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10 Diabetes-Friendly Restaurants and What To Order At Each

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Though many restaurant meals can be high in calories, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium, you can enjoy diabetes-friendly options by making substitutions, being mindful of portion sizes, and choosing restaurants with a variety of healthy choices. 
  • Popular restaurant chains, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Chili’s have delicious diabetes-friendly meals. 
  • Plan ahead by reviewing menu options before arriving, and be mindful of your beverage choices.

Whether you’re newly diagnosed with diabetes or have been living with the condition for years, it can be challenging to navigate dining out.

Many restaurant meals are high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, which can spike blood sugar levels.

However, the occasional restaurant meal can fit into your meal plan with the right modifications.

Continue reading for a list of the top diabetes-friendly restaurant chains and tips for simplifying eating out with diabetes.

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What to Look for in a Diabetes-Friendly Restaurant

A quick look at an online menu can help you determine if a restaurant is diabetes-friendly.

Review the types of foods available, portion sizes, and substitution options. 

Menu Variety 

While you may associate fast food and fast-casual restaurants with meals high in carbohydrates and calories, many places have a variety of lighter options available.

Often, these are clearly listed in a special section of the menu.

Look for keywords on the menu, like “light,” “steamed,” “low-carb,” and “low-fat.”

When searching for a diabetes-friendly restaurant, make sure there are menu choices with lean proteins, whole grains, and non-starchy vegetables. 

Ability to Substitute Ingredients

Substitutions are a great way to make meals more diabetes-friendly.

Consider the following swaps that are available at many popular restaurants:

  • Grilled meat instead of fried. 
  • Side of steamed veggies or salad instead of french fries. 
  • Whole wheat bread/bun instead of white. 
  • Lettuce-wrapped sandwich or burger instead of a bun.

Nutrition Information Availability

Many restaurants have online resources with detailed nutrition information for each menu item. 

This can be an excellent resource for people with type 1 diabetes who need to estimate their carbohydrate intake with each meal to dose their insulin properly.

It can also be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes who use carbohydrate counting to plan their meals. 

While the nutrition information can help you identify menu items that are high in carbohydrates, calories, fat, and sodium, it can also help you find nutrient-dense foods rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Portion Sizes

Though the meal's composition is important, portion size can often be the difference between a diabetes-friendly meal and a meal that spikes your blood sugar

For example, there is a big difference in carbohydrates between a 6” sandwich and a 12” sandwich at a sub shop.

Many fast food restaurants offer the option to receive a larger portion for only a few extra cents, but again, this can greatly increase the carbohydrate load of the meal.

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12 Diabetes-Friendly Restaurants and What to Order at Each

If you’re unsure where to start, here’s a list of restaurant chains with diabetes-friendly menu options.

Remember, you can apply the above tips at most restaurants to ensure your meal doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels. 

1. Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle is a popular Mexican fast-casual chain focusing on fresh, whole-food ingredients.

Because of the highly customizable menu items, Chipotle is a great option for diabetes-friendly meals. 

What to Order

  • Salad with chicken, light brown rice, light black beans, side of guacamole, salsa instead of dressing (42 g carbohydrates).  Note: “Light” means a smaller portion than what would usually be served.
  • Three chicken tacos on crispy corn tortillas with fajita veggies, romaine lettuce, and salsa (39 g carbohydrates)

2. Panera Bread

Panera is a popular fast-casual lunch spot offering many options containing veggies and lean proteins. 

What to Order

  • You Pick Two: Cup Broccoli Cheddar Soup + Half Caesar Salad with Chicken; Seasonal Fruit Cup side (46 g carbohydrates).
  • You Pick Two: Half Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich + Half Greek Salad; No sides (47 g carbohydrates).

3. Subway

Subway is a well-known sandwich shop with highly customizable menu items.

You can make substitutions for lean proteins, whole grain bread, and extra vegetables. 

What to Order

  • 6” Oven Roasted Turkey Sandwich on Hearty Multigrain Bread; add extra veggies (41 g carbohydrates).
  • Rotisserie-Style Chicken Salad; Side of Baked Lays Original Chips (36 g carbohydrates).

4. California Pizza Kitchen

Though known for its pizza, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) has many lighter entrees and salad options that are diabetes-friendly and lower sodium.

What to Order

  • Banh Mi Bowl with Grilled Chicken (31 g carbohydrates).
  • Shrimp Scampi Zucchini (30 g carbohydrates).

5. Red Robin

Red Robin is a popular burger joint with many substitution options to lighten up a traditionally calorie and carbohydrate-dense meal.

You can also turn any burger into a lettuce wrap.

What to Order

  • Keep It Simple Burger (Beef) with Tavern Bun; Side of Steamed Broccoli (43 g carbohydrates).
  • Southwest Chicken Salad with fresh jalapeno slices and no cheese (36 g carbohydrates).

