Menu Wars: 3 Food Experts Weigh in on a Group Dining Menu

Our panel of experts analyzes an actual menu for a meeting group of 300

The Menu
Breakfast Buffet
Selection of Chilled Juices
Sliced Fresh Melon
Assorted Cereals with Dried Fruits and Nuts
Fluffy Scrambled Eggs
Crisp Bacon and Pork Sausage
Signature Breakfast Potatoes
Selection of Freshly Made Bakeries
Sweet Butter, Jam, and Preserves
Freshly Brewed Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee, 
and Hot Tea Selection

Lunch Buffet
Homemade Chicken and Dumpling Soup served with Crackers
Baby Spinach with Bacon, Blue Cheese, Chopped Egg, and Farmhouse Ranch
Assorted Rolls and Butter 
Rosemary Infused Savory Brisket Pot Roast
15 Spice Naturally Raised Slow Cooker Chicken
Double Smoked Bacon and White Cheddar Potato Gratin
Glazed Tilapia with Snow Peas and Garlic Butter Sauce

Caramel Apple Pie and Roasted Peach Cobbler
Freshly Brewed Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee, 
and Hot Tea Selection

Mixed Greens with Mushrooms, Purple Onion, and Tomato Ranch or Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
Bread Presentation with Olive Oil Dipping Plate and Butter
Duet of Teriyaki Salmon and Petite Filet
Roasted Redskin Potatoes
Fresh Garden Green Beans with Red Pepper Accents

New York Style Cheesecake with Strawberry Sauce
Freshly Brewed Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee, and Hot Tea Selection 

Organic ingredients, local foods, foods that fuel. These are just a few of the hot dietary trends that people around the world are embracing. And as a result, these are trends that today’s meeting professionals need to be familiar with; not that that’s a bad thing—these foods help attendees stay mentally acute and productive. 

Most major hotel chains have incorporated these concepts into menu offerings, although selections are contingent on price. 

According to a senior convention services manager at a Midwest convention hotel, “Even though everyone would like to eat healthier, cost is usually a driving factor. Most groups are concerned with quantity and perception of value as opposed to what is healthy. What we consider specialty items—healthy, organic, hormone-free—are usually 35 to 50 percent higher in cost. Most groups just can’t afford it.”

Successful Meetings obtained an actual menu that was used during a recent three-day meeting for a group of 300 at the hotel and turned it over to the experts: Chef Suprina Berenyi, founder of Suprema Gourmet, a consulting service that specializes in private, corporate, and industry wellness events that feature foods that inspire positive brain chemistry; Mitzi Dulan, a registered dietitian and certified health and fitness instructor who is currently the team nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals; and Andrea Sullivan, president of BrainStrength Systems, an organization dedicated to improving learning and performance. 

This menu cost the group $25.20 per person for breakfast, $28.80 per person for lunch, and $38-$42 for dinner based on the entree selected. 

We asked the three experts to examine the menu and give either a seal of approval or suggested alternatives.

Suprina Berenyi, chef and founder of Suprema Gourmet

Offer water with fresh fruits, such as lemon or grapefruit, instead of juices. Swap the melon for small apples and bananas, as they have fiber and potassium. Make sure the cereals are complex carbohydrates (“Kashi has a great line,” Berenyi says), ensure baked goods include whole grain options, and replace the potatoes with sweet potatoes, which have “a lower glycemic index.”

Add a hash of sauteed breakfast vegetables to the morning offerings. “Use hard winter squash, onions, and whatever vegetables are available in bulk. It has loads of great B vitamins for mood elevation.” She also suggests switching to turkey sausage and omitting bacon. 

Add hard-boiled eggs to the buffet, add ricotta cheese and peanut butter to the condiment options for protein, and make sure that jams do not have added sugar. 

Chicken and dumpling soup does not a healthy lunch make. “Substitute dumplings with whole grains,” she says. 

The salad should include heat-smoked button mushrooms instead of bacon, a change Berenyi says will taste similar, but without added fat. And offer olive oil and vinegar for dressing. The gratin is “seriously not healthy. Anything else would be better for you. This would be a great place for a wild grain pilaf or vegetable quinoa.” 

The pot roast can be healthy so long as it isn’t too salty, and the slow cooked chicken should be a white meat, not dark meat. The tilapia “is great, but hard to include on a buffet unless it is made with lots of butter. It’s better if it is poached in a stock. That will keep it moist without the butter.”

Keep dessert portions small, and offer Greek yogurt with honey as well.

