Dinner Ideas for People with Type 2 Diabetes

Every 23 seconds, someone in the United States is diagnosed with diabetes. But although diabetes is widespread, public awareness and understanding of the disease can be limited.

The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 29 million Americans currently have diabetes, but a quarter of them do not know it. Another 86 million adults have prediabetes, with 90 percent of them being unaware.

Diabetes is a serious disease that can, if uncontrolled, lead to loss of eyesight, cardiovascular problems, kidney damage, and even amputation of lower limbs. The good news is, it can be managed and these serious health problems can be avoided.

Diet techniques for diabetes

[Empty White Plate]
Using the simple “diabetic plate” rule can help people with diabetes plan meals.

The even better news is that diabetes can be managed through a combination of exercise, health care, and diet. Despite popular belief, a diet can be varied, tasty, and fulfilling.

The “diabetic plate”

Maintaining a consistent, well-balanced diet can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels under control.

Portion control is also important, which is where the “diabetic plate” comes in.

Endorsed by several organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, the “diabetic plate” can be very helpful when planning dinners.

Follow these simple steps:

  • Draw an imaginary line down the center of your plate.
  • Divide one-half into two further sections, so that your plate is now divided into three.
  • Fill the biggest section with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, green beans, salsa, mushrooms, broccoli, or others.
  • Use proteins to fill one of the smaller sections. Good options are skinless chicken, salmon, shrimp, tempeh or tofu, eggs, and much more. Legumes can fit in either the protein or the starch section because they provide both protein and carbohydrate.
  • Grains, legumes and starchy vegetables can go in the remaining quarter. These could be corn, lima beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa, whole grain bread, and more.
  • Complete the meal with a serving of fruit, or dairy.

Carbohydrate counting

Carbohydrate counting is also an essential part of healthful eating for people with diabetes. A number of carbohydrates an individual can eat in a day will vary based on health, activity level, and treatment plans.

Knowing the carbohydrate content of foods can help individuals eat appropriate amounts at each meal or snack, and still enjoy a varied and satisfying diet.

Glycemic index

The glycemic index (GI) can help people with diabetes distinguish between carbs that will help or hurt their blood sugar and can provide essential support when planning healthful dinners.

In essence, the higher the GI rating of a food, the more rapidly it will raise blood sugar. However, this does not mean that people with diabetes should avoid all high GI foods since some are full of nutritional value. The important thing is to balance these foods with low GI foods, and monitor portion size.

Portion control

Perhaps the biggest challenge to eating healthful dinners is portion control. This is particularly true when meals are eaten on the go.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, portion sizes in American restaurants have increased by 200-300 percent in the past 20 years and may be a factor in the country’s rising obesity rates.

These giant servings can spell trouble for people with diabetes. They should ask servers about the size of the portions. They could also ask for some of the food to be boxed up, or they could share it with friends.


[People drinking beer]
Alcohol must be closely monitored by people with diabetes.

Drinking alcohol is an important part of a dining experience for many people. But people with diabetes need to be very cautious about drinking alcohol because it can seriously affect blood sugar levels.

However, one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men may be acceptable if consumed with food.

People should check their blood sugars, and check with their doctor and dietitian to find out whether any amount of alcohol is acceptable within their treatment plan.

Dinner ideas suitable for diabetes

Following a healthful diet does not have to mean that people with diabetes have to give up their favorite foods. The key is eating appropriate amounts and making sure there is a balance between proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, with an emphasis on fiber.

The following are classic American foods that are suitable for a person with diabetes:

  • Steak: Stick to 3 ounces (oz) portions and do not cook it in butter. Choose center-cuts for less marbling and fat. The Harvard School of Public Health and many other agencies recommend that people eat red meat no more than once per week.
  • Baked potato, or sweet potato: Skip the high-fat add-ons, such as bacon. Substitute sour cream for Greek yogurt for protein and healthy bacteria.
  • Garden salad: Add vinaigrette for taste.
  • Salmon: Baked or grilled wild salmon is a good option.
  • Steamed asparagus: Steaming is a healthful way to prepare vegetables.
  • Turkey: Roasted turkey or chicken is a good choice.
  • Corn on the cob: Avoid butter or other high-fat toppings.
  • Burgers: Simply wrap the patty in lettuce, or only eat half the bun to keep the carbohydrates in check.

