Now that we’re back from our blissful ten-day trip to Seattle/cruise to Alaska, I’ve received a load of questions about how my medical dietary needs were met during the trip. As many of you already know, living low-FODMAP can be hard, even when you are able to control your own kitchen, so going on this trip was a substantial leap of faith for me. My nerve-damaged digestive system is fragile (to say the least), so putting my health in someone else’s hands was scary (and we won’t even address the added stress of facing my PTSD on the cruise…you can read about that here). Long story short, we began making arrangements several months ago. Let’s begin with a little background.
When we booked this cruise, we were about three months out from my initial illness and diagnosis. We had originally scheduled a cruise to Key West and the Bahamas for September 2018, but we knew there was absolutely no way I was doing that. 1) My doctors were estimating a five-six month physical recovery period at that time, just to regain my physical strength and muscle after essentially being on bed-rest for ten weeks. 2) The thought of getting on a cruise ship terrified me, and the thought of getting off the ship in a foreign port even more so. 3) I didn’t have any remaining vacation time/sick time at work because I had used almost all of it prior to my short-term disability kicking in while I was sick and undiagnosed. 4) We were only about four weeks into low-FODMAP dieting, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing, much less was I able to guide a professional chef through the process. So…since we had already booked a cruise and didn’t want to lose any money that had already been put toward the September cruise, we decided to bump it back by a little over a year and stay in the US. Alaska, it would be! At that point, we had no idea if I would even be dealing with PI-IBS in May 2019 (since it was only May 2018 and sometimes less intense cases of PI-IBS clear up over time). Basically, we booked the trip and semi-forgot about it for a few months.
Then, all of a sudden, we were only a few months out from our sail date. In case you haven’t been keeping up, my PI-IBS certainly didn’t clear up…it didn’t even change. I had just learned how to feed myself via low-FODMAP and had gotten good medicine. Of course, this left us wondering: “How are we going to make it work?”
Making Pre-Trip Arrangements
The first thing we did was call our cruise line (we were on Carnival) to gather information prior to sailing. NOTE: Pretty much every cruise line out there will accommodate special dietary needs. I can’t speak for all of them – only our experience with Carnival. I’ve provided the information we collected below.
- When booking your cruise (or, in a case like mine, after your cruise has been booked and your new dietary needs arise), contact the Customer Service department ASAP to let them know of your special needs. If you’re following low-FODMAP, you don’t have to list every detail of what you can and can’t have during this initial phone call; some general information will suffice. The main reason for doing this is to let the ship kitchen staff know beforehand of any special ingredients that need to be ordered before you arrive. In my case, I told them gluten-free, dairy-free (since I didn’t want to deal with the portion-size/lactose-versus-no-lactose discussion), garlic, and onion. Carnival’s Customer Service team simply added these notes to my booking under the “Special Needs” category (you can view them when you log-in to to your online booking).
- Check with the cruise line about what you can/can’t bring on board at sailing. This is something you’ll want to do ahead of time, for sure, because you will likely need to bring food, condiments, and spices when you board the ship (see the “What I Packed” section below for further details). One important detail to note is that Carnival required all food to be brought on in our carry-on bags, not our checked luggage, so we needed compact items that would fit accordingly.
- Find a good low-FODMAP ingredient list to bring with you. On embarkation day, you’ll meet with the chef and/or maitre’d in the main dining room to discuss the specifics of your dietary needs. Having a good list is helpful, both for you when describing your needs, and for the chef to refer back to throughout the cruise. At this initial meeting on embarkation day, you’ll decide on your dinner for that night in the dining room, and then at dinner each subsequent night, someone from your wait staff will bring the next day’s menus so you can choose your meals for the next day. If you plan to eat at the buffet or specialty dining areas, just be aware that they try their best to accommodate your needs but they can’t control what other guests do (i.e. using serving spoons in the wrong bowls, etc.), which means cross-contamination can happen more easily. To help you out with the list part of the planning process, I’ve already provided a great list for you here by clicking this link (you can also see the one I printed, modified, and copied specifically for my needs in a later image in this post).
- Do your research. Unless you live next door to the port, you’ll likely need food for travelling to and from your port, and if you are visiting your home port city before or after the cruise, you’ll need some meal spots during that time. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, check into local spots in each Alaskan port. Some of the best meals of our trip were eaten off the ship in local seafood joints! That being said, I wouldn’t recommend doing this in other countries without super careful research prior to your trip…after all, eating an unknown, dangerous food in a foreign port is what landed me here in the first place.
