Expert tips for dining out with diabetes

Expert tips for dining out with diabetes

When you’re living with diabetes, it can feel like restaurant meals are off-limits. But that’s just not the case. With a little bit of planning — and some smart choices — you can enjoy dining out.  

Two woman enjoying a salad at an outdoor table.

As anyone with diabetes can confirm, eating well while managing your condition can be a challenge, even when you’re dining at home. But when ordering a meal out with your family, or picking up food on the go, understanding what you can eat (and what to avoid) can be downright confusing. 

But just because you live with diabetes, that doesn’t mean restaurant menus are entirely off-limits. Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of the 360FamilyNutrition blog, offers these tips for eating out. 

1. Be consistent 

If you’re planning on grabbing takeout for dinner, you might think it’s a good idea to cut back on carbs for the earlier part of the day. However, that’s not recommended — for people with or without diabetes.  

“You want to keep your carbohydrate intake consistent throughout the day to avoid a spike in blood sugar,” Smith says. But she also acknowledges that “still, you have to remember that carbohydrates aren’t ‘free’ when you eat out. They’re still part of your overall intake for the day.”  

2. Plan for the day ahead  

“People who have the best success with eating in general — and restaurant eating, specifically — are those who make meal planning part of their lifestyle,” says Smith. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. When you wake up, run through your day as you shower and dress. Have a hectic day ahead? Pack healthy snacks so they’re on hand when you’re on the go. Busy evening? If you plan to grab something quick for dinner, you can make a better choice about what that “something quick” will be.  

3. Peruse the menu online  

The Food and Drug Administration requires that chain restaurants list nutritional information about their menu items. Menus (on paper and on the overhead boards) should list calories and other info, including carbohydrates and sugars. You can also often find detailed nutritional data on restaurants’ websites. This can help you determine what you’ll order ahead of time, Smith advises, rather than waiting to decide when you’re starving.  

4. Learn to eyeball serving sizes 

You could feed a family with many of the huge platters served these days. The visualizations below, which are based on the size of an average woman’s hand, can help you manage just how much of an appetizer or entrée you should eat. You can also order an appetizer, small plate, or half-portion size instead of a full entrée.  

  • 1 teaspoon = thumb from tip to first joint  
    • Serving size guide for: margarine or butter, mayonnaise  
  • 1 tablespoon or 1 ounce = entire thumb  
    • Serving size guide for: cheese and oil  
  • 3 ounces = the palm of your hand  
    • Serving size guide for: meat, fish, poultry  
  • ¼ cup = a cupped handful  
    • Serving size guide for: dried fruit, nuts, seeds  
  • ½ cup = ½ of a closed fist  
    • Serving size guide for: rice, pasta, fresh fruit, fruit juice  
  • 1 cup = a closed fist  
    • Serving size guide for: milk, yogurt, vegetables, cold cereal, legumes  

Another easy place to start? The American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Plate Method.  

5. Ask for sauces and garnishes on the side 

We all know the dessert case and soda fountain are basically big sugar bowls. But did you know that those ketchup and barbecue sauce bottles on the table contain added sugar, too? Smith advises asking for condiments on the side. (Using less of them can lower your sodium intake as well.) Even a salad might sneak in a bit of the sweet stuff if it’s made with candied nuts and dried or fresh fruit, so pay attention to each ingredient. 

6. Rethink your drink order 

Soda, juice, and fruity drinks are sugar bombs. “I tell people to stay away from them because they’re a carbohydrate source that won’t help you feel full,” says Smith. “Fortunately, there are lots of lower-calorie and calorie-free options.” Opt for unsweetened iced or hot tea, or seltzer with a lemon, lime, or orange wedge.