Tips for quick healthful meals

The following tips may help people with diabetes create healthful and interesting dinners:

  • Keep a supply of frozen vegetables, low-sodium canned tomatoes, and low-sodium canned beans.
  • Consider serving salad as an entrée.
  • Remember that eggs can be for dinner, too.
  • Prepare a batch of slow-cooker chili that you can store and eat over several days.
  • Combine frozen vegetables with pasta, toss into a stir-fry, or add to a frozen whole-wheat pizza crust.
  • Make tacos with rotisserie chicken, vegetables, salsa, and nonfat Greek yogurt.

Recipe ideas

People with diabetes do not have to limit themselves to boring, bland foods. The following meal ideas illustrate a wide range of ideas for healthful dinners with less than 3 servings or 45 grams (g) of carbohydrates:

  • 1 cup Spanish-style brown rice mixed with pinto beans, chicken, and salsa.
  • Cod fillets with puttanesca sauce, green beans, and quinoa.
  • Tempeh or tofu stir-fry with Asian vegetable mix.
  • Caribbean red snapper, a small baked sweet potato, and vegetables.
  • North African Shakshuka.
  • Dijon chicken, baked sweet potato fries, and steamed broccoli.
  • Skillet whole-wheat or corn tortilla pizza.
  • Bean and wild rice burgers with spinach and avocado salad.
  • Asian salmon fillets, shredded cabbage and peanut ginger sauce, zucchini, and chickpea or bean noodles.
  • Shrimp tacos, using 100 percent corn tacos, pineapple salsa, jicama (yam bean), and carrot and bell pepper slaw.

Cooking for others who have diabetes

Although they can eat most things, people with diabetes need to ensure they keep their blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in their target range.

The first step in planning healthful dinners for people with diabetes is balancing the levels of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats while providing ample fiber.

By using the “diabetic plate” method to plan the basic framework of a meal, it is much easier to produce healthful and flavorful options that will appeal to everyone. As well as the examples listed above, the American Diabetes Association offers an extensive listing of recipe ideas.

Dinner options for people eating out

People with diabetes have lots to think about when eating out:

  • How the food is prepared: People with diabetes should find out how the meat or fish is cooked. Order grilled, roasted, or baked meats, poultry, and fish, or go for a vegetarian option.
  • What is in a sauce or soup: Choose broths over cream-based soups. Ask for sauces and salad dressing to be served on the side.
  • Ratios of different ingredients: It is important to identify how the meal is balanced between vegetables and carbohydrates. Request steamed vegetables, when possible.
  • Cuts of meat used: Lean cuts of meat are best for people with diabetes.
  • Making substitutions: Instead of choosing french fries or potatoes, opt for non-starchy beans, cooked vegetables, or a salad.
  • What types of carbohydrates to choose: Always select whole grain options, such as whole-wheat bread and pasta, if possible. Legumes and fruits are higher in fiber and are great carbohydrate choices for people with diabetes.

Foods to avoid

There are some foods and drinks that a person with diabetes should avoid or strictly limit. These include:

  • fried foods
  • sweets
  • sweetened beverages, such as blended coffee drinks, soda, sweet tea, or juice
  • white rice and white bread
  • “loaded” anything, as in baked potatoes or nachos
  • dishes with rich sauces
  • alcoholic beverages

Other dietary tips

Other tips that may help a person with diabetes maintain a healthful diet include:

  • eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day
  • increasing the amount of fiber consumed to 25-38 g per day
  • reducing sugar and salt intake found in sweetened beverages, canned foods, and processed meats
  • replacing saturated fats, such as those in red meat and butter, with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as those in fish and olive oil
  • using alcohol sparingly, if at all
  • aim for a low salt diet of fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily

Learn your ABC

One of the most important general tips for managing diabetes comes from the CDC, as well as other health experts, who advise people with diabetes to “know their ABCs.” This acronym helps individuals monitor measurements that are essential for keeping their diabetes in check: These include:

  • A1C test: This test measures a 3-month average of blood glucose scores, which should be less than 7.
  • Blood pressure: The targeted measurement is below 130/80.
  • Cholesterol: The targeted levels for LDL (bad cholesterol) should be below 100 and HDL (good cholesterol) should be above 40 for men and 50 for women.

