If you love the idea of cruising, but have special dietary needs, you may find yourself with a dilemma: How do you enjoy the abundance of good things that can be had on a cruise while still living the lifestyle that works best for you?
People who are vegan, eat Kosher, or need gluten-free food often have a hard time deciding if they really should take that cruise they’ve been dreaming about. They wonder if they’ll be able to have a great time, given the fact that they probably won’t be able to eat a majority of the food that will be offered on the ship.
There are some cruise lines that make special diets and cruising a reality by only offering a certain kind of food. We’ll talk about a few of those in just a bit. But, the main point of this discussion is how to find options appropriate for a special diet if you want to sail on a mainstream cruise.
Let’s talk about some things that you can do, if you have special dietary needs, to enjoy a cruise and stay nourished (and possibly even enjoy food that’s better than what other passengers are eating).
Make Special Dietary Requests Ahead of Time
If you adhere to a specialized diet and want to eat your special diet food on a cruise, you’ll want to call or email your cruise line at least four weeks ahead of time, ideally. Let the cruise line know when you’ll be travelling and the names of everyone in your party who has special diet needs.
Most cruise lines will make accommodations, as best they can. Don’t expect full organic meals just because you asked for them. In fact, you probably won’t be able to eat organic on a normal cruise. But, if you want vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, or gluten-free meals, you’ll find that many cruise lines will work with you to keep you happy. Consider, though, that most special meal requests will only be granted in the main dining rooms.
Remind Servers of Your Dietary Needs
Even if you’ve called ahead of time to inform a cruise line of your dietary needs, it’s a good idea to remind the dining room server when you’re on the ship that you require a special meal. Do this as soon as you enter the dining room. It doesn’t hurt to make sure everyone involved in your meal, from wait staff to the day’s chef, knows that you want a suitable dish for your diet.
Remember though, placing a special meal request on a cruise ship doesn’t mean you can dictate what menu items you want. Usually, the scenario is far from that. You’ll want to politely tell restaurant personnel that you are expecting a special meal, and then also politely accept whatever special diet dish they’ve prepared for you. You may love it and you may not, but making a meal that’s different from everyone else’s requires kitchen staff to change things up in terms of ingredients and preparation. It’s not what they’re used to, so you’ll need to work with whatever options are offered. Hopefully, you’ll be served a dish just as marvelous or more. Sometimes, special diet diners get plates like elaborate tofu scrambles for breakfast when everyone else is having plain eggs.
Bring Your Own Food
If you really want to go on a cruise, and really want to control what you eat, you may be best off bringing a lot of special food from home. You can pack snacks, ready to eat meal ingredients like bread and sandwich fillings, baked goods, boxed cereals and milks, and more. You can make your own breakfasts and lunches, and maybe even some dinners. Just don’t expect anyone on the ship to prepare meals with these special ingredients for you.
Ask About Special Diet Options at Ship Restaurants
When cruising on a ship that has several restaurants, in addition to a main dining room, you should ask the staff at those restaurants if they can recommend dishes that are free of dairy, animal products, gluten, or whatever it is you don’t eat. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised that a restaurant offers veggie burgers, gluten-free breads and burger buns, fruit bowls, and even non-dairy milks.
Larger ships will often have a few organic options in their spa snack bars. Often, you can find select gluten-free beers in a ship’s bar.
Now, let’s break things down by special diet and see specifically what you can do if you fall into any of the following diet categories:
Vegan passengers often feel like they’re not getting their money’s worth when it comes to dining on gourmet cruise fare. On many cruise lines, this may honestly be the case and it’s something you’ll have to consider if you really want to cruise. Some cruise ships, however, offer vegan food that is really delightful. Especially vegan-only cruises like Vegan River Cruises and Holistic Holiday at Sea.
For vegans thinking about cruising on more traditional ships, you’ll find that cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Disney Cruise Lines have more to offer than most. For instance, while some ships only offer one vegetarian option on the menu, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean ocean liners will give you a few choices, including Indian-style vegetarian meals in many instances. Disney says they are always happy to try to accommodate vegan meal requests.
If you want to find vegan food at some of the specialty restaurants onboard a ship, look for ethnic places serving Asian Fusion or Tex-Mex. You can usually find veggie dishes, bean burritos, and other vegan options. Search for burger places that may have a lone veggie burger, but stay away from steak houses or seafood restaurants. You probably won’t even find sides that are animal-free at these places.
As mentioned earlier, you’re typically not going to find much organic food while cruising. Your best approach to big-ship cruising and organics will be to take specialty cruises like Vegan River Cruises and Holistic Holiday at Sea cruises, since there are many options onboard these ships.
But, Oceana, Regent Seven Seas, and Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 have a few decent organic bites in their Canyon Ranch Spa, which also serves some great food for vegans.
Lindblad Expeditions, which sails a fleet of smaller ships, serves local organic food to passengers.
If you need to follow a gluten-free diet, you should be pretty safe on any of the small, specialty cruise lines we’ve talked about. In addition, Disney Cruise Lines and Carnival have a nice selection of options for gluten-free eating.
Disney Cruise Line asks that guests who eat gluten-free place a request online or by phone, so that kitchen staff can prepare an appropriate meal. Carnival offers gluten-free bread for deli sandwiches, cakes, and burger buns, ice cream, yogurt, pizza, pasta (on select ships), and beer (all available upon request).
Travelers who keep Kosher will find that, again, Disney Cruise Lines and Carnival are willing to accommodate their special diet.
These are just a few of the tips, and cruise lines, that those with special diets can work with to make sure you’ve got at least a few things to eat each day on a cruise. If you’re thinking about taking a cruise, or have already booked a cruise, we suggest you visit your cruise line’s website or give them a call to see if more options are available.