How to eat healthy on a cruise ship

The problem with eating healthy on a cruise ship is there’s just too much delicious food on board. Your senses get overloaded: You smell pizza fresh from the oven, you see ornate displays of beautifully presented desserts and you can practically taste the greasy cheeseburgers as you pass by the pool deck grill.

It doesn’t lead to making the healthiest food decisions.

Also, cruise line chefs aim to make each meal memorable, so they pull out all the special occasion meals and comfort foods they can. Your willpower will be tested with cheesy-topped pasta, chocolate-laden pastries, creamy sauces and crispy, country-style fried chicken.

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That’s not to say your cruise vacation has to be a week of overindulgence and unhealthy dining. Many cruise lines offer plenty of healthy food options, and with a bit of forethought, you can create healthier meals and still enjoy the culinary experience on board.

Wondering how to eat healthily on a cruise ship? Follow these 12 tips for smarter vacation eating.

1. Eat a healthy breakfast

A hearty breakfast of omelet, bread and coffee

Do you eat pancakes and bacon every day at home? I don’t — and I bet you don’t, either. However, it feels more like a vacation to order fancy-cooked breakfasts on a cruise ship rather than your regular bowl of cereal and milk. These special breakfasts are not always the healthiest, though.

If you want to eat healthier on your cruise, start your day with a light breakfast, one that blends healthy proteins with fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t have to be boring. It’s worth waiting in line for the made-to-order omelets at the buffet. As in, made by someone else, not you.

Or, try oatmeal paired with fresh fruit, a yogurt parfait, chia seed pudding (found on Carnival’s brunch menu), an acai berry energy bowl (they have them on Oceania) or a green smoothie from your ship’s dedicated smoothie bar.

While you don’t need a Belgian waffle smothered in chocolate sauce or a pile of fatty breakfast meats to enjoy a delicious onboard breakfast, I do recommend you plan one splurge-day fun brunch — because you are on vacation, after all. Perhaps pair that less healthy breakfast with a light lunch to balance things out.

2. Eat earlier

I’ve been assigned 8 p.m. dinners on many a cruise, and it’s just too late for my evening meal. Not only do I need to find afternoon snacks to keep me going until dinner, but I’m so hungry when I arrive that I’ll gobble up an entire bread basket before ordering my entree and choose comfort food over lighter options because I need calories now.

The same thing happens at lunch when I linger in port or by the pool — then bypass the salad bar for melty cheese sandwiches.

My tip: Sit down to a meal as soon as you feel the first inklings of hunger instead of putting food off until you’re ravenous. If that means choosing the 5:30 or 6 p.m. dinner over the later option, go for it. You will make healthier food choices and eat a more appropriate quantity of food.

3. Avoid the buffet

Buffet station with brioche rolls and breakfast pastries
A breakfast buffet on Celebrity Beyond. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

Your appetite is triggered by the sight and smell of food. You might not be thinking about pizza, but once you see it or smell it, you have to have it. You might go to a cruise ship’s buffet restaurant vowing not to get dessert, but you won’t be able to resist once you lay eyes on a treat that looks delicious.

If you’ve experienced that dilemma, avoid the buffet in order to make healthier cruise dining choices. Eat your meals in sit-down, waiter-service restaurants where you can order from a menu. The words are less tempting than seeing the food in front of you, and it’s easier to choose healthier options and not over-order. When the server asks you, “Is that all?” maintain your resolve and answer “yes.” Don’t give in and order the mozzarella sticks or chocolate croissant that you don’t need or want.

4. Seek out spa cuisine

Select cruise ships offer spa cafes with plentiful salads and healthier dishes incorporating fresh vegetables, lean proteins and fruit. Seek out these eateries for breakfast and lunch for lighter meals that won’t leave you feeling bloated and ill.

At dinner, some cruise lines will call out healthier menu items with special icons or by dubbing them “spa cuisine.” These options are better for you but still delicious. Or, book Celebrity Cruises‘ AquaClass cabins for access to Blu, its exclusive restaurant dedicated to clean cuisine.

5. Choose specialty restaurants with lighter options

Two white retangular plates full of sushi and sashimi
Izumi sushi restaurant on Symphony of the Seas. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Cruise ship specialty restaurants span the globe when it comes to cuisine, but some promise healthier cuisine than others. I adored Royal Caribbean’s southern comfort cooking restaurant, Mason Jar, but it was a big ol’ calorie fest. Brazilian churrascarias are also known to induce food comas from over-consumption of meat, while Italian trattorias will kill your diet with freshly made pasta, creamy risotto and rich tiramisu for dessert.

