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How to Eat Healthy on a Cruise

Butternut Squash Salad Onboard Norwegian (Photo: Norwegian)
Butternut Squash Salad Onboard Norwegian (Photo: Norwegian)

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Eating healthy 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 near-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 are never a bad idea, you can employ a few other simple strategies to put calorie consumption in check and help yourself make smarter decisions regarding what to put on your plate. We've listed 10 tips to help you eat healthy on a cruise, 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 that piece of chocolate melting cake. (But you might do better if you share half of it with us!)

Updated October 2, 2018

1. 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 where portions are fixed and plated. 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. However, if long dinners and set courses overwhelm you, and you do better with the flexibility of the buffet, then skipping the formal dining might be the best route for you. (Read tip #4 to learn how to safely navigate the buffet without overindulging.)

2. Don't be pressured into ordering every course.

Most of us don't live like royalty, enjoying regular four-course meals. If you don't want to sample every course in the main dining room, or if nothing appeals to you on part of the menu, don't let the waiters (or your dinner mates, for that matter) 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 that baked Brie appetizer or triple-chocolate dessert.

3. Ask for half-portions.

Everyone talks about how you're free to order three main courses or two desserts at a cruise ship dinner if you so please. Fewer mention that you can also ask for half-portions (or appetizer-sized 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.

Close-up shot of the desserts at the Windjammer Marketplace buffet on Oasis of the Seas

4. Pace yourself at the buffet.

Pizza! Indian food! Grilled meat! Cake! It's tempting to pile your plate (or, worse yet: plates) 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. To eat healthy at the buffet, 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.

5. Eat off the spa menu.

Most cruise lines denote dishes that are "healthier" -- typically touting fewer calories than the other entrees and with a simpler, less sauce-heavy preparation. These include options like Queen Mary 2's Canyon Ranch spa cuisine, Royal Caribbean's "Vitality" selections and Carnival's "Spa Carnival Fare." Alternately, look for dedicated spa restaurants like the AquaSpa Cafe on Celebrity. Just remember, "spa cuisine" doesn't necessarily mean uber-healthy, so it's not an invitation to pig out.

6. 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.

7. 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 caloric toppings, or ask for sauces and dressings on the side to keep your calories in check.

8. Limit your dining to actual meals.

Midmorning pastries at the onboard cafe, ice cream at 2 p.m., afternoon tea with scones and cake 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 late-night 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.

Close-up shot of a chocolate dessert in the Wind Star Dining Room on Carnival Ecstasy

9. Cut back on desserts.

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. Sharing a dessert with your partner or travel companion is another great way to cut back on calories while still giving in to your taste buds.

10. Skip the late-night dining.

Midnight buffets have gone out of style, but virtually 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 eat healthy, just say no to after-dinner meals. Early-riser breakfast will come soon enough.

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