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Kids and Diabetes: Healthy Eating at Restaurants

The key to eating at a restaurant if your child has diabetes is finding a place with healthy options and easy ways to calculate the number of carbohydrates in foods. 

Where to Go

You can find nutritious foods at most restaurants — even fast-food places. Check online menus to find restaurants that offer a variety of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Salads and vegetarian entrees are easy to find and may be good choices for your child. If you prefer buffet-style restaurants, keep in mind that it’s often hard to know what’s in each dish and tricky to calculate grams of carbohydrates for these items.

What to Bring

Grab a few essential items before you head out, including:

  • your child’s to-go kit. Your child should take their diabetes kit wherever they go. It should contain insulin, fast-acting carbs, and glucagon. Be sure to pack your child’s blood glucose meter too unless your child wears a continuous glucose monitor (CGM).
  • extra fast-acting carbohydrates in case of low blood sugars. An extra snack, like a piece of fruit or crackers, will come in handy to keep your child’s blood sugar up after treating low blood sugar with candy or glucose tablets or gel.
  • handy resources on your phone. Many apps (like CalorieKing, MyFitness Pal, and others) can tell you the carb counts for specific foods at popular restaurants.
  • a favorite condiment. If your child has a favorite condiment (like a light pancake syrup a restaurant may not have), bring it with you.

Getting Ready to Order a Meal

Your whole family can benefit from making healthy choices — not just your child with diabetes. Here are some practical tips to try:

  • Talk through the menu. Explain what you're looking for and why. Your child will learn to use these skills when they eat out without you.
  • When in doubt, ask your server. Some menus don't spell out what's in a dish or how it's prepared. Your server can find out or even get carb count information from the kitchen.
  • Ask for substitutions. Most restaurants will make healthy swaps for you if asked. For example, ask for a side salad or veggies instead of fries.
  • Choose a healthy prep method. Encourage your child to choose foods that are baked, grilled, broiled, steamed, or poached (instead of fried or breaded) whenever possible.
  • Look out for sugar and extra ingredients. Avoid sweet sauces. They’re likely high in carbs, and it can be tricky to calculate the carbs. Ask for low-fat dressings on the side.
  • Watch the portion size. Restaurants might serve larger portions than what you serve at home. There’s no need to finish it all. You can enjoy part of an entree and take the rest home. Or share a large dish with your child. Use easy visuals to estimate portion sizes:
    • a fist is about a cup
    • a thumb is about a tablespoon
    • a cupped hand is about a ½ cup

Eating at a restaurant can help kids learn to make smart food choices — whether they have diabetes or not — and have fun at the same time.

Reviewed by: Cheryl Patterson, RD, CDE
Date reviewed: January 2022