How to Become an Expert Meal Planner When You Have Diabetes
Planning meals every week can feel like a lot of work—even more work if you have diabetes. The good news? The foods recommended for people with diabetes are healthy foods recommended to everyone—adults and kids alike. So you don't, and I repeat do not, need to cook multiple dinners every night even if not everyone in your family has diabetes.
When coming up with meal ideas, use the MyPlate (aka Healthy Eating Plate) as a framework for making your meals. Make half your plate vegetables, one-quarter protein and one-quarter whole grains. Add moderate amounts of healthy fats like avocados, olive oil and nuts. Get more ideas for building a healthy diabetes-friendly plate.
This could look like salmon with roasted vegetables and quinoa, or it could be a mixed dish like pasta or soup. The key is that you have twice as many vegetables as grain or starch—crucial if you have diabetes and need to keep your carbohydrates in check. Keep in mind that potatoes, corn and peas are starchy vegetables; they have more carbohydrates than nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli and green beans. For this reason, they technically go in the grain category when you're building your plate (see how many carbs are in your vegetables).
The plate method is a nice guide, but it's still important to know how many carbohydrates you should be aiming for at meals and snacks so ask your doctor or dietitian to tell you how many grams to eat so you can plan your meals and snacks accordingly.
Now that you have a framework and know your carb counts, it's time to figure out how to plan your meals. Here we give you tips for how to plan, how to shop, easy-assembly meal ideas and how to cut back on food waste.
Get the family involved
If you're feeding a family, sit your kids and partner down and have them help you come up with their favorite meals, such as tacos, pasta or pizza (all of which can fit on a diabetes diet). When kids help plan meals, they're more likely to eat them. Make a list of 10 to 12 favorite meals you can rotate throughout the month.
Not cooking for kids? Do the same thing. Come up with 10 to 12 go-to meals you can rotate so it's easier to stay consistent.
Have themed dinners
Pictured recipe: Baked Fish Tacos with Avocado
Having a themed dinner for even just one night a week can help make meal planning super simple. For example, Taco Tuesday. You can rotate different types of tacos for variety—e.g., fish, chicken, beef, veggie, tofu or shrimp. Make extra and you'll have lunch for Wednesday too.
Tacos can fit the Healthy Plate when you load them up with veggies like tomatoes, lettuce and avocado. Tortillas, rice, beans, corn and chips all have carbohydrates, so choose one based on what you're craving and your carb counts. Pair it with protein and healthy fat like avocado for a balanced meal.
Prepping and cooking
Dinners fall roughly into three categories—make-ahead, cook the night of, or throw together last-minute. All can be diabetes-friendly meals. Most people find it easy to plan ahead for 2 or 3 meals each week, throw together 1 or 2 meals (e.g., an omelet with veggies or a frozen veggie burger in a whole-wheat pita with leafy greens) and eat out or get takeout 1 or 2 times per week.
Here's how to make it work for you:
- Schedule time to plan meals: Choose which day you'll plan out the following week's meals. Friday and Saturday work well so you can create a list, shop on the weekend and prep on Sunday.
- Figure out how many meals you need to make: Write down what's going on Sunday through Friday next week. Cross off nights where you're meeting a friend or getting takeout. The nights that are left are the nights you need a home-cooked dinner. For example, if you're meeting a friend on Tuesday and having pizza with the family on Friday, then you need meals on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. That's four nights of dinners to plan.
- Choose recipes and meals: Refer to your go-to list that you created with your family. Pick one or two ideas from your list; then browse cookbooks or websites for inspiration. EatingWell has meal plans for diabetes to help make planning your week easier.
- Use foods multiple ways: For example, ground turkey could be used in chili on Sunday night and tacos on Tuesday night. Roasted vegetables can be eaten on the side with fish on Wednesday night, put into a veggie quesadilla on Thursday night and mixed into an omelet on Saturday morning.
- Make your grocery list: Now that you have 2 or 3 meals you'll cook next week, you can write your grocery list. Along with ingredients for the meals you planned, fill your cart with staples you can use when you need to throw together something healthy last-minute, along with foods for healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
- Go shopping: Hit the grocery store, or make life easier by ordering your groceries online—this can help you stick to your list and save money too. Amazon Fresh offers free delivery for Prime members, Instacart and Shipt are other services to try.
- Prep and cook: You know which nights you need a home-cooked meal, now it's time to figure out when you'll cook and if you'll prep anything ahead of time. Making one protein, such as chicken; one whole grain, such as quinoa; and a pan of roasted vegetables ahead of time makes it easy to throw together healthy meals all week.
Grocery shopping list for diabetes meal planning
You'll need to make a list each week based on the meals you've picked out. Here are some staples that are nice to have on hand in addition to specific vegetables, fruits and ingredients you'll need for your dinners.
Healthy convenience foods to grab
Prepping is ideal (and can save you some money) but life happens. Here's a list of diabetes-friendly foods you can pick up last-minute. Keep the Healthy Plate framework in mind when assembling these for dinner: ½ vegetables, ¼ protein, ¼ whole grain.
