The Truth About Cruise Ship Buffets

Cruises are an increasingly popular vacation option for many people (or at least they were before 2020). More than 25 million passengers hit the high seas every year, and the industry has been valued at $150 billion. There are a lot of reasons to love cruises: the exotic destinations, the open seas and fresh air, all the new people to meet, the poolside drinks, the list goes on. 

For many, dining is a major part of the cruise ship experience. Sure there's the fine dining room and the specialty restaurants that vary from ship to ship. And then there's the beloved cruise ship buffet, which has become one of the most ubiquitous parts of cruising at this point. But there are some things you need to know before the next time you set sail, and we've rounded up all the good, bad, and ugly details. Keep scrolling for the truth about cruise ship buffets.

Cruise ship buffets pump out a ton of food

Most cruise ship buffets are whipping up food for every meal of the day, plus any craving you may get in between (any time is meal time on a cruise ship, right?). According to the experts at Cruise Critic, you'll usually find an array of different options and cuisines throughout the day, from salad and sandwiches to pastries, pizza and pasta, plus various international offerings depending on the ship's destination.

And since anyone can visit the cruise ship buffet, the kitchen has to be prepared for everyone. The average cruise ship holds somewhere between three to six thousand passengers, traveling anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. That's a whole lot of food to serve. The numbers paint a staggering picture. For example, Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas reportedly goes through some 60,000 eggs in a week, 20,000 pounds of potatoes, nearly 10,000 pounds of chicken, and 700 pounds of ice cream.

Cruise ship buffets are not diet friendly

The cruise ship buffet may be easy on the eyes, with its lavish, well-lit culinary displays, but it may not be easy on your waistline. It's reportedly estimated that the average cruise ship passenger will gain a pound a day while at sea. It's easy to do with so much food available to you at all times onboard the ship. And research already shows that buffets can lead people to eat more than normal. Another study found that some people are more likely to use larger plates at buffets and ultimately overeat. This is part of the reason Eat This, Not Tha! calls the cruise ship buffet a straight-up fat trail.

For some, it's all part of the cruising experience. According to Cruise Bulletin, some experienced cruisers will bring two sets of clothes on longer voyages ... with the second set being bigger or baggier to accommodate for all those trips to the buffet. So don't be surprised if you see more sweats pants in the buffet line towards the end of your next trip.

Some of the cruise ship buffet food may not be very fresh

While it may seem exciting to have so many culinary options available to you all day every day at the cruise ship buffet, unfortunately, that means that some of the food isn't going to be all that fresh. For the sake of efficiency, most food is made in bulk and some of it hours in advance to prepare to feed so many mouths at once. Furthermore, food at the buffet itself may have been sitting out for hours depending on what you grab and what time you go. 

Pizza, in particular, is the one food item you can usually depend on being available nearly around the clock on a cruise ship. But some suggest those slices could be hours, if not days, old before you get your hands on them. But if the pizza options at the buffet do have that "congealed-cheese look," Cruise Critic and others suggest just asking the kitchen to make you a new pie. Because everyone deserves fresh pizza.

The cruise ship buffet sushi could very well make you sick

A definite no-go at the buffet according to almost every source is sushi. Sushi often contains raw fish, which can make people sick if not prepared and served properly. Mass producing sushi to feed crowds of cruise ship passengers can potentially increase those risks. The last thing you want is food sickness on top of seasickness. 

According to the FDA, serving sushi safely involves proper sanitation measures when handling the fish, and making sure it's kept at a certain temperature to maintain freshness and prevent bacteria from forming. However, that can be harder to regulate on a cruise ship where kitchens are constantly churning out tons of different foods in close proximity, and then potentially leaving it on a buffet display for hours before a passenger picks it up. When it comes to sushi in particular, it's best to leave it at the buffet if you don't know how long it's been sitting out.

The cruise ship buffet scrambled eggs are most likely fake

For breakfast lovers, the cruise ship buffet full of all the pancakes, bacon and eggs you could want may seem like a dream come true. But before you load up on a plate of scrambled eggs, you should know that there's a good chance they could be fake. There are several sources out there that warn that scrambled eggs for the cruise ship buffet are made from powdered or liquid egg product. Doesn't exactly sound like a breakfast of champions. 

This seems to be pretty common across the board, according to several cruise forums. One couple said they had been on six different ships over the course of two years and had boxed eggs at every single buffet. So what about those  60,000 eggs cruise ships are using? Well, those are going into other dishes and recipes. Your best bet for fresh eggs is to head to the made-to-order omelet station, which can often be found at the breakfast buffet as well.

