Avoid Menu Mishaps with Careful Allergy Planning

Nancy Byron
Hors d'oeuvres at Jaime and Chance Weber's reception, made by Together & Company.

This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Weddings, published December 2019.

Food is a central part of any wedding reception, yet selecting a menu that’s safe for everyone to eat can be a tricky proposal.

About 1 in 25 adults has a food allergy, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That figure doesn’t include religious restrictions or those with medical conditions that require special diets, such as heart disease (low sodium), diabetes (low sugar/carbohydrate), Celiac disease (gluten-free) or lactose intolerance (dairy-free).

But don’t panic. Even if Grandma is allergic to shellfish and three of your attendants don’t eat eggs, your entire reception menu doesn’t have to be compromised.

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“Couples are always worried about everyone else at the event—all 200 of them—and you’re not going to be able to please all 200 people,” says Carly Ziemer, director of sales for Together & Company. “I tell them to focus on what they like first. We can work in the dietary restrictions later.”


The most important step in ensuring your meal is safe for all to enjoy is to ask early on what food allergies impact your guests. How you word that question, however, is vital.

“Don’t say, ‘Please let us know if you have any food aversions or allergies,’ because that’s a little loose. You can end up having over 100 different requests,” if guests misinterpret the question as being about preference, says Melissa Johnson, vice president of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events. “It’s not about liking; it’s about safety.”

Instead, she suggests focusing strictly on allergies.

“If people eat a certain way, like vegan or Kosher, most people will let that be known, too,” she adds.

Being specific about entrée options also is helpful in identifying potential allergens up front.

“If you’re serving salmon or white fish, say that versus just saying ‘fish,’” Ziemer suggests. “The more details you give your guests, the better.”

After all, meals are a big expense.

“You don’t want to serve someone a meal they can’t eat,” says Olivia Karp, special events sales manager for the Columbus Museum of Art. “At the end of the day, every couple wants their guests to have a good time; that includes a good meal.”


Chefs have gotten very creative—and proficient—at tweaking recipes to accommodate dietary needs.

“Gluten-free is probably the most requested, so our team has really been working to make all our sauces gluten-free,” Ziemer says.

Adding an option to switch out breaded chicken for grilled chicken, to avoid gluten, also has broadened Together & Company’s allergy-friendly entrée options. In addition, a vegetarian dish now can be made vegan by simply omitting the goat cheese topping.

“We were reinventing the wheel all the time, and it really didn’t impact the taste of the food, so it just made sense,” Ziemer says.

Meanwhile, in Cameron Mitchell’s catering business, “we’re not going to sacrifice flavor,” Johnson says, “but we can even create a whole menu that keeps all the major allergens out.”

Offering several menu options, at least one of which is naturally gluten-free and one that’s either vegan or vegetarian, is an easy way to address allergies without a lot of extra effort.

“You want to be sure you’re meeting those needs, but it doesn’t have to be a less desirable option,” Karp says. “We can make those entrées exciting.”

Many caterers also offer a selection of desserts in addition to or in lieu of a wedding cake, making it easier to accommodate food restrictions.

From a flourless chocolate torte or chocolate avocado mousse to an allergy-friendly lemon curd with fresh berries, the options are plentiful.

“They still have the same visual appeal and the taste,” Johnson says.


Once you’ve communicated all dietary needs to your caterer, let them handle the details.

“Trust your caterer,” Ziemer says. “They can manage it.”

Plated meals allow servers to know exactly where guests with food allergies are located.

“We try to identify them without making a spectacle,” Johnson says, noting her company places small lights by the water glasses of those with food allergies. “That tells our servers that there’s something special about what they’re having.” If you’re using individual place cards for your guests, you can include a small icon on their card to help identify them.

Allergen-free foods can be labeled on buffets, but staff must work with you to identify guests with allergies before they go through the line.

“If it’s something severe, we’ll often make them a special plate,” Johnson says. “We want to really make sure we’re taking all precautions to keep people safe.” 

Although more than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions, these eight food groups cause the vast majority:

  • Eggs
  • Fish, specifically tuna, halibut and salmon
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish, including shrimp, lobster, crab, clams, scallops and oysters
  • Soy
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

Common food intolerances, such as lactose and gluten, are not allergies, per se, but should be considered when planning a reception menu; reactions to these foods also can be severe.

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