If you’d like to go on a cruise but have food allergies or dietary restrictions – these tips may help you get delicious and safe meals onboard. Cruise ships are notorious for food, lots of it day or night, and it’s usually quite good. Food quality differs between cruise lines, sometimes significantly, and some ships don’t offer specialty meals so it’s always wise to check before you book.
I prefer to only sail on ships that have a special order kitchen and chef. On those ships, the staff are trained to eliminate possible issues from cross contamination and are familiar with making delicious meals using limited ingredients.
Note: These tips on based on my personal experience from 9 cruises on 5 different cruise ship lines popular in the United States. It’s worthwhile to research which ships have the best reputation for fine dining.
● Research! As mentioned above, not every ship offers special meal preparation. I recommend checking several recent reviews of the ship you’re interested in sailing on. Contact the corporate office with any questions.
● Inform the cruise line you require special meals when you book your cruise. Some cruise lines will have you fill out a form with information about your food allergies or restrictions when you purchase your cruise. My experience has taught me not to rely on corporate to communicate my needs to the crew of the ship I sail on. If you do fill out a form, make a copy and bring it with you.
● Prepare a detailed food allergy/restriction list – but don’t stop there, also include a list of your favorite foods including seasonings. The less chefs have to guess about what you can or cannot eat, the better for everyone – and bring a few extra copies. If you like to dine at the specialty restaurants, you’ll want to make sure those restaurant managers have your list too. Having a complete list is the best way to prevent being served incompatible or bland food as, understandably, staff error on the side of caution when all they know is which foods you are allergic to or restricted from having.
● I have learned that it’s critical to speak directly with the Executive Chef of the ship and not another kitchen staff member on the very first day of the cruise. Be aware that some dining staff might attempt to dissuade you when you request to speak with the executive chef directly, so you may have to politely insist. (Sort of like a secretary that intervenes when you want to see the boss.) I’ve had critical errors made by kitchen staff but not when I’ve spoken with the executive chef first. The chefs I’ve spoken with have been cordial and tell me they enjoy meeting directly with passengers to discuss culinary needs. They’ve introduced me to staff and managers that can assist me in getting safe meals or answer any questions.
Note: It’s a delightful surprise to see how powerful the executive chef is. Once I watched a curt, unfriendly restaurant manager instantly transform into polite and accommodating for the remainder of my cruise after just a single sentence from the Executive Chef.
● Be prepared to order your specially prepared meals one full day in advance. It’s not always easy to order so far ahead, especially if you usually select your meals according to your mood, but it’s necessary. The good news is that you get to see what’s on tomorrow’s menu. This may make you popular with other diners at your table since menus are unpublished until the day of service. Some of the finest, most delicious dining I’ve ever experienced is while cruising. And sometimes my travel companion says my specialty meals taste even better than his!
● You might have to skip the buffet and room service. Most cruise lines recommend eating only at the main restaurant as buffet foods are easily cross-contaminated by fellow passengers and staff. Unfortunately, room service typically isn’t set up for special menu dining either so you may be limited to times when the main restaurant is open. Fortunately the main dining room typically serves breakfast, lunch and dinner but only for limited times. However, you may request your pre-ordered meal be delivered to your cabin, including beverages and deserts. Having the food in your cabin allows you to use your cabin’s mini-refrigerator to keep snacks fresh in case you get hungry when the dining room is closed.
Note: On Celebrity, (my favorite cruise line) the staff was happy to deliver my order, and my companions too, to our cabin. This was especially helpful if I was feeling overwhelmed by a busy day and even busier dining room.
● This is probably a “no-brainer” but if you have serious allergies, always carry your Epi-pen with you. (Epi-pens counteract severe allergic reactions.) And you may even consider taking daily antihistamines too because sometimes staff make errors, even on ships with specialty kitchens.
● Being polite to cruise ship staff is part of the legal agreement/paperwork you sign when you purchase your tickets. It doesn’t serve anyone to behave in any other way but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. You have the right to ask to see ingredient lists/labels or speak with the chef that prepared your meal anytime you have concerns.
● Advance tipping is a tactic successfully used by fellow passengers. One man I spoke with said he seeks out the chef that will directly prepare his food and gives them a hundred dollar bill at the start of the cruise. He said he felt confident that the acceptance of his tip signified that individual would take personal responsibility over his orders. He also believed that “just the anticipation of another hundred” would ensure that he would be served safe food.
● Another passenger I spoke with said she brings most of her own food with her. She brings each meal to the kitchen staff before dining and instructs the cook to heat it in clean cookware using clean utensils. That way she’s as certain as possible her food is safe for her. I think if you have to be absolutely certain of your ingredients, this works very well but it takes a lot of pre-vacation effort, and extra luggage, to supply yourself with enough food for a week long cruise. Note: The image is not from actual cruise passenger. There’s plenty of fresh fruit available onboard and much tastier food than Velveeta too.
● You may have all your meals onboard, even while at port. But if you decide to sample the local cuisine, I recommend bringing a prepared list of any dietary restrictions or food allergies with you. It’s best if list is brief, clear and in the native language of the country you’re visiting. Since confusion can cause a list to be lost or destroyed, I carry a few copies with me.
Food allergies and dietary restrictions can be a bit tricky to navigate through. It’s a common and justifiable concern that cooks may not be careful to clean cookware (cross-contaminate) or not be careful with ingredients. Cruising requires trusting staff which may or may not be concerned about your restrictions. It really pays to research companies with the best reputations.
Note: My experience on a Royal Caribbean ship was a food-allergy nightmare! I was new to cruising and didn’t know I could even request speaking with the Executive Chef. I made the mistake of trusting a confident sous chef who was not as well informed as he led me to believe. This along with restaurant staff having a casual attitude about food safety, especially in the kitchen, resulted in my experiencing significant but easily avoidable health issues. If you have food allergies, I do not recommend sailing with Royal Caribbean.
Bottom line: Whether you choose to speak with the Executive Chef, generously tip your cook or bring your own food, it’s still a good idea to be cautious. Always carry antihistamines and your Epi-pen with you – just in case.