It's not just about your body; your brain needs sustenance, too.
Meetings, as we all know, are serious business. As such, they are dependent upon productive work time, networking and education sessions that inform and inspire attendees or that allow them to move upward in their industries via advance certification and skill-building.
It only makes sense, then, that organization leaders and conference planners should do everything possible to lay the foundation for success— right down to offering food at meals and breaks that enhances productivity rather than hindering it.
Which specific snacks are served in the afternoon of day two during the annual convention may not seem like a critical decision executives and meeting planners should spend time on. And yet it is. The break food attendees consume at 2 p.m. can either have them reaching for toothpicks to prop open their eyes during the following education sessions, or it can fuel them perfectly so that they’re alert and engaged with optimum brain power ready to be tapped.
If an afternoon meeting is important enough to include on the conference agenda to begin with, isn’t it equally important to make sure participants are mentally and physically ready to get the most out of it?
Education, Education, Education
The problem is, altering the traditional lunch and snack menu may not be an easy sell. Americans are in the throes of an ongoing love affair with junk food—bad for both mind and body. A May 2012 report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine noted that at current rates, as many as 42% of U. S. residents will be obese in just 18 years—32 million more than already are.
That makes it hard to introduce the concept of healthy foods into the meeting routine, even when the effects of doing so can be immediate and positive. Attendees love their bagels and pastries at breakfast, and their chocolate chip cookies, brownies and soft drinks when afternoon break rolls around. That’s tradition. That’s the way it’s always been done. Convincing planners to build a multiday F&B menu that doesn’t include the usual assortment of sugary refreshments is, to say the least, a challenge.
“It comes down to education,” says David Skorka, senior executive chef for the 40 convention centers in the Centerplate portfolio, which includes the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, and the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. “You have to educate planners and attendees. Really, you have to educate everyone throughout North America. That’s a difficult process.”
Skorka and two of his convention center chefs, Jeff Leidy of the San Diego Convention Center and Blair Rasmussen from Canada’s Vancouver Convention Center, gave a standing-room-only presentation on this subject at PCMA in January, and the feedback was terrific; the chefs received very high scores in the post-session surveys. And if the buzz around the water coolers, make that carafes, was accurate, the healthy selections they put out at PCMA were a mega hit—especially the strawberrybasil- infused water in place of soda, with no refined sugar, fewer calories than soft drinks and the benefits of both strawberries and basil.
The good news is that it’s really not that difficult to design menus featuring food that will boost brain power rather than shutting it down, and we’re talking more than wheat-grass shooters and bulgur kebabs.
Convention Menus Matter
At Loews Coronado Bay Resort in the San Diego area, Executive Chef Mark Leighton Ching has developed a Brain Food luncheon menu for group functions. It offers a balance of foods that will provide a slow burn throughout the afternoon so blood sugars stay even. There’s enough protein to sustain energy but without overburdening the digestive system, and sweets contain beneficial ingredients with a minimum of sugar and are offered in measured quantities.
Executive Chief Mark Leigthon Ching of the Loews Coronado Bay Resort, California
“You want a balance between carbs and protein and enough of the right fats to satisfy the appetite,” says Chef Ching. “Metabolic satisfaction comes from fats, ideally healthy fats, and if there’s balance, energy is released slowly and consistently.” That means attendees are sustained throughout the entire afternoon, allowing them to be productive and get the most out of the meeting that they or their employer paid for.
For those who think cookies and brownies save the day when the afternoon slump hits, here’s a cautionary tale to consider. Imagine, says Chef Ching, that your attendees eat a high-sugar dessert at lunch. By the time they walk to their meeting, they’ll be experiencing the sugar “high,” which can make some people jittery. It will last about 30–40 minutes, and then they’ll start crashing. With the crash comes decreased cognitive ability and focus. If the session is two hours long, your group is below par for three quarters of it.
Does that sound like good business?
Chef Ching, who hasn’t consumed processed sugar in 17 years, says there is a better way. First, the industry should rethink the way it does meals. It’s best, for example, to fuel attendees every two to three hours, which can be easier than it sounds. Here’s the chef ’s suggestion for a typical convention day that could become an industry standard.
