Diabetes Meal Planning: A Roadmap to Your Diet

Approximately 25.8 million people are currently affected by diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, non-traumatic lower-limb amputations, and new cases of blindness among adults in the United States. It is the major cause of heart disease and stroke and is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

As a diabetes educator, I see more and more people diagnosed with diabetes every day. For many people diabetes can be an overwhelming diagnosis. One of the first important steps to managing diabetes is proper meal planning as food can directly affect blood sugar levels. Often times,  I find people are very overwhelmed when it comes to meal planning because they assume they must make drastic changes in their eating habits such as eating much less and avoiding carbohydrate foods.

Understanding the effects that food, especially carbohydrates, have on a person’s blood sugar level is one of the keys to managing diabetes. Meal planning for diabetes involves more than just cutting back on food. There are many approaches that people with diabetes can use to plan their meals. As a diabetes educator, it is my job to help that person with diabetes create a starting point.

When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, weight loss is often recommended for those who are overweight or obese. This is because even just a 7% weight reduction can lead to a significant improvement insulin resistance, one of the leading characteristics of diabetes. For a lot of people, weight loss can usually be achieved by changing the amounts of food you are already eating. Decreasing the amounts of some while increasing the amounts of others. Using “The Plate Model” to plan meals is an easy way to get started and one that I often begin with when counseling newly diagnosed diabetics.

The Plate Model offers a simple approach to meal planning encouraging proper portions sizes. It involves drawing imaginary lines on the dinner plate and dividing it into sections meant for each food group. It does not involve using any special tools such as scales or measuring cups nor does it involve any counting of calories or carbohydrates. Using The Plate Method lets you still choose the foods you want to eat however creates a starting point to adjusting portion sizes. Therefore allowing you to get larger portions of healthful foods and smaller portions other foods.

  1. First, you start with a nine inch plate. This is important because over time our plates have gotten bigger therefore so have our portion sizes as well as our waistlines. Next you want to get a smaller dish that holds about half a cup and put that to the side. On your nine inch plate, you fill half of it with non-starchy vegetables. This includes all vegetables except the starchy ones such as potato, sweet potato, winter squash, corn, green peas, lima beans, pinto beans, and black eyed peas.
  2. This is meant to encourage and increase one’s intake of non-starchy vegetables while decreasing the amount of carbohydrate foods and high fat meats you eat. This creates a more balanced meal as most people today do not consume the recommended amounts of vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables will not impact your blood sugar as much as starchy vegetables or carbohydrate foods will which is also important when managing your blood sugar following a meal.
  3. Next fill a quarter of the plate with starchy foods otherwise known as carbohydrates. With an emphasis on whole grain breads and cereals such as wheat or rye bread and oatmeal or cream of wheat. Whole grains are emphasized because they provide vitamins and minerals and fiber that are all important for good health and managing blood sugar. Other carbohydrate containing foods allowed in the section include rice, pasta, tortillas, beans, starchy vegetables, and snacks such as  low-fat crackers, pretzels, fat-free popcorn, and snack chips.
  4. The remaining quarter of the plate is reserved for meat or meat substitutes. Low fat, lean meats are encouraged because they are better for your heart and aid in decreasing calories needed for weight loss. This includes chicken or turkey without the skin, fish such as tuna, salmon, and catfish, other types of seafood, and lean cuts of beef and pork. Tofu, eggs, and low-fat cheese are also in this section. Healthy ways to cook meats include baking, broiling, and boiling with little fat being added. 
  5. On the side, add an 8 ounce glass of non-fat or low-fat milk or a small serving of a carbohydrate food such as a 6 ounce container of light yogurt. This ensures you are getting enough calcium. You can even chose a serving of sugar-free pudding or low fat ice cream if you want a sweet treat with your meal. 
  6. Lastly, add a piece of fruit or 1/2 cup of fruit salad in that small dish mentioned earlier and your meal is complete. You can do this for all lunch and dinner meals. For breakfast, do the same thing except skip the vegetables.

When using The Plate Method first focus on your portion sizes. Once you have become comfortable with portion sizes, then you can focus on making healthier food choices. The Plate Method will help you eat about the same amount of food at each meal which will help avoid large fluctuations in blood sugar levels throughout the day. It is important to make sure not to skip any food groups and ensure you are eating enough fruit, vegetables, and whole grains each day. Talking to a Registered Dietitian and/or Certified Diabetes Educator can help you to learn more about meal planning and tailoring your meals to meet your needs.

Follow the link below to download a PDF version of The Plate Method courtesy of Prescription Solutions, an affiliate of United Healthcare Insurance Company:


By Alyssa Werner, MS, RD, CDE, LD

References: American Diabetes Association. Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes. A position statement of the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2008; 31:S61-S7

Camelon, K., et al. The Plate Model: A visual method of teaching meal planning. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998; 98:1155-1158

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes fact sheet: national estimates and general information on diabetes and prediabetes in the United States, 2011. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011.

Idaho Plate Method for Diabetes Meal Planning. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2012, from http://platemethod.com/downloads.html

Raid, M., et al. The Healthy Diabetes Plate. January 2007 CDC online journal Preventing Chronic Disease. http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2007/jan/06_0050.htm



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