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Knowing what to eat is key to staying healthy when living with diabetes. With some minor changes, you can have a game plan for everything from meals to snacks.

By: Samantha Cortese, RDN 

If you have diabetes, one of the first questions you might ask is, “What should I eat?” There are considerations, like the timing of your food and total macros. You can avoid mealtime stress using a simple system called the plate method.

The plate method for diabetes

As its name suggests, the plate method involves dividing your plate into three sections:

  • Half the plate for non-starchy vegetables
  • One quarter for protein
  • One quarter for starch and carbs

Not only does this create balanced meals, it helps you manage your blood sugar. And as a bonus, it makes you more mindful of portion sizes. 

Getting started

Not sure where to begin? Start with a 9-inch diameter plate. Before serving your food, picture three separate segments. This will help you know how much space each item should take up. To make things even easier, look for a plate with section dividers at your local store or online. If you can’t find a sectioned plate, try marking off dividing lines as you build your meal.

Setting up your plate to achieve this healthy balance is one of the first steps you can take toward feeling your best. And you won’t have to miss out on the foods you enjoy. 

Visualize veggies

As you serve up your food, make vegetables the main focus. Cover half your plate with non-starchy vegetables like: 

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Leafy greens
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini

Plan for protein

After you’ve loaded up on veggies, fill one quarter of your plate with heart-healthy proteins such as:

  • Skinless chicken or turkey
  • Fish, especially swordfish and salmon
  • Lean cuts of beef or pork
  • Seafood, like shrimp or scallops
  • Legumes, like lentils or beans
  • Plant-based meat alternatives
  • Nuts or nut butter

Save space for starch

In the final quarter of your plate, include starchy foods and other carbohydrates such as: 

  • Whole grains: 
    • Brown or wild rice
    • Quinoa
    • Barley
    • Whole wheat pasta, cereal, bread or rolls
  • Starchy vegetables:
    • Potatoes
    • Yams
    • Squash
    • Peas
    • Parsnips
    • Beets
    • Turnips
  • Low-fat cheese or Greek yogurt
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Low- or nonfat milk

Don’t forget about your glass

After your dish is ready, choose a low or no-calorie beverage. Consider sipping:

  • Water
  • Unsweetened tea
  • Black coffee
  • Diet soda
  • Flavored no-calorie water or seltzer

To liven up your water, add a few drops of calorie-free flavor enhancer.

Room for indulgences

Following the plate method doesn’t mean you have to miss out on your favorite foods. Dishes like casseroles, soups, pizza and burgers all fit. They’re called combination foods, meals or items made from different ingredients and food groups. For example, a burger would include protein from the patty, dairy from cheese (if using) and carbs from the bun. Use the same rules with combination foods to build your plate. And when possible, consider healthy swaps, like a whole wheat bun for your burger. Swap regular fries for homemade sweet potato fries or salad.

Going beyond the plate

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, working with a diabetes care and education specialist (DCES) can help you lower your risk of complications. 

They may recommend a few things, including:

  • Being physically active
  • Taking medications
  • Monitoring levels at home and through regular laboratory testing
  • Getting immunizations and eye and foot exams
  • Meal planning to support a balanced, healthy diet

Get diabetes support

It’s easy to get help for managing diabetes. Call 800-275-6401 to make an appointment with a DCES. Our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and registered nurses are ready to help with diabetes-friendly meal-planning strategies. 

Or consider joining a support group — like our free virtual support group, “Diabuddies,” which meets monthly. Find an upcoming meeting.

Next steps: 

Looking for more? Explore our dietitian-approved recipes
Want to meet with a nutritional specialist? Find a nutritionist near you
Learn more about diabetes care at Geisinger