How to hold healthier meetings

Simple menu changes and opportunities for delegates to stretch their legs can create a more engaging event
Simple menu changes and opportunities for delegates to stretch their legs can create a more engaging event

At a time when many people are trying to squeeze more exercise and nutritional foods into their day-to-day lives, some meetings and conferences still fall back on traditional menus and formats featuring bacon, pastries and a lot of sitting.

The good news is that it’s becoming increasingly easy to offer delegates healthier alternatives through a simple discussion with a caterer and injecting some creative thinking into the day’s itinerary.

Experts say the benefits of offering fresh food and opportunities for physical activity extend beyond the health of delegates.

“You don’t want people falling asleep in the afternoon,” says Tracey Black, the owner and executive chef at Ottawa-based catering company Epicuria. A healthy lunch, she adds, can “be a perk and a positive in a day full of meetings. It gets people talking. It gets people excited. It raises the energy.”

Menu planning

The World Obesity Federation publishes a handbook for meeting planners who want to hold healthier events. When it comes to food, the federation offers specific tips (see sidebar) and several broad guidelines, such as avoiding fried food and pastries while offering fresh fruit and vegetables.

Ms. Black says this approach doesn’t have to mean sacrificing taste. 

"You don't want people falling asleep in the afternoon."

“We love serving grilled proteins, such as flank steak or salmon or chicken, and then pairing them off with grain salads or vegetable-based salads using different flavours,” she says.


When it comes to indulgences such as, say, chocolate, Ms. Black suggests serving bite-sized mini-desserts, as options that are easily managed. She thinks this is best for the foods that are less healthy.

“People can have a little bite and savour without committing to a big piece of cake or a big cookie,” Ms. Black says.

While fresh food can sometimes cost more than meals prepared in advance, serving healthy dishes at a corporate event doesn’t have to mean blowing your budget.

Epicuria serves a corporate lunch crowd on a daily basis, Ms. Black says. So lunch has to be affordable for all budgets. While the company does do high-end meals, she says it’s easy to simplify menus for cost-conscious organizations.

“We have great protein salads,” Ms. Black says. “(We start with) grilled chicken or flank steak on greens (and) just layer it up with pestos, a pickle and different sauces. So we can turn out a really tasty, healthy lunch for $10 to $12.”

Active conferences

Despite a trend towards actively engaging meeting and event participants, it’s still common for delegates to spend hours on end sitting.

However, it’s possible to plan “active conferences” that minimize the amount of sedentary behaviour.

This can start with including maps of the immediate area, highlighting potential walking routes that delegates can explore on their lunch break, in welcome packages.

Inside the venue, space can be left at the rear of the room for delegates to stand at high tables, suggests the World Obesity Federation.

The organization also suggests building physical activity options into the itinerary of multi-day conferences by, for example, setting up a room for yoga or providing access to a nearby fitness facility.

Fresh ideas

  • Avoid fried and deep-fried food

  • Substitute white rice, white pasta and white bread with brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread and grains such as barley and quinoa

  • Serve fish, chicken and lean beef over processed meats

  • Provide water jugs with fresh lemon, mint or ginger

  • Only set out small plates at buffets to encourage smaller portions

  • Serve bite-sized desserts

  • Consider signage that promotes taking the stairs, regular stretching and walking along the venue concourse

Source: World Obesity Federation