Learn the basics, from kitchen tools and food prep, for adding flavor and having fun. You can still rock the kitchen even with a diabetes diagnosis.

Sara Haas, R.D.N., L.D.N.
November 25, 2019

Just because you have diabetes doesn't mean you've been given a life sentence of eating boring "healthy" food. Yes, healthy food is part of the diet "prescription," but we're here to change your mind about what that looks like. We know that eating with diabetes isn't so different from how we should all be eating.

Hopefully you've seen a registered dietitian and, along with your health care team, they've helped you become better acquainted with everything from your diet to medications (get our list of the best foods to eat for diabetes).

Now that you're armed with that information, you're also going to need some guidance when it comes to cooking. We've got you covered with tips on essential kitchen tools, how to stock your pantry, and easy meal ideas. Whether you're a beginner cook or pro chef, newly diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes or just need a refresher, these tips can help you cook healthier meals at home when you have diabetes.

Pictured recipe: Summer Skillet Vegetable & Egg Scramble

The Essential Kitchen Tools

Before you get cooking, you'll want to make sure you have some basic tools in your kitchen. You don't need to go out and buy out the entire kitchen department, but there are a few key tools that will make healthy cooking a lot easier.

For prepping your food, you'll want a few cutting boards, a couple of good knives, some utility tools (think peeler, box grater and microplane) as well as a good set of measuring cups and spoons and mixing bowls.

You'll also want a good mix of utensils to cook with—a spatula, whisk, wooden spoons and tongs. Get yourself a variety of pots and pans as well as baking sheets and dishes. An instant-read food thermometer will help you cook meat safely.

While not necessary, an Instant Pot, slow cooker and air fryer can all be fun kitchen tools to help you make healthy recipes.

Food-Prep Tips

Cooking feels labor-intensive if you don't do any prep. It makes sense to get things ready ahead of time to make cooking more efficient and fun. Here are some of our prep tips that you can easily put into practice.

Before You Get Started:

Food safety is an oft-neglected step when it comes to cooking. Stay healthy by making sure you do the following things before you get started.

  1. Clean your kitchen countertops: Hot soapy water works here. Make a plan to clean them again between the preparation of different foods and also when you're all done in the kitchen.
  2. Wash your hands: Take the full 20 seconds to properly wash your hands. Use soap and warm water to get the job done.
  3. Use the right cutting board: Enlist one board for prepping produce and save a couple more for working with raw poultry, meat and seafood.

Produce: Don't hurry through the process of properly washing and prepping your produce. Doing it right can keep you and your family safe. For leafy greens, remove outer leaves, rinse under running water a few times and dry in a salad spinner. Delicate greens should be prepped right before eating, but heartier greens, such as romaine or leaf lettuce, can be rinsed and stored in a container with a few clean paper towels (to help absorb moisture) in the vegetable produce drawer in your refrigerator. For heartier veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), you can wash and cut those up to 2 to 3 days in advance, so they're ready to go when you're ready to cook.

Give everything else a good rinse under running water, using your hands to rub the exterior. The exception? Delicate fruits, like berries. They'll need a good rinse, but shouldn't be washed until you're ready to eat them.

Proteins: Consider asking the butcher to cut large pieces into ready-to-go 4-ounce servings. If you're making stew or soup, cut your protein in equal-size pieces for uniform cooking. For flavorful meats, marinate in advance.

Canned foods: Since you never know what dirt, dust or other "yuck" may be lingering on cans, always wipe the tops before opening. A damp, clean cloth will do the trick. Also, make sure that can opener is clean. Wash and rinse your can opener after every use. Follow recipe directions when it comes to cooking with canned goods. Some recipes require canned foods be drained, others recommend using the liquid too (such as with canned tomatoes). If rinsing, we recommend using a colander or strainer to help get the job done. As an added bonus, rinsing can also help reduce the sodium content of your canned foods. Once you're done with the can, rinse it and recycle it, as it's no longer a safe storage container once it's been opened.

Pantry Staples

You've got the tools and prep tips, now it's time to figure out how to stock your fridge, freezer and pantry! Take a peek at our list of healthy ingredients to keep on hand to whip up easy meals. As a rule of thumb, only purchase what you know you'll consume. It's better to start off small and stock up over time. Get our super-detailed guide to stocking a healthy pantry.

