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Depending on the size of the ship you’re on, you may have anywhere from a handful to possibly a dozen or more alternatives for your main meals, and that’s not counting innumerable bars and lounges. If you prefer your breakfast, lunch and dinner to all come in a martini glass, this book probably won’t help you.
Ahhh, the buffet, or “Lido deck buffet” as its often referred to.
If you are a fan of those reality TV shows where people compete to see how much food they can possibly ingest in a short period of time, you’ll absolutely love people watching at any cruise ship buffet.
As mentioned, most people tend to have their breakfast and lunch in the buffet area. If you have anything but the simplest and least severe dietary restrictions, the buffet will certainly present your greatest challenge if you wish to join them.
If you do have a food allergy that causes severe reactions, think very carefully about whether you want to include the buffet as part of your dining plans. If so, make sure you read this section closely.
Cruise ship buffets consist of a number of different stations in the centre of a large area, with tables and chairs on the outside. Each station serves different types of food (and has its own lineup). There may be stations for hot foods (several entrées plus side dishes), sandwiches, salads, pizza, sushi, desserts, ice cream (likely the biggest lineup, especially if your cruise has a lot of children or seniors!). Which buffet stations are available and what they offer will likely vary day-to-day.
Your first area of concern is knowing exactly what is in any particular dish in the buffet. The buffet is largely staffed by the waiters and assistant waiters who serve you in the dining room for dinner, who often don’t really know, or worse, think they know but aren’t familiar enough with allergies or special diets to be sure. Communications issues related to language skills are more likely to arise here than anywhere else.
Your second area of concern is what ended up in a particular dish that isn’t supposed to be there, or in other words, cross-contamination. Obviously, this is a huge problem with buffets in general, no less so when you’re on a cruise.
Cross-contamination is even worse when passengers serve themselves from the buffet, as opposed to having staff serve them. Serving utensils will get swapped between dishes, used for several dishes, mixed with whatever random food is on someone’s plate as they reshape their already massive pile of food to fit more on, and so on.
On the plus side, many cruise ships insist that staff serve passengers, which does reduce—only somewhat—the chance of cross-contamination. Others will require this for the first couple of days of a sailing, as a way to cut down the spread of Norovirus between passengers; this is known as a “Code Orange”.
How then to handle the buffet with your special diet, if you choose to do so?
First, don’t hesitate to ask one of the servers if you can speak with a chef or the buffet’s restaurant manager. In fact, you should almost certainly do this the first time you eat there. They will be happy to discuss your needs with you, and walk you through the buffet explaining what you can and cannot eat. Unlike the servers, they should know what is in everything and also be well informed about special diets.
Second, to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, you can ask if there is another tray of what you want in the back that hasn’t been put out yet, and if they could serve you from that, with a clean spoon, fresh gloves, etc.
Only you know how sensitive you are to certain foods and therefore how big a risk cross-contamination is. Some people may be fine when exposed to a small amount of some food but get sick ingesting larger quantities, and for them a visual observation of the buffet trays might be enough to satisfy themselves they won’t get sick. But remember that everything isn’t visible, and everyone is different, so you have to weigh the specific risks for yourself.
Third, choose to restrict yourself to a few buffet stations are that, based on your needs, you would classify as low risk. While it’s rare I’d get anything from the hot buffet area, most salad stations can be pretty safe for me. With my wheat and dairy intolerances, I’m extra cautious if I spy cheese in the vicinity, but also know that if I accidentally ingest a small amount I won’t get sick enough to disrupt my day. Your mileage will vary.
There may even be some stations in the buffet area that can easily accommodate you, though it may not be obvious at first. For example, many cruise buffets include a made-to-order pizza station. Now normally, pizza is decidedly not a good choice if you have problems with wheat and dairy!
On one cruise, we asked the staff member in charge of the pizza station if gluten-free crusts were available. As it turned out, they were. Plus, the staff member volunteered information on procedures that station used to avoid cross-contamination. Perfect! A gluten-free, no-cheese pizza was a safe and reliable choice that we knew was always there, no matter what else was going to be at that day’s buffet.
Finally, there is usually a Maître d’ or other senior member of the dining team wandering around, or who staff can call for you. They are there in a supervisory capacity, and can help you resolve any problems that you may have.
A limited buffet is also usually available for dinner as a more casual option than the main dining room. For example, families with very young children often prefer to have dinner there. As it is more sparsely attended than for breakfast and lunch, you will likely have fewer options, and there will be fewer staff available.
Pretty much every ship nowadays has one or more specialty restaurants available as a dinner alternative to the main dining room. These tend to be more intimate, and may have a theme, e.g. Asian, steakhouse, Italian. They usually offer more “higher end” (or for some, simply more pretentious) meals than the main dining room. They typically have the same menu every night of the cruise. They require reservations in advance, and an extra fee may be involved.
Specialty restaurants have been expanding lately, in accordance with the general cruise industry trend towards what many see as nickel-and-diming passengers, keeping the base cruise fare low but pushing for-fee extras. On some lines, there is a small but vocal contingent of passengers who feel that the quality of food in the main dining room has suffered in order to make the specialty restaurants more appealing. That is a debate for another time.
