Strategies for dining out or ordering meals at restaurants

For a person with diabetes, the thought of dining out or ordering meals can be challenging and quite daunting when trying to control blood glucose levels. Annica Rust shares strategies to follow when deciding what to order.

What to drink

When dining out, the first confrontation is what to drink. Sparkling water, flavoured water and sugar-free soft drinks would be the preferred choices.

If it is a special occasion, moderate amounts (one or two drinks/units not more than twice a week) of alcohol may be consumed, only in combination with a well-balanced meal to prevent delayed hypoglycaemia.2 This happens because drinking alcohol on an empty stomach can interfere with the ability of the liver to release stored glucose. A low kilojoule white wine with lots of ice is an example of a smart choice.

What to eat

Plate method

When deciding what to eat, it may be helpful to take the plate example in consideration. (See Figure 1.) The plate example will in most cases have a low glycaemic load (GL), even though some of the individual items have a high glycaemic index (GI). Choose a meal as close to the example or construct a meal to achieve a well-balanced meal. Try sharing, if possible, to be able to construct a more balanced meal.

Figure 1: Plate method1

Let’s look at a few examples when ordering:

  1. Pizza

2. Burger

3. Chicken

Take note of the carbohydrates

It is crucial for people with diabetes to control their carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrate containing items used in recipes can sometimes be hidden and may add to the total carbohydrate count for the meal. It is therefore important to be on the lookout for them whilst ordering.

Items that contain carbohydrates1

  • Grains: bread, baked goods, cereal, crackers, pancakes, rice, tortillas and pasta
  • Starchy vegetables and legumes (beans): white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas and lentils
  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Milk, milk substitutes and yoghurt
  • Some condiments: jelly, braai sauce, tomato sauce and many salads dressings
  • Sweeteners: sugar, honey, concentrated fruit juice, maple syrup and corn syrup
  • Sweets: ice cream, cake and candy

Dessert is not a must

Lastly, remember that dessert is not a must. If you are satisfied with your meal, rather drink a coffee. Always remember that a flat white, cappuccino or a latte has a large milk basis which makes them high in carbohydrates.

Honour hunger and know when to stop

Lastly never forget about your intuition. Unfortunately, a person with diabetes cannot solely rely on intuitive eating, but a nutritional approach that combines key diabetic dietary strategies in combination with intuitive eating can only reap good results. Honour hunger but know when to stop when you are satisfied and rather ask for a “doggie bag.”

Try not to label certain food items as forbidden but try to incorporate them into your meal plan. Remember with portion control there is a time and place for all food items. Always try to see the bigger picture. For example, if dining out is part of your daily routine, stricter portion control is necessary, however, if you rarely dine out, you can be more lenient whilst still staying within boundaries.

There is no one size fits all approach. Please contact a registered dietitian for individualised advice on strategies for dining out at restaurants.


  2. Mahan, L.K. & Raymond, J.L. (eds).2017. Krause’s food and the nutrition care process. 14th ed. St Louis. MO: Elsevier Saunders.


Annica Rust is a registered dietitian practicing at the Breast Care Unit in Netcare Milpark Hospital as well as in Bryanston. She assists with medical nutritional therapy for cancer prevention, treatment, survivorship and palliation. She gives individualised nutritional care to prevent or reverse nutrient deficiencies, nutrition-related side effects and malnutrition to maximise quality of life.

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