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How to Eat Whole30 (ish) on a Cruise

How to Eat Whole30 (ish) on a Cruise

Are you a fan of the whole-food based Whole30 eating plan? Have you ever wondered if you can do a Whole30 on a cruise? Here’s how to stay close to Whole30 on a cruise vacation.

Following the Whole30 plan to the letter is almost impossible on a cruise ship. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat Whole30-ish on your cruise. Find out how you can eat very close to the plan on your cruise vacation, without losing your mind.

I’m a veteran of 10 or 11 rounds of Whole30 (I stopped keeping track, but I’ve done them as an “eating reset” once or twice a year since 2014).

Not only have I spent almost a year of my life on this challenging (but rewarding) eating plan, but I’ve done a lot of it while traveling!

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What is Whole30?

Whole30 is essentially an elimination diet, developed in 2009 by Melissa Hartwig Urban and Dallas Hartwig. For thirty days, you can eat as much as you need to feel full. There’s no calorie counting, weighing food (or yourself), or deprivation. You’ll never feel hungry!

The developers of Whole30 have some pretty impressive credentials. Melissa is a Certified Sports Nutritionist and six-time New York Times bestselling author. Dallas is a functional medicine practitioner, licensed physical therapist, and a Certified Sports Nutritionist.

Their plan focuses on eating real food, with real portion sizes that can be scaled to any person’s dietary needs. I love how they advise you to estimate a protein serving by the size of your own palm. A serving of eggs is based on how many eggs you can hold in one hand. (I can hold five, so I enjoy huge breakfasts!)

Plus, you can eat as many snacks as you need!

I’ve actually found that after about a week of eating to the plan, I rarely need a snack (and I love me some snacks)! I’m just full and not even thinking about food. How weird is that? But if you want a snack, you absolutely can have one.

Why would you try Whole30?

Whole30 isn’t meant to be a weight-loss diet. There’s no calorie-counting at all. You’re actually not allowed to weigh yourself during the thirty days! However, many people report losing some weight on a round of Whole30.

I do at least a month of Whole30 each year because it reminds me that actual food (not processed junk) is best for us humans. I feel a huge difference whenever I eat to the plan.

For me, a Whole30 is always worth it. The intense pain from plantar fasciitis and arthritis in my back always improves to the point that I can actually sleep through the night. Not even kidding.

I also feel a huge difference in my energy level in a day or two! But, years of Whole30 have taught me to eat pretty clean. If you’re eating a standard modern diet, give it a week to kick in. Fair warning!

The basics of Whole30

For a full 30 days, you cut out added sugars, artificial sweeteners, grains, legumes, dairy, soy, alcohol, and additives (like chemical preservatives) from your diet.

On a Whole30, you can eat filling meals made from any vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, and nuts that you like. In essence, you eliminate bread products, dairy, fillers (corn, soy, wheat), and all junk food.

Caffeine is fine (yay!) But not dairy-based cream or artificial creamers. Some non-dairy “milk” is just fine to add to black coffee.

After completing a Whole30, you’ll gradually incorporate non-compliant ingredients into your diet. This is to see if there’s a specific trigger that might be affecting your health.

For me, I’ve found that gluten and additives like nitrates/ites and sulfates/ites trigger inflammation in my body. MSG does the same thing.

If you want to learn more about Whole30, definitely check out the Whole30 website. They share the plan for free, but I highly recommend also reading their books if you want more info and inspiration.

My recommended Whole30 reading list:

What’s Whole30-ish?

Some Whole30 veterans keep on with the strict Whole30 guidelines for months or even years after completing the initial 30-day round.

Others continue to eat very close to the plan’s rules, but make some exceptions for ingredients that don’t bother them. Some make exceptions for special occasions or for the occasional restaurant meal or treat.

Melissa Hartwig Urban (although she developed the plan and is an advocate for its health benefits) doesn’t even eat Whole30 all the time! She actually eats “Whole30-ish” in her daily life, and doesn’t recommend eating such a restrictive diet every day for the rest of your life.

“Whole30-ish” means eating very close to the plan, but making small exceptions when necessary. The types of exceptions are up to you! I’ll show you how to eat as close to Whole30 as you can on a cruise so you can adapt to your own situation and needs.

Who shouldn’t try to eat Whole30-ish on a cruise?

If you’ve already done a few rounds of Whole30, you know the drill. This isn’t a dietary change that you should start on a cruise vacation. A Whole30 is easiest to complete at home, where you’re in complete control of the food you’re purchasing and how it’s prepared.

I’d actually not recommend trying your very first Whole30 if you have much travel planned at all.

Parties, cookouts, and work events can also make the Whole30 diet difficult to stick to. For many of us, the temptation of accepting a cocktail at a social event or having to explain why you can’t eat those delectable-looking hors d’oeuvres is just too much.

On a cruise, that temptation might be even stronger! You’ll be surrounded by unlimited delicious food (as well as wine, beer, and cocktails everywhere you look).

