Tips for Catering to Customers with Special Dietary Needs

Using an online nutrition analysis software that provides allergen information, calorie counts, and nutrition info can make it easier and safer to serve customers with allergies, sensitivities, and special diets.

Using an online nutrition analysis software that provides allergen information, calorie counts, and nutrition info can make it easier and safer to serve customers with allergies, sensitivities, and special diets. Image source: Unsplash user Fabrizio Magoni.

The man at table five is celiac, the child at table twelve has a nut allergy, and the couple at table seven is on a low-carbohydrate diet. The servers are hitting you with questions every few minutes, and the kitchen staff is frantically flipping through the recipe binder to determine if the vegetarian risotto does indeed contain wheat.

If you work in the restaurant industry, you know there has been a significant increase in diners with special dietary needs in the past five years. Every day, you have at least a handful of people with special food requests, and, if you’re being honest, they can really throw a wrench in the flow of service.

While catering to customers with special dietary needs can be stressful, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there are a few important steps you can take to make sure your restaurant is ready to meet the needs of your diners. In hopes of helping ease the stress that can come with serving diners with allergies, sensitivities, and special diets, I’m going to share my top three tips to ensure that service always runs smoothly and that your diners eat safely.

Tip #1: Include Allergen Statements on Your Menu

Considering that 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, providing allergen statements on your menu is probably the most important thing you can do to protect your diners from having adverse reactions. In the middle of a busy service, verbal communication can fail and servers can make mistakes, so having allergen information written right on the menu where diners can see it is a good idea.

I suggest writing a general allergen statement on your menu that acts as a disclaimer that all the food prepared in the kitchen may contain certain allergenic ingredients. For example, if your restaurant specializes in pizza, you might include an allergen statement that reads, “Menu items may contain or come into contact with wheat.” If you generally have any of the eight allergens (wheat, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and milk), it would be wise to include the applicable ones in this statement. That way, diners can use this information to decide whether or not it is safe for them to eat at your establishment.

In addition to the general allergen statement, it is a good idea to label each menu items to show which allergens they contain. This can be done with a simple statement beside the item, such as “contains milk,” or you can use icons with a key to denote the presence of allergens. Either way, I recommend using an online nutrition analysis software like MenuCalc that provides an allergen report for each of your recipes. That way, you can be sure you haven’t made any mistakes or missed any ingredients.

Tip #2: Provide Ingredient Lists for Each Menu Item

In addition to having allergen statements on your menu, I recommend providing diners with a list of ingredients for each menu item that can be made available to them upon request. This is a smart move because many people have specific food allergies that fall outside the eight most common allergens. Plus, diners may have food sensitivities to a wide variety of ingredients.

While most diners will ask the server if the ingredient in question is in the item they are interested in ordering, sometimes the server won’t know. To save them from running to the kitchen and asking a busy kitchen staff who may or may not know the answer off hand, have an easily accessible document they can give to the diner so they can check for themselves. Not only will this ensure service runs more smoothly, but it will make the diner feel as though they can safely and easily make a choice about what to eat. Just make sure your menu indicates that ingredient lists are available to diners should they need them.  

Tip #3: Add Calorie Counts and Nutrition Information

As nutritional science develops and the link between health and food becomes stronger, more people are paying closer attention to what they eat. While some may ascribe to a particular diet for reasons of their own, like the Paleo or Ketogenic diets, others may be eating a specific diet because it’s what their doctor ordered. In both cases, such diners would greatly benefit from having access to calorie counts and detailed nutrition information.

No matter the reason, diners should have the right to know what they are putting in their bodies. And while the upcoming May 7, 2018, deadline requires chain restaurants of 20 or more locations to make calorie counts and nutrition information available to their diners, not all restaurants are required to take part.

Even if your restaurant is not subject to the menu labeling laws, I recommend adhering to them so you can better cater to customers with special dietary needs. Not only will it make your establishment appear more transparent, but it may also bring in a new crowd of customers that value calorie counts and nutrition information.

While there are undoubtedly pros and cons to providing calorie counts on menus, including this information is always a good idea when it comes to serving customers with special dietary needs. Plus, if you use a reputable online nutrition analysis software that is affordable and easy to use, there really is no downside. All you have to do is create an account, enter your recipes, and watch as the calorie counts and detailed nutrition information instantly generates.

Once you have the information, you can add the calorie counts to your menus and keep the more detailed nutrition information in a binder or folder that diners can request. Again, just make sure your menu lets people know that additional nutrition information is available.  

The Benefits of Online Nutrition Analysis Software

Of course, there are many other benefits to using nutrition analysis for recipes in a restaurant setting. Not only will it help you better cater to customers with special dietary needs, but online nutrition analysis software will also help you keep your recipes organized and ensure they are safe and confidential. Software like MenuCalc protects your recipes with a password protected sign-in and backs them up daily to ensure they won’t get lost.

Even if you decide not to provide calorie counts and nutrition information on your menus right away, if you use MenuCalc to analyze your recipes, you can still provide diners with answers to their questions on a case-by-case basis. All you have to do is sign into your account, pull up the recipe in question, and check the allergen information, ingredient list, and calorie count. But in the name of smooth service, I’d try out these tips. Your diners and your staff will thank you for it.

MenuCalc is an industry-leading online nutrition analysis software. Contact us today to create an account or to try a free 15-day trial.

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