- Plan for circumstances accordingly. In my case, I have to take my morning and evening pills with food, and I have to take them as close to 12 hours apart as possible or else my system goes completely haywire. That meant I needed to time myself appropriately for that two-hour time difference between home and Seattle, three-hour between home and Alaska. I needed some mid-day snacks to eat with pills the first three or so days of the trip, just so I could add little bits of time to my medicine schedule without getting sick before I got back on a breakfast/dinner timing like at home. That also meant getting up way earlier than anyone wants to on vacation days so I could take my morning pills before my digestive system woke me up far less pleasantly. The time change was much easier to manage on the way back – we jumped forward in hours instead of backward.
What I Packed
This is where things get interesting. After asking all the initial questions and doing all the research, I needed to make a packing list. As I began working on my list, I considered the following:
- What food groups and nutrients am I more likely to miss out on while travelling?
- What can I fit in my carry-on bag for the plane and the ship?
- What can I safely pack in my checked luggage for the plane trip (i.e. liquids)?
- What special treats would I like to have?
- What could serve as a backup plan if I have a flare and don’t feel like eating my prearranged meals scheduled for the day?
- What do I need to supplement meals (i.e. sides to go with a sandwich or dressing to go on a salad)?
There may be other questions you should consider based on your own dietary needs, but hopefully the provided questions will give you a good starting point. Once I answered the questions for my own needs, I then made my packing list. Here’s what I included:
- A peanut butter sandwich
- We had several hours of flying to Seattle with nowhere of note for me to get food in our layover airport, so I needed to pack my own lunch. A peanut butter sandwich with gluten-free bread is a quick and easy low-FODMAP option that doesn’t require cooling to keep safe.
- Four boxes of Glutino gluten-free table crackers
- These were a good, compact side for sandwiches or salads each lunch of the trip. I packed enough for half a package (about five crackers) each day, plus an extra box in case I had a flare and needed something tame for a meal or two (I could also add in bananas, some plain turkey breast, etc., in case this happened on the ship).
- Ten Enjoy Life dark chocolate bars (gluten and dairy-free)
- I packed one for each day of the trip…a special treat when I wanted it (in case ship desserts didn’t work out), a good source of fiber, the daily dark chocolate limit per low-FODMAP guidelines, and compact for packing. I didn’t actually end up eating all of these, but I had them if I wanted them.
- Twelve individual bags of Skinny Pop Popcorn (no added flavors)
- Again, one for each day of the trip plus two extra…a healthy snack with good fiber counts. These were the most difficult foods to pack, but they held up well in our carry-on bags.
- Ten individual packs of low-FODMAP nuts
- We did Blue Diamond Natural Almonds 100-calorie packs. These work within my low-FODMAP restrictions but almonds can be hard on some people, depending on individual triggers. Peanuts would be another easy option to pack if almonds don’t work for you.
- A six-pack of individual Sun-Maid Raisins
- Like the almonds, be careful with these: dried fruit can run high-FODMAP if you go over your daily limits, and you’ll need to watch sugar counts. If you do that, though, these are a good option for compact snacking. One small box is almost exactly the equivalent of the daily one-tablespoon limit.
- A bottle of Live Free Low-FODMAP Italian Dressing
- This was great for lunch salads each day. Be aware that the bottle must be sealed when you bring it through port security at embarkation, so make sure you’ve got a new one. Also, don’t pack it in your carry-on if flying! Instead, put it in a Ziploc bag in your checked luggage.
- A package of chia seeds
- At home each morning, I drink 1 1/2 teaspoons of chia seeds mixed in unsweetened almond milk as a good source of daily fiber. On the ship, I mixed them in water. Not very tasty, but gets the job done to keep your digestive system balanced!
- A bottle of Fody Ketchup
- I actually brought one of these and never opened it. However, it would be nice to have if you choose to eat french fries, a hamburger, etc., while on the ship.
What I Wished I Packed (and Will on Future Trips!)
Throughout the journey, there were a few items I wished I had packed but didn’t think of beforehand. These items are listed below:
- Low-FODMAP Seasonings (i.e. Fody Lemon and Herb Seasoning)
- The chef worked really hard to make sure I did not get sick, which I greatly appreciated. That being said, though, I had a lot of unseasoned, grilled or pan-seared meat each night at dinner. I wish I had brought a bottle or two of seasonings to add more flavor to my meals. Next time, I definitely will.
- A Yeti cup
- If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, you know how tiny all the drinking glasses are in the buffet and dining areas. That makes it really difficult to keep track of your daily water counts, which is something you really need to do for optimal digestive health. I would highly recommend bringing a Yeti cup with you so you can keep a better eye on how much water you’re drinking each day (something I normally do at home but didn’t think about prior to vacation).