But if you’re a Whole30 veteran and you’d like to retain many of the benefits of the eating plan while you’re on a cruise, read on!

Note: If you’re just hoping you won’t go up a size or two on your vacation, read my post about how to avoid gaining weight on a cruise.

What you’ll need to prepare before your Whole30 cruise

Proper planning is key to eating Whole30 on a cruise. Whenever I travel, I make sure I take along little extras that I know aren’t easy to find on the road. Packing compliant drinks adds some variety to what you can get on board. Having some Whole30-friendly condiments will help make your meals tastier, and snacks ensure you won’t feel deprived.

It’s also a good idea to have access to the plan’s guidelines while you’re traveling, especially if you won’t have Wi-Fi. The Whole30 site has tons of free PDF downloads with rules, tips, and cheat sheets. Print them or save them on your phone. There are a lot of rules to remember!

Planning for Whole30 beverages on the cruise

Unless you’re planning on just drinking plain water, coffee, or tea on your cruise, you’ll need to plan which Whole30 beverages you’ll want to have. Some cruise lines allow you to carry on some drinks, but rules vary a lot from one company to another.

For more info on what drinks you can carry on for your specific cruise line, read How to Bring Your Own Drinks on a Cruise.

If your cruise line lets you carry on cans of soda, definitely pack some flavored seltzer. LaCroix and Spindrift are my faves. Pour it into a wineglass or champagne flute to make it more festive!

If you can carry on other drinks, a compliant nut milk or creamer (the flavored Nutpods are excellent) can make unsweetened black coffee more tolerable.

I also like to take my own tea bags on a cruise. The cruise ship will have a selection available, but when drink options are limited you might prefer to have your favorite teas.

Tea bags (or loose tea leaves if you prefer them) are inexpensive, don’t take up much room in your bag, and cruise lines don’t have tea limits. UK-based cruise lines (and many European ones) feature an electric kettle in your stateroom.

Pack lots of snacks

You’ll have no problem carrying on compliant snacks at embarkation. Look for snacks in sealed packages so you won’t have any issues taking them with you in port (many countries don’t let you carry food off the ship, but commercially-sealed snacks are usually OK).

You’ll have something to snack on if you need it between meals, and they can be a lifesaver in port. You won’t want to waste time searching for something you can eat when you have limited time in a city!

Here are some of my fave on-the-go Whole30 snacks:

Tip: Pack an apple corer/slicer combo so you’re not hunting around the ship for a sharp knife to cut up your apples!

Don’t forget your salad dressing

When I’m eating Whole30, I tend to have tons of salads (even for breakfast). So, yummy salad dressings are key! But almost all commercial salad dressings have non-compliant ingredients.

Here are some you can order that don’t have any added sugars, dairy, or preservatives:

  • Tessemae’s (Their Everything Bagel Ranch is to-die-for)
  • Primal Kitchen (Green Goddess is my favorite)
  • Organicville (They recently revamped their line to be Whole30 compliant, so don’t buy it from Amazon! I’m finding bottles with the old recipe for sale. Lots of supermarkets in the US carry it, so check their store locator.)

In a pinch, you can always ask your waiter for a ramekin of half balsamic vinegar and half extra-virgin olive oil to use as a dressing. Balsamic vinegar has naturally-occurring sulfites, which are compliant on a Whole30.

However, some also have extra sulfites added as a preservative. You’ll need to decide if you’re OK with this, depending on how strict you’re going to be on the cruise.

Let the cruise line know you have dietary restrictions

When you have dietary restrictions, you should always let the cruise line know at least a couple of months before your cruise.

Some luxury cruise lines will go out of their way to provision the kitchen with extra supplies or even specific items that you prefer.

Mainstream and premium cruise lines won’t do this, but it’s best to give them a heads-up, and to ask any questions you might have well before your sailing date.

This is also a great time to ask if you’ll have any issues taking your compliant drinks, condiments, and snacks on board the ship with you.

Is another person in your stateroom planning to buy an all-inclusive drink package? Now’s the time to let them know that due to your dietary restrictions, you’ll be opting out of the package. Many cruise lines force everyone over 21 to buy the drink package if one person in the same stateroom buys it.

However, exceptions can often be made if a cruiser has medical or religious objections, or is in recovery. Since the purpose of a Whole30 is to improve your health, you do have grounds to refuse the package even if the other objections don’t apply to you.

Be sure to communicate via email so you have everything in writing. Print out copies of all communication and bring them on board with you.

How to eat Whole30-ish on a cruise ship

If you’re planning on eating Whole30-ish on a cruise, the main dining room is going to be your best bet to stay as compliant as you can.

Avoid any of the quick-service food venues. The crew is likely dealing with long lines, and it’s not fair to them (or the other passengers) to ask tons of questions about ingredients. Odds are, there’s nothing compliant there anyway!

