11 Tips for Eating Primal/Paleo on Your Cruise Vacation

Lobster is a staple on elegant nights while on a cruise.
Lobster is a staple on elegant nights while on a cruise.

You've booked your cruise, like I did, seven days in the Caribbean. But now you follow a paleo/primal/non-SAD lifestyle. Will this all fall apart on a cruise? Honestly, probably yes.

Not the answer you wanted to hear, I know. The truth is, bread and grains are available everywhere on a cruise ship.They're tossed at guests as rapidly and frequently as a New York cabbie tosses insults to other drivers. But, there IS hope, depending on how strict your lifestyle is.

Note: If you follow GAPS or AIP, do yourself (and your loved ones) a favor and find a different vacation this time, one where you have more control over what you eat.

My son and I enjoyed the buffet lunch nearly everyday, including the first day when we indulged in pizza and the salad bar.
My son and I enjoyed the buffet lunch nearly everyday, including the first day when we indulged in pizza and the salad bar.

"But, Cris," you say, "cruises are (in)famous for having a huge variety of food!"

Yes, true, but its all Standard American Diet food. Let me explain, and as I wrote the draft for this from my cruise ship, I have very (very, very) recent first-hand knowledge. Here are seven tips for staying as true to your eating lifestyle as possible.

While on vacation, food and food choices...

  • are my #1 consideration due to dietary restrictions and/or allergies.
  • are my #1 consideration because I want to eat my way through my vacation.
  • are one of my main considerations - want to eat as healthy as I can while vacationing.
  • are not important. I'm here to enjoy myself!
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1. Forget about grass-fed, pasture-raised anything.

Your meat choices on a cruise are no better than those you'll find in a grocery store. There are generally a lot of choices, especially for dinner in the main dining room - seafood, beef, port, chicken, and a vegetarian dish on every menu - but these are not grass-fed, pasture-raised animals you'll be eating. Still, the meals I ate were delicious, the meat tasty, even if it did come from a regular meat farm.

2. Your breakfast meat WILL have nitrites/nitrates.

Not only will your breakfast meat have those dreaded preservatives in it, it'll be the pre-cooked, throw in a warmer, sit in grease for four hours type of breakfast meat. If that's a deal breaker, stick with eggs (but they won't be from pasture-raised chickens). Every day egg choices for us included made-to-order omelets, hard-boiled eggs, eggs benedict and scrambled eggs. I'm super squeamish about my eggs being cooked right so I sucked it up and ate the breakfast meat, and when I got tired of that (day 3) I ate hard-boiled eggs for my morning protein.

Yep, indulged in dessert I did, nearly every night.
Yep, indulged in dessert I did, nearly every night.

3. Don't let the 80/20 rule become the 0/100 rule.

I made that mistake the first two days - rolls with dinner, pizza for snack, a croissant at breakfast, cheeseburgers, chicken tenders, you get the idea - and paid for it. My belly was NOT happy with all the wheat intake so I backed off the obvious sources. Sure, there's still wheat grain stuff in the breading on the chicken or shrimp, in the sauces, etc, but you don't have to add to the problems by eating bread, pasta, and pizza on purpose. On the third morning, I changed course, piled my breakfast plate with fruit and veggies, and left just a small space for protein. Likewise, lunch when on the ship came from the salad bar. But, as you'll see in #4, this presents its own problems...

Why not have more than 1? You can eat as much (or as little) as you want.
Why not have more than 1? You can eat as much (or as little) as you want.

4. The fruit and veggie selections are sadly lacking.

I mean, really sadly, shamefully so. Fruit choices were cantaloupe, honeydew, grapefruit, banana, apple, and pear. They add watermelon and pineapple to the mix for lunch. And there are big bowls of ... shudder ... canned fruit. Berries are non-existent.

The veggie choices don't fare much better. I was surprised to see sliced cucumbers and tomatoes offered at breakfast. The buffet salad bar included a greens mix, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cucumbers, olives, hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seeds, raisins, bacon bits, and croutons, plus several mayonnaise-based salads. The buffet also included a separate section with deli cold cuts.

As someone who has greatly expanded my veggie and fruit repertoire, this all seemed quite boring and restrictive. But, the cruise line has to offer what will most likely be consumed.

5. Where's the healthy fat?

I didn't see, much less eat, a healthy fat in days. Well, maybe not days. There were flasks of what was supposed to be olive oil on the salad bar. But, avocados are absent from meals. I have no clue what oil is used for cooking. Coconut? Not likely. So, the healthiest of fats were chronically missing from my day.

Grains are everywhere on a cruise ship, as they are in the standard American diet.
Grains are everywhere on a cruise ship, as they are in the standard American diet.

6. Grains are Everywhere!

Bread baskets are passed at lunch and brunch in the main dining room. Breakfast boasts a whole continental section of croissants, muffins, toast, danishes, pastries, plus toast, bagels and croissants make an appearance on the protein lines, tool.

Lunch doesn't get any better - deli sandwiches, 24/7 pizza, burgers and hot dogs (get these bunless!), Chinese station with breaded stuff, Italian station filled with pastas. You can't escape the grains!

5 More Tips

Despite all these paleo/primal shortcomings, cruises still offer a fantastic vacation. If you have dietary restrictions, you can still - in many cases - enjoy one of the best parts of cruising - the food. How?

  • Go easy on yourself. You're going to mess up. It's okay. You're not going to hit 100/0 or even 80/20. That's okay. Enjoy your vacation.
  • When eating buffet meals, pile on the veggies and fruit, then add the protein. Breakfast and lunch will probably be pretty similar day after day.
  • Eat dinner in the main dining room. The food is surprisingly good, the choices expansive, and you have more options for customizing your meal.
  • Try the local cuisine. In Belize, we ate tacos after cave tubing. They used homemade corn tortillas, shredded chicken, and a wonderful veggie salsa of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, onions, and zucchini. Yum!
  • Whatever you do, enjoy your vacation! You deserve it!

Chateaubriand with peas and potatoes on the second elegant night. Delicious!
Chateaubriand with peas and potatoes on the second elegant night. Delicious!

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