Breakfast: Greek yogurt, berries (among the best fruits in terms of their nutrient versus natural sugar balance), oatmeal with agave nectar rather than sugar and a “rejuvenation” snack mix of oats, nuts and dried berries. Sure, you can have coffee, but preferably with nonfat milk.
Morning break: A build-your-own snack mix with dried fruits, raw nuts (not salted), roasted or flavored grains (oats, quinoa and, yes, bulgur) gives attendees energy to take with them. Veggie-centric smoothie shots can also work for the morning.
Lunch: A menu similar to Loews’ Brain Food menu (see sidebar, pg. 58).
Afternoon break: Fresh and dried fruit as well as raw nuts. Protein smoothies containing Greek yogurt, berries, agave nectar and bananas (which help circulation, among other things) provide the sweet treat that attendees tend to crave at this time of day.
Dinner: Avocado gazpacho—avocados have good fat and are nutrient rich—followed by 4–5 ounces of well-seasoned fish, chicken or steak served over a warm salad of dark, leafy greens. Dessert can be a small portion of flan made with almond milk, berries with a small shot of a liqueur, or egg-white pavlova, a flourless meringue-like dessert.
So far, groups embracing this type of F&B focus are primarily those that already have a medical, health or green orientation as part of their business and/or company culture, say both Ching and Skorka. But the reality is that every business—and conference attendee—would benefit from it.
After all, the result of participating in a business conference should be that attendees contribute to their employer’s ROI for the meeting, right? If attendees are sluggish and disengaged during large portions of the conference, they cannot work effectively or contribute at 100%.
Andrea Sullivan has been among the most vocal researchers regarding ways the meetings industry can improve attendee engagement via brain-friendly foods. Sullivan holds a master’s degree in organizational psychology, and her company, BrainStrength Systems, is often the go-to resource for chefs and others working on this issue, especially as it relates to the meetings industry. Skorka and his Centerplate colleagues based part of their presentation at PCMA in January on Sullivan’s work.
“One of the biggest challenges we face in the meetings industry is how to support attendees in remaining alert, energized and in a learning state throughout the day and the conference,” says Sullivan. “Food plays a huge role in this: What we eat greatly influences how we think and how we feel.”
Research is still evolving, but Sullivan points out that neuroscientists are now able to identify the effects of some specific foods on brain functioning. That should make devising an attendee-boosting menu a no-brainer. Just as illuminating, it makes clear which foods to avoid.
“There are two things I feel are most important for groups and planners to understand,” says Sullivan. “The first is the need to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. We do this by serving low-glycemic-index foods while minimizing white flour and sugars—the typical continental breakfast featuring bagels and pastries has got to go.
“The second is to minimize salt, which has an immediate effect of constricting circulation—within 30 minutes! This leads to decreased oxygen in the brain, harming our ability to think clearly.”
Sullivan’s list of foods that CEOs and managers should want their attendees consuming at the company business meetings is in many ways not surprising. These are foods that belong on any menu oriented to healthful eating.
But while the long-term health of attendees is important for many reasons, it cannot be the focus for conference planners.
“We are not going to impact the long-term health of people, even at a multiday conference,” Sullivan says. “What we need to focus on is how to feed people so they remain alert, energized and in a learning state throughout the long challenging days of our meetings.”
Knowing the specific effect of certain foods on the human brain is the way to achieve that immediate goal. It’s information managers, planners and chefs can use to create menus that provide a calculable return in terms of attendee performance.
—Seafood and fish: source of omega-3s, shown to increase the rate of neural transmission. One study showed that taking an omega-3 supplement increased brain waves just two hours after ingestion.
—Flaxseed: also supplies omega-3s, and added to baked goods makes them more brain-friendly.
—Yogurt: contains amino acids, which can decrease levels of stress hormones in the blood, leading to improved performance.
—Whole grains: help keep blood sugar levels stable for up to 10 hours, so attendees stay alert and energized throughout the day. They also contain B vitamins, which replace nutrients lost when people are stressed, and that can help attendees maintain a stable mood and a high level of cognitive proficiency.
