Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How Food Can Impact Your Meeting’s Success

When planning menus for their meetings, most meeting planners focus on what sounds good to serve and fits within their budget (I am usually one of them, too). Rarely do they put much thought into how what they choose to serve can impact the success of the meeting. However, what meals you choose to provide to your attendees has the potential to affect their ability to learn as much as the lighting levels, type of room seating, and the room temperature. The good news is – you don’t have to be a nutritionist (or even play one on TV) to make better choices in your menu selections. So how does a planner take all of the diverse factors into account (budget, dietary restrictions, service time, etc.) and still support the learning goals of an event?

The old adage, you are what you eat, is quite relevant here. Studies have backed up what people have long believed: what you eat affects your moods. And, in a meetings setting, your mood can affect how well you learn and process information and how you interact with your fellow participants.

We’re all familiar with the post-Thanksgiving Feast lethargy, yes? You eat a huge meal, then want to spend the rest of the day on the couch watching football (or otherwise being lazy)… We want to avoid a similar response after lunch at a conference because that “tryptophan high”, while feeling good, also impedes your ability to receive and process information. So what’s the solution? Reasonably sized meal portions can help make sure that your attendees are not dozing the afternoon away when you want them engaged and learning. Fortunately, most chefs already provide reasonably sized meals (for plated meals) so you don’t need to worry about this one too often. Do keep it in mind, though, as it can be a factor after buffet lunches.

Providing balanced meals are also important because the body requires a variety of nutrients to function properly. If you are missing key nutrients in what you eat, then your body is forced to draw from its own reserves to fill in those gaps. Why does that matter? Well, the brain cannot store food energy as the rest of the body can. This means that, if it needs a particular nutrient, the brain will need to “steal” it from another part of the body. Depending on the nutrient needed, we may feel hungry, depressed, tense, irritable, etc. as the brain sends out signals to the rest of the body with its needs. All of these moods affect your ability to function effectively and, with the “negative” moods, can make it impossible to participate fully in a meeting or conference. As with meal sizes, your catering chef will help you with this as they create meals for you. You might have noticed that plated entrees always include a protein (usually meat), a starch (rice, potatoes, or pasta), and vegetables. This “triangle of food” is a basic, roughly balanced meal. While you don’t have to worry about providing every nutrient the body needs in each meal, the more variety you include, the better the results can be.

Let’s talk dessert. We have addressed desserts before (here and here) but, in this case, we’re more concerned about what happens with your attendees when you serve dessert. First off, it usually means they are eating a larger meal than they otherwise might since most people do not eat dessert after lunch every day. We’ve increased the meal size, which increases the chance they will become lethargic afterwards. Secondly, the sugars in most desserts are, in many ways, junk. Yes, your body “needs” sugar; it makes you feel good and provides an energy boost. However, that boost from desserts is short-lived and the good feelings drop off just as quickly. When combined with a large meal, this can make your attendees very sleepy just when they need to be most alert. Candy and soft drinks, often served at breaks, can also cause spikes in energy as they provide short, quick boost to blood sugar, then fall below normal levels before stabilizing. This is not to say that you need to remove all sugary foods from your menus – just be aware of what affect they can have on your attendees. This is one factor that you have a lot of control over in menu planning.

So, from a meeting planner’s standpoint, three things to focus on when providing meals that can affect productivity after a meal are meal size, meal composition (balance), and sugar content. So why not look further into the chemistry of the mood-food relationship? Well, for one, there is too much info out there to easily sum up here (especially since I am not a nutritionist) and, for two, there is another factor in this that cannot be easily addressed here: the attendee. Every person responds to food differently. Yes, there are general responses and long-term health effects that are true across the board, but those are less true when applied to specific individuals. One person may be greatly affected by caffeine, for example, while another could drink a pot of coffee right before bed and have no ill effects. And, those with dietary restrictions or allergies, such as lactose intolerance or nut allergies, may respond very differently to the same meals as those without the same conditions. The examples could go on forever – but the point is that a general awareness of how meals can affect your meeting participants will go a long way in making sure that you don’t sabotage your own event by providing meals that undermine your goals.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises