Diabetic diet for picky eaters

8 Diabetes Diet Strategies for Picky Eaters

Beans, lentils, leafy greens, cauliflower — you have a list of foods that you “should” be eating more of as someone who has diabetes, but maybe you’re just not there yet. You’re a self-proclaimed “picky eater,” and just can’t get up the motivation to include more of these blood sugar–friendly foods in your diabetes diet. Or maybe you really hate kale, and feel guilty that giant kale salads will never be in your future. Because, hey, you hear they’re really good for you.

Picky Eating Isn’t Uncommon in People With Type 2 Diabetes

You’re not alone. “Unfortunately, it’s a common problem,” says Karen Harouse-Bell, RD, CDE, an instructor in the nutrition and dietetic department at Seton Hill University in Greensberg, Pennsylvania. “We all have a fear of foods we don’t really like,” she explains. Adding to the problem: the role food plays in your own life. If you don’t know how to cook (or think you’re really bad at it), or are so accustomed to eating on the go or in your car, the prospect of filling your plate with all the fiber-rich veggies, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein your dietitian stresses can feel daunting.

Then, there’s the role your past plays in your food preferences and aversions now. “I tell patients that they’re probably holding onto a lot of their childhood food dislikes,” says Harouse-Bell. And when those are so ingrained in your brain, it’s hard to let go.

Why It’s Possible to Develop a Taste for New Foods

Happily, “your palette does change as you get older. That’s even true for adults,” says Jessica Crandall, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. All is not lost if you find that you turn your nose up to a certain food simply because you had a horrible experience with it as a kid. “After trying a food again, people will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it tasted this good,’” says Harouse-Bell. There is hope.

Jill Weisenberger, RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Weight Loss: Week By Week, who’s based in Newport News, Virginia, says she doesn’t hear complaints about picky eating so much as people telling her, “I just love the food that I shouldn’t eat.” It’s this thought that you have to give up everything you loved to eat, and then munch on salad like a rabbit, that may turn you off — though that’s not true, as you’ll see. What’s more, after she recommends a food, a patient may like it but still won’t eat it. “I find that it’s usually about habit, perceived costs or difficulty cooking,” she adds. There’s also the worry that the food will spoil before they’ll use it.

All of these factors can add up to one picky eater. And while the phenomenon in adults with diabetes isn’t well documented in scientific studies, adult picky eating is legitimate. In a study published in May 2012 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that analyzed a survey of 6,895 adults, researchers found this was a real problem that may even qualify as an eating disorder, but more research would be needed to confirm.

How to Overcome Picky Eating to Improve Your Diabetes Diet

If you consider yourself a picky eater for whatever reason, don’t fret: Employing a handful of smart strategies can help you can transform yourself into a more balanced, all-around eater so you can manage diabetes better and potentially reduce your need for medication down the line. It may take some time, but the impact on your ability to control your blood sugar will be well worth it. Whether you were diagnosed years ago or you recently learned you had diabetes and are attempting to navigate a new way of eating, follow these eight tips:

1. Try it elsewhere. You’ve heard about tofu before, but goodness knows, the thought of trying to make it at home is terrifying. (What the heck would you do with a block of tofu anyway?) “I encourage them to try it in a restaurant known to prepare it well,” says Weisenberger. This way, you can see that it really does taste delicious. This strategy works for fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are great for diabetes, too. Ask your vegetarian friend for restaurant recommendations.

2. Challenge yourself. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel in your kitchen every day — that’s too much pressure to help you overcome any habit. Instead, start small and try one new recipe or one new food twice a month, or even weekly, suggests Weisenberger.

3. Cook them a new way. “A lot of people think they don’t like veggies, and it’s because they ate them in the past cooked to death,” says Weisenberger. “It’s hard to forget something unpleasant and be open with fresh eyes and fresh taste buds,” she adds. Steaming may make veggies seem boring. You may hate certain veggies when raw. On the other hand, certain easy cooking techniques can make a world of difference. Broiling or roasting veggies will bring out their natural sweetness, advises Crandall. It’s also okay to use a small amount of healthy oil (use an oil sprayer rather than dousing them in it) to add flavor and help your body unlock the nutrients within the veggies.

