Meal planning—when you grocery shop, prep, and even cook entire meals ahead of time—can save you from a lot of headaches during the week. It’s especially useful if you work, go to the gym, and/or shuffle kids around, and you don’t always have time to prepare healthy lunches or dinners. The last thing you want to worry about at the end of a stressful day is going to the grocery store and figuring out what to make. But, while meal planning can be a lifesaver for busy weeks, it can also be challenging if you live with a health condition such as diabetes. On top of finding time to prep and plan while managing your health, you also need to know which recipes and ingredients are safe for you to eat and help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Luckily, with all the prepared and nutritious options available in most supermarkets these days, it’s easier than ever to make diabetes-safe meals. All it takes is a bit more planning to get started. Here are some expert-backed tips for meal prepping with diabetes.
What to Keep in Mind if You Live With Diabetes
If you live with diabetes, the good news is that you’re probably already a pro at meal (or at least snack) planning in order to keep your blood sugar level stabilized, says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “With diabetes, it’s important to eat regularly and not skip meals so that you can keep your blood sugar stable,” she says. “You’ll need to eat balanced meals or snacks every three to five hours.”
If prepping healthy snacks and meals is part of your routine already, that’s great. You may face a few additional challenges though, says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E., C.H.W.C., F.A.N.D., author of Diabetes Weight Loss: Week by Week. “When you have diabetes, your challenges include eating for blood sugar control as well as for the health of your heart,” she says. “That’s because the diagnosis of diabetes brings with it a two- to fourfold risk of having a heart attack. How much you eat and when you eat is critically important because these two things directly and immediately affect blood sugar levels. Having diabetes means that you can no longer skimp on one meal because you want to indulge heavily in another.”
That’s where meal and snack planning can come in handy. “Prepping some foods in advance—say, on a weekend for later in the week—can help you stay on track,” she says.
Diabetes-Friendly Meal Prep 101
While a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread may be out of the question for you, there are plenty of options you can make ahead of time, Gorin says. “For easy meal prep, you’ll want to look to healthy carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; heart-healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds; and lean proteins such as salmon and chicken breast,” she recommends.
You also need to limit your sodium intake, which is easier to do when you’re cooking at home rather than buying meals from a restaurant. “It’s important for someone with diabetes to limit sodium intake because heart attack and stroke can be complications of diabetes, and decreasing the amount of sodium you take in can help keep your blood pressure in check,” Gorin says. “When you meal prep your food from scratch, you can control the amount of salt you add to your food. Try swapping added salt for flavorful herbs and spices instead.”
Weisenberger offers the following meal-planning tips:
- Focus on disease-fighting foods. Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and barley are perfect for meal prepping and can form the base of many meals.
- Eat non-starchy vegetables at most meals. These include carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, green beans, eggplant, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and many more. They’re low in calories and carbs and high in disease-fighting nutrients and phytonutrients. It’s a good idea to spend some time chopping raw veggies to add them to meals later in the week.
- Portion control is paramount, so invest in sturdy, portion-controlled storage containers.
- Include foods that improve insulin resistance (a hallmark of type 2 diabetes) such as oats, barley, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, and other legumes.
- Include foods rich in fiber and resistant starch. Resistant starch is found in underripe bananas, uncooked oats, lentils, other legumes, and cooked and chilled potatoes.
Recipes to Prep in Advance
Lentil and Sweet Potato Chili
Cooking large-batch portions of healthy meals such as chili means you can enjoy them the entire week and cut down on weekday cooking, Weisenberger says. Plus, you can eat chili several different ways so you don’t get bored. “Enjoy this chili in a bowl one night, then cold in a wrap with diced chicken, and finally in a bell pepper a third time,” she recommends.
1 tablespoon canola or extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2½ cups)
3 large carrots, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 large bell peppers, cut into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)
4 garlic cloves, chopped or crushed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large sweet potato (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into bite-size pieces (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup green lentils, dry
1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes, undrained
12 fluid ounces low-sodium vegetable juice
4 cups vegetable broth
- Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or a large pot with a lid over medium heat.
- Sauté the onions, carrots, and bell peppers until soft, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste, and stir for about 30 seconds.
- Next, add the sweet potato and spices (chili powder through cayenne pepper), and stir.
- Add the lentils, tomatoes, vegetable juice, and vegetable broth.
- Raise the heat to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to a low boil.
- Cover and cook for about 45 minutes or until the chili is thick and the lentils are soft.
You can also prep soup in advance and enjoy it one night for dinner and then pack it for lunch or a snack at the office. Because gazpacho is served cold, you don’t even need a microwave to enjoy it. Plus, you can dress it up if you’re feeling fancy, Weisenberger says. “This cold veggie soup is perfect as part of a meal, as a snack, or served with cocktail shrimp.”
1½ pounds ripe tomatoes
1 medium cucumber
1 large sweet onion, peeled
1½ large bell peppers, any color
2 large celery stalks
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
4-6 fresh basil leaves
¼ to 1 teaspoon sriracha or hot pepper sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 (11.5-fluid ounce) cans of tomato juice or vegetable juice, such as V8, divided
- Cut the vegetables into manageable pieces, usually about 2 or 3 inches each.
- In a high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, or a food processor, place all of the ingredients except the vegetable or tomato juice. Add about half of the juice.
- Process until you reach the desired consistency.
- Add the rest of the vegetable juice.
- Stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
When you live with diabetes, meal planning can sound stressful at first. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll have fun trying out new, healthy recipes you can cook in advance that the entire family will enjoy.