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Cruising Gluten-Free: Top 5 Tips for Gluten-Free Dining on Cruise Ships

3 Jan

I recently travelled on the Regal Princess cruise ship for an 11 day trip to the Eastern Caribbean. Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of gluten-free options on the ship and the level of knowledge about cross-contamination and gluten-based ingredients by the cruise crew.

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This trip was a delayed honeymoon to accommodate the demands of medical school (me) and law school (my husband). Our main criterion for vacation planning: ease of booking. With finals coming up, we wanted to limit the number of decisions we had to make and a cruise seemed perfect for that! We called before booking to inquire about gluten-free options and were assured there would be plenty of gluten-free options (no need to pack three dozen Kind bars!).

Of note, some information online says that Princess cruise line need to be notified greater than one month before embarking of any special dietary requirements. We booked this trip about 3 weeks before our set travel date and there were no issues. I was also given information/instructions on multiple occasions about “making myself known to the Maitre d’ Hotel” and “contacting the head waiter” to receive “daily menus.” A note was left in my cruise ship room about my “dietary request” and that someone would be in touch to plan meals but this never happened. Honestly, the idea of planning each meal a day ahead of time did not sound fun to me at all. Isn’t the point of vacation to just go with the flow and be free of to-do lists and plans? I opted not to contact the “Maitre d’ Hotel” and not to plan meals ahead of time. Luckily, I had no issues finding gluten-free options on board and was able to relax without making the focus of every day planning the next day’s food. I got to live in the moment and be successfully gluten-free.

Now for those 5 tips…

1. Get a lay of the land:

The cruise ship is huge. There are two buffet areas (Horizon Court, or HoCo according to the crew, and Horizon Bistro), two sit down restaurants (Symphony and Concerto), and a number of restaurants that were not included in the cost of the cruise ship like Crown Grill and a sushi bar.

Once you figure out where the food options are located you should figure out where the gluten-free options within each restaurant/buffet are. For example, in Horizon Court there is a section that has all the gluten-free substitution items like bread, pancakes, waffles, etc. In the Pastry/Dessert section located between the two buffets, there is a section that has a daily gluten-free dessert.

On my ship there was a cafe that sold coffee and pastries in the center of the ship. This little cafe had two gluten-free desserts/pastries out per day that were different from the buffet options.

Each cruise ship will likely be different but asking the chefs that stand in the buffet area where to find gluten-free options should get you pointed in the right direction.

Pro tip: pancakes over waffles. Gluten-free waffles on Princess are made ahead of the breakfast rush and stored in the back kitchen. You have to specifically request for them to be brought out to you (they won’t be displayed or advertised anywhere!). Gluten-free waffles are also an option but those are made to order and take about 15 minutes.

Pro tip: Don’t order Alfredo! The ship has gluten-free pasta (corn-based spaghetti) on board. The Alfredo pasta is one of the ship’s most popular dishes but it is NOT gluten-free. There is wheat flour in the Alfredo sauce (not super common to have flour in Alfredo which is why I am including this here!).

2. Pre-ordering

The benefit to pre-ordering is that you can often get something made gluten-free that otherwise could not have been. For example, the one time I used pre-ordering was to order fried chicken. I’ve only ever had fried chicken once before in my life (at Disney World!) and I was super excited to try it again (#glutenfreelife). Gluten-free fried chicken is very hard to come by because restaurants don’t offer it or, if they do, they likely don’t have a dedicated fryer. Furthermore, fried chicken is really hard to make at home despite several very messy past attempts on my part!

If you are a scheduled diner then this is a simple option for you. Each day you eat at one of the sit-down restaurants at a pre-set time. You know when and where you will be eating each day so you might as well pre-order your meal.

If you are an anytime diner (like me!) then pre-ordering doesn’t make as much sense unless you know for sure where you want to eat the next day. Like I said earlier, I did not want to plan ahead for meals so I would usually just order on the day of while at the restaurant. This means less gluten-free choices, but there were still PLENTY of options. Trust me, I never went hungry.

3. Double check

When in doubt, double check, particularly when at the buffet. The chefs (white coats, white hats) tend to stand outside in the hallways of the buffet to answer questions. They are a great resource for a gluten-free diner. The cooks (no white hats, behind the buffet) know the ingredients of the dishes they make but may not know what is in the other dishes in the buffet. Just because someone is standing near a dish or refilling a dish that is running low, does not mean that is the person who made it back in the kitchen. I saw “sautéed mushrooms” on the buffet one day and ask the cook if they were gluten-free. He said “Probably.!” I followed up with “Do you know if any soy sauce was used when cooking them?” to which he replied “Oh, yea. There is soy sauce, so I guess it is not gluten-free.” I would have been super bummer to get glutened over some sautéed mushrooms!

Cruise ship crew are really nice and helpful. Cruise ships are known for their great “customer service” so don’t be shy about asking questions and double checking things. As an aside, a little courtesy, something that seemed to me to be lacking from a lot of cruise ship guests (especially in the dining areas), goes a long way, in my experience. If you are pleasant/polite/respectful people will happily answer your questions.

4. Eat the bread!

The gluten-free sandwich bread on Regal Princess was amazing. I ate it with butter, I used it to make sandwiches, and, some nights, I just ate it plain. The bread is not listed of advertised in the buffet, you have to request it. Not all the cruise crew know where it is so you may have to tell them (thus, tip #1, get the lay of the land ahead of time!).

Funny story,  I showed one crew member the fridge where the gluten-free bread was stored. He had never seen the fridge before and did not know the buffet offered GF bread. He handed me two slices of frozen bread with the most confused facial expression ever, as if to say, “Do you really want frozen bread?????”. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I asked if he could heat it up and he said “I think so? Maybe?” I had been through the gluten-free bread drill several days in a row by this point so I told him how usually someone takes the bread back to the kitchen behind the buffet to heat it up on a stove top. He heated it and returned with perfectly plump, warm bread. I used it to make a cuban-style sandwich with roasted pork, swiss cheese, mustard, and pickle!

5. You do you

Some people like to pre-order. The cruise certainly prefers it because it is much faster than having wait staff have to inquire about GF ingredients to the chef during dinner service. Ultimately, it is your vacation and the fact that you have to eat gluten-free shouldn’t get in your way or limit you. Constant vigilance when dining is inevitable when you are gluten-free so do what you can on your own terms.

If you are in doubt about a dish that you are told is gluten-free, ask the wait staff to double check. I had a bowl of muscles in a white wine sauce that was suspiciously opaque and thick, as if it was made with a roux. I was really stressed even though the waiter told me it was gluten-free. My plan (I am embarrassed to admit) was to push the food around on the plate and just not eat it but my husband (the best person ever!) unabashedly asked the waiter to triple check with the chef. He said “Hey, I know you said this was gluten-free but it looks too good to be true. Would you mind asking the chef one more time specifically about if the sauce has flour in it or not?” Turns out, it was made with rice flour. I have a good eye and a good husband and Princess cruise line has great wait staff.

If you want reassurance ask for it. If you don’t want to pre-order, then don’t. If you want gluten-free pancakes every single day ask for them (even though it feels awkward around day 8 when you invariably show up with your empty plate and the buffet guy says before you have a chance to ask “Two pancakes! I know!” while laughing just a little)!

Happy cruising!

-CC

 

 

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