Is the Food Quality aboard Cruise Ships Changing?

When you read the cruise and travel blogs, it seems that a lot of folks believe that the quality of the food aboard cruise ships has declined over the past few years. Many people complain about the overall quality, but when you really drill down to the specifics, it’s not clear what they mean.

During this cruise we’ve had a lot of time to give this some thought and have made a couple of observations. And of course, we’ve formed a couple of opinions about the quality of the food that we would like to share here.

First, we should make some qualifying statements so you can better understand why we have the opinions we have about cruise ship food. Not long ago, we entered into a weight loss program. More of an overall fitness and wellness program really, but part of the philosophy in our weight loss program was that, since we were going to significantly restrict the quantity of our food intake, we would concentrate on overall food quality to help make up for the lack of volume. It’s been working for us, but we’ve made some changes to our diets as a result and certain kinds of foods are not part of our normal routine anymore.

Second, we recently moved from an out of the way small town in northern New Mexico where we had to drive literally for hours to do our major grocery shopping or to find a descent restaurant. We settled in central Florida, about 8 miles from Walt Disney World. In terms of food, we’ve become quite accustomed to buying extremely fresh foods at any of several grocery stores, and we’ve become used to eating at world class restaurants as a normal part of our lives.

Weather permitting, there's usually an outdoor barbecue for the noon meal.

Weather permitting, there’s usually an outdoor barbecue for the noon meal.

We’re not food snobs and don’t really even know all that much about food, but we’ve grown accustomed to a certain quality. As a result, it takes a bit to impress us these days.

So that brings us back to the idea of whether the food quality has declined aboard cruise ships in the past few years. One thing we can say for sure is that the actual quantity of food has not declined. If anything, it’s become easier to stay overfilled with pretty much anything you could want, pretty much all the time.

In terms of actual quality though, we think the food has certainly changed over the years, but not necessarily declined. Cruise lines, like all other entertainment businesses, have to provide what consumers want. Otherwise the consumers will take their business somewhere else. Over the years, the cruise lines have made attempts to appeal to a younger generation of travelers and have made changes in order to attract those clients. Some of those changes have been in the kinds of food that’s offered. Sure, you’ll still find “lobster” night and “prime rib” specials in the normal dining rooms, but the vast majority of offerings seems to have shifted to appeal to a more general audience.

Coffee, Tea, or juices are available at any time.

Coffee, Tea, or juices are available at any time.

Not all food has shifted in this manner. Most cruise lines now offer specialty restaurants in addition to the normal venues. These are the places that provide reasonably high end cuisine. On the Norwegian Star for example, there is an Italian, French, Brazilian restaurant for starters, There’s also a high end steak house offering traditional American steaks. All of these restaurants offer a more formal experience than the regular dining facilities, and offer a little higher quality food. We’ve heard people comment that the food in these specialty restaurants all comes from the same kitchen, implying that it’s the same food. It might be true that it comes from the same kitchen, but our first hand experience has been in every case that it’s certainly not the same food. Not even close.

The specialty restaurants usually cost an additional fee. The prices aboard the Norwegian Star range from $15.00 (US) to $30.00 (US) per person per meal. Those prices are consistent with what we’ve found throughout the industry, and that seems in line given the increase in quality.

Keep in mind that prices for cruises over the years have become really competitive. If we were to compare the average price of a cruise with the average price a decade or more ago, and adjust those numbers for inflation, we would probably conclude that the average price for a cruise has actually gone down. As a result, the industry has had to make sure that they aren’t wasting money providing foods the average consumer doesn’t really want.

They have started offering more common foods in greater abundance. When we first started cruising, finding a hot dog aboard a cruise ship was almost a novelty, reserved for children. Now, it’s common to find all fashion of normal foods, from hot dogs, to ham burgers, pizza, corned beef hash, you name it. The truth is, lots of folks like to eat that kind of food, and it’s not as expensive to prepare. It shows up in the buffet line and even in the more formal dining rooms; not because the quality has declined in general, but more because that’s what people want. The high end food is still available, but it’s more common to find it in the specialty restaurants.

One thing we’ve noticed over the years that has not changed but still warrants comment, and that’s the fact that to us, the food is a little out of sync with our expectations. What we mean is that the food is just a little off in terms of taste. The apple pie isn’t really apple pie by our standards. The apples aren’t cut quite right, and the spices aren’t quite sweet enough. The apples themselves aren’t as tart as they should be for a proper pie. Deserts in general, while they look quite inviting, are never as sweet as they should be. We’ve had the occasion to make several cruises during Thanksgiving, on several different cruise lines, and none of the Thanksgiving meals seemed like they were really Thanksgiving meals.

The reason for this, we think, is that none of the chefs aboard cruise lines are American. They prepare food the way they think they should, but they don’t prepare them the way the average American wants it. We’re not saying the food is bad, and in fact it’s usually brilliantly prepared. It’s just that it’s not quite what an American expects. Most of the issues involve deserts. Americans seem to use a lot more sugar. At least, the deserts aboard every cruise ship we’ve ever been on have been wanting for an appropriate amount of sugar.

On Nowegian Cruise Line Ships, you can have desert items from Carlo's Bake Shop, Hoboken, New Jersey.

On Nowegian Cruise Line Ships, you can have desert items from Carlo’s Bake Shop, Hoboken, New Jersey.

We tried an experiment a few nights ago to test this theory. On-board the Norwegian Star and many other Norwegian ships, baked goods from Carlo’s Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey are offered for sale. You might be familiar with Carlo’s from the hit TV series Cake Boss. If anyone has a handle on what the average American wants in terms of really good desert food, we think Carlo’s Bake Shop would. It seemed like a good opportunity for a taste comparison. If this one test is any indication, our theory is correct. We tried a red velvet cupcake with a chocolate topping and it was everything we would have expected a cake of this kind to be. The flavors were exactly as we expected. Of course, we think we should try again, just to be sure. Maybe a cannolli this time.

So, the question of whether the food aboard cruise ships has declined over the years, it seems to be our opinion that the answer really depends on who you ask. While the quality of the food may have not declined by some people’s view, it seems clear that, for better or worse, it certainly has changed.