Diabetes: Guidelines for Healthy Eating

Along with blood sugar checking and insulin injections, healthy eating is a very important part of diabetes care. Healthy eating is important for all children for normal growth and development. A child with diabetes is no exception. Learn about specific foods like carbohydrates and the timing of meals and snacks to help keep your child's blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Eating a healthy balanced diet

It is especially important for children and teens newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Feed your child a variety of foods from the 4 food groups. The 4 food groups are:

  1. Grain products, including breads and cereals
  2. Vegetables and fruit
  3. Milk and milk products
  4. Meat and meat alternatives, such as legumes, eggs, tofu and peanut butter

Carbohydrate means sugar

Foods that contain carbohydrates are foods that contain sugar or turn into sugar in the body. The sugar may occur naturally in the food or may have been added during processing.

Foods Containing Carbohydrates
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Carbohydrates do not always taste sweet. Therefore, we cannot always rely on our taste buds to tell us which foods contain carbohydrates and which foods do not. Examples of foods that contain carbohydrates include:

  • breads, cereals, and grain products
  • fruits and some vegetables
  • milk and some milk products
  • sweet foods like sugar, honey, candy, chocolate, and regular (not diet) pop

Foods that contain carbohydrates give the body energy

We all need energy to think, walk, and play. We also need energy to keep our hearts beating and lungs breathing. Insulin is a hormone that helps our bodies use carbohydrates to make energy. When insulin is injected, it works together with the food that your child eats to keep blood sugars levels in a healthy range. Eating foods that contain carbohydrates at regular times throughout the day will help prevent the blood sugar level from dropping too low.

Avoid foods high in added sugar

Whether a person has diabetes or not, foods high in added sugar are not the healthiest choice. Foods that are high in added sugar include table sugar, honey, jam, jelly, syrup, candy, chocolate, soft drinks, and fruit drinks.

When a child has diabetes and eats these foods, his or her blood sugar level can go up very quickly and very high. Also, these foods are low in nutrients and may be replacing more nourishing foods that a child needs to grow and develop. These foods should be given to your child as treats and not on a daily basis.

Treats are foods like table sugar, honey, syrup, candy, chocolate, soft drinks, fruit drinks, chips, and donuts. They can be incorporated into meals and snacks 1 or 2 times per week or at your discretion.

Examples of foods that are high in added sugar and should be chosen less often for your child's diet include:

  • cookies, sweet buns, donuts, danishes, sweet cereals
  • fruit canned in syrup
  • sweet pickles
  • commercial milkshakes (such as McDonald’s), premade chocolate milk, ice cream with candy in it
  • regular pop, regular Kool-Aid
  • jam, jelly, marmalade, honey
  • corn syrup, maple syrup, molasses
  • regular gum, chocolate candy

Foods that do not raise the blood sugar

Protein foods, dietary fat, and some vegetables contain little to no carbohydrate so they DO NOT raise blood sugar. These foods are often called Free Foods. Because they do not affect blood sugar directly, they can be eaten between meals and snacks to satisfy hunger. Be aware that if these are eaten more often they can lead to unnecessary weight gain.

Some examples of these foods are:




  • cheese
  • meat
  • peanut butter
  • eggs
  • fish
  • poultry
  • butter
  • margarine
  • salad dressing
  • bacon
  • oil, any type
  • avocado
  • sour cream
  • table cream
  • whipped cream
  • celery
  • lettuce
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • radishes
  • cabbage
  • cucumber
  • peppers
  • mushrooms
  • zucchini
  • yellow or green beans

Healthy food choices

Choose the following healthy foods more often for your child’s diet:

  • whole grain breads, cereals, pastas, rice, potatoes, crackers, waffles, pancakes, plain cake
  • fresh fruit and vegetables, unsweetened juice, fruit canned in juice or water, dill pickles
  • milk, yogurt, plain ice cream
  • sugar-free beverages: WATER, diet pop, Crystal Light, sugar-free Kool-Aid
  • sugar-free or low-sugar jams and jellies (such as E.D. Smith No Sugar Added Jam, Triple Fruit Jam)
  • lite syrup (such as E.D. Smith No Sugar Added Syrup)
  • sugar-free gum

It is not necessary to use dietetic or diabetic products, like cookies or candies. These products may cause gas, stomach cramping, and diarrhea if used in large quantities.

Healthy food choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks

Here are some suggestions for healthy food choices during breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time:

For breakfast:

  • cereal, toast, waffles, bagels
  • milk or yogurt
  • a piece of fruit or a small glass of unsweetened juice
  • eggs or peanut butter or bacon, if you wish

For lunch:

  • a sandwich, pasta, soup, or a piece of fruit
  • milk or yogurt
  • unsweetened juice or a piece of fruit
  • a vegetable
  • cookies, granola bar, pudding

For supper:

  • meat, beans, or lentils
  • pasta, rice, potato, corn, or bread
  • milk or yogurt
  • a vegetable
  • a piece of fruit

For snacks:

  • crackers
  • popcorn
  • pretzels
  • cereal
  • bread
  • muffin
  • sandwich
  • bread sticks
  • granola bar
  • english muffin
  • bagel
  • bun
  • fruit
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • milk

Timing of meals

Your child should eat 3 meals and 2 to 4 snacks each day. Read the following suggestions for the timing of meals and snacks:

  • Your child must have meals and snacks at about the same time each day, and nothing in between except for water and sugar-free beverages.
  • Meals should be finished within 30 to 40 minutes and snacks within 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Each scheduled meal and snack must contain a carbohydrate food.
  • The schedule must allow for a minimum of 2 hours between when your child eats and when the next blood sugar check occurs.
​Vanita Pais, RD, CDE