Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.

If you’re new to diabetes, your head may be swimming with everything you need to know and do to best take care of yourself. Checking your blood sugar, taking medication, and keeping up with appointments can be a lot to manage. On top of all of that, you probably are wondering what to eat and what to cook that will work for both you and your family. It can certainly seem confusing! Here are some suggestions to get you started with preparing healthful, diabetes-friendly meals that you and your family can enjoy.

Getting started

Chances are, you have at least one shelf in your kitchen filled with cookbooks, some of which you probably never even open anymore. Thanks to the Internet, you can find a recipe for pretty much anything with a quick search. There are countless recipes just waiting to be discovered! Of course, not all of them are tasty, let alone healthful. And what about recipes for diabetes—also known as “diabetic” recipes? As you begin your quest for recipes, keep in mind the following:

There’s really no such thing as diabetic recipes! Wait, what? It’s true. Sure, you’ll find cookbooks and recipes labeled as being “diabetic.” But what does the term “diabetic” really mean when it comes to food? It’s an antiquated term. Gone are the days when you might be given a “diabetic diet” to follow after being diagnosed. Keep these pointers in mind:

• There’s really no diabetic diet that everyone follows. A diet (really, an eating plan) for diabetes might be vegetarian, Paleo, carb-controlled, low fat, or Mediterranean. All can work, depending on the individual.
• Diabetic recipes are often those that contain non-caloric sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, or stevia. Think of sugar-free desserts, for example. Can you use these recipes? Sure. But you don’t necessarily have to, just because you have diabetes. And remember that just because a recipe has the word “diabetic” or “sugar-free” in the title, it doesn’t mean that the recipe is carbohydrate-free.

Look for recipes that provide nutrition information. If you’re counting grams of carb, or limiting your saturated fat or sodium intake, for example, you need to know what’s in a particular food item. That means looking at the Nutrition Facts label, referring to a food counts book, or going online to check out a food database. Recipes are no different. How do you know if the Vegetarian Chili or Chicken Cacciatore recipe will work with your particular nutrition goals? Make it easy on yourself and aim to use recipes that provide you with the nutrition analysis, per serving. If you have recipes that you’d like to use but that don’t provide nutrition information, you can find similar recipes online that list calories, carbs, fat, sodium, etc. and use that as a guide. You can also use an online recipe nutrition calculator. Two to try are at SparkPeople and Calorie Count.

Check out the carbohydrate, saturated fat, and sodium content. You don’t have to try to find recipes that are carbohydrate-free, nor do you need to obsess over finding those with little or no fat, saturated fat, or sodium. However, there are benefits to paying attention to these nutrients. For example, you probably know that carbohydrate (carb) is the nutrient with the greatest effect on blood sugar levels. Carbs aren’t bad by any means. But too much or too little can make it tricky to keep your blood sugars in their target range. Check with your dietitian or doctor as to what your carb goal is for each meal and snack, and then choose recipes accordingly. For example, if your dinner meal carb goal is 60 grams, and that lasagna recipe that you’re eyeing lists 110 grams of carb per serving, you might think twice about using it. It’s also a good idea to gloss over recipes that are high in saturated fat (more than three to five grams per serving) and sodium (more than 400 mg per serving).

Swap it out. Looking to slash fat and calories? Want to up your intake of whole grains? Need more ways to fit vegetables into your eating plan? Then learn how to master the art of substitution. Most recipes can be made healthier by swapping out one or more ingredients. Here are some ways to get you started:

Sugar. Sure, you can still use sugar, but maybe not as much. If you’re baking, say, muffins, you can typically reduce the sugar called for by one-third to one-half. You can also bake with blends that combine a non-caloric sweetener, such as sucralose with sugar. Both methods will cut calories and carbs.
Fat. Fat, like carb, isn’t bad. But fat is naturally high in calories—even that bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. You can usually cut the fat in a recipe by one-fourth to one-third. Also, try cooking with vegetable oil sprays rather than throwing a chunk of butter or pouring a lot of oil into the pain for sautéing.
Salt. In general, you can usually skip the salt when cooking main dishes, soups, and stews. Add flavor with pepper, garlic, herbs, and spices instead. Baked goods made with yeast usually do require some salt, however.
Milk. Save some calories and saturated fat by swapping out whole milk with reduced-fat, low fat, or skim milk.
Meat. If you’re whipping up a stew, soup, stir-fry, or casserole, use less meat or poultry. Instead, slash calories and boost nutrition by adding more vegetables. Also, think about skipping the animal protein altogether and using beans, split peas, or lentils instead. They’ll give you plenty of protein with a healthy dose of fiber—minus the saturated fat.
Pasta and rice. Sure, these foods are laden with carbs. But they can still be part of your eating plan. First, go for whole-grain versions of these (and any other) grain foods. That means ditching the white versions for brown rice or whole-wheat pasta. Reduce the carb impact by using a little less of the grain food and adding in more veggies.

Let’s help each other eat healthy! Share a diabetes dining tip by adding your comment below.