Catering for special dietary and cultural requirements

We are all educated, conscious and interested in what we are eating.

Catering for special dietary and/or cultural requirements does not have to be arduous. Are you aware of what your guests, delegates and attendees are looking to eat?

It can be challenging to stay on top of new health trends, dietary restrictions and ingredient preferences. Food allergies and intolerances are at an all-time high, it is important to be aware that your clientele may have a range of varying food and catering needs because of their culture, religion, diet, medical or personal preference.

You can be sure to host a meeting or event that is inclusive and makes everyone feel welcome by making provision on your RSVP to encourage guests, delegates, clients to provide you with information about their food needs and then communicating this information to your caterer. Then work with your catering team on providing food options that reflects and respects the requirements of those attending.

You can use the information below as a food guide to help you understand and adapt to the modern market:

Dietary Allergies


Scientists and health specialists have hypothesised that the over-consumption of processed foods, the Western yeast-heavy diet, pasteurisation, and the widespread use of disinfectants could all be to blame.

What’s the difference between food allergies and intolerances?
It all comes down to how someone’s body reacts to the food.

Food Intolerances
Food intolerances involve a chemical response from the digestive system. Someone with a food intolerance may lack certain enzymes or chemicals that make processing the food difficult. Symptoms can appear soon after consumption, however they can also take 12 to 24 hours to develop. These symptoms can include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Gas, cramps, or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headaches
  • Change in temperament, often to irritability or anxiousness
  • Intolerances can result in unpleasant symptoms and if consistently ignored, possible longer term damage.

Food Allergies
In contrast, allergies involve an overactive response from the immune system. People with food allergies create antibodies when they come into contact with the allergen, treating it like a virus or a poison. Typically, symptoms of allergies develop very soon after consuming the food. These symptoms can appear as:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Itchy skin
  • Breaking out in a rash or hives
  • Heartburn or strong chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhoea
  • Swelling of the oesophagus
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Allergies have the potential to cause dangerous and life-threatening reactions, especially in severe cases.

The most common food allergies include peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and pecans), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk protein, bee products, soy, corn and wheat.

Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in certain grains such as wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, triticale and most oats.

Known for its elasticating properties, gluten is what gives bounce to bread and a chew to pasta. This makes it much loved in the kitchen, however sensitivities are surprisingly common.

‘Gluten-related disorders’ is a term that sums up all diseases triggered by gluten. Coeliac disease is the most well known, with other gluten-related disorders including wheat allergies and gluten sensitivities. For someone with coeliac disease, studies have shown that as little as 24mg of gluten (as found in a crumb of conventional wheat bread) can cause damage to the intestine. If not managed properly, this can cause major health problems in the long run.

Dairy products, milk products or lacticinia are a type of food produced from or containing the milk of mammals, primarily cattle, water buffaloes, goats, sheep, camels, and humans. Dairy products include food items such as yogurt, cheese, cream, whey and butter. However, milk derivatives also show up in a great variety of pre-packaged and processed foods. Caseinates, whey protein, milk protein and milk solids are all things you might find on an ingredient list.

The most common dairy sensitivity is lactose intolerance, which is when the body lacks the enzymes required to process lactose, a sugar found naturally in milk. Though it does not cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, diarrhoea, and nausea. Levels of sensitivity vary, with some sufferers being able to tolerate butter and some cheeses (which are lower in in lactose than milk).

Milk allergies on the other hand are most frequently due to the proteins casein and whey. As with all allergies, symptoms may be mild or severe and life threatening.


Humans come in all flavours, and so do their diets. Many people choose to follow a specific diet for health reasons, a personal belief system, or simply because they don’t enjoy certain foods. Other reasons influencing food choices may include trends, health goals or ethical reasons such as wanting to reduce environmental impact or animal suffering.

While it may not be possible to accommodate everyone, especially if you are working within a limited kitchen space, do try to have options for everyone where possible. If you understand the basics of common diets, it is often very simple to adapt a dish by leaving out or substituting ingredients.

Some of the diets you are likely to come across include:

  • Vegetarian
  • Vegetarianism is growing in Australia every year. Increased knowledge of the health benefits of plant based diets, and a strong ethical and environmental movement have also made vegetarian cuisine very appealing to omnivores. Having a tasty vegetarian option or two on any menu is a great way of offering more choice for all customers, not just those following specific diets.

A person who does not eat meat or fish, and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.