By virtue of how they operate, specialty restaurants do have far smaller storage, prep and cooking areas than the main dining room, which may make substitutions and special accommodations more difficult, especially if requested last minute.
However, that does not mean you should not take the opportunity to enjoy the specialty restaurant if you have a special diet. Have a peek at the posted menu to see if the types of meals they offer appeal to you. If so, approach the staff at an off-time, such as during lunch when the restaurant is not open but some staff are on-hand to drum up dinner reservations. Ask to speak with the chef who runs the specialty restaurant, either then or make an appointment to come back when they are available.
The chef will almost certainly do what they can to help you pre-plan what will be a special meal that fully takes into account your special dietary needs.
It also doesn’t hurt to book your reservation for a day that the specialty restaurant is less full if possible. While some are always full, others may be less busy some days, such as long shore days, while they may be completely packed on sea days. That may give them a bit of extra time to prepare your meal with the care it deserves.
One of the true delights of cruising is room service, which is generally free; no $16 orange juice (+service fee) like in the hotels!
The room service menu may be somewhat restrictive, but as the facilities used to prepare room service meals are usually co-located with the main dining room galley, there may be room for some flexibility. It never hurts to ask when you call.
During scheduled meal hours, the room service options expand to include whatever is on the main dining room menu for that time. That also means that if you’ve preordered a special meal the day before, you can have it sent to your stateroom rather than going to the dining room. After a long day of on-shore adventure, when the thought of dressing up for dinner makes you even more tired, sometimes this is just the thing.
My wife and I tend to use room service for breakfast every day, as one of us isn’t capable of functioning before morning coffee. Like with hotels, you’ll receive a room service breakfast menu card you can place outside your door the night before. We always write down our particular dietary needs on that card in detail, and any special requests, e.g. gluten free bread. We almost never run into a problem.
One potential issue is that if you have questions about what you’ve been sent, it’s not as easy to ask about it as when you’re in a venue when you can just point it out directly to the waiter. For example, one time we weren’t sure if the bread we were sent was gluten-free. We called back to room service who remembered the order, and assured us that it was gluten-free, albeit a different product than the one they had been using up until that point, hence the confusion.
You may think that between the main dining room, buffet, specialty restaurants, and room service, I’ve covered every possible place you could be eating. Hardly! While I’m not going to discuss the various bars/lounges, poolside grill, coffee or ice cream kiosks, shops with food available, or even the chocolates left on your pillow, there is one more big area of food-related concern, and that is your time spent when you go ashore at the different ports. After all, if you’ve been used to eating every few hours when you’re on the boat, do you think you can stop if you’re off the boat?
The main topic to deal with here is those organized shore excursions. Back when discussing planning your cruise, I recommended not booking any shore excursions where food is a major focus of the tour. A snack or drink here or there you can usually work around, but if the whole tour is about preparing and eating foods you’re most likely unable to eat, it’s probably not a good idea to sign up in the first place.
You can always ask the cruise line ahead of time, or shore excursions staff when onboard, about a particular excursion, and if you could be accommodated. Keep in mind though, that cruise lines don’t run their own excursions, but contract them out through independent tour operators. While the cruise staff may know of a good experience with a passenger having similar needs on a past instance of a particular tour, that’s no guarantee. Nor is it any guarantee that special requests made by you to the cruise line or shore excursions staff will be passed along to the tour operator and then to the individual guiding your tour.
In other words, when it comes to food safety and compliance with your special diet when onshore, assume nothing.
It’s usually best to bring your own snacks or lunches along. This may be food (e.g. granola-type bars) you brought with you or purchased onshore, an apple from the buffet, sandwiches you had made and wrapped up by the nice people working the buffet, etc. If there happens to be food offered on the tour that you are confident you can eat, all the better. If not, you’ll be prepared, and can politely decline what’s offered to you as you dig into your own stash.
Having said that, you need to be aware of local regulations for the ports you’re traveling to. Many (most?) probably allow pre-packaged foods but not fresh fruits and vegetables. Some will monitor this using sniffer dogs as people come off the ships. Some places (g’day Australia!) are extremely strict, and will not allow any food from the ship to be carried ashore; passengers are thoroughly checked and can be fined. Do your research ahead of time, and check the ship’s daily bulletin which will inform you of such restrictions.
When restaurant meals are included as part of a longer excursion, it also doesn’t hurt to describe your restrictions to the onboard shore excursions staff ahead of time, or the tour guide at the start of the tour. Ask them to phone ahead to the restaurant to mention your needs. As a courtesy, you should communicate that if your needs can’t be accommodated, you have your own food available. This gives the restaurant a heads up, and more often than not they’ll be able to help. This worked out great with the restaurant our Moscow day trip excursion went to for dinner; they graciously prepared special meals for us as well as two vegetarians on the tour. Again, assume nothing about any food you’re given, as there may be communication or other problems.
The same cautions would apply to restaurants you visit onshore when out on your own. Do a bit of internet research ahead of time to check out possible restaurants in ports you plan on exploring. You’re more likely to find a safe, authentic and memorable meal that way than if you just walk into one of the overpriced tourist traps next to the cruise pier.