This guide was developed by a team of students and staff from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Office for Sustainability to cultivate a culture of health in how we plan and design campus meetings and events, by providing opportunities for employees and students to eat well and stay active while reducing their environmental impact. Promoting sustainable diets contributes to food security, human health, animal welfare, natural resource preservation, and climate change mitigation.

You can use the simple steps and tips in this guide to send the message that health and sustainability are important to the Harvard community and that we support the wellbeing of our community.

What you need to know:

  • This guide is meant to be used by Harvard staff, faculty, and students when planning on- or off-campus events.

  • These guidelines can be used for every type of meeting, from small department-level meetings to multi-day conferences.

  • The guide is organized under three themes—food and beverages, waste reduction, and movement—that include tips and recommendations for fostering healthy, sustainable meetings and conferences.
  • Be sure to check out quick tips at the end for healthier swaps, and a list of menu items from Harvard's caterers that already meet these guidelines.

Get started with our top 10 tips:

Download our handy one-page tip sheet with 10 tips to help you get started.

We've also listed them below.

Be mindful when ordering items that attendees may be allergic to, such as nuts and shellfish. Always label common allergens.

  1. Make pitchers of tap water the featured beverage. Add fruit to some pitchers for a flavor-infused option.
  2. Opt for plant-based proteins for the main dish (like beans, lentils, or tofu), and consider a DefaultVeg (Greener by Default) strategy. 
  3. Offer fruits and/or vegetables every time food is served.
  4. Always serve whole grains instead of refined grains (like brown rice in place of white rice).
  5. When offering snacks, serve whole or cut fruit, vegetables and hummus, or unsalted nuts.
  6. Coffee and tea make for a satisfying end to a meal. If dessert is necessary, opt for a combination of dark chocolate, fresh fruit, and unsalted nuts.
  7. Ask your caterer to use reusable, compostable, or recyclable serving items. Note: choose compostable items that are BPI-certified and have no fluorinated chemicals
  8. Make sure your meeting room has a "waste station" with clearly marked recycling, compost, and trash bins.
  9. Periodically break up sedentary sitting time with opportunities for movement (e.g., light stretching, standing, or walking).
  10. Inform attendees of which stairwells, elevators, and restrooms they may use, including any on other floors.


The tips and recommendations in this Guide are based on the latest scientific understanding of human health and nutrition from studies being conducted at Harvard and beyond.

Introduction and Rationale

Currently, Americans eat excessively large portion sizes, too much saturated and trans fat, sodium, added sugars, and refined grains, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (1). In addition, 80 percent of Americans do not meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity (1). Diet and exercise are strongly associated with quality of life and long-term health outcomes. In America, 320,000 annual deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are attributable to poor diet, largely due to overconsumption of sodium, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages (2). Moreover, dietary patterns have a considerable impact on the environment, from farm to fork. Food systems across the world account for almost 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (3), use the majority of freshwater resources (4), and contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss (5). Finally, our food choices impact the wellbeing of humans and animals in the food system, who often suffer from abuse and maltreatment (6).

Fostering healthful, environmentally-friendly, and socially-conscious practices across diverse settings, including meetings and conferences, can help people eat well and be physically active, promote well-being in the work environment, and cultivate social norms around sustainable choices and behaviors. Nearly half of most people’s waking hours are spent at work, and many of those hours are spent in meetings and conferences. Meetings and conferences also generally involve a lot of time sitting and provide little opportunity for physical activity—all of which reduces concentration, productivity, and energy levels. The Sustainable Meeting and Event Guide provides solutions to keep people engaged and activated through exercise and movement. Studies show a strong relationship between the physical and social environments of the workplace and the health behaviors of employees (7). Past studies have shown that workplace wellness programs incorporating changes to catering can result in significant positive changes in nutrition of employees (8).

Implementing sustainable meeting standards fosters an environment that cultivates a culture of health by providing opportunities for employees and students to eat well, stay active, and protect the environment. Adopting sustainable meeting standards sends the message that health and sustainability are important to the Harvard community and that we support the wellbeing of our community. It models healthy behavior and supports the health promotion efforts of our university, ensuring that we “walk the walk.”


1) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015—2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.

2) Micha, R., Peñalvo, J.L., Cudhea, F., Imamura, F., Rehm, C.D. and Mozaffarian, D., 2017. Association between dietary factors and mortality from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the United States. JAMA, 317(9), pp.912-924.

3) Vermeulen, S., Zougmore, R., Wollenberg, E., Thornton, P., Nelson, G., Kristjanson, P., Kinyangi, J., Jarvis, A., Hansen, J., Challinor, A. and Campbell, B., 2012. Climate change, agriculture and food security: a global partnership to link research and action for low-income agricultural producers and consumers. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 4(1), pp.128-133.

