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What Mary Poppins, the Swedish Chef & Mrs. Piggle Wiggle taught me about professional conferences & food restrictions

What Mary Poppins, the Swedish Chef & Mrs. Piggle Wiggle taught me about professional conferences & food restrictions
Going to food conferences with food restrictions entails a marathon of planning, communicating and executing on my mission to keep the focus on the professional goals I came for without my eating restrictions getting in the way.  Calling on the wisdom of my childhood heros helps me take it in stride, with a dose of humor that keeps me in the right frame of mind to focus on the grown-up tasks at hand.

1.  Take your lead from Mary Poppins: pack a really great bag of tricks.

Watching Mary Poppins with my kids recently, I had a new-found, grown-up appreciation for the scene where she pulls first one, then another, then another infinitely-personal "essential" out of that worn carpet bag.  This lady was on to something. 

Whether it's a day-long conference down the street or a 3-day affair in distant ports, business conferences tend to pose similar challenges: 

  • all the menus have already been planned, with few alternatives available, in advance - and not by you;
  • all the meals will likely be prepared long before you get there, and in a hotel kitchen that may or may not have gotten the memo about food restrictions - let alone the dangers of cross-contact;
  • every minute of your day has been charted out with a precision that would make the cruise director of the Love Boat proud;
  • power-networking parties are more likely planned to wow you with pastry puffs than to nourish you with vege platters; and
  • most of all, you're there to make professional connections - not to discuss your digestive track or your immunology!
What's a girl to do?  Learn from Mary Poppins: plan ahead, know your essentials and pack a really great bag.  Here's what you'll find cozying up to the electronics in mine:

  • a small plastic pouch with my go-to food essentials (I like to use a clear plastic, zip-around pouch because you can surreptitiously see what you've got in the dim light under your banquet table, and pop it right into the airport security bin for the plane);
  • some of my Chocolate Bird Seed Cookies or a power bar just in case lunch leaves me desperate; and
  • a small cosmetics bag with my epi pen, inhaler & any other emergency meds to make sure that if I change bags in a hurry for a nighttime affair, nothing critical gets left behind.

2.  Throw it all in there - like an organized version of the Swedish Chef.

Remember that incomprehensible, somewhat crazy but infinitely affable character from Sesame Street?  The one who never seemed to have any limits to his ingredients - and tossed them in with flair?  

That's me packing my go-to foods pouch, but with a twist:  everything I need has to fit neatly into a briefcase small enough that I can casually hold it for hours while balancing a glass of wine and exchanging business cards.  That's a big caveat.

Happily, the TSA (and travelling with heavily food-restricted young kids) has forced me to develop a pretty good system for bringing a full, nutritious meal onto an airplane in tiny portions that don't require an international negotiator to get on-board an airplane.  Turns out, this system works real well for tiny spaces like briefcases, too.  

Key to this system are GoToobs (the original ones are food-safe, PBA-free & can go in the dishwasher), which conveniently transform into 3 oz squeezies of hummus, sunbutter & anything else I can find that provides a protein punch.  If the conference is local, I like to quickly grill some chicken with a little avocado oil, salt and pepper while I make my morning coffee and then swap out my little plastic pouch for a small, insulated bag like you might use for carrying around baby bottles (for instance!).  Add to all this some fresh veges and thin rice cakes (I love Suzie's Thin Cakes for this purpose -- tasty, crunchy & perfectly-sized for the briefcase!) and you've got yourself a gourmet snack ready to supplement with a few greens from the conference kitchen.

If I’m going to a longer conference that is out of town, I also like to cook ahead a little bit.  Some time when I’m making a dish that can handle freezing and thawing but that I could stand to eat cold if I can’t find a microwave, I’ll tuck away a little extra in lock-top storage boxes that I can put in an insulated bag in my checked luggage, along with an ice pack or two.   Make sure you request that the hotel puts a mini-fridge in your room where your treasure trove can slowly thaw as the conference progresses and you’ll have something to eat on the last day and that interminable flight home.  While I’m at it, I like to throw in a 6-pack of single-serving potato chips or similar snacks, not because I think they’re nutritious but so I don’t have to choose between networking and a grocery-store-scavenger-hunt in the middle of the conference if I find myself stranded without a safe meal.  (Because I have issues with soy, nut and safflower oils, I've learned not to count on being able to grab something when I get there!).

3.  Ask for help, but as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle taught us, say please and thank you. 

As comforting as it is to have my Mary Poppins bag under my arm, I know the most important groundwork happens before I even get there.  This comes as no surprise, I’m sure, for anyone with debilitating or even life-threatening food reactions like celiac disease or anaphylaxis-prone food allergies, but for those of us with intolerances that generally allow us to withstand a little cross-contact, this layer of logistical planning may be a bit new.  

The key thing here is to get in touch with two people you’re going to want to make your best friends: the coordinator at the conference site and their counterpart running point on logistics within the sponsoring organization.  This is especially true if the conference is out of town, a multiple day affair or one where you’ll essentially be locked in a couple of conference rooms together rather than having breaks to roam the environs for dinner. 

The goal here is to get the message to the folks preparing the menu and the meals themselves that you have restrictions and need some accommodation.  Much like any meal out, I find that nearly always they are able to accommodate even my very lengthy list of food restrictions with a little forewarning. Once I arrive at the event on the morning of, the first thing I want to do is to go find those two people – let them put a face to the name, and thank them for continuing to act as my advocate (in the hopes they will proactively do so!).  Then at each meal time occasion, I try to make a beeline over to my new BFF and ask them if they can point me in the right direction to find my custom meal (as necessary).

Finally, and this is the most important part if only from a karma perspective, I always make a point to thank my advocates once the event is over.  I also try to find an opportunity to tell the Grand Pooba what a great job his or her staff did in organizing the event and making sure my eating needs were accommodated.  Or I seek out the event space manager and commend them for their personal service.  Whether or not I will ever be back that way again, I know that some day someone else with eating restrictions will.

After all, as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle taught us so well, a little appreciation goes a long way.

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