If this all seems like a major logistical challenge just to get a burger all the way to the Lido Deck grill, take a look at what you take for granted at your local market. We think nothing of buying New Zealand lamb, Scottish salmon, or out-of-season fruits and vegetables from Chile. Modern food shipping and processing techniques have made it the norm to find perishables from halfway around the world at any well-stocked supermarket.
Upscale cruise lines where the catering cost per guest is higher often pay top dollar to the creme de la creme of local food purveyors for a unique taste of the region they are cruising. This often extends to acquiring live lobsters, crabs or oysters, as shellfish do not stay fresh long under refrigeration, and freezing degrades their quality. Once on Crystal I looked over the rail as we prepared to leave a European port, to see slatted crates holding literally hundreds of live Maine lobsters milling about, waiting to be fork lifted into the ship.
Also, smaller cruise operations based in foreign countries usually will provision locally when they are sailing in their home territory. Recently on an Australian cruise all the seafood was fresh, and native to Australia. A river trip on the Yangtze River will abound with local Chinese delicacies. And you can be certain that the chicken in your coq au vin on a French barge cruise did not come from KFC.
Still, some onboard restaurants will have more extensive choices than others. Your best bet on most lines is the main restaurant, where there is always a vegetarian entree and, typically, some meatless starters as well. If you're not positive a menu item is vegetarian (such as a vegetable soup that might contain chicken or beef broth), just ask your waiter, and he or she can find out from the chef. And, if there's something special you're hankering for, don't be shy about putting in a request. On a recent Wind Surf cruise, I enjoyed the squash soup so much that I asked to have it the following evening, and the chef obliged.
Specialty restaurants will also cater to vegetarians, but sometimes the vegetarian options are not listed on the main menus. (Onboard steakhouses are often guilty of such omissions). In those cases, ask if there's a vegetarian option or if the chef can make you one. It's usually no problem for the restaurant staff to whip up a salad, pasta or fancier vegetarian entree -- or bring you vegetarian dishes from another onboard eatery. I haven't found any one alternative restaurant to be better for vegetarians than another, as they all have limited menus and usually only one vegetarian entree, if they have one at all. Restaurants with no listed vegetarian entrees include NCL's Cagney's Steakhouse, Princess' Crown Grill and Carnival's Supper Club.
Trickier for non-meat-eaters are the buffets and in-room dining. Shipboard buffet restaurants always have salad bars and some vegetarian items; however, the variety can be limiting, and it's not unusual to find yourself eating meal after meal of salad and pizza or pasta. Of the cruise lines I contacted, only Royal Caribbean marks vegetarian items in its buffet-style Windjammer Cafe with a "V" -- on all other lines, you'll have to ask if you're unsure of the ingredients in a dish. NCL almost always has a vegetarian section in its Garden Cafe, often with Indian food. Most poolside grills will carry veggie burgers, as well.
Room service menus typically do not have a lot of vegetarian items because the menu offerings are limited. Vegetarian options for in-room dining may include salads, vegetarian sandwiches, cheese pizza, cheese and crackers, and dessert. But, many lines allow you to order items off the main restaurant's menu during specific hours, and it never hurts to see if the crew can honor a special request.
Once you're onboard, make sure you meet with the restaurant manager and/or executive chef, who can go over menu items with you and discuss what you can or cannot eat. If you have not been contacted to set up an appointment, you can often find the restaurant manager taking questions by the main dining room or in a specific lounge on embarkation day. You can always ask at reception, if you're not sure where to go. If you alerted the cruise line in advance, the restaurant manager should have your name and specific dietary needs highlighted on his or her manifest.
You'll also want to explain your dietary restrictions to your waiters. They can often tweak a menu item for you by leaving off a sauce or a specific ingredient, in order to meet your needs. If your children also have celiac disease, or other food restrictions, be sure to tell the counselors at the onboard kids' clubs -- especially if your child might be eating snacks or going to dinner as part of the daily youth programming.
When choosing a cruise line, you'll have an easier time if you go with a line that offers assigned-seat dining, such as Carnival or Celebrity. On these ships, you can develop a relationship with your waiter, and he or she will learn what you can and can't eat and help you choose what to order. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't pick a line like NCL, which offers multiple onboard eateries. You'll just have to explain your situation each night to your new waiter.
On any line, the support of the cruise staff actually makes travel a lot easier for people on special diets because, at onboard restaurants, you can communicate your needs to English-speaking staff. In foreign countries, it might be difficult to convey your menu requirements if you're not fluent in the local language or if you're unfamiliar with regional delicacies. But on a cruise, you can actually explore foreign destinations before returning to the ship to eat a satisfying meal with no worries at all.