Pantry

  • Canned foods: beans, tomatoes, soup, broth
  • Whole grains, breads & pastas (choose whole-grain options when possible)
  • Dried beans & legumes
  • Nuts & dried fruits
  • Potatoes & sweet potatoes
  • Oils: extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil
  • Vinegar: white, red-wine & balsamic
  • Herbs & spices: cumin, curry, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, cayenne pepper

Refrigerator

  • Milk or nondairy alternative (preferably one that has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D and has a protein content similar to cow's milk, such as soymilk; choose the unsweetened option)
  • Eggs and butter: Choose large eggs and unsalted butter.
  • Yogurt: Buy plain yogurt and add a little fruit to sweeten it without lots of added sugar.
  • Veggies & fruit: Look for items you like that are in season. These foods are usually less expensive and fresher than those that aren't in season.
  • Beef, pork, poultry & seafood

Freezer

  • Frozen veggies & fruits: For the veggies, choose no-sodium-added; for the fruits, choose no-sugar-added.
  • Frozen proteins (seafood, poultry, pork & beef)

Keep in mind that these staples should include anything that makes sense for you and your family. Stock your kitchen with foods you all love. And let's not forget about leftovers! They can make meals come together quickly. Consider doubling recipes and freezing one half for another meal later. And don't overlook convenience items too; just be sure to reach nutrition labels.

Build Flavor as You Cook

Pictured recipe: Kung Pao Chicken with Bell Peppers

Salt is often labeled the "bad guy." But salt is a necessary part of our diet. The problem isn't the salt we add when we cook, it's our overconsumption of packaged and processed foods. Unlike packaged and processed foods, fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains don't naturally contain copious amounts of sodium. That means that when you cook meals from scratch, you'll need to add a bit of salt. This puts you in control of salting your foods, so you can use just a little bit. Try to keep your intake to no more than 2,300 mg of sodium each day, which is around 1 teaspoon of salt.

Here are our tips for salting with confidence.

  1. Buy whole foods when you can and choose low-sodium options when possible.
  2. Season your food a little bit at a time as you cook. This means you'll have to taste at different intervals to determine if you need more. This prevents oversalting.
  3. Try using kosher salt. The coarse grains of kosher salt take up more space and can often mean you'll need less.
  4. If you need to watch your salt intake for health reasons, consider boosting the flavors of your food naturally using herbs, spices and acids, like citrus and vinegar.

Build Flavor Faster

Salting correctly is just the first step to building flavor. Did you know there are other great methods to develop flavorful food? Let's focus on a few to get you started.

  • Herbs & spices: Fresh herbs are delicious and add loads of flavor. Save delicate herbs, such as basil, for finishing a dish. Heartier herbs, such as rosemary, hold up well and are great when roasted alongside vegetables, such as potatoes. Dried herbs should be added toward the beginning and middle of cooking to permeate the dish with flavor. Spices also make a dish more flavorful. Cooking them first helps release their aromatic compounds. This can easily be accomplished with a little oil and a warm pan. Spices are great for dry and wet rubs as well as for use in marinades.
  • Acid: Citrus juice, buttermilk, tomato juice and vinegar all add vibrancy and brightness to food. Skip the salt and use these instead to help create amazing flavor.
  • Heat: Sometimes it's all about the heat and how you use it. Searing proteins first, for example, adds a deep richness. Roasting will caramelize and lightly sweeten vegetables. A quick stir-fry will keep food crisp and fun to eat. The key to expertly utilizing these techniques is to keep trying them! You'll get it. Just remember, practice makes perfect!

Meal Ideas

Building a nourishing plate doesn't have to be complicated. Follow the simple plate rule of "half, quarter, quarter." This is a fun way to conceptualize what your meal should look like. Imagine a plate. Now, picture half of that plate filled with vegetables, one quarter filled with a whole grain, and the remaining quarter with a lean protein. The plants are the focus of the plate for a reason. They're an amazing source of filling fiber and provide myriad nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) that keep your body running smoothly.

A 4-ounce portion of seafood, poultry, meat or a vegetarian protein adds a little boost of protein to help with satiety. This plate combination is a winner, keeping blood sugars in check while leaving you feeling happy, satisfied and nourished.

Dinnertime Shortcuts

We all want to make our lives easier, so don't forget to utilize shortcuts in the kitchen! Here are some ideas to get your meals prepped and ready faster.

  • Use convenience when you can: Bagged veggies, the salad bar and that rotisserie chicken are all meal-prep helpers.
  • Get out the slow cooker or pressure cooker (like the Instant Pot): If time is an issue, enlist the help of a tool that does most of the cooking for you. Set it and forget it!
  • Buy cuts of meat that cook quickly, or prep them to cook more quickly: A big, thick, bone-in pork chop is going to take a long time to cook. Save that type of cooking for the weekend and instead opt for boneless, thin-cut chops for a quick weeknight dinner.
  • Precook beans & whole grains: Take a few minutes over the weekend or whenever you've got extra time and cook some beans and whole grains. Let them cool to room temperature, then put them in a freezer bag, label and store in the freezer so that you can pull them out as needed during the week.

Have Fun in the Kitchen

Most importantly, you should enjoy cooking! We just laid out a lot of information that may feel overwhelming, but when it comes down to it, we want you to have fun! Here are some ideas to make it an awesome experience every time:

  1. Enlist your family
  2. Turn up the tunes
  3. Prep when you've got time
  4. Practice
  5. Relax and don't take it too seriously
  6. Make food you like
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