The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

Apr 18, 2022

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Admit it – you think of cruises as floating smorgasbords, bastions of gluttony with all-you-can-eat lobster tails and molten chocolate cake served 24/7. You imagine onboard restaurants as an overcrowded, at-sea outpost of Golden Corral or perhaps a formal banquet hall straight out of the Titanic movie.

Clearly, you haven’t been on a cruise in a long time.

It’s true that a day aboard a cruise ship can revolve around food. Three days into a sailing, I start getting that feeling where I wake up stuffed from the night before and also hungry for breakfast.

My personal pledge to eat only eggs for breakfast, salads for lunch and skip dessert at dinner usually falls apart quickly, as I can’t keep away from the sugar-laden dessert tables, always-available pizza and cheese-heavy entrees.

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Yet a modern-day cruise ship is more akin to your local downtown, with multiple restaurant choices and a range of cuisines on offer. You can find healthy or vegetarian food, ethnic options and everything from fast-food burgers to upscale molecular gastronomy dishes. Meals can be quick or lengthy, formal or casual.

The choice can be overwhelming for a new cruiser – as can the complicated rules around who can eat where and when, while wearing what. Even if you don’t live for food, you’ll want to peruse this guide to cruise ship food and dining to get the lay of culinary land before your next sailing.

In This Post

Is food included on a cruise?

You do not have to pay for food on a cruise – but you might want to.

Unless you’re sailing on an all-inclusive luxury cruise ship, you’ll find two types of restaurants on board a cruise ship: free venues and extra-charge, specialty restaurants.

The included dining venues are typically the main dining room or rooms, large banquet-style spaces that serve sit-down dinner off a wide-ranging menu. On some ships, you will be assigned to a specific main dining room; other ships, such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet, will offer a couple and you can choose which one to go to on any given evening. Smaller vessels may only have one main dining room on board.

(Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

The other standard included option is the buffet, typically located near the pool. The buffet will offer multiple themed stations (salad bar, carvery, deli, pasta station, dessert bar, etc.) and will either be self-serve or have crew ready to portion out food from large serving dishes for you. Once you’ve filled a plate, you find your own table, either indoors or sometimes outside. You can go back for seconds, thirds, fourths until you’re full.

Other included cruise food options will vary by ship and cruise line. Many have poolside grills serving burgers and hot dogs. Some will have casual cafes and complimentary pizza, Mexican, Asian, fried chicken and barbecue restaurants or food counters.

Some cruise lines – such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America – have special restaurants reserved for VIP guests, usually a mix of passengers in the top suites and the most frequent cruisers on that line. These dining venues are included in the cost of the cruise yet may require reservations for dinner.

Related: What’s included in your cruise fare?

What is specialty dining on a cruise?

Specialty dining is the cruise industry name for onboard restaurants you have to pay for. Some charge a flat cover charge to dine there; others price dishes a la carte, as you’d find in most land-based eateries.

These extra-fee cruise ship restaurants cover a wide variety of cuisines and styles. You might find a family-style Italian trattoria, group dining at a teppanyaki grill or a French bistro perfect for date night. Steakhouses are common, though they can have American, Brazilian or Italian influences. Sushi and Asian-fusion restaurants are popular, as are broader seafood venues, both upscale and lobster shack-style.

Royal Caribbean has a new southern comfort food restaurant, and its molecular gastronomy venue, Wonderland, is definitely something different. Carnival partners with Emeril Lagasse to offer a New Orleans-themed Creole restaurant.

If you’re an uber-foodie, you’ll want to look for intimate Chef’s Table dining events for a gourmet meal paired with wine, personally planned by one of the onboard chefs.

For specialty restaurants, you’ll want to make reservations in advance, though walk-ins are allowed if tables are available. Try to book your favorite eateries online in advance of your sailing; if not, make it a priority to get dining times lined up as soon as you can on your first day on board.

Related: The 7 best meals you can have at sea 

What is open dining vs. set seating on a cruise?

When you book many big-ship cruises, you’ll be asked to choose early seating, late seating, or flexible or anytime dining. What does this mean?

Lines like Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess manage the flow of passengers in and out of their main dining rooms by assigning cruisers to specific dining rooms and times.

Passengers who choose set-seating dining will opt for an early dinner (usually around 5:30 or 6 p.m.) or late dinner (between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.). They will be assigned a specific table and have the same waiters every night. A table might be one four-person family or it might be a mix of unrelated singles, couples and groups gathered at a 10-person table. Desirable two-tops can be hard to come by.

(Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Because not everyone wants to eat at the same time and with the same people every night, cruise lines reserve a number of slots for a flexible dining option. You might see these referred to as “My Time Dining” or “Anytime Dining.” Guests who choose this option can show up at the main dining room for dinner anytime during designated open hours (typically 5:30 to 9 p.m.).

The catch is you might have to wait for a table, and you might not be able to get the table size you want at the time you want. You might score a two-top on one night and have to eat at a group table the next or wait an hour to be seated. On the other hand, if you make friends on board who also chose the flexible dining option, it’s easy to meet up for dinner.

Several lines have done away with the assigned dining concept, most notably luxury lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea and Seabourn, but also brands such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages. The ships in these lines offer multiple onboard dining venues where you either make a reservation or try your luck as a walk-in, as you would at any land-based restaurants. Most will have one main dining room venue that is larger and does not require reservations or extra fees to eat there.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Is food available around the clock?

You might be thinking that, with so much for breakfast, lunch and dinner, why would you want to eat at any other time? I can think of several reasons.

On sea days, it’s blissful to sleep in and have a late breakfast, which then bumps your midday meal to an odd time. My kids are always hungry for mid-morning or afternoon snacks, or post-kids club/pre-bedtime treats. Late-returning shore excursions can mess up your meal schedule – and sometimes you just need that 1 a.m. pizza after a night of dancing or bar hopping.

So, yes, cruise ships offer food around the clock, though the options at off hours can be limited.

Most ships have a 24-hour dining option, typically pizza or a cafe with premade items like cookies and mini sandwiches. Breakfast options can often run from 6 a.m. to 11 or 11:30 a.m., with full breakfast offered at typical dining times and continental selections offered early and late. Some lines also do a sea-day brunch to accommodate your lazy morning.

Mid-afternoon is often a tricky time for snacks. Some lines run an afternoon tea with petit fours and crustless sandwiches, or have a deli or burger counter open from late morning until early evening. Look for cafe venues that might have some fruit or something a tad less greasy. The self-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt stations are often available all day long.

The buffet usually closes around 9 or 10 p.m., though some lines might offer a limited selection of fried, late-night favorites for the party crowd.

Many all-day options are free of charge, but some, like Royal Caribbean’s Playmakers Sports Bar, charge for food.

Is there room service?

Yes, cruise ships offer room service, and that’s another 24/7 dining option for hungry travelers.

Historically, room service was free – an amazing perk of cruising, compared to hotels. But after years of cruise ship hallways cluttered with trays of half-eaten cheeseburgers at 3 a.m., the cruise lines decided to take a different stance.

Now, most lines offer a complimentary continental room service breakfast. Depending on the line, all orders outside of breakfast will come with a per-order charge, or the room service menu will have a mix of complimentary and extra-fee dishes. Some lines include hot breakfast, while others charge for eggs and pancakes delivered to your cabin.

All-day in-cabin dining menus will offer a limited selection of salads, sandwiches, hot entrees, desserts and kid favorites. At peak dining hours, you might have to wait up to an hour for your order to be delivered.

Consider tipping your room service delivery person a dollar or two to say thanks for not making you walk a few flights over to the buffet or all-night pizzeria.

Related: 11 extra charges on cruise ships that will drive you nuts — and what to do about them

Do solo travelers have to dine alone?

No. Solo travelers have many options to meet others and break bread with their shipmates.

Singles who choose early or late seating will be put at a shared table with other solo travelers or families so they don’t have to worry about dining alone. Request a larger table to get a larger social circle.

If you prefer flexible dining, ask to be seated at a group table when you approach the hostess stand.

Some cruise lines will offer hosted tables for solo travelers, especially on luxury lines where dining is always flexible. These lines may even employ gentleman hosts to guide the conversation and make sure everyone feels welcome and included. Inquire with guest services or the maitre d’ and they can get you sorted.

Sometimes single traveler meetups will be held during pre-dinner cocktails, with the idea that travelers can head to the buffet or another onboard eatery for dinner together afterward.

Solo cruisers can also take the initiative and invite fellow cruisers they meet at trivia or on a tour to join them for dinner at a specialty venue or fast-casual dining spot.

Can cruise ship restaurants accommodate my kids?

Yes. Cruising is a family vacation, and onboard restaurants know all about your child and her love affair with chicken nuggets.

