Quick Meal Essentials for Life with Diabetes

Why Eating Well With Diabetes Is Essential (and Challenging) 

Written by Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, FADCES 

If you are living with diabetes and feel overwhelmed with grocery shopping, meal planning and food preparation, you are not alone! Whether you eat at home, work or school, it can be a challenge to juggle your daily diabetes to-do list, prepare nutritious meals, satisfy your taste buds, follow food safety guidelines and continue to manage your blood glucose levels.  

It’s important to figure out what to eat and how to organize your kitchen and meal preparation schedule. Eating well may help improve your blood glucose and health outcomes (including weight management and heart health) and potentially reduce your risk of complications.  

How Meal Planning Can Help People With Diabetes

Small steps lead to big changes, so if you haven’t pre-planned your meals in a while, try planning for a few days in advance. Meal and snack planning can help you determine your carbohydrate intake in advance and therefore may help you better manage your blood glucose levels. You are more likely to eat nutritious meals and snacks and potentially increase the amount of time your blood glucose levels are in target range if you plan your meals ahead of time.  

Of course, you don’t have to always plan what you are going to eat. However, if you leave all of your meals up to chance, you might consume more take-out or fast-food. Savor the flavor of the food you choose and enjoy your meals. Soon you will be empowered by your choices of homemade cuisine! There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to meal planning for everyone living with diabetes. Whether you choose a low carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or vegetarian style of eating, make sure you choose the approach that fits your life-style and food preferences.  

Read more about meal planning methods for people with diabetes

Cooking Tips and Tricks

Make meal preparation as simple as possible! 

  • Start with the foods that will take the longest to cook, for example chicken or lean meat. Roasted veggies make take a while to cook as well.  

  • While your protein is cooking, wash and cut vegetables. 

  • Store leftovers in shallow, air tight, clear containers to make sure food cools quickly and stays at 40 F or cooler when refrigerated. This will prevent bacterial growth. Make sure the lids fit securely.. When reheating, use a meat thermometer to assure foods are heated to a safe internal temperature (at least 165 F). Mark the containers for lunch or dinner the next day. Don’t let leftovers get lost in your refrigerator! 

  • Be snack savvy! Hard boil eggs, pre-portion nuts, and cut up colorful bell peppers in advance for the days ahead. Don’t have time to cut-up veggies? Buy them pre-cut in your local supermarket.  

Cooking for Kids With Diabetes

If you are preparing meals for the family, or for your child with diabetes, make meal preparation a family affair. Have your child help chop vegetables or batch cook together and put food in labeled containers for the week ahead. Your child can help inventory the pantry, and identify what items need to be added to the grocery list. Set up background music, such as your child’s favorite play list, so you can cook to the beat of the background tunes! Soon these activities will become enjoyable rather than a chore. 

Click here for more information on cooking for kids and kid-friendly recipes.

Grocery Lists Essentials and Pantry Staples for Easy Meal Prep

Check out what you already have on-hand in your refrigerator, pantry and kitchen cabinets before you start your grocery list. Next, create a detailed shopping list of must-have items for the week ahead. This helps you limit impulse buys of less healthy options at the grocery store or when ordering online. It also prevents purchases of duplicate items which results in wasted food.  

Review your up-coming work and appointment schedule, and select a block of time for meal planning and pre-preparation. Look for time (which doesn’t have to be a full-day) that you can set aside to plan for the week ahead. Keep reading for some of our favorite easy and delicious recipes to get started, and cross off the ingredients that you already have at home. List the other ingredients or items on your grocery list. 

Whether you use pen and paper or an app, a grocery list will get you on the right track for everything you need. Did you know that there are apps that can help develop a grocery list for you? Many large food stores also provide their own guidance based on the layout of the store to make shopping a snap. If you shop online, the list will be outlined for you.  

Healthy Grocery List Ideas

Here are some grocery shopping ideas to get you started on easy and healthy meal prep. Remember to also include what you enjoy! 

Non-Starchy Vegetables


Meat, Poultry and Seafood

Legumes and Beans

Dairy and Eggs

Fats, Oils, Vinegar, and Condiments

Grains/Bread and Alternatives

Seasonings and Spices

Our Favorite Quick and Easy Recipes for Anyone With Diabetes

Here are two of our favorite recipes to help you get started with your meal plan:

One Pot Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Salmon with Cilantro Lime Salsa

Food Safety and Storage

Healthy eating also involves safe cooking practices, proper food handling and storage techniques in order to help prevent foodborne illness. A well-organized (and clean) refrigerator allows food to remain fresher longer as well as reduce food waste. What a great way to eat well and save money! 

Here are our top tips for food safety and storage:  

  • Toss any items that are expired, freezer-burned, spoiled or moldy. Freezer-burned food may be safe to consume, but it may be tough and taste unappetizing. If the container hosting the food is questionable, toss it along with the spoiled food. You know the old saying, “when in doubt, throw it out.” 

  • After cleaning out the refrigerator, place baking soda in the back of the refrigerator to capture lingering odors. 

  • Check the refrigerator thermometer. The temperature should be set for less than 40 degrees F (37-38 degrees F is optimal,) in the refrigerator and 0 degrees F in the freezer. 

  • When you place items in the refrigerator, make sure to leave room for air to circulate. Proper air flow helps to keep food at its freshest. 

  • Put condiments, such as salad dressing and low sodium soy sauce on the inside of the refrigerator door or on a Lazy Susan. Keep only one of each item in the refrigerator to maximize space. Turn items around so you can easily read labels.  

  • Store leftovers in leak-proof clear containers with tight fitting lids. Label with date. 

  • If you have space, store your fruits and vegetables in separate refrigerator drawers. Some fruits and vegetables give off ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process. 

  • Keep raw meats in plastic or aluminum foil to keep these items at their optimum freshness. 

  • Keep raw meats, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of refrigerator, or in its own drawer. Never place raw meat above cooked food, which will prevent the meat drippings from contaminating already cooked meat.  

  • Use the ‘first in, first out rule’. When you buy something new, rotate the older items to the front and always check expiration dates.  

  • Wash your refrigerated vegetables when you’re ready to use them to extend their shelf-life. 

  • Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.  

  • Use a food thermometer to ensure foods are all cooked to the correct internal temperature.  

  • Avoid leaving food out in the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F, as bacteria can grow quickly.