresh fruit trays at breakfast and whole fresh fruit for afternoon breaks are standard on our catering menus," states Hernandez.
Quinn observes that fruit-based desserts are often chosen over heavy sweets and that veggies are no longer garish-sized side-dishes. "Our customers enjoy snack breaks of grilled asparagus with hummus and pita chips.They love the way orange slices, roasted walnuts and dressing on the side replaces the bacon and egg in our spinach salad."
Giving customers beautiful colors, distinct flavors and a variety of textures blended with fun and personalized customer service guides Dane Group, Director of Catering at the Hilton Anaheim. Group takes a "don't say that word," approach to "healthy," and refers to the such menu engineering as "West Coast California Fusion Cuisine."
A lunch or break at the Hilton makes "people feel good, not bogged down." Whole grains, local fresh produce, lean proteins and fruit based desserts are the stars of this menu.
Group and Executive Chef Fred Mensinga use action stations extensively to help their customers "see the freshness." Salads tossed or meats carved before the customers enhance service with a very personal touch that also ensures moderate, appropriate portions.
In addition, Chef-attended action stations allow the indivudalization of customer selections: side servings of dressings, a little more or less of an ingredient, meat cut from the center or the end.
Group understands that " meeting planners want to keep participants motivated. Gone are the days of sugar-riddled snacks breaks."
One example of how the Hilton adds some customization and interest to its program is evidenced in the way it handles an afternoon snack program called Trail Mix Martinis. Conference participants walk up to the bar and see a vast array of nuts, dried fruit, and a few sweet touches like chocolate chips. The bartender fills a martini shaker with their selections, shakes it for them and pours it into a martini glass. "It tastes great, surprises them, makes them smile and is very personalized customer service." Group says that such treatments typify the Hilton Corporate Eat Right Initiative.
"Fitness Food on the Move" is the term Lisa Millon uses to describe the healthy choices on the menu of "The Garden of Eating," a Los Angeles catering company she coowns. The core of its business is similar to other office caters: meals are delivered for meetings, parties or individuals. It is the food and philosophy that makes the company unique.
Millon summarizes the appeal of "Fitness Food on the Move" as " specialty nutrition designed to meet the guidelines of your chosen healthy living system." This company truly caters to health guidelines and the diet concerns of its customers.
It offers entrees that are under 400 calories; heart healthy, low-fat entrees; trendy low-carb entrees; and will even calculate your Weight Watcher's points. It don't discriminate, but develops and provides freshlyprepared food that is appealing whether you're dieting or not.
These specialty concepts extend even into the dessert course with Triple-Ginger Gingerbread and Apple Cobbler. However, Millon has noticed a trend: no matter how selective her customers are, they still want the decadent dessert.
Where do such ideas fit into your operation? Here are some simple ideas you can borrow from these pros and implement without revamping your entire menu.
Merchandise with nature's bounty. Nothing brings bright and beautiful to a plate or buffet than the natural colors of fruit and vegetables. Exploit natures bounty in some way with every course.
Emphasize whole grain. 2006 is the year of whole grain: brown rice has gone mainstream; there are increasing numbers of whole wheat breads, pitas, crackers and wraps to choose from; and whole wheat pasta finally tastes good. If you are still serving only "white and fluffy," know that, to many customers concerned about nutrition and health, it shouts 1965 at full volume.
Reconsider portions. Size does matter: make the veggie portions big, whole grain and protein portions moderate, sweets and other starches small. Mini muffins and mini bagels are "just enough" for most adults.
Let your beverages tell the story. Enlivening beverages: sparkling water, bottled water, water with citrus and cucumber slices, non-fat and low-fat dairy and soy milk, coffee, tea and 100% fruit juice.
Put sauces, dressings, gravies, mayonnaise, butter and cream cheese in the hands of your customers so they can use as much —or as little— as they wish. The point is, some will over-indulge, some will have just a little and others will skip such items entirely. But making it a personal choice gives the responsibility to the customer herself.
Most important tip: experiment with recipes so every item on your menu gorgeous and satisfying, regardless of the calorie, carb or fat count.
Patrice Barber, RD, is the nutritionist with TrojanHospitality at the University of Southern California.
PHOTO BY LARRY HARVEY, UCLA MEDICAL CENTER