Got diabetes and not sure what to eat for dinner? Here are meal ideas to help you get a healthy dinner on the table when you have diabetes.

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sheet pan of salmon and vegetables on blue background

Dinner can be one of the toughest meals of the day. After a long day of work, school, kids and other commitments, putting together a healthy and balanced meal can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task. This is exactly why so many people struggle with making healthy choices at the end of the day. When you're managing diabetes, it can be even more challenging to decide what to eat to support your health and still feel satisfied. Luckily, following just a few guidelines can make it easy to craft nutritious, satisfying meals that support your blood sugar management and your health.

Be mindful of your carbohydrate intake

The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing what to eat for dinner (and any meal for that matter) when you have diabetes is the type and amount of carbohydrates. People with diabetes have trouble metabolizing or processing carbohydrates, which leads to high blood sugar. In the short term, eating a too-high-in-carbohydrate dinner can cause blood sugar to spike overnight and lead to high blood sugar the next morning (here's more information about what can cause high morning blood sugar numbers). In the long run, persistently high blood sugar levels can cause a number of complications, including heart disease, nerve damage, kidney damage, and eye damage.

So does that mean you have to avoid carbohydrates completely if you have diabetes? Not exactly—carbohydrates are not bad or completely off-limits for people who have diabetes. Rather, it's important to be conscious of the type of carbohydrates you choose, the amount you have, and what you eat them with. (Here's everything you need to know about carbohydrates and diabetes.)

Carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods, including fruit, vegetables (especially starchy vegetables like potatoes), grains and even unsuspecting foods like milk and yogurt. Foods made with added sugar and/or refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, often have the highest concentration of carbohydrates.

Choosing vegetables, fruit, and small amounts of whole grains are ideal for people with diabetes because these foods are higher in fiber and health-promoting nutrients compared to refined or processed carbohydrates. Fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates from food and can prevent spikes in blood sugar after eating. It can also prevent the absorption of fat and cholesterol from food, which why eating more fiber has been linked to lowering the risk of heart disease, a potential complication of diabetes. Studies have also found that diets high in fruit and vegetables are associated with a decreased incidence of type 2 diabetes, likely because of their high fiber, vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content.

When you have diabetes, it's important to keep in mind that regardless of the type of carbohydrates you eat, eating too many carbohydrates in one sitting can cause your blood sugar to go up. Determining the right amount of carbohydrates for you depends on a number of factors, including your body weight, physical activity level, age, and severity of insulin resistance. Working with a registered dietitian or certified diabetes education specialist can help you pinpoint the right amount of carbohydrates to aim for at dinner as well as throughout the day.

Balanced dinners for healthy blood sugar

When eating carbohydrates, it's important to pair carb foods with foods that contain healthy fats and protein to help slow digestion and stabilize blood sugar. Protein and fat take longer to digest than carbohydrates, which means they can help you feel fuller, longer. This can help suppress hunger between meals and may make you less likely to overeat at mealtimes. Here are a few of my favorite healthy dinner ideas that provide balanced meals with plenty of fiber, protein and healthy fats and a modest amount of carbohydrates.

Chili

Chili is a delicious dinner time staple, but it's also an excellent healthy dinner choice for people with diabetes. The main ingredients in chili are beans—whether that's kidney beans, red beans, white beans, black beans, or really any bean! Beans are a good choice for people with diabetes because they are very high in fiber and are also a great source of plant-based protein. Fiber and protein help balance your blood sugar by slowing down digestion and preventing blood sugar spikes.

Chili is also made with tomatoes, which are a great source of carotenoids, phytonutrients with powerful antioxidant properties that are associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. Make your chili with ground turkey or lean ground beef to keep saturated fat in check. You can top chili with cilantro and plain Greek yogurt to boost your protein and phytonutrient intake.

Sheet-Pan Chicken and Vegetables

One pan meals are my go-to for quick and easy weeknight dinners (they also save you from doing a ton of dishes at the end of the night). With so many sheet pan recipes out there, you can have a ton of variety with this meal format and keep dinner interesting without having to rely on too many ingredients.

Some of my favorite formulas are roasted chicken or salmon, like the oven-baked salmon and vegetables (pictured above), with plenty of vegetables. This combination provides a protein-packed, low carbohydrate dinner with plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Salmon is a great source of heart healthy omega-3 fats, a key nutrient for minimizing inflammation, which is associated with an increased risk for diabetes.

Salmon Burgers

Speaking of salmon, a nutrient-dense salmon burger makes a quick and nutritious dinner that is easy and affordable. Salmon burgers can be made with canned or fresh salmon, making it easy to keep the ingredients on hand.

Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and it also contains high amounts of B12 and vitamin D. This high-quality protein has all of the essential amino acids and has been well researched for many health benefits, including cardiovascular benefits and eye health. Since people with diabetes have an increased risk of eye damage and cardiovascular disease, eating more salmon is a great way to help minimize these complications.

I recommend having your salmon burgers with a whole wheat bun or lettuce wrap and serving them with a dollop of taziki and a nice salad salad for additional nutrients and fiber.

Cauliflower Rice Bowls

Rice is a staple across the globe, but it can be challenging to incorporate into a diabetes-friendly diet because of its high carbohydrate content. Enter cauliflower "rice." Made from pulsing cauliflower florets into small rice-sized pieces, cauliflower rice can stand in for traditional rice in a variety of dishes. One cup of cauliflower rice has just 5 grams of carbohydrate compared to 46 grams in a cup of white rice.

Cauliflower is low in calories and carbohydrates, but still has a starchy texture making it the perfect rice or potato replacement. It's neutral flavor makes it a perfect base in rice bowls, where it can be paired with a variety of flavorful ingredients and sauces. These low-carb, high protein, and veggie-heavy bowls can fill you up without the additional carbohydrates found in traditional rice bowls.

Spaghetti Squash Casseroles

Lasagna and baked ziti are comfort food classics, but these pasta-heavy dishes can be challenging for people with diabetes because of their high carbohydrate content. One of the easiest ways to make these dishes more diabetes-friendly is by substituting spaghetti squash for some or all of the pasta.

Spaghetti squash has a "spaghetti-like" texture (hence the name), but it only has 10 grams of carbohydrate per cup compared to the 43 grams of carbohydrate in 1 cup of regular pasta. Winter squashes like spaghetti squash are also rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamin c, which have been associated with a decreased risk of several health conditions, including diabetes.

Another win for spaghetti squash casseroles is they are made in one pan and therefore have minimal cleanup.

The bottom line

Having a well-balanced dinner with healthy sources of protein, fat and vegetables is key for preventing blood sugar spikes in people with diabetes. The good news is that you don't have to sacrifice time or flavor when preparing a diabetes-friendly dinner. Keep these meal ideas in mind and you'll never have to ask "what's for dinner" again.