4) U.S. Geological Survey. Estimated Use of Water in the US in 2000. Available at:

5) Gibbs, H.K., Ruesch, A.S., Achard, F., Clayton, M.K., Holmgren, P., Ramankutty, N. and Foley, J.A., 2010. Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), pp.16732-16737.

6) Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R.S. and Walker, P., 2002. How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental health perspectives, 110(5), p.445.

7) Engbers, L.H., van Poppel, M.N., Paw, M.J.C.A. and van Mechelen, W., 2005. Worksite health promotion programs with environmental changes: a systematic review. American journal of preventive medicine, 29(1), pp.61-70.

8) Abrams, D.B., Boutwell, W.B., Grizzle, J., Heimendinger, J., Sorensen, G. and Varnes, J., 1994. Cancer control at the workplace: the Working Well Trial. Preventive medicine, 23(1), pp.15-27.



Food and Beverages

Food vendors on Harvard University’s campus support sustainable meeting recommendations with a range of convenient service and menu selections, and are happy to work collaboratively with you to create unique menus tailored to your guests’ tastes. When planning an event, ask your caterer for help to create a menu that follows this Guide—they are capable of working closely with you to develop an appropriate menu, and can accomodate any allergies, religious dietary restrictions, or concerns you may have about the food.

Consider making your next event DefaultVeg (Greener by Default). The idea is simple: when you’re ordering food for your next event, offer plant-based food as the main meal, and give your attendees the choice through an RSVP to add animal products to their meals optionally. That’s it! Institutions that have adopted DefaultVeg as a formal food policy report significant overall reductions in their consumption of animal products, without restricting diners’ options. More information.

Be mindful when ordering items that attendees may be allergic to, such as nuts and shellfish. Always label common allergens.


  • Make pitchers or large carafes of tap or filtered water the featured beverage, and avoid bottled water when possible. Always offer plain water as an option, but also consider adding strawberries, lemon, cucumber, or other fruits to some of the pitchers of water.
  • Only offer unsweetened or non-caloric beverages, such as diet beverages, tea, and/or coffee.
    • Examples of good choices include fruit-infused ice water or seltzer, or water or seltzer with fresh sliced fruit on top.
    • Limit cans and bottles when possible, opting for pitchers with reusable or recyclable cups.

    • Avoid serving juice, but if doing so, ask your caterer to serve 100% fruit or vegetable juice diluted with water or seltzer, in cups or containers 8 ounces or less.

    • Always offer plant-based milk or creamer (preferably unsweetened) with coffee and tea service.

      • Offer low-fat and non-fat milk with coffee and tea service in addition to or in place of half and half.

For more healthy drink ideas check out the Nutrition Source.

breakfast Food

  • Always serve fruit. Ask caterers to cut fresh fruit into slices or chop it into a fruit salad (bananas, apples, oranges, grapefruit, melon, etc.) to make it easier to eat.

  • Always offer plant-based options like steel-cut oatmeal, whole grain cereal with no or low added sugar, with separate toppings of fruit and unsalted or lightly salted nuts, whole grain granola bars with less than 10g of sugar, and fiber-rich, whole grain breads with nut butter and a labeled nut-free topping option, such as soy butter. You can also offer plain yogurt, eggs, egg whites, or tofu scramble with vegetables (bell peppers, onions, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes).

  • Avoid serving bagels, pastries, or muffins, but if specifically requested, offer whole grain bagels, pastries, and muffins with fruits and nuts, and ask caterers to cut them in half.

Lunch and dinner food

  • Opt for plant-based proteins for the main dish, like beans, lentils, or tofu - make those options the default. If guests request meat, additionally offer poultry or sustainable fish/shellfish (ask caterers to label dishes with shellfish for those with allergies).

  • Do not serve red or processed meat. 

  • Offer fruits and/or vegetables every time food is served. Avoid serving potatoes.

  • Always provide a vegan or vegetarian option.

  • Always serve whole grains (100% whole grain or whole grain as the first ingredient), instead of refined grains.

  • Serve healthier condiments—such as mustard, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar—in bottles and offer them on the side. Do not offer fat-free dressings, as they usually contain more added sugar and salt to make up for lost flavor.

  • Offer foods that have been grilled, baked, poached, roasted, braised, or broiled. Ask your caterers to cook with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as canola or vegetable oil.

  • Ask your caterers to offer reasonable portion sizes. In buffet lines or self-service, ask your caterers to support sensible portions by offering reasonably sized entrees and appropriately sized serving utensils and plates.

    • When planning an event with under 25 attendees, consider serving buffet or family style, or asking your attendees beforehand if they would prefer a half or full portion for their meal.


