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5 Tips for Working Lunches

Ways to make them diabetes-friendlier

From the endless choices in the company cafeteria to the usually unhealthy fare in the office vending machine, lunchtime dilemmas seem to be everywhere. And what you eat at lunch can have a big impact on the rest of your day. A lunch that is too large or too small may send your blood glucose on a rollercoaster, which is the last thing you need when everything on your afternoon to-do list is flagged as high priority.

One solution may be to pack your own meal, but that isn’t always possible. I’ve found that, with a little planning, even those of us stuck in a cubicle can get through any lunch scenario with improved blood sugar – and waistline – management.

Knowing your meal plan and how many carbohydrate choices or grams of carbohydrate you may have for lunch is the first step. Then you’ll need to become familiar with the items on the cafeteria menu or selections in the vending machine. This way you can decide ahead of time what your choices will be.

Portion distortion is probably the biggest challenge when eating in cafeterias and other self-serve eateries. Since it’s not practical to walk around with measuring utensils, you’ll want to train your eye to make a reasonable estimate (read more about avoiding portion pitfalls here).

Company Cafeteria

Sandwiches: Choose a hearty whole-grain bread slice or pita pocket. Steer clear of croissants – they are loaded with fat before you even put anything on them! For protein, choose turkey breast, grilled chicken, lean beef, or ham. For a little extra crunch and volume without the extra calories, be sure to top it off with lettuce and tomato, and as many other veggies as you’d like. To add flavor and moisture, add a dollop of mustard, ketchup, or low-fat salad dressing instead of mayonnaise or oil.

Salads: Line your plate with dark green leafy veggies such as spinach or romaine lettuce. Then add several other fresh vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, beets, or carrots. Top it off with a little lean protein such as grilled chicken or plain tuna (hold the mayo!). Avoid high-fat toppings such as cheese, croutons, and bacon bits. And don’t be fooled by the seafood or chicken salad – they are both very high in fat thanks to the added mayonnaise.

Hot entrée: When choosing a hot entrée, know your terms! Some dishes that are best avoided include those that are breaded or fried, as well as those served in cheese sauce, cream sauce, or gravy. These tend to be high in fat, and I tell clients to order with extreme caution! The good news is that there are often many better choices if you just know what to ask for. Among my many favorites are dishes that are baked, broiled, blackened, Cajun-seasoned, grilled, poached, steamed, stir-fried, or cooked in their own juices (sometimes call “au jus”).

Vending Machine

If you’re lucky, your company vending machine is chock-full of healthy options. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case, so if you really must choose this option, try my strategy: before you’re truly starving, scan what’s available and pick a few top items. Then quickly check the nutrition facts label online for the carbohydrate and fat content. This will help you make a selection and decide just how much you should eat. Baked chips, peanut butter crackers, pretzels, plain popcorn, some granola bars, nuts, seeds, or trail mix tend to be better choices. And if there’s a tuna salad kit in the machine, you’ve hit a home run! If not, consider asking the office manager if it might be possible to add that as an option.

Lunch and Learn

Unexpected catered lunch-and-learns or other meetings can derail the best-made plans. When everything is drowned in a sauce, fried, or loaded with mayonnaise it may be frightening. How could you possibly make this meal diabetes-friendly? My answer: by controlling your portions!  Make half your plate non-starchy veggies, and a quarter of the plate starch, such as a pasta dish and the other quarter meat, fish, or poultry. And don’t forget to withdraw your membership from the clean plate club. You’ll want to leave the extra sauce and gravy on the plate. 

Dashboard Dining

If your job includes lots of driving, chances are you’re no stranger to dashboard dining – driving through a fast-food restaurant and then turning your car into an impromptu kitchen table. If dashboard dining is part of your usual routine, take a little time to look up the nutrient information of your favorites in advance – you might be surprised to know that there are many diabetes-friendly options available from the drive-up window. Here again, be mindful of portions. Often a “regular-size” option can fit into your meal plan, but words like mega, deluxe, and super are often indicators of large amounts of calories – and carbohydrates too. And I remind clients not to fall into the chicken or fish “fat trap.” If your sandwich is crispy (which is often the case with fast-food chicken and fish), you might as well have a cheeseburger. The best choice is often to ask for the grilled option, and then swap a side salad for the fries.

Desktop Lunch

In today’s fast-paced work environment, many people find themselves working through lunch to remain competitive.  Having nonperishable food available at your desk may get you through these situations. Whole grain crackers, pretzels, some granola or protein bars, dried fruit, and peanut butter tend to be healthier options. Invest a little extra time grocery shopping, and pick a few that will fit in with your meal plan; it’s an investment in your health! (Find tips for smarter supermarket shopping here.)

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE*, CDN – an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Learn more about her work at and follow her @eatingsoulfully. Brown-Riggs is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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