Tips to keep in mind

When it comes to planning dinners, people with diabetes should keep the following tips in mind:

  • A measured plate: Rough amounts for the “diabetic plate” method would include 2 cups of vegetables, 3-4 oz of protein, and a half to 1 cup of complex carbohydrates.
  • Be willing to trade: Healthful dinners do not have to mean no dessert. Simply hold back on carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bread or pasta during the main part of the meal and spend the “saved” carbohydrates on a small serving of dessert. Make sure to check your blood sugar 2 hours after you eat, so you know how much the dessert raised it.
  • Add extra vegetables: Use a spiralizer to make zucchini “noodles,” try cauliflower “rice,” or use squash instead of pasta.
  • Plan a walk: Exercising after meals can reduce blood sugar because muscles remove glucose from the bloodstream and don’t need insulin. This is especially helpful when you do consume the occasional sweet.
  • Check your blood sugar: The common times recommended to check blood sugar levels are first thing in the morning after fasting, and two hours after meals. This will help a person to see how well they are managing their blood sugars, and how the food they are eating is affecting them. This can help people make better choices in the future.

Meal Planning to Manage Blood Sugar: Carb Counting for Diabetes

Carb counting is one form of meal planning that can help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels.

Diabetes is an incurable, yet manageable, a medical condition where the body’s blood sugar levels are too high. This happens when there is not enough insulin in the body, or the insulin does not work properly.

Insulin is a hormone that is made by the pancreas. It helps the body to process glucose (the simplest form of sugar), which is used by the cells to create energy. When this doesn’t happen, sugar stays in the bloodstream. This can lead to serious health problems.

Diabetes and the role of carbohydrates

In the United States in 2014, approximately 9 percent of Americans, totaling nearly 29 million people, were found to have diabetes. Diabetes is classified into different types and includes:

Almost one tenth of people in the U.S. have some form of diabetes.
  • Type 1 diabetes: In this type, the body does not produce insulin. This is due to the body attacking its own insulin-producing cells within the pancreas. It is most commonly diagnosed in children and young adults.
  • Type 2 diabetes: In this type, insulin is either not made in high enough quantities or not used efficiently. This form of diabetes affects people of all ages and is the most common type.
  • Gestational diabetes: Some pregnant women will develop a typically temporary form of diabetes called gestational diabetes. This raises their risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Most times, once the baby is born, this form of diabetes disappears.

What happens after carbohydrates are eaten?

The digestive system breaks down the carbohydrates into sugar. This enters the bloodstream and is used by the body’s cells for energy.

Typically, when the body receives the signal that sugar is in the bloodstream, the pancreas produces insulin. This aids the body’s cells in using the sugar for energy and helps to keep blood sugar levels steady.

However, this doesn’t happen in the bodies of people who have diabetes. These people may need to take an external form of insulin to maintain normal levels of blood sugar.

As they have a condition that affects their blood sugar levels, people with diabetes need to be cautious about how much sugar they take in on a daily basis. This is more involved than simply curbing a chocolate or ice cream craving.

Many people with diabetes need to count the number of carbohydrates in each serving of food. This is referred to as carbohydrate counting, or carb counting, and helps to control blood sugar levels.

Understanding carb-heavy foods

The main nutrients found in food include protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, like any other nutrient, come in healthful and unhealthful forms. People with diabetes need to take special care of which carbohydrates they eat and how regularly.

Foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are full of energy producing nutrients, vitamins minerals, and fiber. These are vital for normal physical growth and development. However, carbohydrates in sugary foods and drinks offer little nutritional value.

It is important for those with diabetes to understand:

  • how many carbohydrates they need on a daily basis
  • how to count carbohydrates
  • how to properly read a food label

Foods that contain carbohydrates include:

  • Grains: Including bread, pasta, oatmeal, certain noodles, crackers, cereals, rice, and quinoa.
  • Fruits: Including apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, melons, oranges, and grapefruits.
  • Dairy: Including milk and yogurt.
  • Legumes: Beans (including dried), lentils, and peas.
  • Snacks: Cakes, cookies, candy, and other sweet dessert-type foods.
  • Drinks: Juices, soft drinks, sports drinks, and sugary energy drinks.
  • Vegetables: Some vegetables contain more carbohydrates than others.

Starchy and non-starchy vegetables

Not all vegetables are created equal. They can be broken down into “starchy” and “non-starchy” types. Starchy vegetables contain more carbohydrates than the non-starchy varieties.

[a plethora of green vegetables]
Non-starchy vegetables are low in carbs, therefore people counting carbs can eat much more of them.

