How to eat HEALTHY on a cruise

We just got back from our first family cruise, and it turned out to be a wonderful vacation! Our children absolutely LOVED every minute of it (the trip totally exceeded their expectations), and they are already begging to go back again next year! I used to go on cruises with my family as a teen – I have not been on one in 25 years, and boy, things have changed a lot! But I do remember how much I loved the sense of freedom walking around the ship with my newfound friends. So I was not at all surprised this was a new favorite for our tween/teen girls.

This time around though, prior to boarding the ship, I definitely had concerns about “cruise food.” I had no idea what to expect looking at it through my real food lens that I did not have as a teen. And just to preface this whole post, it’s not that I HAVE to eat real food all the time – I honestly just want to! :) It makes me feel better all around, which is pretty good motivation to try to stick to it as best I can.

So, today I’m going to share what I learned while on one of the larger Royal Caribbean cruise ships earlier this month. Hopefully, most of these healthy eating tips will be helpful no matter what cruise line and boat you choose!

How to eat healthy on a cruise on 100 Days of Real Food

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How to Eat Healthy on a Cruise

  • Choose the main dining room
    There are many different dining options come meal time in the various cafes, but I learned whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner the dining room by far had the best (i.e. most resemblance to “real”) food options. I wish it didn’t take me until the last day to figure this out! We had breakfast and dinner in the dining room almost every day, but I didn’t realize I should’ve been making lunch in the dining room a priority as well (on the days at sea). It closed earlier than other lunch options, but it was totally worth it to get down there before 12:30 for a good, tasty meal.
  • Be creative at the buffets
    Even if you’re eating in the dining room, I found you have to be creative with the buffet offerings by putting things together that aren’t necessarily presented together. For example, I discovered the breakfast potatoes had some yummy bell pepper pieces mixed in so I picked some of those out and put them with my eggs, sometimes along with a piece of cheese over top. It was a pretty good combo that I started looking for each morning. And, as you can see from the pic, I followed my golden rule that I always tell my girls when out and about: “Eat a lot of what you know is good for you and a little of what you know is not good for you (or you aren’t sure about).” I enjoyed that little croissant on the side there! :)
    How to eat healthy on a cruise - photo of healthy breakfast
    I also found that mixing things up at the lunch buffet helped a lot with eating healthy as well. For example, we crafted everything from taco salad (by combining things from the salad bar and taco station) to “Asian carrots” as my daughter called them (by combining rice, cooked carrots and soy sauce) to creative salads that reminded us of the ones we eat and enjoy at home (by “stealing” parmesan cheese from the pasta bar and sliced almonds from another station along with a quick homemade dressing – more on this below).
  • Don’t be scared to have a special request
    One thing is for certain on a cruise, they aim to please – so don’t be scared to ask for something special! We were sure to load up on the fresh fruit whenever we could to balance out our meals, but the same ol’ melon mix and grapes started to get pretty old by day 4. So at breakfast one day I asked if I could get some strawberries, and voila, a big bowl of freshly sliced strawberries appeared. It was such a nice change; we all scarfed them down. Someone at another table even asked where we got them because they wanted some too!
  • Bring a little of your own food
    I always travel with some of my own food, and I wasn’t sure if I should when going on a cruise where there is so much food (that’s included, i.e. paid for). But I brought a small bag of my homemade granola just in case (like I always do on trips!) as well as some good-for-you snack bars. Since the best real food option on the breakfast buffet was eggs (pancakes and such are always made with white flour in places like this), I ended up being really glad to have my granola, which I ate on two of the seven mornings just to break things up. I like eggs, but they’re not my favorite for every day of the week. Also, we found the snack bars were handy to have on port days when going off to explore or go on an excursion.
  • Avoid the salad dressings
    Especially on the lunch buffets, I quickly discovered the salad dressings are not made in-house (no surprise there, they come packaged/bottled and are highly processed). So it would be a shame to go through the effort of trying to put together a healthy salad then top it with something like that. Again though, they are not scared of special requests, so either look for or ask for olive oil and either a lemon wedge or balsamic vinegar to mix together a quick and easy homemade dressing. I found some of the buffets even had a station with these healthy options ready to go for people like me!
  • Be careful with the drink offerings
    Boy, did the piña coladas look GOOD, but unfortunately (as with the dressings) they were made with a highly processed bottled mix and not from scratch. It’s such a shame because piña coladas are super easy and simple to make (simply blend pineapple and coconut milk with ice and rum), but I understand they are cranking those things out in very high quantities with 6,000 passengers on board. So, I’m not about to claim I skipped the tropical frozen beverages altogether (too hard to resist especially when first boarding the ship and starting our vacation – see below!), but I just didn’t go too crazy knowing how it’s made. I had one or two and didn’t even end up finishing them all the way, but then I discovered a nice cold glass of prosecco was a great poolside beverage as well!