Wherever you plan to eat, talk to the maître d’ or venue manager before your first meal. I’ve found that it’s easiest to give a quick rundown of what you can’t eat, followed by lots of examples of what you can!

Once you have a relationship with the person in charge, it’s easier for everyone if you stick to the same dining venue for most of your meals. You might also consider requesting a set dining time so you’ll also have the same waitstaff throughout your cruise.

In the main dining room

For breakfast in the MDR, you can have your eggs prepared to order. I like to have scrambled eggs with a huge side of steamed vegetables each morning.

For lunch and dinner, start with an undressed salad (hold the cheese and croutons) and add your own dressing. Or, you may notice some starters that could be easily made compliant. Some options could be:

  • Shrimp cocktail (skip the cocktail sauce – it usually has corn syrup and soybean oil)
  • Ceviche
  • Steamed mussels (ask for no dairy or wine)
  • Carpaccio (make sure they don’t add parmesan cheese)

For main courses, look for grilled meats, seafood, and steamed veggies. Always ask for it to be prepared plain without butter or sauce.

Or, ask for grilled sliced chicken, steak, or shrimp on a bed of greens. Even if it’s not on the menu, they’ll usually gladly prepare a simple dish like this.

Plain baked or sweet potatoes are a filling side dish, and are allowed on a Whole30.

If you want a treat after your meal, you can ask for a fruit plate. Just be sure to specify plain fruit, without a sweet dipping sauce or chocolate drizzle.

Eating Whole30 at the buffet

Cruise ship buffets can have some options for Whole30, but be careful of sneaky ingredients. What looks like plain scrambled eggs probably has corn or soybean oil in the mix, as well as milk. (If you love scrambled eggs, have them in the MDR and order them plain, no dairy or oil)

Also watch out for processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and hamburgers. These won’t be compliant at the buffet.

Instead, stick with Whole30-friendly items from the salad bar, fresh fruit, and meats from the carving station.

What to do at specialty dining venues

Your ship’s steakhouse is going to be the easiest specialty restaurant for someone doing a Whole30. Ask for your steak dry, just seasoned with salt and pepper.

A plain baked potato and plain steamed veggies (no corn or peas) rounds out the meal. Dress them up with a splash of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

If you order lobster or surf-and-turf, ask for a few lime wedges instead of drawn butter. Squeeze them into a ramekin and dip the meat (it’s really good, I promise)!

At a Japanese restaurant, you need to watch out for soy sauce and non-compliant oils. Bring some coconut aminos or yuzu sauce to add more flavor.

If you love sushi, sashimi is a good rice-free alternative. Or, ask for a “deconstructed” roll with no rice. Nori, avocado, cucumber, radish, carrot, and sweet potato are all fine.

A plain salad and melon or oranges are some extras that you can usually ask for with no problem.

French restaurants can be tough on a Whole30. Cream-based sauces, cheese, and tons of butter are definitely not compliant! If one of your companions really wants to try the French restaurant, follow the guidelines for the steakhouse. A dry-grilled filet mignon or plain grilled fish could be fantastic.

Plain chicken cooked with olive oil works as well, and moules marinières could also be an option. Just ask for no butter, cream, wine, mayonnaise, or bread.

How to eat Whole30-ish on shore excursions

If you’ve booked guided tours for your port days, take your packaged snacks along in your day bag. You likely won’t have time to be searching for food that you can actually eat.

For ports that you’re exploring on your own, or if you have a short shore excursion, you might want to try one of the local restaurants. Do your research before you leave home, and call or email potential venues to ask if they can make a compliant meal for you.

Your best Whole30-ish bets will be places that specialize in fresh seafood, steakhouses, Asian hot pot restaurants, poke shops, or anywhere that offers “build-your-own” meals.

Tip: Avoid booking shore excursions that include lunch. Usually, they only offer lunch from a set menu. Usually, they won’t be Whole30 compliant at all! The price of lunch is built into the excursion ticket, so you’ll have paid for a meal you can’t eat.

Or, you might want to try a special food that’s not Whole30-approved! If you’ve always wanted to have authentic gelato in Rome, or cracked conch in the Bahamas, don’t feel like you have to deprive yourself.

Maybe you’ve been dreaming of taking a cooking class in port? This is what Whole30-ish is all about. You can eat compliantly as much as you can, but go off-plan for something really special.

Have you tried to follow dietary restrictions on a cruise? How difficult was it for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen


Wednesday 7th of September 2022

Thank you so much for this article! My sister introduced me to the Whole 30, and I did an entire month. Lost 16 pounds and I've never felt so amazing. I have a cruise coming up, and I want to keep it going, Love your tips! I can't handle all of the restrictions on my vacation, but you gave so many tips to keep me motivated. Thank you!

Carrie Ann

Friday 9th of September 2022

Hi Kiki, congrats on completing your first Whole30! I hope my tips can help you eat Whole30-ish on your upcoming cruise, without feeling deprived. Thanks so much for stopping by! :)