How to Enjoy Dining Out as a Diabetic

While many customers value the convenience and control that comes from Good Measure Meals’ nutritionally balanced meal plans, there also times when we want to enjoy a meal out at a restaurant with friends and family. Eating out can pose a challenge to blood sugar control and weight management. Extra large portions and lack of control over ingredients and preparation methods often means we’re taking in far more calories, saturated fat and sugar than if we prepared a meal ourselves. That said, it IS possible to enjoy eating out while managing your blood sugar and supporting your long term health goals. Read on for some tips and strategies!

The Plate Method

By keeping the “Plate Method” in mind, you can make a healthy, diabetic-friendly choice in any restaurant or food environment you find yourself in. The “plate method” is a tool for building a balanced meal without having to agonize over calorie/carb counting or weighing/measuring your foods. Here’s how it works.

  • Fill ½ plate with salad and/or non-starchy veggies (broccoli, asparagus, cucumber, peppers, carrots, squash, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, string beans, cauliflower, tomatoes, spinach, kale)
  • Fill ¼ plate with lean protein (skinless poultry, fish, seafood, lean red meat, eggs, tofu)
  • Fill ¼ plate with fiber-rich complex carbs (brown rice, quinoa, beans, whole wheat bread or pasta, other whole grains like farro or barley, starchy veggies like potatoes, corn and peas)

You can visualize the “plate method” proportions even when you’re not eating off of a plate! If you are ordering soup, for example, make sure it has all the components of a balanced meal: plenty of veggies (tomatoes, carrots, spinach etc.), a lean protein source like chicken or turkey, and a small amount of some kind of complex carb like potatoes, brown rice or beans. With a sandwich or wrap, the bread or wrap counts as your complex carb (and if it’s a giant sub or roll, you’re better off doing open faced), fill with a lean protein source like turkey or tuna, and pile on the veggies.

Now let’s get a little more specific. Here are my “dietitian approved” guidelines for making healthy, diabetic-friendly choices at some common restaurant types.

Salad shop or salad bar: A salad often seems like a safe choice, but it completely depends on what comes on it. Start with a base of greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula), add as many non-starchy veggies as you want (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions), include a deck-of-cards sized portion of a lean protein (grilled chicken, turkey breast, tofu, salmon, shrimp, lean beef), plus ½-1 cup of a complex carb like beans, chickpeas, corn, quinoa, or fresh fruit. Choose one or two higher-calorie topping for flavor and texture (dried fruit, nuts, cheese, croutons, olives, avocado). Order olive oil based dressing on the side and use sparingly.

Mexican: Chicken or shrimp fajitas are a great option for protein plus veggies; Eat with 1 large or 2 of the small tortillas it comes with OR about 9 tortilla chips from the basket OR get a side of rice and beans for your carb. Another option would be a taco salad sans taco: order chicken or shrimp over lettuce with tomatoes, onions, black beans, brown rice or corn, pico de gallo, and a thumb-sized portion of guac or sour cream.

Burger joint: Get a beef, turkey or bean burger; choose to eat the bun OR enjoy a small serving of fries (it’s a giant brioche-style bun, just eat half). Get lettuce, tomato, and onion on your burger plus a side salad or another veggie. (Burger places often make delicious roasted or grilled veggie sides!)

Italian restaurant: This one’s particularly challenging for those watching carbs. While it’s fine to have a cup of pasta as part of a balanced meal, at Italian restaurants a bowl of pasta is likely to be 3-4 times that. Your best bet is to order a protein based meal like grilled fish or chicken paillard. Split an appetizer-sized portion of pasta with someone at your table OR enjoy a piece of bread from the bread basket. Start with a salad and make sure your meal comes with plenty of veggies.

Asian-style eatery: At Chinese: Enjoy ½ to 1 cup of rice (brown if available). Choose a protein-based dish that is lightly sauced such as chicken, shrimp, tofu, pork or beef. Order an extra serving of steamed or lightly sautéed veggies to add volume, fiber, and nutrients to your meal. Avoid fried rice and noodle dishes, as well as sweet and sour sauces and other high calorie/sugar sauces. At a Japanese: edamame or chicken, salad with ginger dressing, plus a brown rice veggie roll OR chicken/salmon teriyaki with double veggies and brown rice (if available).

Steakhouse: Choose skinless grilled chicken or lean cut of steak (remove any visible fat). Portion sizes tend to be enormous (easily 3-4 times the recommended 3-4 ounce serving for protein) so ask for half to be doggy-bagged before it reaches the table. Order a double portion of broccoli, spinach, asparagus or whatever veggie it comes with. Plus a baked potato or ½-1 cup of rice pilaf or other grain.

Sandwich shop: Choose whole grain bread or wrap if available. Go open-faced if the bun or sub is oversized. Fill with lean protein like turkey breast, grilled chicken, or tuna. Pile on the veggies – lettuce, tomato, peppers, sprouts, cucumbers – the more the better! Watch out for high-calorie condiments and add-ons; choose mustard over mayo. Order fruit on THE side instead of chips or cookie.

Grab & go breakfast at coffee shop: Egg and veggie sandwich on whole grain English muffin or wrap plus fruit salad or piece of fresh fruit. Skip the muffins, donuts, and other pastries.  

Brunch: Egg or egg-white omelet filled with veggies (spinach, peppers, tomatoes, onions etc.) Ask for light on the cheese (feta and goat cheese tend to offer more flavor for a smaller amount.) Plus 1-2 slices whole wheat toast. Ask for a fruit salad instead of hash browns or fries. Skip the breakfast meats (bacon, sausage, ham… or if you must, just have one piece!)

General Tips for Restaurants

Plan ahead: Look at the menu ahead of time so you know your options and make a plan that aligns with your goals. Order first so you’re not tempted by what others order.

Ask questions & make requests: Don’t be shy! Inquire how foods are prepared, and ask for modifications and ingredients to be held or substituted.

Sip Smart: Stick to water, seltzer or any calorie/sugar-free beverages (unsweetened tea and coffee are fine). Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like sweet tea, soda, juices, lemonade, fruit drinks etc. Watch the cream and sugar in your coffee. Limit alcohol to 1 drink (women) or 2 drinks (men) per day.

Be Savvy about Sweets: Enjoy a few bites of dessert shared among the entire table, or choose a piece of fresh fruit like an apple or orange, which are now widely available at many lunch spots.

Doggy-Bag: Restaurant portions are almost always much larger than we need. More food means more calories, carbs and fat. Research shows we tend to eat everything on our plates, so set yourself up for success by asking for half to-go before it even reaches the table. Bonus – one less meal you have to prep the next day!  

This post is brought to you by GMM Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Alissa Palladino. Interested in talking to her about your specific plate method needs? Take advantage of a free, 10 minute consultation today!

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