Meal Planning for Children with Diabetes

For some families, planning meals is the trickiest part of managing diabetes. At first, you may look at food very differently than you did before. The simple act of cooking dinner can feel like a science class, with all the necessary calculations. Grocery shopping trips often take much longer than in the past, because the nutrition information on food labels becomes more important.

What is a diabetes meal plan?

Once insulin has been injected, it can’t be turned off. As a result, a regular and predictable supply of glucose, in the form of carbohydrates, must be provided. This maintains blood glucose balance and helps avoid too many lows and highs. 

A meal plan consists of 3 main meals and 1 to 3 snacks each day. The goal is for your child to have a consistent amount of carbohydrates at the same time each day. This makes it easier to figure out the right insulin dose. It’s important that the amount of food satisfies your child’s hunger and gives enough nutrients for proper growth. Consistency is the key to a successful meal plan. However, any meal plan must be flexible and realistic. It must take into account your child’s lifestyle, likes, and dislikes.

The main goals of the meal plan:

  • to satisfy your child’s appetite
  • to promote normal growth and development
  • to balance sugar
  • to be easy to follow so your family can incorporate it into daily life

How do foods affect blood sugar?

Ask people what they know about diabetes and chances are they’ll say, “That’s the disease where you can’t eat sugar, right?” In fact, people with diabetes can and do eat sugar. The catch is that they have to pay closer attention to what kinds of sugar they eat, how much they eat, and when they eat it. Many foods have some form of sugar. Learning how much sugar different foods contain is an important part of diabetes nutrition.

The foods we eat provide many nutrients, which are divided into 3 main food groups: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. These are called macronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. Many foods are a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. They appear in all 3 categories in the food list below.

The Nutrition Facts Label
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Reading and understanding nutrition food labels will help you to manage and prepare proper carbohydrate amounts for your child.
Foods with carbohydrates (sugars)

  • starches: breads, pasta, rice, grains, cereals, corn, potatoes, cookies, crackers
  • fruit and vegetables: fruits and fruit juices, including tomato juice; sweet vegetables, such as turnip, squash, carrots, peas, beets, parsnip
  • dairy products: milk, yogurt, ice cream
  • sugars: refined sugar, honey, molasses, syrups; jams and jellies; candy; chocolate; regular soft drinks

It’s important to consider carbohydrates in diabetes meal plans. This is the only group that directly and immediately raises blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods, including breads, fruits, milk, and chocolate. They are an essential source of energy.

There are 2 types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are made up of single or paired sugar molecules. They are rapidly broken down by the body to provide a quick source of sugar. The following are types of simple carbohydrates:

  • fructose, found in fruits and vegetables
  • sucrose, found in refined sugar products
  • lactose, found in dairy products

People with diabetes can eat sugar and foods containing added sugar, such as candy and chocolate, in small amounts. Sugars should make up no more than 10% of their total calorie intake. Learning how to incorporate such foods into the diet makes the meal plan easier to follow.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take longer for the body to digest. They are made up of many sugar molecules linked together. Therefore these foods take longer to turn into energy than simple carbohydrates. They raise blood sugar levels more slowly. Complex carbohydrates are found in starch-based foods.

Foods with protein

  • meat, poultry, fish, shellfish
  • eggs
  • legumes: nuts, beans, lentils, peanuts and peanut butter, tofu
  • milk, cheese, cottage cheese, other dairy products

Protein foods do not directly raise blood glucose levels, except for milk, yogurt, ice cream, and legumes, which also contain carbohydrates. During prolonged starvation or undernutrition, the body can break protein down into sugar. Proteins are essential for growth and to promote healing and tissue repair. Protein foods also provide essential vitamins and minerals.

Foods with fats

  • all oils: lard, shortening, margarine
  • meat: especially red meat, but also fowl
  • fish and shellfish
  • dairy products: butter, milk, cream and cream products, cheese, and cheese products
  • eggs
  • other: salad dressings (low fat and regular), gravies, nuts, seeds, olives, coconut, avocado

Foods such as butter, margarine, oil, most salad dressings, and gravies are mostly made of fat. Like proteins, they do not directly raise the level of blood sugar. Fats are an important part of a well-balanced diet. They also provide essential building blocks for growth and development.

There are 3 types of fats:

  • Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. They tend to raise blood cholesterol. They are found in lard, shortening, butter, and animal products such as meat, eggs, and milk.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean, sesame, and most nut oils. They are usually liquid at room temperature. Nuts and seeds, or soft margarines made with these oils, tend to be associated with lower blood cholesterol.
  • Monounsaturated fats are found in other oils, including olive, peanut, and canola, as well as soft margarine made from these oils. These fats may lower blood cholesterol levels if used in place of saturated fats.

These 3 types of fats are found in different combinations in foods. It is wise to try to limit the amount of fat in the diet, and to try to choose foods that contain polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. Maintaining normal blood fat (lipid) levels is important. High levels add to the risk of developing complications later in life such as heart disease.

Some vegetables, such as lettuce, celery, cucumbers, and peppers, fall outside the 3 food categories. However, they are essential because they add vitamins, minerals, and fibre, as well as flavour and variety, to the diet. Since they don’t contain macronutrients, they can be considered “free” foods.

Vanita Pais, RD, CDE

Vanita Pais, RD, CDE

Vanita Pais, RD, CDE