- A box of Chex Blueberry gluten-free cereal (or some other breakfast option)
- Later on in the blog post, I’ll discuss breakfast on the ship…but for now, I’ll just say it would’ve been nice to have another breakfast option throughout the trip.
Foods I Loved!
Now that you’ve heard all the prep work, let’s get to the good stuff: the foods I l-o-v-e-d! There were several fantastic meals to be had throughout our trip, as shown below in pictures:
My low-FODMAP pizza at MOD Pizza in Seattle: gluten-free crust, olive oil instead of sauce, parmesan cheese, baby spinach, and bacon. And bonus: you can get an almost identical version of this at Pie Five Pizza, a chain here in the southern US!
My gluten-free Butterhole Biscuit from Honest Biscuits in Pike Place Market (Seattle). Holy moly: the best gluten-free biscuit on the planet, y’all. Seriously.
The broiled lobster tail, pan-seared shrimp, and veggies on formal night #1 of the cruise. This was one of my favorite cruise meals before I got sick, and it didn’t disappoint in the low-FODMAP version this time, either!
Steamed King Crab legs at Tracy’s Crab Shack in Juneau. Boy howdy…I would eat these every single day if I could. Every. Single. Day.
Any unseasoned, grilled salmon in Alaska (in port or on the ship) you can find. I honestly didn’t expect it to taste that much better than the salmon we get at home, but I was just so wrong. It was amazing. We had some on an excursion in Skagway, and I had it twice more on the ship for dinner. Yum.
King Crab legs (again!) and peel-and-eat shrimp (minus the cocktail sauce in the picture) at The Crab House (formerly The Crab Station) in Icy Strait Point. Worth every penny.
The salad bar for lunch on the ship. I had some variation of lettuce, spinach, turkey, ham, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, cheddar cheese, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and my Enjoy Life dressing each day. Add some Glutino crackers and nuts on the side, and you have a delish, lighter, healthy option for lunch.
Shrimp cocktail (minus the cocktail sauce) as an appetizer for dinner. Light, yummy, and low-FODMAP!
Ok, so here was the ultimate shocker of the trip: a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-FODMAP version of the famous Carnival chocolate melting cake with a side of non-dairy ice cream. I seriously couldn’t believe it! It took me three full nights to work up the courage to try it, and even then, I went straight to the room for about 45 minutes after trying it the first time just so I could be close to a bathroom in case of a flare (which didn’t happen); I honestly didn’t think they could actually do it well. But they did! It was incredible. I had it three more nights (spaced out so I didn’t overdo). One little thing, though: you can only eat a few bites (think about six or so, depending on how big they are). Under half the bowl of each because of the sugar and dark chocolate content in each portion. But if you can control yourself, get this dish!
And just to show you how much I loved the Honest Biscuits gluten-free biscuits, here’s the additional two I made our Uber driver stop so I could get on the way to the airport for eating throughout our trip home. I can’t even describe how wonderful they are. I heart bread, y’all, and I’ve missed a good biscuit more than just about anything.
Foods I Would Lump
Of course, just like any true low-FODMAP-er knows, you’re going to have some fails along the way. There were a few on this trip:
- The gluten-free bread on the ship. I’m really not sure how to describe it. It was almost freakishly yellow with some type of green seasoning added to it, and it literally had no taste at all. I would imagine it was much like eating a crisp sponge. It definitely ain’t Udi’s, y’all.
- The breakfast on repeat. I never, ever, ever thought I’d hear myself say this, but I was sick of bacon and hard-boiled eggs by the end of our ten-day trip. With the exception of a couple sea days where I could eat breakfast in the dining room, I had to do hard-boiled eggs instead of scrambled (my breakfast egg of choice). The problem was that most of them were overcooked (sometimes even burnt on the outside!). Also, bacon is harder on a sensitive digestive system (since it’s fat!). By the end of the trip, I was eating sliced turkey and veggies for breakfast just to have something different (hence the cereal suggestion earlier in this blog post). This was definitely not a bad food option – I actually quite enjoyed it for a few days – I just wish I could’ve had a bit more variety throughout the ten days.
- The gluten-free pancakes on the ship. So, I try to cut gluten-free baked goods some slack because they just don’t quite live up to the regular stuff most of the time. That being said, I don’t think I’ve eaten anything so gross as the low-FODMAP pancakes I had on the ship. Even the maple syrup couldn’t cover up the nasty taste, and they repeated on me for the next 24 hours or so. Truly awful.