Starchy vegetables include:

  • potatoes (including sweet potatoes)
  • peas
  • pumpkin
  • butternut squash
  • fresh beets

Non-starchy vegetables include:

  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • carrots
  • celery
  • green beans
  • lettuce
  • other salad greens
  • peppers
  • spinach
  • tomatoes
  • zucchini

Healthy sources of protein and fat

To avoid carbohydrate-heavy foods, it is important to understand which foods are healthful sources of protein and fat.

Fish, meat, poultry, many kinds of cheese, nuts, oils and fats do not contain enough carbohydrates to be considered when carb counting.

Healthful sources of protein include:

  • eggs
  • whey protein
  • chicken and turkey breast
  • fish, including salmon, cod, and rainbow trout
  • nuts, such as almonds and peanuts
  • tofu and tempeh
  • pumpkin seeds

Healthful sources of fat include:

  • oils, such as flax, olive, virgin coconut, avocado, and hemp seed
  • grass-fed butter
  • avocado
  • nuts and seeds

Aims of carb counting

Carb counting alone is not a substitute for seeking medical care to make sure that normal or close to normal blood sugar levels are maintained.

Many people with diabetes also need to take insulin or other medications to aid in the process, and should also regularly engage in physical activity.

The goal of carb counting is to keep blood sugar levels steady in order to:

  • help those with diabetes stay healthy
  • prevent complications
  • improve energy levels

How carb counting works

The first step in carb counting is identifying what foods have carbohydrates and how many grams (g) per serving.

Doctors and dietitians may help people with diabetes work out how many carbohydrates they should have each day. This helps them calculate a daily total that they can stick to.

The typical range for carbohydrate intake is between 45 and 65 percent of the total calories taken in per day. After a daily calorie intake is calculated, carbohydrate percentages and servings can be worked out.

Calculating carbs

There are around 4 calories in 1 g of carbohydrate. So, to work out the number of carbohydrates per day, total calorie intake will need to be divided by 4.

Here is an example calculation based on a daily intake of 1,800 calories and 45 percent carbohydrate:

  • 0.45 x 1,800 calories = 810 calories
  • 810 ÷ 4 = 202.5 g of carbohydrate

Based on this calculation, a person can have approximately 200 g of carbohydrates per day. The next thing to work out is how much carbohydrate there is in a single serving of a particular food item.

When reading nutritional labels, it is important to take note of the total number of carbohydrates per serving so that these totals can be added into the total daily carbohydrate allowance.

For example, there are approximately 15 g of carbohydrate in each serving of the following foods.
A slice of bread and a teaspoon of jam both have approximately 15 grams of carbohydrates.

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/3 a cup of pasta or rice
  • 1 small apple
  • 1 tablespoon of jelly
  • ½ cup of starchy vegetables

According to the figures used above, an individual can have 13.5 servings of these foods each day:

  • 202.5 g of total carbs ÷ 15 g per serving = 13.5 servings

However, non-starchy vegetables have just 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving, which means that an individual can eat a lot more of them.

Meal suggestions

Those who are carb counting may find it challenging at first to work out carbohydrate totals in home cooked meals, and when eating out. There are some tips that can help make carb counting a little easier, such as:

  • Counting mixed foods by the cup: On average, a woman’s fist is the size of a 1-cup serving. For a mixed dish, this is a good way to approximate the carb totals based on cup size.
  • Count tablespoons: Knowing how many grams of carbohydrates are in a tablespoon of food is helpful. People can simply count level tablespoons to create a healthful plate.
  • Calculate pizza by the crust: If possible, choose a thin-crust pizza. This will save 5-10 g of carbohydrate per serving size compared to a slice of regular or pan pizza.
  • Smoothies may not always be the best bet: On average, a 12 oz. smoothie actually has more carbohydrates than a regular soda if it contains juice, so should be consumed in moderation.

Getting started with carb counting

Carb counting may help many people with diabetes to maintain steady blood sugar levels. However, it is only one way to manage diabetes. In order to know how a certain food will affect blood sugar levels, a person must consider the type of carbohydrate the food contains and how much fiber is in it.

Before trying carb counting, people should always speak with a nutritionist, diabetes educator, or doctor to determine:

  • whether carb counting is appropriate
  • what is the recommended daily allowance for carbohydrates
  • what foods are recommended