    How to eat healthy on a cruise - photo of Lisa and daughters
    Those frozen beverages were hard to resist the first day on the ship!

  • You’re on vacation, indulge a little!
    At home, we have about one big treat a week, but on the ship, it was honestly more like one treat a day. But when I say “one a day” that’s actually limiting yourself a good bit because they, of course, offer dessert at basically every meal and even in-between (including an unlimited ice cream machine by the pool, watch out!). So I was totally fine with all of us freely indulging more than normal but within reason. Luckily the portion sizes in the dining room are totally reasonable, so we rarely felt like we went overboard (no pun intended!).
  • Be active
    To balance out all the extra food you might not indulge in at home, be as active as possible! And, especially if you’re on one of the huge ships, it’s honestly not hard to do. Simply choose the stairs over the elevator (which can save time anyway), do some swimming in the ocean when stopping at the ports, and even get yourself on the disco dance floor late at night. Most ships also have a workout facility and a full track for running/walking, so you can take advantage of those as well. Ours even had a juice/smoothie bar that was included in the drink plan. I will fully admit though that I brought my workout clothes with very good intentions, but unexpectedly ended up taking the week off. Waking up early to get to the pool deck to reserve lounge chairs (before they were all claimed), among other things got in the way – what can I say, LOL. But I was so active taking the stairs and swimming my body didn’t at all feel like it was just a week of sitting around doing nothing but eating!

All in all, we weren’t sure how much we’d like this trip, but it turned out to be a fabulous week, and we were so sad when it was over. My husband and I even surprised ourselves by saying we’d definitely do another family cruise vacation together again! We went into it thinking it would just be a one-time thing, but we didn’t realize just how much our kids would LOVE the experience. And be so mad at us if we didn’t go back, haha.

What are your thoughts on cruise food and the healthy choices you can make? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below! :)

How to eat healthy on a cruise - photo of our family dining

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28 thoughts on “How to eat HEALTHY on a cruise”

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  1. We go on a cruise once a year. It’s the only vacation my kids want to take now – lol. I try to eat well and do indulge but even doing that it’s still very easy to overeat.

  2. Loved this post! Our first “big” family vacation was last year when we took a Disney cruise. Same as you, went into it as a once in a lifetime trip, however, same as you, when we returned home, we were SO sad it was all over. It was truly an amazing experience. A few weeks after our return we booked another one and we sail in just a couple of weeks! ha!
    Our cruise ship had many dining options as well and fortunately, even the “faster” food options for lunch, etc. had healthy wraps and loads of fruit available to us. The space where we ate breakfast had many different “stations” as you mentioned as well where we could mix/match to create a hearty and healthy breakfast (or light with yogurt and fruit, etc.!) I love the idea of bringing your own granola though–your recipe is my favorite. Our dining rooms for supper always offered many options to choose from, so it was easy for us to make good choices.

    I am totally using the quote– “Eat a lot of what you know is good for you and a little of what you know is not good for you (or you aren’t sure about).” Such a great rule of thumb!

  3. That’s for the info and the timing could not have been better!! I’m going on my first cruise on Saturday. I earned it through my Avon business and I’m super excited!! Sounds like the main dining room and the stairs are the way to go!!!

