Can I Eat Catered Food?

Hello! Welcome to Beyond Soy!

One of the most challenging foods to eat with a soy intolerance or allergy is catered food. Because you aren't necessarily interacting with the restaurant and you often have limited options, it can be challenging to verify that catering is soy-free. That doesn't mean it can't be done--but you do need to be cautious! (and it is often a good idea to bring a backup snack). 

We've broken down possible food catering into three different scenarios: Buffets, Rotating Servers, and Sit Down Meals. Each of these has their own challenges, but it is possible to eat safely soy-free at each one!

image via pixabay

image via pixabay


Buffets, often seen at meetings, conferences, and weddings, can range from a couple of pastries on a platter up to a full meal spread. The problem with a buffet: there may not be anyone to answer questions about the ingredients.

If a waiter or attendant is available, you can definitely ask them about ingredients. If they don't know what the food contains, they should at least know who to ask. However, there are many situations where there is no server from the catering company available (for instance, a couple of platters of cheese and crackers in the back of a conference room). In this situation, you'll need to make educated guesses as you grab food. A couple of basic ground rules to help avoid the five places to find soy:

  • Avoid sauces or marinades - This tends to be fairly easy at buffets because sauces are often on the side.
  • Avoid breads - Don't grab rolls, cookies, and crackers if you aren't certain they are soy free.
  • Choose lots of fresh vegetables or fresh fruit - Just like at a salad bar, fresh vegetables are the way to go!
  • Choose cheese - Pretty much always soy-free.
image via pixabay

image via pixabay

Rotating Servers

Catered food passed out by rotating servers is fairly unique when eating because you have to make a quick decision. The challenge here: You are on the spot, and the servers may not know the ingredients in the food. They will (should!) know what the food is and what it is made of, but may not be able to answer specific questions (like, "What type of oil is in this?").

The good news here: You are interacting with a person, and they can go and ask someone! In our experience, servers are always more than happy to relay any specific questions you have to the kitchen. But we recognize that it can feel very inconvenient and uncomfortable to be the person who has to ask a million questions of the server before deciding about the food. It is possible to avoid this and make a quick decision. Very simply, don't eat the food if you are questioning it. 

The last tricky part with rotating servers: you need to make a decision about the food very quickly as they walk up and offer it to you. The same rules as for the buffet above (only this time, you've got to decide quickly) and don't be afraid to ask questions or pass until you've had a chance to think about it (and/or debrief with your significant other or a trusted friend). At these sort of events, Ashley and I usually have a quick conversation to answer the question of "do you think this is okay to eat?" 

image via pixabay

image via pixabay

Sit Down Meal

The last type of catered food is a sit down meal. It is most similar to a restaurant where you are attended to by a server (think banquet dinner). The catch here? You have limited interaction with your server and don't get to choose your meal (or have very limited options).  How to survive? Treat it like a restaurant. Don't be afraid to ask your server about the ingredients! But, unlike a restaurant, don't expect them to make a special dish just for you.

When you are served your meal, make smart guesses about what soy-free food is on your plate and eat what you can. Remember that it is okay to leave food on your plate when you think it likely contains soy. One trick that Ashley and I occasionally use is to combine our two meals and both eat what we can. Ashley eats the soy-free food from both of our meals and then I eat the rest since I don't have any food intolerances or allergies. This way we both get some food to eat.

Sometimes you have an option before an event to provide any dietary restrictions. You should let them know that you can't eat soy, but also recognize that event planners often don't understand the complexities of a soy intolerance or allergy since it isn't as well-known as lactose intolerance or Celiac's disease. Even if you let the venue/catering company/event planner know ahead of time, you still may be served something that contains soy (i.e., you might not have soy sauce on your meal, but it still comes with bread that contains soy).

The hard truth with catered food is that you may not be able to eat anything available. There may not be a soy-free food, or you may not be able to tell if the food is soy-free. Catering is one of the few times where you may need to go hungry to avoid soy. This is why Ashley always carries a Pro Bar or some other easy-to-grab soy-free snack. In a pinch, she can eat that instead of going hungry.

One last thing to note: catering companies tend to be very good about food allergies. If you are hiring a catering company and you have a food intolerance or allergy (or if you know someone who will be eating does), make sure to ask what they can do. They are often very willing to accommodate your needs.