Quick Meal Options for Diabetes

You can eat a quick meal without compromising your blood sugar management.

When you have diabetes, eating a balanced diet is one of the best ways to keep your blood sugar levels in check. But that way of eating can be challenging when life gets busy or you lack access to the foods typically recommended. Sometimes, a quick meal out is all that’s possible or even available. The good news is that with a little planning, you can enjoy diabetes-friendly meals at popular fast food establishments.

A fast food employee hands a bagged meal to someone in their car through the drive-thru window

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Tips for Eating Out With Type 2 Diabetes

Because everyone has different nutritional needs and responds differently to different diets and foods, there is no one-size-fits-all diabetes diet. However, almost everyone with type 2 diabetes can benefit from following a meal plan with a good balance of vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates.

When eating out, try using what’s known as the diabetes plate method. This method involves filling half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of your plate with lean proteins, and a quarter with carbohydrate foods.

Additional ways to make smart choices at fast food establishments include:

  • Reviewing the restaurant’s menu ahead of time. Most restaurants have online menus with detailed nutritional information. This can help you decide what to order before you arrive at the drive-thru.
  • Knowing what to avoid. You’ll want to steer clear of highly processed carbohydrate foods, fried foods, and foods with added sugar. 
  • Making swaps. Swap out high-fat, fried foods for healthier alternatives. For example, you may be able to swap a crispy chicken sandwich for a grilled chicken sandwich. You may also have the option to choose whole wheat bread instead of white bread or substitute fresh fruit or a side salad for fries.
  • Practicing portion control. When you’re craving a particular food that you know may cause your blood sugar to rise, practice portion control. You can downsize your meals by choosing a small combo meal rather than a medium or large one. You can also order from the kid’s menu.

Best Fast Food Choices for Type 2 Diabetes

Knowing what to order from fast food establishments can help you stick to your diabetes diet, keep your blood sugar levels stable, and make more nutritious choices without sacrificing convenience.

Whether you’re craving Mexican or are forced to grab a snack from the local gas station, consider these diabetes-friendly options.

Mexican Food

Mexican restaurants offer a variety of diabetes-friendly meals. Protein- and fiber-rich ingredients like chicken, steak, and fresh sauteed vegetables can be added to burrito bowls and salads to create a filling, blood-sugar-friendly meal.

A typical burrito bowl at a Mexican restaurant has 35.4 grams of protein, 14.8 grams of fat, 28.6 grams of carbohydrate, and 2.7 grams of fiber. 

Other diabetes-friendly Mexican foods include:

  • Whole grain tortillas
  • Fajitas
  • Guacamole
  • Grilled steak, shrimp, fish, or chicken
  • Sauteed vegetables
  • Cooked, whole black beans
  • Taco salad without the shell

You'll want to be mindful of portion sizes of high-carb ingredients like tortillas, chips, and rice. Limit ingredients like sweetened dressings and toppings like cheese and queso, which can be high in added sugar, calories, and saturated fat.

Sandwich Restaurants

Most sandwich restaurants allow you to build your own sandwich, making the eateries a good option for people with diabetes.

When building your sandwich, you’ll want to forego the white bread and instead choose wheat or multigrain bread for more fiber, slower carbohydrate absorption, and better blood sugar control. Most 6-inch wheat sub rolls contain around 43 grams of carbohydrates and about 5 grams of fiber.

To create a balanced meal, layer the sandwich with lean protein, such as roasted turkey and fresh vegetables, which will not add a significant amount of carbohydrates.

When picking your spread, opt for low-fat mayonnaise or avocado instead of regular mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and sugary sauces.

Skip high-carbohydrate, high-sugar sides, including cookies, chips, and fried items, to keep your meal diabetes-friendly.

Chinese Food

When ordering Chinese food, focus on dishes that feature steamed vegetables and lean proteins with small portions of brown rice.

Depending on your nutritional needs and the size of your meal, it may be beneficial to measure out the appropriate portion size and save the rest for later.