- Rotisserie chicken
- Boxed falafel mix (also contains carbohydrates)
- Chicken or turkey meatballs
- Chicken sausage
- Bean-based pastas made from chickpeas, lentils or black beans (also contain carbohydrates)
- Fresh or frozen edamame
- Premade bagged salads
- Prechopped vegetables (in the produce section)
- Frozen vegetables
- Tomato sauce
- Salad dressing
Outside of recipes, here are some easy food ideas to prep and use throughout the week:
- Roasted squash: Can be used in a salad or reheated as a side. To save even more time, buy it precut in the produce section for less than $5.
- Brown rice or quinoa: Cook a big batch at the beginning of the week. Make multiple servings at a time to help with meals later in the week when you have less than 30 minutes to make dinner. Get our best tips for how to cook brown rice perfectly and how to cook quinoa. Rice that has been cooled also has what is known as resistant starch, which acts as a prebiotic—food for the good bacteria in your gut. Resistant starch has been shown to reduce the rise of blood sugar after eating and improve insulin sensitivity.
- Baked chicken: Reheat and eat with quinoa and veggies, add to quesadillas or fajitas, put in a Buddha bowl, mix into pasta or make a stir-fry. One large batch of chicken can provide protein for 4 or 5 meals. Try our recipe for Meal-Prep Sheet-Pan Chicken Thighs.
- Vegetables: Roast vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and carrots. Simply toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake at 400°F for 20 to 30 minutes. You can also roast asparagus, onions and potatoes. Having roasted vegetables to add to dishes throughout the week will increase the diversity of your meals. They can easily be added to pasta, stir-fry or a veggie wrap or tossed with a dressing for a quick way to add vegetables to any meal. Read more about how to perfectly roast your veggies every time.
- Roasted tofu: Since tofu takes on the taste of what you mix it with, it's easy to batch-cook on Sunday and then use all week long in wraps, tacos, grain bowls, stir-fry, pasta or a hash. This Soy-Lime Roasted Tofu is a great recipe to try.
Meal ideas for families with different preferences
Pictured recipe: Trapanese Pesto Pasta & Zoodles with Salmon
These ideas allow you to make meals that can be assembled so each family member can enjoy the same meal, give or take a few foods. Here are some of our favorite assembly meals.
Choose whole-wheat noodles, chickpea pasta, spaghetti squash or zoodles for fewer carbohydrates. Then buy beef, chicken and frozen vegetarian meatballs. Sauté veggies like tomatoes, spinach or kale, mushrooms, onions and garlic. Everyone can then assemble their own meal, choosing the noodle and protein of choice and topping with the cooked veggies and sauce of choice—pesto or tomato sauce.
Cook chicken, beef or tofu for protein. Family members can choose a whole-wheat or corn tortilla or make a taco salad. Serve cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeños and avocados family-style.
Cook one traditional crust and one cauliflower crust and let the family help you top the pizzas with proteins and veggies of their choice.
4. Buddha Bowls
Serve similarly to tacos. Pick one grain each week, switching between quinoa, farro, barley or another whole grain of choice.
Choose meat or tofu for protein and serve a variety of different vegetables, toppings and dressings. Leftovers can be used for other dinners or turned into lunches for the next day.
5. Sandwiches / Wraps / Pitas
Have a sandwich, wrap or pita for dinner. Add tuna, beans, chicken sausage or eggs for protein, and add plenty of vegetables of choice. Use hummus, mashed avocado or plain Greek yogurt as spreads. To reduce carbohydrates, skip the bread or wrap, eat an open-face sandwich or use lettuce as a wrap instead.
How to cut back on waste and save money
No one wants to go grocery shopping and then see their money get thrown away if things didn't go according to plan. Here are our best tips for helping you cut down on food waste and save money.
- Prioritize your weekly meal-planning session. The same way you prioritize other appointments throughout the week, make planning nonnegotiatble. Life happens and things pop up throughout the week, but having a plan will keep you from wandering the grocery aisles, buying too much food and then throwing it away later.
- Freeze items that are about to go bad. You can freeze lots of foods before they go bad. Milk and yogurt can be frozen in ice cube trays, then used for smoothies. Fruit can be used in smoothies or cooked in desserts. Frozen vegetables can be used in stir-fries, egg dishes or hashes.
- Put fruits and vegetables at eye level in the fridge. You'll be more likely to eat the things you can see, not the things in the bottom drawers. Remove your fruits and vegetables from the packaging to make them easier to see too.
- Clean out your fridge weekly before you plan your meals. You might discover you don't have to buy as much as you thought.
- Take advantage of leftovers. Instead of putting leftovers in one large container, put them in smaller containers, like mason jars, that you can easily grab and take to work for lunch. Label them so you and your family know what they are and will be more likely to eat them. Plus, if you don't get to them you can easily put them into the freezer for later.
When you're eating to help manage your diabetes, whether its Type 2 Diabetes or another diagnosis, meals don't have to be fancy. Have an omelet for dinner. Or a sandwich. Just make sure to follow the Healthy Plate framework, making at least half your plate veggies or having twice as many vegetables as your grain portion. Make a list of meals your family loves, and block time to choose, cook and prep meals. Use one protein and one grain multiple ways throughout the week and if you can't roast vegetables, buy produce that's easy to eat raw, like carrots. Always keep your pantry and freezer full of foods that will last several weeks or months so you can throw together a healthy meal last-minute. Remember, you can do it!
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