There's no doubt that a big part of cruising is the food that's available. Buffet, À-la-carte, off the grill: you can't escape it, it's everywhere. Eating what you want, when you want is part of the allure of a cruise holiday - but what if you can't let yourself go nuts?
Those with special dietary restrictions cannot partake fully in the constant smorgasbord that is shipboard life, but they certainly won't be left starving. Here are some tips and ideas for those with a restrictive diet who want to fully enjoy the culinary aspect of their cruising adventure.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Vegetarian diets are one of the most easily catered to, and those who don't eat meat should find plenty of options for them. The sheer range of food available in the buffet means it's easy to fill a plate with vegetables and other non-meat morsels. Even vegans should be able to navigate the buffet easily and put together a decent meal with the plant-based dishes on offer.
The main dining room menus across the majority of cruise lines will indicate vegetarian options and there will be a few in each category -entrees, mains and desserts. This is also, on the whole, true of the specialty restaurants although there may of course be less range for a vegetarian in a steakhouse. Royal Caribbean guests often report that the vegetarian Indian selections are particularly delicious, and Celebrity caters very well to vegetarians with a separate, creative menu.
Vegans are likely to have a little more difficulty. We suggest that you tell your booking agent in advance so that the cruise line can take note and hopefully stock things like soy milk. You might also need to have a conversation with your waiter and ask about personalising some of the vegetarian dishes to take out dairy products or eggs. If your cruise line offers set dining times, it's a good idea to make use of this so you have the same waiter each night who will be aware of your dietary needs. You can almost always order fruit for dessert, even if it's not on the menu, so you won't be left watching everybody else eat icecream with nothing on your plate.
Get the best vege options
So many pastas, pizzas and the like can easily be made vegetarian, so don't hesitate to ask. Let your waiter know of your dietary requirements and he or she will likely be happy to help. If the main dishes aren't to your liking, it can be fun to make up a full meal by ordering some sides and salads - and on a ship where everything is included in your fare, you can order as many bits and pieces as you want!
Top tips for vegans afloat
Breakfast is one of the easiest meals for vegans with lots of fruit and muesli available, so be sure to fuel up at the beginning of your day! Salad bars in the buffet are also a fantastic way to fill a plate - just skip the cheese. Ordering a few different starters, soups and salads is also a great way for vegans to make up a full meal. Don't be shy to ask the chefs about ingredients, and to inquire whether they can create something for you.
Whether you have celiac disease or a lesser gluten intolerance, it's great to know that you will be able to find something on your cruise which won't make you sick. The increasing prevalence of gluten intolerances and autoimmune disorders means that cruise lines have had to step up their game, good news for those avoiding those pesky proteins.
No passengers should have much trouble finding gluten-free dishes in the buffet with its myriad options. The extent of what's available on menus in the main dining rooms will vary from line to line. MSC is particularly accommodating to gluten free guests, offering a special menu created in collaboration with the Italian Coeliac Association and prepared by staff who are specially trained. Cunard are very good about stocking gluten-free snacks, cereals and sauces. Royal Caribbean has clearly marked on its menus the dishes which can be made gluten or lactose free to take some of the guesswork out of ordering. Some lines, in particular the luxury lines like Azamara and Silversea, might give you the next day's menu each night so you can make your choices for the next evening in advance and rest assured that they will be specially prepared.
Best practices for avoiding gluten
As with any restaurant anywhere, sufferers of celiac disease should stay vigilant at all times. Don't be afraid to question ingredients. At the buffet, ask around and seek out someone who can go over the various dishes with you and confirm which are gluten free. As with the vegetarian and vegan cruisers, if you are not a fan of the main dishes you can try to make up a meal from sides, soups and salads. It might be a good idea to bring gluten-free snacks with you in case you get caught out at any point - these are especially good for days in port.
Most lines will ask you to fill out a form when booking or a few weeks prior to sailing to outline your dietary requirements. This is especially important for those with medical restrictions as it helps the crew be aware of what to expect. It's also a good idea to go over your needs again with your waiter or a head waiter on the first night of the cruise, and again after that if you think they are not stepping up to the plate.
If you are nice to the waitstaff, you might be surprised at what they will do for you - store things in the fridge, wangle a gluten free dish that's not on the menu, give you the tips and tricks for finding the best gluten-free food and drinks on that particular ship.
Paleo, low carb and other diets
Some rare people have the willpower to stick to a voluntary diet or lifestyle choice while cruising, and we tip our hats to them. It is certainly possible, if not probable. Others follow a strict diet like the Autoimmune Protocol for health reasons, allergies and more. There are an endless list of diets out there, but we hope this might be helpful to those with a variety of restrictions.
As always, the buffet is a good place to start, especially if it has a salad bar. Unadulterated veges, meats and other ingredients make it easy to customise a meal free of carbs, lactose, fat or whatever it is you're avoiding. If your willpower is lacking, you can stick to one section in particular to avoid being tempted by what else is out there. The unlimited salmon, bacon, sausage and other meats available at your usual cruise breakfast buffet is fantastic for paleo eaters!
In the main dining rooms and specialty restaurants, it's all about customisation - asking the waiter to omit offending ingredients like pasta, potatoes, cheese, cream or rice and perhaps to increase the portions of others to compensate. If your diet is very strict due to allergies or other medical factors, make sure to tell them so that they can let the chefs know. Beware of sauces and ask for salads and meat to come without them if necessary.
Tips and tricks for sticking to your diet
Snacks are hard to avoid on a cruise ship with food everywhere, especially late at night after a few cocktails and on the lines with free room service! Whether you are trying to avoid particular foods for weight loss reasons or medical reasons, it can be overwhelming. A good idea is to bring some tupperware and raid the breakfast buffet for things like muesli, dried fruit, hard-boiled eggs and other snack foods you can use to ward off hunger pangs.
If you're with a group of similar eaters, ask the waiter to refrain from bringing around a bread basket - out of sight, out of mind!
Planning is important. Scope out the options available when you first get onboard and make a plan so you are less tempted to stray from your diet.
Look out for other dining venues which might suit your eating habits better. For example, a lot of ships have Mexican options where it's easy to get all kinds of extremely tasty veges and meat, with rice and cheese if your diet allows it, and not feel as though you are missing out.
Eat breakfast every day! The breakfast buffet has some of the best options especially for those following a low-carb or paleo diet. Load up on eggs, meat and fruit so you don't get hungry mid-morning.
Has anyone cruised while sticking to one of these diets? We'd love to know how it went for you, and to hear any tips you have for fellow cruise lovers.