Meal Planning for Diabetics

If you are a diabetic or have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, meal planning becomes one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Eating right does not come easy for most Americans. We are used to quick and easy, and very highly processed foods. However, with proper meal planning, exercise, and medications prescribed by your doctor, you can become as healthy as possible.

Meal planning for diabetics includes designing meals that fit your schedule. You must eat correctly to keep your weight healthy. And the goal for your meal planning is to develop good blood glucose levels. It is important to focus on counting carbs and learning the new plate method for meal planning.

Counting Carbs

Keeping your blood glucose levels in check means you must learn to count carbs. When you eat foods high in carbs they raise your blood sugar levels. Counting carbs means that you keep up with how many carbs you eat every meal, and total them for the day. You will also need to set a strict limit on the amount of carbs you consume every day. With proper meal planning you will know exactly how many carbs you can have with each meal.

What is a Carb?

You have probably been eating many more carbs than necessary just because you did not know how to identify carbs. Foods containing carbs include:

  • Fruit
  • Juice
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Beans (dried)
  • Soy products
  • Starches, (breads, cereals, rice)
  • Sweets, (sodas, cakes, candy, and more)

Before you begin to see this new way of eating as too restrictive, keep in mind that you can include carbs in your diet. You just cannot consume carbs at high rates.

You can discover how many carbs are in a particular food by reading labels or referring to charts for fresh foods. Many stores now list the nutrients, including carbohydrates, on shelf flyers in the fresh produce section.

Following is variety of foods that contain around 15 grams of carbs:

  •  Four ounces fresh fruit
  • One sliced of bread
  • One tortilla
  • ½ cup of oatmeal
  • Six crackers
  • One hamburger bun
  • ¼ baked potato
  • Two cookies
  • Six chicken nuggets
  • ½ cup ice cream
  • One cup of soup

The Plate Method

The current recommended method for meal planning for diabetics is the plate method. This is an excellent way to plan meals because it gives you an instant visual of what you are eating. You can look at your plate and determine if you have the proper nutritional balance for managing your diabetes.

Imagine a plate. To follow the plate method you will divide this plate into sections:[1]

  • One half of the plate is reserved for non-starchy veggies
  • One-fourth of the plate is reserved for protein
  • One fourth of the plate is reserved for a serving of bread or grain such as rolls, rice, potatoes, or other starches

The Plate Method distinguishes a new approach to the way the USDA views nutrition and diabetes. It is simplified and was created to help diabetics individualize meals. It takes into account that meal planning should be based on weight, activity level, and other nutritional needs. For this reason it stays away from recommending particular serving sizes.[2]

The Idaho Plate Method

The Idaho Plate Method follows the plate method of managing your meal planning. It is a visual you can follow for every meal. This type of meal planning even works well when dining out in restaurants.

The Idaho Plate Method is popular with doctors and others because it promotes the addition of many different types of foods. You will add foods from every food group to the plate and get a full and healthy meal each time. But, keep in mind that it will always be important for a diabetic to count carbs, even using the plate method.

This method is based on a 1,400 calorie diet.[3] Each meal, or plate, will include 45 grams of carbs such as fruits, milks and dairy and other starches. This method will let you substitute, or exchange, carbs. You can exchange types of carbs or you can carry them between meals. For example, if you consumed two starches at one meal you can easily omit a starch at the next meal. This is one of the reasons it makes it super-easy to eat out.

An example of the Idaho Plate Method follows:[4]

Key Tips to Keep In Mind

There are very important key tips to keep in mind with diabetic meal planning. The first one is the hardest for most people: eat three meals a day.

It is important to eat three healthy meals a day following the plate method. When you eat three meals you can avoid that ‘hungry throughout the day’ feeling. You can also avoid the large spikes in glucose associated with very large meals rather than several smaller meals.

Another key tip is to avoid second helpings. It is easy to eat until you feel full, but that means you are over-eating.

As you eat and plan meals think about the following:[5]

  • Eat three meals a day following the plate method
  • Never return for second helpings
  • Try to avoid snacking between meals
  • Know your numbers: check your blood sugar levels before you eat
  • Eat calories, do not drink them, (do not consume all of your calories with exotic drinks, beer, or other drinks)
  • Focus on fresh fruit, not juice
  • Limit milk consumption, (some of the calories from milk come from sugar)

Other Meal Planning Methods

The Plate Method is not the only meal planning method for diabetics. There have been many different meal planning methods throughout history as diabetics attempt to control their glucose levels by what they eat.

One of the most popular meal planning methods before the plate method become accepted by most experts is the diabetic pyramid. This pyramid mimics the USDA pyramid with additions and subtractions for diabetics. The diabetic food pyramid focuses on eating more foods in the grains, fruits, and veggies levels. It calls for eating fewer foods from the meat, sweets, and fats levels.

Carbohydrate counting, discussed above, is another choice for meal planning. We have already discussed the importance of carbs; however, some diabetics stick to carb counting to maintain their glucose levels and do not incorporate other meal planning methods.

Diabetic exchange lists are also very popular with diabetics who manage their disease with meal planning. When using the exchange lists you exchange certain foods within groups. For example, when following the exchange list you can substitute 1/3 cup of pasta for ½ potatoes.

With options for meal planning you can choose the one that best fits your schedule and lifestyle. The plate method is now considered the method of choice because it does not require long lists of exchanges and makes it easy to feed your family and eat out at restaurants.


[1]  Your Plate. (2011). Diabetes Forecast , 24

[2]  Ibid

[3]  The Idaho Plate Method for Diabetes Management. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Idaho:

[4]  Idaho Plate Method. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of South Florida:

[5] Ibid

This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.