There are different types of Vegetarian’s:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian. Eats eggs but not dairy products.
  • Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.

A Vegan is a person who does not eat any meat products: so red and white meat, poultry and seafood are off the menu. Other animal products such as eggs, dairy and honey are also not eaten.

Foods such as mushroom, eggplant, sweet potatoes and avocados are all substantial ingredients that are often used in vegan cooking. Other ingredients such as tofu, tempeh, nuts and lentils also provide protein and flavour.

A paleo diet is a dietary plan based on foods similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era, which dates from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.

A paleo diet typically includes lean meats (ideally from grass-fed sources), fish, fruits, vegetables, unrefined plant and animal fats, nuts and seeds — foods that in the past could be obtained by hunting and gathering. A paleo diet limits foods that became common when farming emerged about 10,000 years ago. These foods include dairy products, legumes or starches, as well as processed foods containing sugar, excess salt, synthetic chemical flavours, preservatives and grains.

Though creating specific paleo-perfect meals might seem unrealistic, the popularity of this diet is more a sign of the times. People are becoming progressively more health conscious and willing to go to the effort for good, quality food.

Religious & Cultural
Many of the world’s religions and cultures follow specific food customs and laws. The degree to which a person’s religion or culture affects their diet varies incredibly. Depending on your location and demographic, you may encounter different cultural diets all the time or not at all.

Since meat typically has stricter laws in many religions, having great vegetarian or vegan options will offer something for most diners.



Dietary preferences are not a set of rules that people will necessarily always stick to, but it is an option they will usually pick when it is presented. Increasingly, modern diners will choose ethically sourced food products that have been cultivated close to home.

The definitions according to Australian laws and consumer guidelines can vary. Some of the below labels have strict growing guidelines that must be adhered to in order to legally use the word.

Organic food is cultivated without the use of fertilisers, pesticides, or any artificial chemicals. The seeds used to grow the food should also be organic, and the earth used to grow the food should also have been free from chemicals for some time.

Pesticide Free
This label does not have the strict conditions for its use like the word “organic” does.

Pesticide-free means the food has not been treated with synthetic pesticides like insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides. However, the land may have been treated with these chemicals in the last few seasons, or the seeds used may have been genetically modified.

This refers to foods that have not been genetically modified. In many foods it is difficult to determine, however a lot of attention is placed on soy, corn, canola and sugar beets.

Sustainably Sourced
This means that the food in question was removed from its environment in a way that doesn’t meddle with the overall ecosystem. Sustainably sourced fish is of special concern, as over-fishing can destroy entire food chains and populations.

If you want to check that your seafood is sustainably sourced, you can use Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, a free manual that talks you through the sources of over 90 common types of seafood.

Locally Grown
The “locavore” food movement consists of people interested in eating food that is produced locally, and has not been transported from far away for their consumption. A common definition of local is within 160km (or 100 miles) of a food’s place of growth and its point of purchase or consumption. Australia does not have a clear definition of what constitutes as ‘local’ however, so any labelling might mean from down the road, up to 160km, or within state borders.

There are many benefits to using locally sourced foods. Some of them include boosting the local economy, encouraging diversity in local agriculture, and food that has travelled shorter distances has spent less energy on transit and arrives fresher (and therefore, tastier).

Building connections with local producers or farmers allows you to go straight to the source. This usually means fresh seasonal produce, knowing that the food is coming direct from the farm, and the good feeling of supporting the local economy.

Grass-Fed Beef
Cows that are grass fed are allowed to graze in paddocks for their own fresh food. This is supposed to make for a better-tasting beef, and should be a healthier and more pleasant like for the animal overall. It is also close to a natural diet for the cow. In Australia, around 97% of local beef is grass-fed.

Free-Range Chickens & Eggs
This term has been quite controversial recently. In March 2016, new standards for the free range label stated that up to 10,000 birds can be kept per hectare, and took away the requirement that allowed hens to go outside. Check with your poultry or egg source yourself and use your discretion to decide if the produce is really free range.



We would like to thank and encourage you to visit the following sites for further reading and information:

  1. Food Safety Authority NSW,
  2. Nisbets Express Catering Equipment, A Restaurant’s Guide to Dietary Requirements and Restrictions,
  3. Australian Government Department of Health, Special Dietary and Cultural Needs,
  4. Heart Foundation, Food and Nutrition Guide,