Cruise ship buffet taboos: 10 things you should never do at mealtime

Whether you adore a cruise ship buffet with its myriad dining choices or fret about communal tongs and food lingering on steam tables, you ought to follow the unwritten rules of buffet dining if you choose to partake in it. Most of these rules are common sense, but not all are obvious to the uninitiated. Ignore them and you risk getting the stink-eye for being rude or unsanitary. Or, you might simply have a less satisfying meal.

Follow these 10 things you should never do at a cruise ship buffet if you want to have an optimal onboard smorgasbord experience.

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Approach the buffet with unwashed hands

Windjammer Cafe. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

All cruise lines offer hand sanitizer at the entrance to the buffet, either in a wall-mounted pump or distributed by a staff member. Some even have hand-washing stations. Use them every time you enter the buffet area.

While public restrooms are typically nearby, this isn’t the moment to declare that you just came from the bathroom and already washed your hands. The sight of everyone hand sanitizing is comforting to many a germ-o-phobic cruiser – and who knows what you touched on the way back from the loo. Extra sanitization has never hurt anyone, so lather up before you grab a plate.

Pick up food with your hands

Some cruise lines have policies against self-serving and station attendants at each section of the buffet. Others have plastic “sneeze guards” set up and plenty of servingware. Whatever the policy is, follow it.

No matter what you do, never use your hands instead of the provided utensils to pick up a bread roll, cookie or other food item. It’s unsanitary and you will get some well-earned glares from other passengers.

Related: Buffet breakdown: Which cruise lines have self-serve buffets, and which ones don’t?

Bring your plate up for seconds

For sanitary reasons, cruise lines ask that you take a new plate if you return to the buffet. Leave your old plate on the table, and it will be scooped up and taken to be cleaned — often before you return to your seat.

Yes, this policy does create more dirty dishes, which might not be the best practice from a water conservation standpoint. However, it’s important as a health protocol, so swallow your grumbles and take a clean plate.

The same rules apply to drinking glasses. Get a new cup each time you need a refill. If you want to fill your reusable water bottle or coffee mug, pour a beverage from the drinks station into a cup then pour the contents of the cup into your on-the-go drink container.

Skip the made-to-order options

When you think of a buffet, you might assume that all of the dishes are premade. Not so on cruise ships. You’ll often find made-to-order options, such as an omelet or waffle station at breakfast and a pasta or noodle station, carvery or deli counter at lunch or dinner. While you may have to wait to order or for your meal to be prepared, the results are often fresher and made more to your liking than the steam table choices. Don’t make the mistake of always choosing the fastest option.

Related: What not to eat on a cruise

Keep quiet if you have dietary concerns

Buffet stations on Seabourn Encore cruise ship
Buffet stations on Seabourn Encore. SEABOURN

Buffets can be risky for passengers with dietary concerns, as cross contamination is possible and ingredients are often not detailed. However, they can also present a wealth of dining choices for restricted eaters.

Don’t be shy about asking for assistance in selecting food items when you dine at a cruise ship’s buffet restaurant. Ask the buffet attendant the same questions you would ask your server in a restaurant. If the crew member doesn’t know, he or she can always find a manager or chef to ask. Staff might also be able to bring you special food items from the galley that are reserved for folks with dietary restrictions and not set out for everyone to take.

If you have more serious allergies, alert a maitre d’ on your first day for help throughout your sailing.

Related: Virgin Voyages says it’s too cool for buffets. But guess what I just found on its first ship

Select dishes that are better when made to order


Like it or not, buffet food is prepared in bulk and sits on a steam table until the tray is empty before being replaced with a fresh one. Some dishes hold up better to this treatment than others. It’s a rookie mistake not to know the difference.

When I eat at a cruise ship buffet, I always regret choosing the premade scrambled eggs at breakfast or fried foods, like shrimp or calamari, at dinner. Anything that loses its quality when it gets less crispy is worth avoiding, such as fully loaded nachos on a Tex Mex night. In general, avoid foods that get overcooked easily or are best made to order (such as sushi rolls filled with raw fish and avocado).

The exception to this rule is on special nights when the cruise line offers some luxury dishes, such as caviar or foie gras, at the buffet. In that case, take the treats when you see them.

Pile your plate so high you can barely carry it

It’s easy to load up a plate with every dish that looks delish, but you tend to waste food when you take this approach. Plus, all the flavors run into each other and you can’t even tell which dish you’re eating.

I suggest coursing out your meal even when eating dinner at a cruise ship buffet. Start with a salad or other appetizer, then return to the buffet for an entree and sides. Finally, make one last trip to the dessert station if you’re still hungry. (Yes, this means getting a new plate each time — you did read rule #3, right?)

The chance that the cruise ship will run out of something you have your eye on is slim, so you have no reason to rush. The exception is if you stroll up to the buffet minutes before it closes. But even if you need to take all your food at once, you could still arrange your courses on separate dishes and eat them one plate at a time.

Carry multiple plates and cups at once

Even if you are a trained waiter, you do not want to balance multiple plates and cups in your arms as you pick your way through a crowded cruise ship buffet restaurant. It’s a surefire way to drop and spill.

Take only what you can carry safely, then return to the buffet for condiments, additional drinks or seconds. The extra steps will help burn off the calories you’re about to consume.

Related: 9 best cruise ship desserts to tempt you at sea

Skip the first day, self-guided buffet tour


Always scope out the buffet well on the first day of your cruise to get the lay of the land. Some cruise ship buffets have duplicate stations on either side of the restaurant. Others have specialty stations, such as a deli counter or pizzeria, that are only available on one side or hidden in the back. If you don’t do some reconnaissance, you might not discover some intriguing options until late in your cruise.

On some cruise lines, the buffet offers a similar menu to the main dining room, just in a more casual, serve-yourself setting. Other lines offer a separate menu, complete with made-to-order stations or casual favorites such as burgers, pizza and chicken fingers every night. Knowing your cruise ship’s MO will help you decide which meals are best eaten at the buffet and when you should dine elsewhere.

Start plating before you’ve surveyed all the options

Don’t get in the first buffet line you see and fill your plate before you’ve checked out all the selections at the various stations in the marketplace. You might not want those fish and chips when you realize there’s an Indian buffet, roast beef carved to order or a wok station stir-frying noodle dishes on the spot.

If you take the time to plan your meal, you will be less likely to waste food and will have a more satisfying lunch or dinner.

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