These are some of the healthiest options to reach for at lunch to help you build a tasty and balanced plate.

Kim Rose, RDN, CDE
January 08, 2021
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Chipotle-Lime Cauliflower Taco Bowls

By now, we've all probably heard the saying "breakfast is the most important meal of the day," but what about lunch? Like breakfast, lunch provides the body with the fuel it needs to get through some very important parts of the day. For people with diabetes, putting some thought into lunch is doubly important: not only can planning balanced meals help you nourish your body, but it can also help you choose foods that help you best manage your blood sugar levels.

The key to building a healthy lunch plate is to find balanced meal options that consist of carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber and protein. This can take many forms, and a well-rounded meal will look very different around the world. But the same holds true no matter what: the body needs all four of these nutrients in order to thrive in an optimal state. In an effort to assist you in creating healthful and balanced lunches, here's a breakdown of the components that you should take into consideration when planning your next lunch.

Carbohydrates

Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are not bad or harmful for someone with diabetes (here are some of the best healthy carbohydrates to eat if you have diabetes). While it is true that eating too many carbohydrates in one sitting may cause blood sugar spikes, it is important to remember that foods that have carbohydrates also provide the body with a great source of energy, vitamins and minerals. When choosing a carbohydrate food, it's best to choose one that is high in fiber. High-fiber carb foods include whole grains, beans, legumes and fruits. If your typical lunch is a sandwich, an easy high-fiber swap is to trade regular white bread for whole-grain bread instead. Even better, swap that sandwich entirely for a salad or bowl based around a whole grain, like brown rice or quinoa. Our Chipotle-Lime Cauliflower Taco Bowls, pictured above, use quinoa as a healthy whole-grain base. You can also switch out your sides: trade that side of chips for a higher-fiber side salad or piece of fruit. Yes, building a better lunch does take a little more work, but trust me, your blood sugar levels will thank you.

Healthy lunch carbohydrates to choose

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Black beans
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Fruit

Fats

Fats help to increase satiety, meaning they help you feel full for a longer period of time. While fats are a component of healthy meal, it should be noted that not all fats are created equal. Research suggests that we should limit saturated fats—such as those found in red meat and full-fat dairy products—as consuming too much can raise the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. Instead, we should increase our consumption of healthier unsaturated fats. Nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados and fish are all excellent sources of unsaturated fats. Low-fat dairy products are also healthy options. Building a better lunch can involve small swaps like using low-fat mayonnaise (or an olive-oil based mayo) in your sandwich or bigger swaps like trading a beef burger for a salmon salad.

Another tasty, diabetes-friendly lunch option would be a tangy chicken salad made with skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced red grapes, diced avocado, low-fat cottage cheese and walnut pieces, plus some chopped celery, honey mustard, and a pinch of black pepper and salt to taste. Can you guess the healthier fat options found in this meal? That's right! The low-fat cottage cheese, walnuts and avocado are all considered healthier fat options.

Healthy fats to choose at lunch

  • Avocado
  • Walnuts
  • Olive oil
  • Salmon
  • Olives
  • Pecans
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Almonds

Protein

Protein has been all the craze lately, and rightly so. Protein supplies the body with both strength and energy. Lean chicken, turkey, fish, low-fat dairy products and plant-based protein options (like seitan, tempeh and soybean patties) are all great options. For lunch, a turkey and lettuce wrap perfectly combines protein (from the turkey and low-fat cheese) with lots of fiber (from the wrap and vegetables). But, what if you're vegetarian? No worries; for a plant-based option try switching out the turkey for tempeh or grilled tofu.

Healthy lunch proteins to choose

  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Tuna
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Low-fat dairy products

Fiber

According to the American Diabetes Association, fiber may help manage blood sugar levels by making carb foods slower to digest. Fiber is found in many foods with carbohydrates, including whole grains and vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are a particularly great source of fiber, especially for people with diabetes, as they are very low in overall carbs. Non-starchy vegetables include all dark leafy greens, cauliflower, tomatoes, bell peppers, celery and mushrooms. These vegetables are what I like to call "free foods". Free foods do not impact blood sugar levels; therefore, making them a part of every lunch is a smart choice. Remember that salad we talked about before? That is always a smart way to include non-starchy vegetables for lunch. For instance, a Greek salad that combines plump red tomatoes, white onions, freshly sliced cucumbers, kalamata olives and feta cheese is a tasty, fiber-filled option.

Putting it all together

If you're starting with a blank slate when it comes to building a better meal for lunch, there's nothing to fear. Proper planning does take effort, but it goes a long way. And remember, you don't have to give up your favorites foods to improve your diet. All you have to do is stick to balancing those four major components—carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber and protein—and you've got it made. Try our healthy diabetes lunch recipes for more inspiration.