The Best Lunches for Diabetes

Lunch can be a special challenge for people with diabetes: Often the midday meal is rushed—eaten on the run or at a desk—making it all too easy to resort to carb-laden fast food or pizza.

That said, eating a healthy lunch is vital for managing diabetes, keeping blood sugar levels in control, and diversifying your nutrient intake. It may sound like a lot, but rest assured a healthy lunch doesn't have to be difficult to achieve, even on the busiest days.

Quinoa salad on a table with a striped napkin and cherry tomatoes
Natasa Mandic / Stocksy United

Macronutrients Ratio

Macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbohydrates—provide the body with energy. For diabetes management, it can be helpful to reduce your carbohydrate intake to decrease potential blood sugar spikes.

Everyone has different needs when it comes to macronutrients. Factors like age, sex, activity level, blood glucose control, and medication regimen can all affect what macronutrient balance is right for you. It is important to work with a nutritionist or certified diabetes educator to determine your personal ratio. A personalized regimen can help you achieve your specific treatment goals. Most insurance plans cover diabetes nutrition therapy.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) states that there is no one ideal macronutrient breakdown of calories among carbohydrates, fat, and protein for people with diabetes, and that meal plans should be individualized to incorporate a person's calorie, weight loss, and metabolic goals.

It's important to recognize that not all macronutrients are created equal. Highly processed foods often found in traditional lunches such as lunchmeats, white bread, canned soups, and sugary yogurts are low in nutrient density - making them filling but lacking in the nutrients found in unrefined foods, like whole grains and leafy greens.

Carbohydrates

When planning a diabetes-friendly lunch, look for high-quality carbs that are rich in fiber to help prevent blood sugar spikes. The ADA recommends people with diabetes consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day (the standard amount recommended for adults in the general population). Ideal sources are beans and lentils, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.

Improving your lunch is as simple as swapping in smart choices. One strategy is to consciously incorporate foods rich in fiber, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, oats, and whole grains. These foods are all considered "complex carbs," meaning they take longer to break down and be metabolized due to their complex starch structure. This slower breakdown helps to prevent flooding of the bloodstream with glucose all at once. Studies suggest increased dietary fiber can have modest effects in lowering A1C.

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In the mood for a sandwich? Try a cold cut sandwich on whole-grain bread with lettuce, tomato, and crunchy red peppers and a smear of hummus to add extra fiber and protein. Going out for burgers? Ask for no bun or choose a lettuce wrap instead to keep carb counts low. If you're eating at home, a savory oatmeal bowl with eggs and spinach, a kale-stuffed sweet potato, or beef and brown rice soup are other great options that'll keep your blood sugar balanced.

Protein

Lean protein, including fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, beans, tofu, and nuts and seeds is a healthy bet for a balanced lunch. If you're out to eat, look for protein-topped salads, like a Cobb salad with turkey and hard-boiled eggs, or head to a vegetarian-friendly restaurant where you can choose beans or tofu as your main protein.

Eating protein from food sources undoubtedly produces health benefits for people. That being said there is no set standard on how much protein people with diabetes should be consuming each day, so it's important to work with your doctor or certified diabetes educator to determine your daily protein goals.

Try a vegetable omelet with a side salad, chickpea stew, or a strawberry chicken salad as healthy, protein-packed options.

Fat

Fat is essential for hormone production, heart and brain function, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and the structural integrity of every cellular membrane in the body. A diet rich in plant-based, monounsaturated fats such as avocado, olives, and nuts may also help improve blood sugar metabolism and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, processed foods containing trans fats (sometimes found in shelf-stable baked goods) and high amounts of saturated fats (found in animal products and whole-milk dairy and heavily processed foods such as hot dogs) can be more of a hindrance than helpful if you're dealing with diabetes, due to the stress they put on the cardiovascular system. Avoid or limit these foods and instead choose low-fat dairy, fish, lean meats, and foods found closest to their natural state.

Fish is a great option for a healthy fat source. The ADA recommends consuming fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines an average of twice per week. Lunch is a great time to work in salmon burgers, salmon cakes with dill aioli, or a Caesar salad topped with chicken.

Four Components of a Diabetes-Friendly Meal

Employing a mental checklist is a smart way to make sure you're staying mindful of what's actually on your plate. This tool can be useful both when you're making lunch at home and while perusing the menu at a restaurant.

Keep a list in your head of the four main components of a diabetes-friendly meal (the three macronutrients plus veggies):

  • Fiber (oats, whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa)
  • Lean protein (chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, beans, or tofu)
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, grass-fed butter)
  • Vegetables, especially dark leafy greens

Eating Out

When you're in a rush, going to the nearest drive-thru or getting takeout is sometimes your only option. While takeout or fast food that's laden with saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and added sugar may not be the ideal choice for people with diabetes, there are menu items that are more diabetes-friendly than others. These include salads with grilled chicken (rather than fried), fruit or soup on the side instead of fries, and water or unsweetened iced tea instead of soda or diet soda.

Additionally, it pays to be mindful of portions when eating out. If you order a full meal complete with sides, divide each part of the meal in half and save the rest for tomorrow, or use the Plate Method, in which half your plate is reserved for veggies, one quarter is reserved for lean protein, and one quarter is reserved for complex carbohydrates.

Tips For Keeping Portions in Check

When you're out to eat and unable to weigh your food, or if you're cooking at home and don't have access to a food scale, it can be helpful to know how to visually gauge portion sizes. You can use your hands as visual cues:

  • Grain portions should be about 1/2 cup—about as much as will fit in one cupped hand.
  • Portions of lean protein should be around the 3-ounce mark, which looks equivalent to the approximate size of your open palm or a deck of cards.
  • A serving of fats such as olive oil or butter is usually one teaspoon and is approximately visually equal to the top section of your thumb.

Meal Prep

Preparing meals ahead of time is an easy way to always have healthy lunch options at hand. Carve out a few hours on weekends for recipe planning, a grocery trip, and cooking. Here are a few meal prepping techniques to try:

  • Fire up your oven: Roast one baking sheet tray of veggies such as broccoli, red onions, and Brussels sprouts, simply tossed in olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast a second baking sheet with your protein for the week, such as salmon fillets or chicken thighs.
  • Stir up a sauce or two: Having sauces and dressings waiting for you in the fridge can help you make a meal out of anything. Try a lemony salad dressing or a basil pesto.
  • Go for the grains: Making a big pot of brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, or other grain can serve as a great meal base for three to five days. Just top with some greens and protein and you've got a meal. Switch up your grains each week for variety.
  • Count on leftovers: Double recipes and eat leftovers for lunch the next day, or freeze the excess and save it for dinner next week.
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Article Sources
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