For example, one large order of Chinese chicken and steamed vegetables contains around 658 calories, 32 grams of fat, 57 grams of protein, 37 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of fiber.

You can ask to have the sauce served on the side to further reduce the carb, calorie, sodium, and fat content. 

Avoid meals containing fried meats, eggrolls, large portions of noodles or rice, and heavy sauces.

Pizza and Italian Food

Eating pizza and Italian food with diabetes can take some strategic thinking, but it is not impossible.

While pizza contains protein, carbohydrates, and fat—which together may help prevent blood sugar spikes—the food’s high-fat content may cause a delayed rise in blood sugar.

For a better macronutrient balance, choose a pizza with a thin whole-wheat crust, lean protein such as chicken breast, and fiber-rich vegetables. Pair with a side salad for a balanced meal. 

Limit sugary sauces and toppings, cheese-filled crusts, and deep-dish pizza, as they are high in fat and carbohydrates.

Other good options at Italian restaurants include:

  • Whole grain pasta with lean proteins and tomato-based sauces or olive oil and herbs
  • Grilled chicken salad with dressing on the side
  • Grilled chicken, fish, or other seafood dishes with vegetables

Hamburger Restaurants

While hamburger restaurants are known for their value meals that feature multi-patty burgers and crispy fries, blood sugar-friendly options are often available. 

For example, you can substitute grilled chicken breast for high-fat hamburger meat and whole-grain bread for white bread, if available. Skip the side of fries in favor of a side salad, vegetables, or fresh fruit.

If you’re craving a burger, opt for a regular or kid sized-burger. Avoid multi-patty burgers and sandwiches with high-fat, sugary toppings, such as bacon, honey mustard, barbecue sauce, and fried onion rings.

Other good options at hamburger restaurants include:

  • Salads with lean protein, fresh veggies, and nuts
  • Lettuce wraps with fresh fruit
  • Fruit and yogurt parfaits

Convenience Stores and Gas Stations

When you’re in a rush and need a snack or small meal from a convenience store, knowing what foods to purchase and which to avoid is key for keeping your blood sugar under control.

While convenience stores and gas stations offer a large selection of candy bars, potato chips, and sugary beverages, they also offer more healthful, lower-carbohydrate options, including:

  • Boiled eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Turkey jerky
  • String cheese
  • Nuts and seeds

One large hard-boiled egg provides 6.3 grams of protein and just 0.5 grams of carbohydrates. You can enjoy one or two boiled eggs alone or pair one with a banana for a grab-and-go hunger buster.

Coffee and Pastry Shops

You may be surprised at the selection of blood sugar-friendly beverages (and foods) on and off the menu at coffee and pastry shops. 

Instead of high-fat, high-sugar coffee shop drinks, opt for regular or iced coffee flavored with sugar-free syrup and low-fat or almond milk.

When it comes to breakfast options, choose egg bites, whole wheat breakfast burritos, or egg white and turkey bacon on an English muffin. Skip biscuits, pastries, doughnuts, and other high-carbohydrate foods.

Foods or Ingredients to Limit

Knowing which foods or ingredients to limit when eating out can help improve your blood sugar control and optimize your health.

Foods and ingredients to limit include:

  • Foods and drinks high in added sugar, including pastries, pies, sweet tea, fruit juice, and non-diet sodas
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, breakfast cereals, and snack foods like candy and chips
  • Red meat and processed meats, such as ham, sausage, pepperoni, and some deli meats
  • High-sodium meals and salty snacks
  • Excess alcohol

A Quick Review

Eating at fast food restaurants can be tricky for people with diabetes, but it isn’t impossible. The key to sticking to your diabetes diet when eating out is to plan ahead and carefully review the menu to narrow down more healthful options. It is important to focus on meals that include non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid foods that are fried or high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. Lastly, don’t be afraid to make special requests or ask for substitutes.

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14 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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