Eating healthfully on a cruise isn't an impossible task. Cruise travelers who love to eat (and eat, and eat) can easily find ways to consume 6,000+ calories in one sea day, put their bodies into diabetic shock with excessive sugar intake, and swell feet and bloat bellies with salt levels that rival the Dead Sea. But it's still possible, and -- dare we say it? -- enjoyable to find healthy fare onboard.
While blinders at the buffet might not be a bad idea, you can employ a few simple strategies to bring calorie consumption in check and help yourself make smarter decisions regarding what to put on your plate. We've listed 16 tips to help you out, but the general advice boils down to this: think more about what you're ordering (or selecting from the buffet), and take time to enjoy every single bite. You can find greater satisfaction by eating less ... and we will never say you absolutely cannot have the chocolate melting cake. But you might do better if you share half of it with us!
Choose your dining venue wisely.
If the all-you-can-eat nature of a buffet frazzles you into making bad choices and overeating, stick with the main dining room for meals. If long dinners and set courses overwhelm you, and you do better with the flexibility of the buffet, skip the formal dining. Several Cruise Critic members reported avoiding the buffet at all costs because they're too tempted to sneak that extra dessert (or three) or splurge on cheeseburgers.
Don't be bullied into ordering every course.
Most of us don't live at Downton Abbey, enjoying regular four-course meals. If you don't want to sample every course in the main dining room, or if nothing appeals, don't let the waiters pressure you into ordering more dishes than you care to eat. We've bowed to wait staff "encouragement" on multiple occasions. Truth is, they will still be nice and serve you, even if you politely decline the baked brie appetizer or triple-chocolate dessert.
Ask for half-portions.
Everyone talks about how you can order three main courses or two desserts at a cruise ship dinner. Fewer mention that you can also ask for half-portions (or appetizer-size portions) of starters, mains and desserts. If you want to sample rich fare but know you don't have the willpower to stop at a few bites, order a smaller portion. Also, unless your mom is traveling with you, no one will scold you for not cleaning your plate.
Pace yourself at the buffet.
Pizza! Indian food! Grilled meat! Cake! It's tempting to pile your plate high with everything that looks yummy, then dig in until you're over-full ... and more than a little queasy from chasing a quesadilla with Asian stir-fry. For healthier buffet dining, take stock of all your options, and put together a normal-sized plate of a cohesive meal. If you're still hungry when you've finished, only then go back to take more. Cruise Critic member Gangway Style recommends sitting with your back to the buffet so you don't spend the entire meal staring at all that yummy, inviting food.
Eat off the spa menu.
Most cruise lines denote dishes that are "healthier" -- typically fewer calories than the other entrees and with a simpler, less sauce-heavy preparation. These include Queen Mary 2's Canyon Ranch spa cuisine, Royal Caribbean's "Vitality" selections in its main dining rooms and Carnival's "Spa Carnival Cuisine." Alternately, look for spa restaurants like the spa cafe in Celebrity's Solariums. Just remember, "spa cuisine" doesn't necessarily mean uber-healthy, so it's not an invitation to pig out.
Mix up heavy and light meals.
Planning to live it up with a steak at a specialty dining venue for dinner? Have a salad for lunch. Want to go all-out with a pancake and bacon breakfast feast? Order a simple fish dish for dinner, and skip the dessert. If you pair a splurge meal with light dining the rest of the day, you won't feel so bloated by debarkation. You're on vacation, so it's OK to treat yourself -- just don't do it at every meal.
Skip the sauces and dressings.
That heart-healthy piece of salmon just became a weight watcher's nightmare when the waiter dumped hollandaise sauce all over it. Your feel-good salad won't feel so smug once you've poured ranch dressing, croutons and nuts on top. Scrape off calorific toppings, or ask for sauces and dressings on the side to keep your calories in check.
Eat fresh fruits and veggies.
If nothing else, buffets usually offer salad bars (some better than others) and an array of fruit (both cut and whole). Fill up on these healthy staples instead of bread, cookies and French fries.
Limit your dining to actual meals.
Midmorning pastries at the onboard cafe, ice cream at 2 p.m. and afternoon tea at 4, a late-night pizza -- all these mini-meals conspire against your jeans still fitting on debarkation day. "Let me grab some carrot sticks," said no one at a midnight buffet ever. Limit -- or eliminate -- between-meal snacking, and you're well on your way to coming home the same weight you were on day one of your cruise.
But don't go to a meal starving.
If you're super-hungry by the time your late-seating dinner starts, you'll be tempted to load up on bread and appetizers. So do grab a healthy snack -- like the aforementioned fruits and veggies -- to tide you over until a late meal.
Drink lots of water.
Ditch the sugary sodas and juices, and stick to the world's most basic beverage. Taking sips between bites and guzzling water out by the pool or on shore tours will keep you full and hydrated. Bonus: Water has zero calories and will help your body handle all the extra salt you're consuming by eating "restaurant" meals for a week or more.
Limit your alcohol intake.
Speaking of drinking ... booze is calorie-heavy. Especially when that rum is poured into a ginormous souvenir glass along with fruit juice, ice cream, whipped cream ... need we go on? Enjoy your onboard wine and cocktails, but consider them part of your meal. Order a glass of wine with dinner, and consider skipping the starter. And always treat umbrella drinks, such as pina coladas, as dessert. If you wouldn't have two desserts at dinner, don't order that frozen cocktail and the creme brulee.
Eat slowly, and stop when you're full.
It goes without saying: if you're eating until the buttons are literally popping off your trousers and your stomach is groaning in agony, you're not dining in a healthy way. Eat slowly, savoring each bite, and put down the fork when the bites aren't as tasty and your body says it's full. Cruise ship dinners tend to run long, so there's no rush to finish each course.
A muffin here, a cookie there and a slice of cheesecake with dinner will put you well over your daily recommended intake of fat, sugar and calories. We would never tell you to avoid all treats on your vacation, but we will recommend limiting yourself to one sweet splurge a day, choosing cakes and puddings labeled as "healthier" choices, or simply taking a few bites and not eating the entire plate of pie or dish of ice cream.
Skip the late-night dining.
Midnight buffets have gone out of style, but every cruise ship has a late-night or 24-hour food option, even if it's just room service. Nothing good ever comes out of eating a cheeseburger and fries at 1 a.m. So if you want to stick to healthy dining, just say no to after-dinner meals. Early-riser breakfast will come soon enough.
When in doubt, work it out!
Sometimes the temptations of a cruise are just too much for your willpower. If you've gone rogue on your diet or chucked your healthy-eating plan overboard at the first sight of the buffet, never fear. Hit the onboard fitness center (ooh, pretty ocean views!), the promenade deck and the stairs to sweat off those extra calories, or be sure to get active in port. While you can't turn back the clock on bad snacking choices, you can work to keep your body strong and your clothing loose. Tomorrow is another day for making smart cruise-ship dining decisions.