If you’re looking for a healthier date night dinner, why not make a reservation at the sushi or fresh seafood venue? Virgin Voyages has both a vegetarian restaurant and a Mediterranean one on its ships that make a nice counterpart to Mexican and Korean barbecue.

6. Order extra veggies

Have you ever noticed the lack of vegetables on a cruise ship menu? Your entree likely will come with a few that are more decorative than healthy. Even the salads are often covered with cheese, heavy dressings and other calorie-rich decorations.

Here’s a secret: You can always ask your dining room server for a side order of steamed or roasted vegetables. On a recent Carnival cruise, I ordered a side of roasted broccoli nearly every night. It was tasty and meant that I filled up on veggies rather than dessert. You can also order a simple house salad instead of a Caesar or whatever fancy salad is on that day’s menu.

7. Skip seconds

Table filled with white plates of Indian food and salad on cruise ship
Ordering multiple appetizers on Carnival Pride. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

The lure of the cruise ship’s main dining room is you can order multiple appetizers, entrees and desserts with no limit. To keep from overeating at dinner, stick to one appetizer and one entree rather than trying several. Or make a meal of a few small appetizers. You don’t need to eat it all every night.

Alternatively, say no to the bread basket, so you don’t fill up on carbs while you wait for your soup or salad to arrive.

If you love to try multiple dishes, rope in your travel companion and order two dishes to share.

8. Don’t clean your plate

Alternatively, if you want to try it all because it’s fun to sample new and yummy dishes, ignore your mother’s scolding voice and don’t clean your plate.

You’ve already paid for all-you-can-eat meals in the complimentary restaurants on your cruise ship. The price is the same whether you order that appetizer or dessert or not. So don’t feel bad about ordering a dish you want to try and only eating half. If you’re concerned about food waste, ask for an appetizer portion of an entree or split a dessert with your dinner companion.

9. Don’t get sauced

While this caution could refer to too much alcohol, here I’m talking about actual sauces. Cruise ship food is meant to be fancy and celebratory, and in our culture that often involves rich sauces, fancy cheeses and extra carbs.

If you want to eat healthy on your cruise vacation, look for dishes flavored with spices rather than sauces. The “always available” choices will often include roasted, grilled or baked chicken, fish or even steak with a simpler presentation. Choose these — or ask for sauce on the side for your preferred entree.

10. Save breakfast items for snacks

Johnny Rockets burger and sandwiches menu on Wonder of the Seas cruise ship
Johnny Rockets menu on Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas cruise ship. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

When I’m hungry at 3 p.m. at home, I grab an apple or dip baby carrots in hummus. On a cruise ship, the only snacks available at that time are usually pizza, cookies and soft-serve ice cream.

The between-meal snack options on a cruise ship tend not to be the healthiest. The buffet’s fruit station will be closed, but Johnny Rockets will be flipping bacon cheeseburgers. The same principle applies late at night when the 24/7 options focus on dessert and fried comfort food.

If you can, avoid snacking between meals on fried or sugary foods. If you know you can’t last six hours between lunch and dinner, consider grabbing a yogurt or piece of fruit from the breakfast buffet to keep in your minifridge and eat later, look for healthier room service choices like a salad or bring your own granola bars from home for midday noshing.

11. Drink lots of water

Staying hydrated on your cruise vacation has many health benefits. It will keep you feeling full so you don’t impulsively snack on unhealthy foods and can help balance out the effects of salty restaurant food and your increased alcohol intake. It may also prevent headaches and other negative effects of spending lots of time in the hot sun.

Bring a refillable water bottle so you always have a drink within arm’s reach. Fill it up at the beverage station in the buffet. (You’re not supposed to fill bottles directly from the spigot, but you can fill up cups of water and dump the contents into your bottle.) At night, get water from the sink in your cabin — yes, that water is potable — and store the bottle in your mini fridge so it’s cool and ready to go in the morning.

You can order bottles of water at every bar on board, but if you don’t have a drink package, the cost will add up.

12. Don’t drink your calories

It’s not just the food that can be unhealthy on a cruise. It’s all the alcoholic drinks, too.

Treat all those frozen cocktails, such as pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris, like dessert — because they have just as many calories and sugar. Limit your intake of carb-laden beer. Don’t buy the all-inclusive drink package, so you’re forced to pay for each drink as you go and consider whether each one is really necessary.

Of course, you’ll want to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail after the show, but try to balance the sugary sodas and alcoholic beverages with plentiful glasses of water.

When you head to the bar, look for lighter options. According to TPG’s sister site Healthline, some lower-calorie drink choices include vodka soda, white wine, hard seltzer and a shot of tequila with lime.

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