Stereotypically, cruising is synonymous with overindulgence: relaxing, gambling and especially eating and drinking. For many cruisers, when it comes to getting their fill of good eats, they head straight for the buffet. Love them or loathe the, buffets serve as the mother lode on many ships where hungry cruisers can get their hands on everything from light bites to dense delights and several different types of cuisine, all with the ability to shamelessly go back for more self-served seconds, thirds or even more.
However, as with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic put the future of this popular ship feature in question. As cruises began to restart after the long, forced shutdown, these legendary buffets came back more like cafeterias with ship staff doling out the goods as passengers walked through the line, or eschewing all in favor of table service.
As cruise lines continue to navigate through the global health pandemic, most are still opting for an alternative approach to the onboard buffet, though Carnival was quick to jump ship, bringing back its self-serve buffet on ships as early as July 2021. And, if the rumors prove correct, it looks like other lines may soon be following suit thanks to full-ship vaccination mandates (we’re looking at you, Viking).
But whether you’re being served by crew of helping yourself to all of the mouthwatering options available on the ship’s buffet, it’s still worth asking: Are there any offerings that you should be avoiding?
To help us make our best-informed buffet choices, we consulted Ali Shapiro, a Pittsburgh-based integrated health coach, who offered some tips on how to better navigate the sometimes overwhelming options that abound at the buffet. Here's the list of foods she recommends skipping on your next cruise.
Although cruise lines take safe food handling extremely seriously, nothing is foolproof. If you're feeling lucky, take it to the casino; don't gamble with the freshness of that spicy tuna roll. If there's sushi on the buffet and you don't know how long it's been there, consider giving it a pass for something you can see being made right in front of you.
2. Soft Serve Ice Cream Cones
If you're like us, you use your dominant hand to work the lever on the soft-serve machine -- a lever that sees a lot of other hands, both clean and otherwise -- before switching the cone to the same hand that just touched said lever. Avoid the ick factor by using a napkin to pull down the level or switch to a bowl instead of a cone. And, considering the current COVID-19 situation, it can never hurt to have some trusty hand sanitizer at the ready.
3. Scrambled Eggs
That vat of scrambled eggs you see on the buffet at breakfast each morning is likely powdered, and powdered eggs can often be wet and/or squishy. Instead, opt for a trip to the made-to-order egg and omelet station. But, "Don't just eat the egg whites," says Shapiro. "Eat the egg yolks, too." Despite what we've always been taught, egg yolks won't raise cholesterol, and they contain "good" fats, which help to stabilize blood sugar early in the day so you'll be less likely to snack on sweets from the buffet later on. Plus, consider that there’s really no way to know how long that tub of raw egg whites has been sitting out, right there next to the grill.
4. Old Pizza
If the pizza has that congealed-cheese look, it's probably been sitting out for a while, particularly if it's a non-peak dining time. Don't feel bad about asking for a new pie or heading to the onboard pizza shop -- just about every ship has one -- for a slice.
5. Communal Condiments
Giant bottles of shared ketchup, mustard and other condiments can breed germs since so many people touch them. Ask buffet staff if they can add on your condiments for you or give you individual single-serve condiment packets. If both are a no-go, use a napkin to dispense what you need and apply a squirt of hand sanitizer before you handle your food.
6. Compromised Food
If you notice the person in front of you touching food and putting it back, realize that someone has contaminated a vegetable-only dish by using utensils meant for meat or if you see that the tongs have fallen completely into the food, handle and all, alert a crew member, and avoid taking any of the potentially contaminated dishes until they've been replaced with fresh ones.
7. More Than One Plate at a Time
We know you're probably excited about all the free food at the buffet, but there's no need to hoard plate after plate as if eating is going out of style. You can always go back for additional helpings (with a fresh, clean plate, of course). It's better to dish out one plate at a time so you'll waste less if you suddenly find yourself full or end up not liking some of the items you picked. It also leaves one hand free for you to grab a drink.
8. Dessert During the Day
If you're concerned about avoiding a few extra pounds, try limiting your dessert intake to dinnertime only. "Wait until evening to eat dessert so you crave less sugar," Shapiro advises. "The more sugar you eat, the more you're going to want." If you wait until the last meal of the day to indulge in sweets, you have bedtime to eliminate cravings before the following day.