Updated 13 February 2017

Healthy lunchboxes for diabetics

Lunchboxes can save you money, and can be a lot healthier than canteen food. But packing the right foods can become tricky if you have type 2 diabetes. DietDoc gives advice.

The following principles must guide all your food choices if you have non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus:

  • Your lunchbox meal must form part of the daily diet worked out by your dietician. If you haven't yet consulted a dietician for an individual diet prescription, please do so before you start selecting lunchbox foods.
  • The basic diet for diabetics should be low in fat, high in fibre and have an overall low GI. This doesn't mean that you may never eat high-GI foods, but it does mean you should combine the correct foods to achieve an overall low GI.
  • If you also need to lose weight or strictly control your weight, you'll have to make careful food choices to limit the energy content of your take-along-meal to 2100kJ (500 kcal).
  • Resist quick fixes and the lazy option of buying high-fat, high-GI snacks and lunches, and sugar-sweetened cold drinks.
  • Plan your snacks and lunchbox meals ahead of time so that when you go shopping you know which foods to buy for the whole week.
  • Buy low-fat, low-GI recipe books (obtainable from The Glycaemic Index Foundation of SA and Hilda Lategan – see "Useful recipe books" below), so that you can make your own low-fat, low-GI foods to take along to work.
  • Prepare a supply of ready-to-eat foods that are low in fat and that have a low GI. Store them in portions in the freezer.
  • Eat a variety of foods to ensure that your diet is balanced and that you obtain all the nutrients you require on a daily basis.

Food selection

Select foods from each of the following categories for your lunchbox every day:

Cereals, breads and starches (the listed foods are all low GI)

  • Low-GI breads (there's quite a variety of these breads available in bigger supermarkets), 100% rye bread or pumpernickel, seed breads, breads that contain lots of whole barley, rye, wheat, buckwheat and dried fruit or nuts (experiment with recipes at home)
  • Fruit breads, raisin bread, banana bread, date loaf (homemade or purchased from supermarkets)
  • Homemade oat cakes baked with oat bran and dried fruit
  • Cooked pasta made from durum wheat
  • Cooked pearled wheat
  • Cooked corn on the cob or sweet potatoes cooked in their skins
  • Muffins, rusks and even chocolate brownies baked according to low-fat, low-GI recipes (by including less shortening and adding cooked, minced dry beans you can lower both the fat content and GI of many foods)
  • Low-GI breakfast cereals – Maximize, All-Bran and Bran Flakes with or without dried fruit, muesli (buy low-fat varieties), Insta Meal (take to work in a plastic container and eat with low-fat milk or yoghurt)
  • Unbuttered popcorn

Protein foods (all low-GI, but fat content may vary)

  • Lean cold cuts thinly sliced with all visible fat removed (beef, chicken, tongue)
  • Strips of grilled skinless chicken/turkey breast (use a non-stick pan or griddle)
  • Cooked, chopped or minced lean beef or ostrich
  • Homemade hamburger patties (use extra-lean mince and grill)
  • Boiled eggs (no more than 4 eggs per week)
  • Cooked, flaked fish
  • Canned fish (tuna, pilchards or sardines)
  • Smoked fish (snoek or mackerel)
  • Biltong (use very sparingly and select only the leanest, driest meat, such as game, with all visible fat removed)
  • Cooked, minced legumes, veggie-burgers, baked beans or tofu (include vegetable protein at least three times a week to lower your fat intake and stabilise your blood-sugar levels)

Milk and dairy foods (all low GI, but fat content may vary)

  • Yoghurt, fat-free or low-fat, plain or with fruit, and sugar-free if available
  • Cottage cheese, fat-free (buy different flavours to provide variety to the diet or mix plain cottage cheese with chopped onions, shallots, celery, nuts (1 teaspoon), dried fruit (dates, raisins) or tomato sauce (1 T)
  • Low-fat cheeses like Tussers or mozzarella (use thin slices)

Fruit and vegetables

  • Fresh fruit – concentrate on low-GI fruits such as citrus (oranges, grapefruit), cherries, strawberries and other berries, peaches, pears, apples, plums, kiwifruit and mango
  • Dried fruit (apricots, dates, apples) and fruit bars (eat in moderation)
  • Carrot or celery sticks, baby tomatoes, cucumber wedges, lettuce and gherkins
  • Potato salad made with low-fat mayonnaise, chopped onions, gherkins and celery (potatoes have a high GI, but when they're cooked and cooled down, their GI is lowered – add plain, fat-free yoghurt to the mayonnaise to reduce the fat content even further)
  • Baked sweet potatoes, or lightly cooked green beans, peas and snap peas (mangetout)

Fats and oils (low GI, but high in energy – fats need to be eaten in small quantities)

  • "Lite" monounsaturated margarine as a spread on breads
  • Nuts (rich in monounsaturated fats, but high in energy – eat in small quantities)
  • Avocado (rich in monounsaturated fats, but high in energy – eat in small quantities)
  • "Lite" salad dressings or mayonnaise, diluted with fat-free plain yoghurt (use carefully as part of your diabetic diet prescription)


  • Herbs and spices
  • Lemon juice or vinegar (these acids lower the GI of foods)
  • Gherkins
  • Olives (rich in monounsaturated fats, but high in energy – eat in small quantities)
  • Tomato sauce and chutney (use sparingly)
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Marmite or Bovril

Drinks and liquids

  • Fat-free milk
  • Homemade milk shakes (use fat-free milk with pureed plums or mango)
  • Sugar-free cold drinks
  • Flavoured, sugar-free ice tea
  • Apple juice, still or sparkling
  • Milo made with fat-free milk
  • Soda water
  • Soups made with stock cubes and vegetables
  • Mageu Number One

Your input

To make tasty snacks and lunchbox meals, you'll need to do some planning and clever shopping so that you have all the ingredients at hand when you prepare the meals every day. You may have to cook or bake some of the items yourself, so consult recipe books for diabetics and make a point of doing low-GI cooking.

Useful recipe books

These books will provide you with plenty of recipes for breads, muffins and even cookies and cakes that are low in fat, have a low GI and are suitable for diabetics.

Read more:

How to use the glycaemic index
Diabetes: dieting tips
10 rules for a balanced diet


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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