The menu for your favorite Italian restaurant may seem like a trap if you have diabetes. After all, some of the most beloved dishes are giant bowls of fettuccini alfredo, pizza blanketed with cheese, and massive meatballs. You could argue that it’s an American version of Italian food, but the problem remains the same: How do you make healthy food choices with diabetes at an Italian restaurant?
The key to success first comes down to portions, according to nutritionist Sharon Richter, RD. You can enjoy classic dishes (even notoriously unhealthy ones) but have them in small (okay, very small) amounts and fill up on healthier side dishes instead.
Here are more of Richter’s rules for how to make Italian meals healthier when you have diabetes.
Ask how food is prepared. It’s useful to know whether your veggies are being sauteed in oil, steamed, or roasted. This could help you make a better decision, or you might even be able to request an alternative preparation, depending on the restaurant. For example, some restaurants will make a dish oil-free if you ask nicely. (If it makes you feel better, you could always give a little extra tip.)
Choose light appetizers. If you really want an appetizer, go for veggie options or light seafood dishes: Caesar salad, minestrone, lentil soup, clams, mussels, shrimp, or prosciutto. However, preparation matters. Beware of breadcrumbs and deep fryers, and ask for no croutons in the salad.
Be smart about pasta. We all know that Italian restaurants love to serve giant bowls of spaghetti, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it all. Order an appetizer portion, if they’re available, or split the entree size with a friend.
Choose sauces carefully. Heavy creams are loaded with extra fat and calories, so avoid words like “alfredo,” “pink,” or “vodka sauce.” Instead, try marinara or pesto.
Go lean. Check to see if the menu offers lighter protein options, such as turkey meatballs, grilled chicken, or grilled fish. FYI, these are the best proteins for diabetics, according to dietitians.
Load up on veggies. Try to replicate the perfect meal plate that you try to follow at home, with half the plate consisting of fruits and vegetables. If your chicken breast comes with a side of pasta, ask if you can get it with a salad or roasted veggies instead.
Use cheese as a garnish, not a main ingredient.
Stick to a slice. Craving pizza? (Aren’t we all.) Have one slice, and then enjoy veggies or soup on the side. To keep carbs low (and blood sugar levels steady), choose a thin crust (the thinner, the better) and add lots of vegetables. All those mushrooms and peppers have fiber that will help fill you up more than the crust and cheese.
Just a cup of pasta. Although many Italian restaurants serve you a platter-sized bowl of spaghetti, the recommended serving is actually a single cup of cooked noodles.
Slow down and savor. You’ll be more likely to notice your hunger and fullness cues (and prevent overeating).
Finally, this trick works in every restaurant: Enter with the intention of bringing home leftovers. Not only will this spread out the indulgence over a couple days, but it will make you feel like you’re paying half the price for your meal.