  • Consider whether dessert is really necessary for your meeting; providing coffee, tea, and water after meals can be a satisfying end to a meal.

  • If serving dessert, opt for fresh sliced fruit, or a combination of the “three pleasures”: fruit, nuts, and dark chocolate.

    • Suggestions include dark chocolate-covered strawberries, dark-chocolate covered nuts, and make-your-own trail mix with unsalted nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate chips. When serving nuts, ensure that they are labeled for those with allergies. For more dessert ideas, check out the Nutrition Source.

  • For special occasions where more substantial desserts such as cake, cookies, and brownies are requested, ask caterers to serve them in small, bite-sized portions, and request that these desserts do not contain nuts so that everyone can enjoy them.

  • Do not place candy in the meeting space.


  • During breaks, consider just offering coffee, tea, water, or other unsweetened beverages.

  • When offering snacks during a break, serve serve fresh fruit, vegetables (with or without hummus), and if there are no allergies, lightly salted or unsalted nuts.

  • Ask caterers to provide small, reusable plates and/or bowls to minimize food waste.


Waste Reduction

Food service

  • Use reusable, compostable, or recyclable serving items.

  • Ask your caterer to use reusable plates, glasses, linens, etc. in place of disposable options.
  • If reusable items are not possible, choose BPI-certified compotable items that contain no fluroinated chemicals
  • Offer water in pitchers with reusable cups or glasses, instead of single-use water bottles or plastic cups.

  • Reduce food packaging and utensils when serving food. For example:

  • Ask your caterer to serve foods on platters instead of providing boxed lunches.
  • Ask your caterer to provide drinks and condiments (ketchup, mustard, salad dressings, etc.) in bulk instead of individual packages and servings.

  • Consider serving foods that do not need utensils (e.g. sandwiches or wraps, veggies and dips, etc.).

office supplies and giveaways

  • Provide handouts and meeting materials electronically (online or flash drive) to minimize paper usage.

  • Do not use single-use plastic bags or Styrofoam containers.

  • Try using strings of lights, potted plants, and cloth banners and garlands as decorations, instead of disposable decorations such as balloons and items made from polystyrene.

  • When giveaway items are necessary, choose items that are useful and actively promote health, such as reusable stainless steel or glass water bottles or reusable tote bags.

    • Ask companies to limit packaging of materials when ordering giveaway items.

  • Use recycled/FSC-certified paper.


  • Make sure your meeting room has a "waste station" with clearly-marked recycling, compost, and trash bins.

    • If you are conducting a zero-waste event, remove or cover all stand-alone trash cans to encourage attendees to place their waste into one of the other receptacles.

    • Contact your building manager, head of facilities, or event planner to acquire the correct bins.

  • Coordinate with your caterer to donate leftover food whenever possible. Legal Fact Sheet for MA Food Donation.

  • Remaining food and compostable waste should be composted.



When advertising an event, always include Harvard's reasonable accommodation statement: "Harvard University (School or event name) encourages individuals with disabilities to participate in its events. Should you wish to enquire about an accommodation, please contact (insert name, email and phone number of the contact person) prior to the event."

movement in smaller meetings

  • Mention to attendees (through announcements or in written materials) that it is fine to move within the meeting space (e.g., standing, stretching); integrate exercise equipment if possible within the space (exercise balls in place of some chairs, raised tables for standing).
  • When possible, encourage comfortable clothes/shoes to support comfort during meetings and/or phyiscal activity during breaks.

  • Periodically break up sedentary sitting time with opportunities for movement.

  • Implement movement-meetings when possible (e.g., walking meetings).

movement during conferences

  • For conferences or all-day meetings, support physical activity before, during, and after the work of the day.

  • When facilitating a movement break, include activities which can be performed from either a sitting or standing level depending upon the comfort level of the participant.

  • Identify someone to facilitate a short physical activity break(s).

  • Try to choose meeting/conference locations where there are interesting destinations within a short distance; provide walking/running maps.

  • For conferences, only contract with hotels that have a fitness facility available at no cost to attendees. If the hotel does not have a fitness facility, contract with a local exercise facility.

  • Provide exercise stations in the hall or within the meeting room.

  • Begin each meeting by informing attendees of which stairwells, elevators, and all-gender restrooms they may use, including any on other floors. Post signs directing people to stairwells outside of meeting rooms and near the elevators.

For more tips on activating movement check out the Nutrition Source.

Curated Menu Suggestions from Harvard Caterers

Don't have time to dive into all the details? Take the guesswork out of ordering by using the menus below, which have been curated to include every item from each of Harvard's campus catering services that meets the tips and recommendations in this Guide, along with suggested modifications to ask for in your catering order. Click the link below and then choose your school to explore your delicious options.

View menu items

Additional resources