  4. Thank you so much for making this post! We were thinking about a family cruise but were hesitant because we weren’t sure how to handle food. This helps immensely, thanks!

  5. Great article. Our last cruise was with Viking and I can say the food was excellent. Very healthy options and like you said, we could request any special items we wanted. We ate in the dining room for all three meals even returning to the ship mid-day to catch lunch. I found the portions to be the right size. And due to all of the walking at our stops, I didn’t put on any extra weight.

  6. Cruises are awesome! We just returned from our 4th multi-generational family cruise and can’t wait to go again. My teens are hooked ;) Like you, I found it easier to eat real food than I expected. Completely agree with you about eating in the dining room; that’s the way to go. Our ship had a wonderful selection of vegetarian dishes and fish. My kids love to try things they would never try at home and have even discovered a few new favorites.

  7. Lindsay Untherbergus

    Sounds like fun! I usually allow myself to have some special treats on vacation, since it truly is a special occasion. But when you’re on a cruise, you need to eat well so you can have the energy for all the fun activities!

  8. Hi. While we haven’t been on a cruise recently, we have been on about a dozen in the past 15 years. I don’t have a large appetite so I generally didn’t gain weight on a cruise. I especially enjoyed the fresh fruit as I live in Canada and during the winter fruit comes from far away. I’m not really a breakfast food kind of person so I would look for cheese and some type of bread. We would generally eat breakfast and dinner in the dining room because we enjoy meeting people while dining. We’ve met some great people over the years.

  9. We just returned from a Carnival Cruise too. I was surprised how easy it was to still eat healthy. I had a fresh made omelette every morning and the we dined in the main dining room every night. Mid day meals were burrito bowl, burger without the bun or we loaded up on veggies at the Wok. We treated ourselves to drinks and some dessert cause we were on vacation. My kids really enjoyed the pizza and ice cream too. It’s good to let them splurge every once and a while.

  10. Thank you for posting this fine article! We have been on many cruises over the years and are going to set sail again in August for two weeks. After reading all your recommendations, I feel armed with the know how to have a great cruise and feel great at the same time!

  11. We went on the Oasis of the Seas 2 years ago for our 40th anniversary with our daughter & son & their families, so 10 altogether. The boys who were 8, 10 & 12 loved the wave runner, the zipline and all the other things available. Even our 7-month-old grandson had fun being pushed around on his stroller. We had such a great time together and did fairly well on eating healthy and chose the grilled fish, steamed vegetables and every other night I had the fruit plate as my dessert cause they cut up the fruit to make it look so appetizing. Then some of the other nights we had dessert and always skipped the bread. So fun for everyone!!

  12. We cruise often and I am sorry to say I haven’t done well with my real food choices. We try to eat in the dining room when possible so that does help. When we cruise next time I plan to follow some of your hints. The desserts and bread are my down falls.

  13. That’s terrific! Sounds like you had a good time and, with not a lot of effort, found great food options.

    I cannot stress enough what you said, just ask. One of the first (and only!) cruises I went on, I was a “real foodie” *and* vegetarian. They had those timed dinners as the only option, and only one the whole week was vegetarian. Husband went off to ask someone about it (I lost my cool and was crying, so embarrassing!). Someone talked to the chef, he said no problem at all! I had amazing dinners that week, just let the chef prepare whatever and ate like a queen. Definitely, always, ask about food alternatives if you need to.

  14. Thank you for this post! I just bought your Fast and Fabulous cookbook and am excited to make wonderful changes in our diet. We are leaving next week for 10 days in Ireland and this information comes at a good time!

  15. Carole Christian

    This is a very helpful article, thanks. We have actually been hesitant to go on another cruise because of the food choices (as yummy as they are!). We can make enough “good” choices to balance out the treats.

  16. Did you make it to the Solarium Bistro? They have a healthy breakfast and lunch buffet with lots of real food.

  17. Not sure if those eggs would be real food. In most restaurant buffet settings the scrambled eggs are egg beaters. Best to avoid them unless you know it was an actual egg.