Berenyi adds, “This lunch needs the addition of a bean so vegetarians in the group do not starve. Any legume will do: black beans, red beans, cannelloni beans, chickpeas. Avoid black-eyed peas as they do not look good on a buffet over time.” 
“I recommend a ginger carrot dressing or olive oil and vinegar, but as long as the dressing is served on the side it would be fine,” says Berenyi. Offer a white bean dip with the bread instead of olive oil, include a whole grain side dish and roasted butternut squash instead of redskin potatoes, and add a vegan option to the menu—“I recommend extra firm tofu teriyaki, ” she says. 

Mitzi Dulan, registered dietitian and certified health and fitness instructor

Pastries and croissants will not sustain your attendees. “Your mother was right; it is important to start off the day with a good breakfast for energy and to get your metabolism jump-started. You should always offer a source of protein for breakfast since it helps provide sustainable energy by keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the morning.”

Some of Dulan’s high-performance continental breakfast ideas include green, black, or white tea; skim or one-percent milk; hard boiled eggs; nonfat or one-percent cottage cheese; seasonal fruit; high fiber, low-sugar cereals like Kashi, Wheaties, Cheerios, All-Bran, or Fiber-One; small bananas; bran muffins; whole wheat mini bagels with smoked salmon; peanut butter; and granola. 

Avoid bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, donuts, pastries, and cinnamon rolls.

Dulan agrees that chicken and dumpling soup is a poor option and suggests going with a black bean soup instead. In lieu of ranch dressing, “offer a balsamic vinegar option for salad dressing and drop the bacon,” she says. “And add a whole grain option like brown rice, quinoa, wild rice, or whole wheat pasta with red sauce” to the buffet. Also, “ditch the bacon” on the potato gratin and substitute fresh berries for the apple pie and cobbler. 

Dulan’s lunch suggestions, which also work well for dinner, include entrees like fish, skinless chicken breast, or pork tenderloin—prepared without frying and using minimal oil. Ask for entrees to be paired with steamed vegetables. Whole grain rolls and fruit and vegetable trays should be made available. 

Desserts should be fruit-focused—a sorbet or berries with a piece of chocolate. 

Add balsamic vinegar to the bread presentation, trade the redskin potatoes for sweet potatoes, and replace the cheesecake with a fruit crumble. Also, while salmon is a great option, Dulan notes that “grilled salmon would be a better offering than teriyaki salmon to reduce sodium. And a grilled pork tenderloin is recommended instead of the filet.” She also suggests adding a whole grain option to the dinner buffet. 

Additional thoughts: High performance snack breaks ideas include water; Larabars; fresh fruit; vegetable trays; hummus with whole wheat pita bread; nuts; trail mix; popcorn; yogurt pretzels; and mozzarella cheese sticks (just the cheese, not fried sticks).

Andrea Sullivan, president of Brainstrength Systems

Nix the sausage and replace traditional bacon with turkey bacon. “The fat in the pork version is hard to digest,” Sullivan says. 

Replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes and ensure that the baked goods include “plenty of whole grain offerings. It would best if these were sweetened with honey and had some ground flax seed thrown in. This will provide Omega 3s that help with thinking and information-processing.”

According to Sullivan, at first glance this menu looks healthy, but it is not. 

Replace the soup with chicken and vegetable soup. Blue cheese and ranch dressing do attendees no favors, but a salad is a great lunch option. “Keep the baby spinach, but offer it with mushrooms, the chopped egg, and balsamic vinaigrette. The Omega 3s in the olive oil will aid thinking,” explains Sullivan. 

The entree selections here also need improvement. “I do not recommend serving pot roast for lunch. Beef takes a long time to digest and digestion requires a great deal of our resources,” she says. “Replace with a fish dish.” And the tilapia could be healthy or not, depending on the preparation. “If this includes a fruit-based glaze, great. If it’s a heavy, sugary caramelized glaze, not great at all,” she says. “Replace the butter sauce with one that has an olive oil base. The Omega 3s will help the brain.”

Make sure the rolls include wheat and whole grain options, and replace the potato gratin with a sweet potato dish to cut down on fat. 

And as for dessert, Sullivan says, “The caramel apple pie has too much sugar. Why not an apple pie? I’d replace the roasted peach cobbler with fresh strawberries and whipped cream or something with dark chocolate and peanut butter. Dark chocolate is helpful for cognition and mood, plus it makes people feel good. The best advice I can offer here is to make the portions small.” 

As with lunch, ensure that the rolls include whole grain breads. And instead of the redskin potato side dish and the green bean option, go with a brown rice and wild rice dish. “Brown rice replaces B vitamins that are used when we are stressed,” she explains. “This will be good for them and help them the next day. Plus, they had potatoes at lunch.”