How to become an expert meal planner

Lynette Lacock shares the basics of becoming an expert meal planner.

You have just found out you or a family member has diabetes. There are so many thoughts going through your mind about medication and checking blood glucose levels that you almost forgot you were also told to follow a diabetic diet. What is a diabetic diet anyway? Do you need to buy special food? What will the rest of the family eat? How am I going to find the time to plan a special diet?

You can stop worrying because it’s easier than it sounds. A diabetic diet is simply eating healthy foods in moderation and eating three meals a day at more or less the same time every day. My rule of thumb when determining if a food is healthy is asking: how close is this food to its natural state? For example, whole oats as opposed to a processed cereal with oat flour, or a skinless chicken breast as opposed to chicken nuggets mixed with breading and fillers. You get the picture.

So, you don’t need to purchase special foods, just food in its more natural state and in the correct portion size. The whole family will benefit from eating healthier so there is no need to make separate meals.

Honestly speaking, you’ll have to put in some extra effort to plan your meals but after a couple weeks it will become routine. The trick is to be more organised when you make your shopping list then stick to it. Before we talk about meal planning, we first have to go back to the basics.

Back to basics

Most will remember learning about the five basic food groups in school and will only need a little refresher. It’s a good idea to have a list of your family’s preferences for each food group when planning your meals for the week. You don’t want to make tasty meals with ingredients that no one will eat.

Food group Types of foods
Grains Wholegrains: Brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, popcorn, wholegrain barley, wholegrain cornmeal, whole rye, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat crackers, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat cereal flakes, whole-wheat tortillas, wild rice.

Other products: Mostly made from refined grains, however, some may be made from wholegrains, such as cornbread, corn tortillas, couscous, crackers, flour tortillas, pasta, pitas, pretzels, ready-to-eat cereals.

Vegetables Carrots, broccoli, kale, spinach, acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, avocado, bean sprouts, beets, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, green and red peppers, mushrooms, onions, snow peas, string beans, tomatoes, vegetable juices, zucchini.

Starchy vegetables: corn, green peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut.

Fruit Apples, applesauce, apricots, bananas, berries, figs, unsweetened fruit juices, grapefruit, grapes, kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, nectarines, oranges, papayas, peaches, pears, plums, pineapple, raisins, prunes, starfruit, tangerines.
Protein Meats: Lean cuts of beef, veal, pork, ham, minced beef and lamb; reduced-fat deli meats.

Poultry: Skinless chicken and turkey, ground chicken and turkey.

Fish: Snoek, salmon, hake, yellowtail, clams, crab, lobster, mussels, octopus, oysters, scallops, calamari, tuna fish.

Beans: Cooked beans, refried beans, tofu.

Nuts and seeds: Peanut butter; sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts.

Eggs: Chicken eggs, duck eggs.

Dairy Low-fat milk, yoghurt, cheeses: cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, parmesan, string cheese, cottage cheese. Frozen yoghurt and soya milks.

Putting it all together

Now that you’re familiar with the different food groups we can put it all together to make your diabetic meal. There are different ways to keep track of your food intake. You can count carbohydrates, or you can use the plate method.

The plate method

This makes it easy to get used to looking at a plate of food and knowing if it’s the right foods in the right amounts for you. Your plate should be half non-starchy vegetables, quarter protein and a quarter carbohydrates as in the figure below.


With some practice, you’ll be able to quickly measure the food on your plate at a glance. See the explanation below to get an idea of how large or small your portions should be. This method is helpful when you want to make sure you’re eating the right portion size. It’s also a good idea to get a kitchen scale and measure the portions until you get used to the sizes.

  1. 84g of meat, fish, or poultry – Palm of hand (no fingers)
  2. 28g of meat or cheese – Thumb (tip to base)
  3. 250ml or 1 medium fruit – Fist
  4. 28-56g of nuts or pretzels – Cupped hand
  5. 15ml – Thumb tip (tip to 1st joint)
  6. 5ml – Fingertip (tip to 1st joint)

Staying organised is the key to successful meal planning

It’s best to start planning meals weekly so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Make a list of favourite family foods from each group.  Now that you have an idea of portion sizes, you can measure how much various proteins you’ll need for the week.

Then it’s a matter of buying fresh fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates. Be careful not to have starchy vegetables with every meal since they are high in carbohydrates and a quarter of your plate will already contain your carbohydrate intake. Substitute this with a whole-wheat rolls or bread sometimes.

Try to introduce these new changes over a couple weeks, especially with children.

Prep and freezing

Preparing some things ahead of time can help keep you and your meals more organised. The freezer will soon be your best friend because it will allow you to get a jump start on the week by cooking ahead of time. Once you make something to freeze, remember add the number of portions per bag to the label.

  • Dice, spice and cook chicken fillets and freeze (or leave whole).
  • Spice and fry ground mince beef, chicken or turkey and freeze.
  • Cook brown rice and store in refrigerator or freezer.
  • Buy or make whole-wheat bread/rolls and freeze.
  • Roast vegetables, refrigerate and use for meals over a couple days.
  • Peel and chop carrots and freeze cooked or uncooked.
  • Cook and freeze green beans or any other vegetable (Note: potatoes don’t freeze well unless cooked first due to their high water content).

Try new recipes

Once you’ve tackled basic meal planning, it’s time to start researching new diabetic recipes. You can find so many sites online with great recipes for healthy meals that also take into account the portion sizes required.

Give yourself time to get used to this new way of eating. It’s not easy but you can do it. In the long-run, it will all be worth it because you and your family will be eating a healthier diet.


Sr Lynette Lacock


Sr Lynette Lacock received her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing and Biofeedback Certification in Neurofeedback in the US. She has over 30 years’ experience in healthcare which has enabled her to work in the US, UK and South Africa. Initially specialising in Cardiothoracic and Neurological ICU, she now works as an Occupational Health Sister. She is passionate about teaching people how to obtain optimum health while living with chronic conditions.

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