- The pork chop dinner on the ship. I tried this one night instead of seafood, salmon, or chicken for a bit of variety, and it was the only dinner choice I truly regretted throughout the trip. Mostly fat and bone, I had about two ounces of actual meat (and there weren’t enough vegetables on the side to fill me). I ended up going through some of my extra snacks just to keep myself from feeling hungry before the next morning. Maybe it was just my particular pork chop, but I wouldn’t try it again anyway.
I want to finish today’s post with one last, super-important point: be realistic, my low-FODMAP-er friends. As I’ve stated over and over again, successfully maintaining the low-FODMAP diet is a difficult task. If you’ve strictly held to the diet for any length of time, you know how much thought and effort is required – monitoring your FODMAP-stacking, checking every ingredient label, learning how to alter your cooking strategies to cook effectively. The list could keep going. All that being said, don’t expect the ship chef, maitre’d, or a restaurant worker to just know how to meet all your dietary needs (especially if they’ve never even heard of the low-FODMAP diet before meeting you). As stated earlier, most cruise ships accommodate special dietary needs, but we’re talking diets like low-fat, sugar-free, dairy-free, or gluten-free – not a combination of most of those things plus additional restrictions. Learning how to cook well on the low-FODMAP diet takes months, if not years, to master; I mean, there are registered dietitians out there who devote their entire studies to low-FODMAP dieting, y’all. So be realistic and reasonable when expecting someone else to cook for you, especially when that person is a chef who cooks for literally thousands of other people each day (ship guests and crew). It’s insane to do otherwise.
A quick story to demonstrate before I finish up:
Toward the end of the cruise, we had our second formal night. I love formal nights on cruises; I get an opportunity to doll up like I normally don’t at home, and I just think it’s really fun. On the first formal night, I got the lobster and shrimp meal, which was wonderful. However, that wasn’t offered on the second formal night (it never is on Carnival cruises…they do other extraordinary dishes for their “normal” guests, speaking from former experience). After looking over the menu, I decided to splurge a little more and order another lobster tail, this time for an additional fee delivered from the steakhouse. Now, the steakhouse is operated by a different dining staff than the one I had for all the other meals – a staff that didn’t know as many details about my dietary restrictions – but I assumed it would be fine since it was coming into the main dining room for me. They delivered a regular steakhouse lobster tail, complete with a load of butter and seasonings including onion. Any consistent low-FODMAP-er can tell you: your senses change after being on this diet for awhile. You notice smells and sights that you didn’t prior to the diet. And I noticed that butter and onion, purely at first glance/smell. I was upset – not because my food wasn’t correct, but because a perfectly wonderful, “normal person” lobster had been delivered to my table…and that meant it would likely go to waste when I said I couldn’t eat it. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I told the waiter what was going on, and although he looked a bit unbelieving that I said I could smell the seasonings and butter on the lobster tail, he went back to the chef to ask how the steakhouse lobster is cooked. Within about one more minute, the entire wait team came flying out of the kitchen to tell me not to eat that lobster tail! It, indeed, had onion and butter all over it. They immediately got to work on another one for me, delivered it promptly, and apologized about a million times in the process. Bless their hearts, y’all. I was the one sitting there, feeling bad about causing a fuss! It was so kind of them to take care of me that way.
I tell you all of this simply to say: mistakes sometimes happen, especially when there are numerous people involved in the cooking process. While, yes, it is their responsibility to take care of you as a guest (and they do a wonderful job of it!), the ultimate responsibility lies with you. It’s your job to know what you can and can’t have and to look for it. It’s your job to inform the kitchen and dining staff upon arrival. It’s your job to use self-control when you want to eat the whole melting cake instead of a few bites. And it’s your responsibility to check your plate for unknown or questionable items.
Just my opinion here: don’t try to low-FODMAP on a cruise ship until you can really low-FODMAP at home. It’ll make your cruising life a lot easier if you know your limitations well before directing someone else in how to do it. Also, this isn’t strictly food-related, but I highly recommend continuing (or starting!) your regular exercise program on the ship. Why, you ask? I mean, it’s vacation, right? But the thing is, your body doesn’t change just because your vacation starts. I’m suggesting this because regular exercise does wonders for keeping your digestive system on track. There are some absolutely fabulous yoga, stretching, and “Fab Abs” classes on the ship (some free and some for just a few bucks a pop), as well as an entire free gym! With all that at your disposal, why wouldn’t you do it? I attended classes almost every single day of our cruise, and they truly kept me feeling great.
Well…phew! There you have it. All the deets on living low-FODMAP on an Alaskan cruise. Feeling information overload yet? Ha! I hope it all helps as you plan your own vacation, though, and gives you hope that you can live the dream while also living low-FODMAP. Bon voyage, my friends, and best wishes!