Wellness blogger Shelby Kinnaird has had type 2 diabetes for nearly 20 years, but she hasn't let it stop her from enjoying one of her favorite things: delicious food.
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Kinnaird and her family regularly feasted on Southern favorites like homemade fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, yeast rolls, and sugary desserts. "We never met a carb we didn't like," she jokes. Rich, indulgent fare continued to be a mainstay of Kinnaird’s diet as an adult — until she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1999.
At the time, Kinnaird also worked a high-stress job with frequent traveling, which meant lots of high-calorie restaurant meals. As a result, she was 45 pounds overweight. The diagnosis was a wake-up call for her to start taking her health more seriously, and she knew that the best way to do that was by cleaning up her diet.
Kinnaird jumped into action right away. She met with a to learn how to make food choices that would help manage her blood sugar. "What changed for me was scaling back the carbs, eating lower fat proteins and more non-starchy vegetables, and moving away from butter and sour cream and using more olive oil," she says.
Though she had always loved dining out and trying new foods when traveling, she knew that she'd need to rely less on restaurants to improve her diet — and her health. So she made an effort to start cooking the majority of her meals at home, filling half of her plate with water-rich veggies like spinach and broccoli, a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with high-fiber foods like quinoa and sweet potatoes.
She also made an effort to eat healthier at restaurants while the road, often sticking with a salad topped with a lean protein. "I'm not going to try to cook in my microwave in the hotel room," she says. Within nine months, she had lost 35 pounds and was able to keep her blood sugar in check without drugs.
Making a lasting change
Today, Kinnaird runs a blog called the , where she shares recipes that are both healthy and delicious. But she’s the first to admit that eating mostly home-cooked meals isn't always easy.
"It was a big adjustment," she says. Instead of figuring out meals on the fly, Kinnaird started planning healthy menus in advance. She'd map out a week or so of meals, buy all of the ingredients, and spend three or four hours in the kitchen prepping. "I'll chop veggies to use in meals or for snacking, and make a big pot of soup that will last my husband and me several days," she says. She'll also pack lunches for the week, so she doesn't end up having to order takeout at the last minute.
For Kinnaird, thinking ahead about her food ahead of time is key for staying on track. "If [my husband and I] have a plan, we'll stick to it. If there's no plan, that's when we get in trouble," she says. In other words? There's way less temptation to grab Chinese or pizza when you know there's salmon or turkey chili waiting for you in the fridge.
A day in Shelby's (delicious) life
Now Kinnaird loves getting into the kitchen and coming up with new recipes for her blog and upcoming cookbook. (Think: , , and — yum.)
But her day-to-day eats aren't exactly gourmet. Instead, she sticks with tried-and-true favorites, which makes it easier to stay on track. Breakfast might be steel-cut oats with blueberries and almond milk, hard-boiled eggs and fruit, or cottage cheese with blueberries and nuts.
For lunch, she'll often toss a leftover protein like grilled chicken into a salad. At dinner, Kinnaird and her husband usually do a simple protein like chicken, fish, or shrimp with salad or a non-starchy veggie like broccoli or cauliflower. She'll sometimes have a serving of whole grains like brown rice, too.
Cook like a pro
Kinnaird credits her cleaned up, mostly homemade diet with making her diabetes more manageable. And indeed, research suggests that cooking more of your own meals can go a long way towards keeping your blood sugar and weight in check. Want to follow Kinnaird's lead? Here are her top tips for making home-cooking easier, healthier, and more delicious:
➡️ Think building blocks, not whole meals.
Instead of making one big dish (like a casserole or stir-fry) prep individual ingredients that you can use in different ways. Kinnaird will make a pot of beans, chop veggies, or whip up a batch of salad dressing at the beginning of the week. "For dinner, we might throw something on the grill and make a big salad with the chopped veggies and beans," she says.
➡️ Forget about substitutes.
If trying to recreate old favorites proves less than satisfying, try a different approach. "Instead of trying to make healthy versions of unhealthy foods, just try brand new foods that are inherently healthy," Kinnaird says. For instance, dunk fresh fruit in melted dark chocolate instead of trying to concoct a sugar-free version of your favorite chocolate cake. You just might find the simpler option more satisfying.
➡️ But swap smart when you can.
Experiment with finding better-for-you ingredients that you do enjoy — and use them strategically. Kinnaird loves mashed avocado instead of mayo in her . And she'll use low-carb zucchini or in place of pasta.
➡️ Get friendly with your freezer.
Cook double batches of meals and freeze them in individual portions for busy days. "Right now I could go to my freezer and pull out homemade black bean soup, chipotle chili, or Moroccan vegetable stew. I'd have a delicious, healthy meal with no grocery shopping or cooking required," Kinnaird says.
➡️ Be an indoor gardener.
Fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and mint add loads of flavor to your food, making it easy to cut back on the fat, sugar, and salt. But if you can never use up a bunch before it goes bad, consider growing your own in indoor containers. "Keep a pot or two by the windowsill and snip when you need some," says Kinnaird.
➡️ Enlist some help.
Kinnaird and her husband cook together to split the workload. He takes care of the dishes, too. Got kids? They can pitch in, too. "My six-year-old niece frequently helps with our Wednesday night dinners."
➡️ Find recipes in unexpected places.
Cookbooks and blogs aren't the only places for new recipes when you're in a rut. Kinnaird often swaps meal ideas with other members in her diabetes support group.
➡️ Let yourself indulge — without overdoing it.
Kinnaird still loves going out to eat once or twice a week, as well as when she travels. And there are still some days when she's just too busy or tired to cook. Instead of banning restaurant meals altogether, she just orders smarter. "I used to eat three slices of pizza at a meal," she says. "Now I don't eat pizza very often. But if I do, I have one big slice plus a salad."
Of course, even veteran home cooks like Kinnaird sometimes get burnt out. When motivation to make another meal is in short supply, she focuses on how much better eating healthy makes her feel. "You feel better about yourself and can do things you couldn't do before," she says. "I used to have someone else clean my house. Now I have the energy to do it myself."