How to use food safely in unit meetings

Tips and information on how to cater for allergies, food intolerances and dietary requirements

Laura Marriott, Brownie leader
22 September 2021

If you ever use food in a unit meeting, there are a few things you need to bear in mind.

Here we break down the differences between allergies, intolerances and dietary requirements. We also share some suggestions on what food to provide if your unit has lots of food preferences for you to consider.

What to know about allergies and food intolerances

A food allergy is when your body’s response to a food causes it to trigger a bad reaction. These are often serious and can be life-threating.

One of the difficulties in managing food allergies is different people react differently. Even the same person can react differently over time. Sometimes people have such strong allergic reactions they don’t even have to eat a food to have a reaction. If the allergy is airborne they might not be able to be in the same room as the allergen.

In the UK, around two million people have been diagnosed with food allergies. A new law comes into force from October 2021 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to improve labelling and information on products purchased outside the home. This is called Natasha’s Law. It’s named after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, a teenager who died from eating a sandwich which had an unlabelled ingredient in it, causing her to have a fatal reaction.

This change in the law should make it easier for you when shopping and planning, as allergens will be clearly labelled on all food.  This is also a good opportunity for leaders to expand their own knowledge around the reality of living with a food allergy. 

Although this law is aimed at businesses, The Food Standards Agency have provided free training which you can complete if you would like to learn more about food allergies and how to handle allergens safely. 

People with food intolerances can often have small amounts or traces of the foods they are intolerant to, but need to be careful not to consume large amounts of them as this is likely to make them ill. Although food intolerances are not life threatening, it is best to help people avoid foods they are intolerant to wherever possible. Some of the most common food intolerances are lactose, gluten and caffeine.

Take a look at our handy checklist of how to manage allergy and intolerance risks during meetings or events.

What to know about religious and cultural considerations

Many people also follow specific diets due to their religion or culture. To help you know how to include everyone, here are some of the most common religious dietary requirements. This will vary from person to person; people will have different levels of religious observance. While these are some helpful guidelines, you should always check with the individual rather than making any assumptions:

  • Christianity: Although no foods are banned, Christians often give up specific foods for Lent. You may need to be aware that certain foods are often related to Christian traditions, even if lots of people do not think of them in this way. This might include hot cross buns, Easter eggs, mince pies and pancake day celebrations.
  • Islam: For many Muslims, meat and dairy products need to be halal. Many Muslims also don’t eat any pork, crustaceans (e.g. mussels, clams), blood (e.g. black pudding), alcohol or foods containing alcohol (alcohol can be included in flavourings and is sometimes listed on the ingredients list as ethanol), and any products from animals such as gelatine (often found in sweets and jelly). During Ramadan, lots of Muslims choose to fast, and do not have any food or drink during daylight hours.
  • Hinduism: In general, the majority of Hindus are lacto-vegetarian, meaning they don’t eat meat, fish or eggs. Many also avoid alcohol. However there is a lot of variety in the rules that Hindus follow, so you should check with the individual and ask what their dietary preferences are.
  • Sikhism: Many Sikhs are vegetarian. Sikhs are allowed to choose if they want to eat meat, but they can’t eat meat which has been slaughtered in accordance with other religious guidelines such as halal or kosher. Many Sikhs do not drink alcohol.
  • Judaism: Many Jewish people require food to be kosher. Many Jews also don’t eat specific meat such as pork, and seafood such as shellfish. Dairy can’t be eaten with meat. There are also different rules for during Passover, a major Jewish holiday. Some Jews observe specific fast days, where they do not have any food or drink.

Food ideas for people with allergens and other dietary requirements

If you need to cater for volunteers or girls with dietary requirements, check this list and see if any of these options might work! You will still need to check everything for allergies or intolerances.

  • Jacket potatoes with different fillings. If you’re using baked beans, check that they’re gluten-free!
  • Tomato and vegetable soups are often gluten-free but they often contain milk, so you will need to check.
  • Vegetable pasta sauce and pasta. If you’re making regular pasta and gluten-free pasta, buy different shapes so that it’s easy to tell which is which.
  • Rice is gluten-free and makes a great base for curries, burritos or stir fries that can be adapted to remove any dairy, meat or other allergens.
  • Pancakes and fruit.
  • Bowls of fruit for snacking.
  • Hummus is a good option for vegan and dairy-free sandwiches.
  • Try gluten-free wraps and pitta breads if you can’t find gluten-free bread.

For more guidance on dietary requirements, check out our website.