6. Chili’s

Chili’s is an American food chain that offers a “Guiltless Grill” menu section, which includes lower calorie and lower carbohydrate items. 

What to Order

  • Ancho Salmon with Mexican rice and steamed broccoli (41 g carbohydrates).
  • Santa Fe Chicken Salad (24 g carbohydrates).

7. Chick-fil-A

Known for their fried chicken sandwiches, Chick-fil-A has many grilled chicken alternatives and lighter sides like a fruit cup, side salad, or kale crunch.

What to Order

  • Grilled Chicken Sandwich; No sides (44 g carbohydrates).
  • Chick-fil-A Cool Wrap; Small fruit cup side (46 g carbohydrates).

8. Cava

Cava is a trendy, fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant offering highly customizable salads and bowls.

The assembly line includes fiber-rich options like lentils, brown rice, greens, and fiery broccoli.

What to Order

  • Chicken + RightRice Bowl (45 g carbohydrates).
  • Tahini Caesar Bowl (28 g carbohydrates).

9. Sweetgreen

Sweetgreen is a fast-casual salad spot with lots of high-fiber, nutrient-dense ingredients to choose from, including dark leafy greens, roasted sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and spicy broccoli. 

What to Order

  • Garden Cobb Salad (37 g carbohydrates).
  • Guacamole Greens Salad (27 g carbohydrates).

10. Starbucks

Starbucks has many convenient breakfast and lunch options that are diabetes-friendly.

Be mindful of your drink order, aiming for lower sugar options. 

What to Order

  • Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap (34 g carbohydrates).
  • Eggs & Gouda Protein Box (30 g carbohydrates).

Tips for Eating Out with Diabetes

Consider the following tips to have the best experience when eating restaurant food with diabetes.

Plan Ahead

One of the best tools in your toolkit is to look at the online menu before going out to eat.

Identifying the balanced options in advance and having a plan can help minimize stress at the restaurant. 

Avoid arriving at the restaurant overly hungry.

Eating regularly throughout the day will make it easier to choose more balanced menu items and manage your portion sizes when it comes time to eat out. 

Drink Choices

In addition to choosing balanced menu items at restaurants, it’s important to think about your drink choices. 

Popular fountain drinks like sodas and lemonade can add a significant amount of simple sugars to your meal.

Instead, stick with water or unsweetened iced tea. 

Set Realistic Goals

Consider making health goals that are realistic for your eating habits and preferences.

For many people this includes a balance of home-cooked meals and dining out.

Interestingly, research shows that people who prepare more meals at home have higher diet quality and better health outcomes.

You can ask your dietitian for recipes that support your blood sugar goals. 

Lastly, while it’s great to be mindful of your eating out habits, remember that the goal is not perfection.

It’s important to enjoy your meals and time with loved ones as well. 

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Takeaway

Many menu items from popular restaurant chains are high in calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, and added sugars.

While it’s okay to enjoy these foods in moderation, there are strategies you can implement to choose more diabetes-friendly menu items. 

Before you go to the restaurant, check online menus for information on portion sizes, types of foods available, and substitutions. 

Choose meals that include lean proteins, whole grains, and non-starchy vegetables when possible.

Be mindful of your beverage choices, as these can be a source of added sugars. 

How a Dietitian Can Help

Eating at a restaurant doesn’t have to be another source of stress when it comes to managing your diabetes.

A registered dietitian can help you find diabetes-friendly menu options at your favorite restaurants and help you develop a plan to cook more meals at home, too.

Find a registered dietitian specializing in diabetes for guidance on managing your blood sugars while on the go. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of food can a person with diabetes eat at a restaurant?

You can still enjoy eating restaurant food if you have diabetes.

Try to choose restaurants that offer menu swaps for healthy options like lean proteins, whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, and fruits.

Many places even have lighter menu options for health-conscious individuals. 

Choose beverages without added sugars, like unsweetened iced tea or water.

What foods can people with diabetes eat freely for dinner?

Focus on the diabetes plate method when planning your dinner plate.

Include ¼ plate of lean protein, ¼ plate of high-fiber carbohydrates, and ½ plate of non-starchy vegetables. 

Additionally, emphasize healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, and nuts.

Include low-sugar condiments like mustard, hot sauce, and salsa.

What can a person with type 2 diabetes eat at a Mexican restaurant?

You can still enjoy a Mexican restaurant if you have diabetes.

First, be mindful of high-carbohydrate menu items like rice, beans, tortilla chips, and tortillas.

You don’t need to avoid these foods. Instead, think about how many of them are in your meal and the portions. 

Increase fiber by choosing corn tortillas, whole beans, and vegetables when possible.

Enjoy menu items like:

  • Chicken fajitas with corn tortillas, veggies, and black beans. 
  • Taco salad with grilled chicken (without the fried shell).
  • Tortilla soup. 
  • Ceviche.

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