With the exception of a handful of cruise lines that don’t allow children on board, such as Viking, nearly all cruise lines will offer kids menus with all the greatest hits: chicken tenders, pasta, burgers, hot dogs, and sometimes grilled chicken or a small steak. Kiddos can start with fruit plates or chicken noodle soup and end with ice cream sundaes or chocolate cake. They can also order off the adult menu, or switch back and forth.

Some cruise lines will have pureed baby food on hand (Disney Cruise Line will puree it for you), but don’t assume it’s available. Check with your cruise line before booking.

(Illustration courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

Ships will have high chairs and booster seats on hand in all dining venues.

One handy tip: If you’ve got a picky little eater, save mini boxes of cereal, yogurt cups and muffins from the breakfast buffet to keep on hand for snacks later in the day. Sometimes it’s hard to find peanut butter and jelly at lunch, so I’ve been known to make sandwiches in the morning to serve up at noon.

Can you bring food on or take food off of a cruise ship?

I might be the only person to cruise with Zip-loc bags full of snacks…but I bet I’m in good company.

Cruise lines allow passengers to bring a reasonable amount of packaged food on board, and I’m all about stocking up on protein bars and snack bags of pretzels or trail mix to avoid hangry meltdowns (of kids and adults) on shore excursions or before a late dinner.

If you have a dietary restriction, you might have a greater need to bring along snacks you know are safe to eat.

When it comes to taking food off of a cruise ship, it’s up to each port to decide. In general, it’s not OK to bring fresh fruit or meat off a ship. I have, however, smuggled my share of pastries and peanut butter sandwiches off ships to eat when I’m feeling too cheap to buy food in port, and no one has ever complained. It’s also perfectly fine to pack your pre-packaged snacks in your day pack – and bring back local chocolates, rum cakes, hot sauces and other packaged, edible souvenirs when you return.

Will a cruise ship accommodate my food allergies and dietary restrictions?

Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, lactose or gluten intolerant, low-carb, low-salt, kosher or allergic to certain food items, cruise lines can generally accommodate your dietary needs.

As someone who does not eat meat or shellfish, I’ve had no problem feeding myself with the available menu items on board. Some cruise lines will put icons on their menus next to vegetarian or gluten-free items, but it’s hit or miss across the industry. You can always ask the waiters to find out if a dish contains ingredients you can’t eat, and in specialty restaurants, the chef can often create a dish to accommodate your dietary restrictions if there’s not an obvious choice on the menu.

If you require specific food items on board (dairy-free milk, gluten-free bread, kosher meat, etc.) or have severe allergies, you or your travel agent should always contact your cruise line’s accessibility department ahead of the cruise to inform the ship about your dietary restrictions. This allows the cruise line to ensure the ship is provisioned with special food items and flags you in the system for the restaurant staff.

On the first day of the cruise, be sure to meet with the maitre d’ or other designated food and beverage officer to introduce yourself and discuss dining options. On some lines, you’ll get the dinner menu in advance to mark with the items you prefer so the galley can prepare your food to your specifications. At the buffet, a crew member may be assigned to show you which items should be avoided.

In general, however, cruisers with severe allergies or strict restrictions will do better in a sit-down restaurant than a buffet, which has a higher risk for cross-contamination.

Passengers who keep kosher can get kosher meals at no extra charge, but they will be pre-packaged, rather than made from scratch in the ship’s galleys. The exception is specific kosher charters, where rabbis will come on board and ritually clean a section of the ship’s galley. Halal food is not that common and lines like Royal Caribbean, which do carry it, only do so on select itineraries.

Do I need to dress up for dinner?

Cruise line dress codes have come a long way since the Titanic. You will never have to don a gown or tuxedo to eat dinner on a modern-day cruise ship.

That said, most cruise lines have some kind of evening dress code. Most nights are a dressier version of casual, with shorts and ratty T-shirts banned but jeans allowed. (Though if you’re sailing a luxury cruise line, expect a dressier crowd and no jeans in the main restaurant.)

One or two nights will be designated for fancier dress; think wedding guest attire such as cocktail dresses and jacket for men. On big-ship lines, these are usually optional, and you can always escape the dress code by going to the buffet.

Some specialty restaurants will have a dress code distinct from the main ship one, so check if you plan on heading to the more expensive, upscale eateries on board.

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Featured photo courtesy of Princess Cruises.

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