A diabetes diagnosis can be a shock when it comes to preparing meals. Old stand-bys may seem off limits, and new recipes may seem time-consuming to prepare, if only because they’re unfamiliar. But it’s important to stay positive, says registered dietitian Mary Sue Waisman. “When you cook, you’ve got control,” she says. “It’s a basic principle that I think is really helpful for people.”
Basically, it all comes down to blood sugar and nutrition. Not only do you want meals with a low glycemic index, meaning that blood sugar will rise slowly rather than spiking, but you want meals that are rich in nutrients the body needs—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber—and lower in those we tend to overindulge in, such as fat, salt, and sugar. “Look to have a colorful plate filled with lots of vegetables and whole grains and perfect in portion size,” says Waisman.
Get started with these dos and don’ts for cooking healthy meals for diabetics.
Don’t: Cook multiple meals
Eating diabetes-friendly foods is a healthy way for everybody to eat. Get the whole family involved in choosing and preparing meals. “It’s a good time to establish lifelong cooking skills,” she adds.
Do: Surround yourself with the best choices
“I tell people to get naked with food and look for it in its most basic form,” says Waisman—meaning, as unprocessed as possible. Fill your pantry with healthy ingredients so you’ve always got a quick meal on hand. “If you’ve got some dried beans, whole grains, and evaporated milk in your cupboard, you can make a lot of things,” she says.
Don’t: Fall for the multigrain trick
Many bread and cereal products are labeled “multigrain” as though it’s a health claim, but all the term means is that more than one variety of grain is used, cautions Waisman. “These grains could still be refined,” she says. Instead, the word to watch for is “whole,” as in whole wheat or whole grain. That way, says Waisman, “you get all the nutrients that are in the germ, endosperm and bran, and all the benefits of the grain.”
Do: Be selective about meat
When you eat meat, Waisman recommends choosing leaner cuts (avoid visible fat and a lot of marbling) and lower-fat options such as round roasts and sirloin tip. “Stay away from things like rib roasts and higher-fat ground meats,” she says, as well as high-sodium processed picks like sausages and deli meats. As for poultry, “you’re better off if you can buy and cook things skinless.”
Don’t: Let sodium sneak in
Waisman recommends stocking up on canned lentils and beans: “You can do so much with them and they’re so affordable.” But make sure to rinse canned beans well before using. “You need to drain them and rinse them and drain them again to get up to 40 percent of the sodium off,” she says.
Do: Stock up on herbs and spices
“When you’re trying to reduce fat and salt and sugar,” says Waisman, “you can increase the flavor with a wide assortment of herbs and spices. Go wild with them.” As inspiration, she suggests steamed carrots with cumin and chili powder, green beans with nutmeg, asparagus with lemon zest or fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar and freshly ground black pepper.
Don’t: Supersize portions
“We’ve become very accustomed to very large portion sizes,” Waisman says. “[Shrinking them] is something I can’t emphasize enough.” Instead of filling, and then cleaning your plate as a habit, start with smaller portions and eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
Do: Choose the best cooking methods
Retire the deep-fryer! Instead, says Waisman, choose cooking methods that reduce or limit fat while adding flavor. For meat, try baking, broiling, roasting or grilling—“you’ve got means by which the fat drains away.” And for all foods, favor slow-cooking methods that make foods more flavorful. “I really advocate steaming and roasting vegetables to bring out the rich, deep flavor,” Waisman says. Fruits are also delicious roasted or grilled for a healthy dessert—just top with a sprinkle of ground nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger.
Don’t: Forget the value of leftovers
On the day of our interview, Waisman had chicken breasts in the fridge marinating in lemon juice and garlic, ready to be grilled and served alongside brown rice and a salad of black beans, chickpeas, celery, corn, canola oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh tomatoes and feta cheese. And dinner the next day? The same ingredients, chopped and rolled up in a whole-grain wrap. “I’m a big believer in cook once, eat two or three times,” she says. “People think you have to cook something different every night but you don’t.”
Do: Get inspired and make it fun
“Pick up a cookbook and look at the pictures and find something that appeals to you,” Waisman suggests. “It should get your taste buds tingling.” Try cooking with friends or family members to share and develop ideas, and make sure not to go overboard with complex feasts that take hours to prepare. “We don’t have to make fancy dinners,” Waisman says. “But if you can find a way to find your favorite foods, kick up the flavor a little bit and cook them healthfully I think that’s a good place to start.”
Web exclusive August 2011 Best Health magazine