Fine tuning cruise fare

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

Small plates are making big waves in cruise ship cuisine. From little dishes of mozzarella with fresh tomato or hummus with feta cheese and olives, an artfully arranged selection of tastes from breakfast to late-night snacking is set out for passengers dining casually in the Lido Market on Holland America Line ships. There’s no shortage of comfort food favorites such as roast beef and burgers. But gone are the serve yourself steam table pans and buffet trays that passengers used to fill their plates to capacity. Now at each step of the way — from the salad bar to the hot entrees — members of the culinary team smile and place what you want on a plate and hand it to you.

There are distinct dining advantages here. Fewer people handling the food improves food safety. Portion control allows passengers to enjoy a variety of tastes and decreases food waste. And because the culinary staff create the plates they look much better for your vacation food photography.

Foodies at sea

My recent vacation on the Nieuw Amsterdam served up a bucket-list itinerary from Venice to Barcelona and a peek into current cruise fare philosophy. Menus afloat from the elegant Manhattan Dining Room to made-to-order thin crust pizzas by the pool reflect dining trends ashore. There’s a sushi bar in Asian-inspired Tamarind and shared platters of salumi at Italian-themed Canaletto.

Menu specials connect to local cuisines. While docked in Dubrovnik, Croatian foods on board included meatballs with coriander sauce and a traditional cheese pie.

Cooking demos and mixology classes add extra entertainment for food lovers. A behind-the-scenes tour of the ship’s enormous galley leads guests through the dishwashing to dessert stations. In a typical week, 137,000 pounds of fresh vegetables are consumed by 2,000 guests. Oh, and nearly 1,700 pounds of butter.

“At the start of the week, passengers eat a lot because they’re excited about all of the choices,” said Martin Van Winden, dining room manager of the Nieuw Amsterdam’s Pinnacle Grill. “Then we do see a decline in food consumption as the cruise continues.”

Ship shape

Special diet requests and food allergy concerns are taken seriously including gluten-free choices and creative vegetarian fare such as barbecue tofu with creamy grits.

While there’s a fabulous fitness center on board, my chosen exercise was taking the stairs. When you walk up and down from deck 2 to deck 11 a few times a day, it’s a workout.