—Avocados: a source of oleic acid, which helps build myelin, the coating of insulation around some neurons. Myelin helps information travel faster in the brain.
—Bananas: contain beneficial potassium, which helps keep oxygen levels normalized for continued strong signals between brain cells.
—Apricots: among the foods that fight the mental fatigue, fog and slower processing experienced after a challenging day of mental exertion. Other foods that help: carrots, dates, basil and mint.
—Water, coffee and tea: Water is absolutely essential for hydration. Tea contains the anine, which increases alpha waves, inducing both an alert and a relaxed state of mind. One study showed that tea improved attention and focus during a demanding cognitive task. A recent study also shows that coffee may reduce risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and that (today, at least) there’s no reason to leave it off healthy menus.
Also on Sullivan’s list is one food considered the antithesis of healthy until recently, giving legions of chocoholics reason to rejoice. Dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao now reportedly improves both mood and cognitive functioning. One study showed that a cocoa drink improved performance on mathematical tests, and subjects reported feeling less fatigued. Alas, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to eat a pound of it. And if you can enjoy chocolate with 80% cacao or above, that’s even better.
The Real Bottom Line
The meetings industry is slowly embracing the concept of nutritious food options. Several convention facilities, including Centerplate’s Colorado Convention Center, already have or are building gardens for chefs to source from, and convention chefs across North America are opting for local fresh products versus processed and refined items—even for large-scale convention meals. Of course, the question of price invariably comes up in any discussion of changing menus, particularly those with a focus on organic foods or menus that eschew frozen and packaged foods, which are usually cheaper.
Choosing organic produce, notes Chef Ching, is likely to be more expensive because it comes from smaller growers and can be harder to source.
Senior Executive Chef David Skorka, Centerplate Catering
However, both Ching and Skorka say chefs can always work with a group’s budget. Ching’s advice to planners is to talk directly to chefs well in advance and to be clear about menu goals and budgets. At the same time, the onus is on chefs to be clear, too.
“We have to be upfront and hide nothing from planners,” he says, “so they can decide how much the choices matter.”
A menu containing at least some brain-friendly foods isn’t necessarily much higher in cost. Groups can change only the afternoon-break options, for example, and still make a positive impact.
Most important, perhaps, companies themselves need to change their view of F&B. Is it merely a line item in the overall conference budget? Or is it part of a larger strategy, one that fosters healthy, productive attendees who will in turn contribute to the company’s bottom line via alert, engaged participation in the conference?
That is the questions CEOs and meeting planners should be asking themselves.
Recent research isn’t just about what is served but how it’s served, according to Andrea Sullivan of Brain Strength Systems, and that impacts both attendees’ health and the F&B bottom line. One study demonstrated that plate color matters. When participants were given plates of contrasting color on which the food stood out, they served themselves less. That’s not only healthier, it helps keeps food costs and waste down. Decor and table settings also affect how much attendees are likely to eat. Red, says Sullivan, stimulates appetite while blue suppresses it—information planners may want to consider, for example, when trying to keep the number of appetizers at a pre-function to a minimum without leaving attendees feeling unsatisfied.
Loews Brain Food Luncheon Menu
–Organic Heirloom Bean Soup
–Spinach and Blueberry Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Red Grapes Balsamic-Yogurt Vinaigrette
–Brown Rice Lettuce Cups with Dried Blueberries, Dried Cherries, Bleu Cheese Crumbles, Red Cabbage, Acai-Banyuls Vinaigrette
–Smoked Salmon Flatbread with Sun-dried Tomato Cream Cheese, Shaved Red Onion, Kalamata Olives, Fried Capers, Micro Arugula
–Rosemary-Orange Flank Steak
–Potatoes au Gratin
–Roasted Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts with Sage and Olive Oil
–Vanilla Panna Cotta with Blackberry Jam
–Dark Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding
–Mini Fruit Cocktail Martinis
Centerplate’s Strawberry-Basil-Infused Water
For each carafe:
–2 cups strawberries, pureed and strained through cheesecloth
–4 cups water
–1 small bunch basil leaves, chopped
–Optional: maple syrup to taste for a little sweetness
–Mix together; let sit in the refrigerator a few hours so flavors can marry.