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Energize Your Eating with Advice from (Very Cool) Celebrity Chefs

By Ava Runge

Twitter summary: Top chefs’ advice for cooking flavorful dishes for people with diabetes.

As a person with type 1 diabetes, I’m constantly adjusting my eating habits to balance blood sugars while accommodating all sorts of different contexts. It requires a lot of flexibility and decision-making, and my approach can swing from ultra-motivated (measuring every carb) to indulgent (bring on the birthday cake!) to so exhausted from the blood sugar rollercoaster that I cut out variation completely (leftover salad with a side of plain almonds).

I was in one such food rut last month, when our team attended an ADA benefit hosted by Novo Nordisk in Napa, California. Before the event, I had eaten the same meal for dinner for over a week, and needed some serious inspiration to energize my cooking approach. Lucky for me, this was no ordinary benefit – six celebrity chefs had cooked low-carb dishes specifically for the event. They were members of Novo Nordisk’s Diabetes Academy, which is kind of like diabetes 101 on-tour – a travelling group of chefs and CDEs that put on nutrition and diabetes education workshops all over the country. I was thrilled to try their delicious, creative dishes, and interview three of the celebrity chefs - Chef Katsuji Tanabe, Chef Dana Herbert, and Chef Curtis Aikens – who have all spent years in the cooking industry and appeared on shows such as “Top Chef”, “Cake Boss”, and “Chopped.”

After the benefit, I tried to emulate their recipes, and was soon reminded that I am NOT a top chef – I am a busy person without a lot of time to make involved recipes. Here’s a distilled version of their advice for making better meals with diabetes:

Step 1: Start with a low-carb base. At the Napa benefit, all of the chefs’ dishes featured a low-carb base: chicken, pork, salmon, steak, or shrimp. They also recommended replacing carb-heavy favorites with healthier bases, such as cauliflower instead of rice. Their bases took up most of the space on the plate and also made up most of the calories. I’ve found that protein bases can provide great energy and fullness, but lighter options like vegetables also work well. I love this list of potential carb substitutions to start out with – replacing tortillas with leafy greens and substituting Portobello mushrooms for pizza crust (try it! really!) makes low-carb cooking so much more manageable and enjoyable. This strategy has been an excellent tool for planning meals, and has stopped me from making go-to dishes where carbs are the main event: pasta, rice, toast, burritos, sugary cereals, etc.

Step 2: Once you’ve got the basics, spice it up! Whatever your meal plan, eating should (and can!) taste good. All of the chefs spoke emphatically about the value of spices, herbs, oils, and vinegars for adding flavor to any meal. When I told them I didn’t have much experience cooking with these types of ingredients, they recommended trying garlic, paprika, and olive oil, as they are easy to find and taste great in most dishes. My conversation with them also inspired me to try cooking with soy sauce, lime, ginger, cilantro, and crushed red pepper flakes. Keep in mind that some spices can be pricey, so it’s best to choose a few rather than stock up on all of them. Here are some examples of the bases I tried, along with accompanying spices and other ingredients:






Yogurt parfait

Plain yogurt


Raspberries, blueberries, nuts/seeds

Breakfast scramble


Paprika, salt, pepper

Mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, red peppers







Burrito bowl


Salsa, lime, salt, pepper

Lettuce, tomatoes, corn, avocado

Simple salad

Mixed greens

Olive oil, vinegar, pepper

Tomatoes, cucumbers

Lentil stew


Garlic, pepper, chicken broth

Carrots, celery, tomatoes, parsley, lean pork sausage (optional)







Chicken curry


Curry powder, garlic, chicken broth


Baked salmon


Garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon

Side salad

Tofu stir-fry


Soy sauce

Broccoli, carrots, celery, mushrooms, onions

Step 3: Reflect on your results. After trying a new meal, ask yourself how it went:

  • How did your dish taste?

  • What did you like or not like about it?

  • Was it convenient to make?

  • How much did it cost?

  • How was your blood sugar after eating?

  • (If you take insulin) Did you take too much or too little? 

Eating and balancing diabetes and all of life’s demands is a continuous learning process, so help yourself out by taking note of your successful and not-so-successful results to improve future meals. In the end, the most important thing about cooking for diabetes is that it is feasible for you – focus on creating a meal plan that best suits your tastes, budget, health needs, and daily routine.