"I liked everything on the buffet table," a company vice president said recently. "Huevos rancheros. Bean burritos. Tortillas, cheese, salsa. It was my dream breakfast. But it was being served just before what was going to be a long, formal, official meeting. What were they thinking?"
Probably, "they" weren't thinking enough about the effects such foods could create for participants who needed to be attentive to the proceedings of the next several hours. These participants would be listening, presenting, researching. They were instrumental in the success of a high-stakes meeting and thus needed every advantage that could be offered to them.
Food - the right food - can fuel a powerful advantage. At a business meeting it can make the difference between focused, energetic participants and distracted, lethargic ones. One way to provide an advantage is to avoid serving foods and drinks that make people sleepy or slow.
As much as possible, avoid items high in tryptophan such as turkey, milk, and milk products; tryptophan is a natural sleep-inducer. Fatty foods can also interfere with attention and performance; they take longer to digest and thus may cause discomfort and fatigue. Foods containing simple sugars may provide a short burst of energy followed by a quick depletion, inducing drowsiness and dimming concentration.
What's better? A mix of proteins and carbohydrates, including eggs, lean meats, vegetables, pasta, whole grains, fresh fruits and juices, low-fat yogurts and condiments. Include decaffeinated beverages and water with every meal or snack break.
It's hard to perform well and with vigilance when the body is in physical distress. For many people, spicy foods as well as legumes of many kinds can contribute to near-debilitating discomfort, causing indigestion, heartburn, stomach upset and all their attendant unpleasant symptoms. Curries, onions, hot peppers, and garlic may do the same. They may all create bad breath also, a confidence-breaker and source of worry, especially in close quarters.
For a business meeting, then, tone it down. While food need not and should not be bland, you should strive to serve items whose flavor can be achieved through less risky means. Instead of curried or barbecued chicken, for example, choose grilled chicken lightly marinated in lemon juice and seasoned slightly with salt and pepper. Omit the onions from the salad. Design the menu so that people leave the table well-fed but also fit to participate fully.
Even the most meticulous of eaters will sometimes splash sauce on his tie or splatter a few juicy crumbs of a blueberry muffin on her blouse. If there's no time to change or nothing to change into, they'll be spending the day stained. They will likely feel sloppy and a little embarrassed as the day rolls on; as they make their presentations, respond to questions, or offer suggestions as members of a backup team, they are projecting an image that may detract from their confidence or credibility. And if the camera is rolling, so much the worse.
Reduce the chances of accidental spills and stains and their resulting damage. Select foods that are neat and easy to eat - not linguini, beef stew, or lobster.
Communicate these menu guidelines to hotel or conference caterers and to meeting planners. They may not be fully aware that each meal is part of a working meeting and so should facilitate good performance, not impede it. Be aware of the menu if you are organizing the meeting or signing off on plans. Create an advantage.
The vice-president, as it turned out, skipped the huevos rancheros and bean burritos. What did he have? "Small orange juice," he sighed. "One cup of coffee, black. A tortilla sprinkled with cheese. A few grapes."