Cruise ship buffets may not be all that sanitary

This is pretty much true of all buffets, but especially in the close quarters of a cruise ship, not everything is totally sanitary. According to CDC records, dozens of cruise ship kitchens have failed their sanitation inspections. At least one report detailed uncovered spices, bins of fresh food left out with no freshness labels, and a grill that was partially soiled with grease residue. Another reportedly cited actual flies buzzing around some of the food at the buffet, and dirty utensils being mixed with clean ones. Even worse, a lawyer who reps cruise employees told Business Insider that he's seen cases where managers will order crew members to hide dirty dishes and equipment or soiled food from health inspectors. 

Despite what happens back in the kitchen, hungry cruisers at the buffet are also to blame. Passengers sometimes touch or pick up foods with their hands, move serving tongs out of the plate, and reuse their plates, all of which can help spread germs. The communal condiments are usually pretty unsanitary as well because of the thousands of hands that touch them all day every day.

Cruise ship soft serve machines should be avoided at all costs

It seems that many would agree one of the most unsanitary things of all at the cruise ship buffet is the soft serve ice cream machine. And it makes sense when you think about it. The self-service machine is another one of those communal stations, with levers that people are touching with their hands constantly. And you don't know how clean those hands are. In fact, there's a bigger chance they're probably dirty if people are reaching for an ice cream cone at the end of a meal. 

Another thing to note here is that the soft serve coming out of the machine is likely not even real ice cream. According to some cruise forums, the machines are churning out something that comes from a carton of artificial frozen dessert mix, which has no dairy, but loads of sugar and thickeners.

Cruise ship buffets generate a lot of food waste

When you're making a bunch of food for a buffet, rather than cooking made-to-order meals, you run the risk of food waste, because there's simply no way to exactly predict how much people are going to eat. This is especially true when it comes to cruise ship buffets. The buffets are usually included with the price of a ticket, meaning passengers can eat there whenever they want. But with a formal dining room and several specialty restaurants and food stations all over the ship, passengers have lots of options, and it's hard to know who is going to eat where. 

According to Waste360, some studies have shown that up to half of the food served at buffets gets wasted. It's worth noting that some cruise lines operating under Royal Caribbean and Carnival have committed to taking steps to mitigate food waste on ships.

There are unspoken rules of the cruise ship buffet

Before you make your way to the buffet line on your next cruise, you should know that there are some unspoken rules to follow. There may not be signs posted, but there will be sighs and angry glares from other cruisers if you're not mindful of the etiquette to be followed at the buffet. So listen up!

Hungry diners want to keep the line moving at all costs, so don't be the one that holds it up. Move in one direction and don't even think about cutting. When it comes to the made-to-order stations, make sure you know what you want before it's your turn to order. Whatever you do, don't sample things while you're in line. Definitely get a new plate each time you go back for more. Oh, and no doggie bags! When you're on a ship that has food available at almost all hours of the day, there's no need to pack up a bag for the road.

There are so many reasons people love the cruise ship buffet

For all its delights and flaws, there are still so many reasons people love and look forward to the buffet on their cruise ship vacations. For one, you have all the control and flexibility to eat whenever you want as often as you want. Plus you can choose from a wide variety of options to find whatever strikes your fancy, and please everyone else in your group. The self-service, ready to eat options save time, so you can squeeze in more activities (or pool time). The less formal environment also means you can dress super casually, and worry a little less about how quiet the kids are being. 

Keep in mind, because people love the buffet so much, the lines can get long depending on when your craving strikes. Nowadays there is a plethora of guidance out there about how to avoid the crowds and skip the lines.

Cruise ship buffets have an uncertain future after the COVID-19 pandemic

It's not yet clear exactly what will become of cruise ship buffets in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Buffets in general seem to be disappearing. In a world of social distancing and virus prevention, cruise ships are in a bit of a bind, and indeed there have been several outbreaks of the current virus onboard cruise ships, to the point that the U.S. temporarily banned cruise ship travel. A November 2020 attempt at a COVID-free Caribbean cruise was yet another failure for the industry. 

When things do return to normal, on the high seas and elsewhere, things are sure to look a little bit different. But things don't look good for the future cruise ship buffet, which currently invites everyone to come into close contact with each other, and their food.

In the spring of 2020, Royal Caribbean was reportedly considering doing away with its buffet altogether, even if only temporarily. Others say the buffet probably won't totally disappear, but major changes will have to happen. At least for now, experts say to expect gloved employees serving all food on the ship.