4. Enhance the sweetness of fruit. FYI: You can eat fruit when you have diabetes, and it can make a great substitute for other blood sugar-spiking treats. But if nature’s candy doesn’t taste all that sweet to you, cook it, says Weisenberger. “Grill peaches, roast figs, bake apples or bananas,” she advises. The heat caramelizes their natural sugars, providing a bigger punch of sweetness.

5. Give yourself choices. With her clients, Crandall will try to figure out what they do like to eat. She’ll provide a list of veggies or fish and seafood, let them pick out the ones they like, and then make that the focus. “It changes the dialogue to be more positive. That way, they’re not sitting there thinking, ‘I hate spinach, no way she’s going to get me to eat a plate of that,’” she says. And if you don’t like something, that’s completely fine. Focus on the healthy things you do enjoy.

6. Don’t draw attention to it. Just like Harouse-Bell reassures her clients that she respects their individual decision to say they don’t like something, she also advises them to not make it the focus of the meal. “Some people draw attention when they refuse to eat a food, but you don’t have to do that,” she says. That can make it worse and close your mind off to trying new foods.

7. Flip your language. Sometimes saying “I should eat this or that” is a complete buzzkill. “Give up the idea of what you ‘should eat’ and change your language to something more positive like ‘I want to try new foods and eat a wholesome meal because I want to take care of myself,’” says Weisenberger.

8. Don’t give it a starring role. Who says that you need to eat a bowl of lentils on its own? Or eat a big fillet of salmon? That salmon can get chopped up, thrown into a lettuce leaf and topped with avocado for a salmon taco. If you love chili, make a lentil chili. “Just look for easy recipes that combine new foods with other foods and flavors,” says Weisenberger. You’ll be ditching your self-proclaimed picky eater title in no time.

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For the first six months or so after his type 1 diabetes diagnosis, James probably consumed more processed food than in any other period of his life. For us, the conveniently labeled packages represented an easier and more certain way to count carbohydrates and make sure that we calculated the proper amount of insulin. I’m grateful for that, BUT…we now try to leave packaged foods for special occasions in our home. I am constantly trying to help my kid with diabetes and the rest of our kids to eat better meals and try more new unprocessed foods!

All four of my kids will eat broccoli, carrots, green apples, and bananas—always. Outside of that matrix, they are all picky in different ways. Cooking for picky eaters is really not fun. I was feeling stuck between my two options: cooking only the five healthy dishes that they’ll all eat but becoming bored to tears with mealtimes, or making healthy, interesting dishes that remained uneaten. I figured there had to be a better way. I think I came up with something that seems to be working really well for my family, and I wanted to share it with you.

My new meal plan is to take those basic dishes that my kids will eat and RAMP THEM UP…with a toppings bar. For example, my kids love really basic burritos—tortillas, beans, and cheese, and that’s it. Burritos made this way are really boring and only moderately healthy. (Though you can bet we use black beans and healthier tortillas!) What I’ve started doing is making those basic burritos but providing amazing salsa, guacamole, chili peppers, and shredded chicken, too. We make a kind of burrito bar where the basic ingredients are there, but so are some fun, interesting, healthy toppings and sauces. All of a sudden, mealtime is more interesting to me, AND it seems like the kids have been a little more adventurous in trying some new things. Especially when their father and I don’t force them to have any, but we simply load up and enjoy our own very appetizing-looking plates.

Now, this strategy might seem tricky for a kid with diabetes. But here’s what we do: We keep all of our sauces and toppings (or as our family calls them, “add-ons” and “dip-ins”) in little bowls with measuring cups and spoons as scoops. James simply needs to use the scoop and tell me what he’s put in his burrito, and we can figure out the carb count. It’s actually great, because it’s a process we’re modeling for him now that he can carry on himself when he becomes more independent with his diabetes care. He tests his blood sugar, he gets a plate, and he starts counting out exactly what he is eating. I think it’s freeing and empowering for him.

We’ve had a lot of success with this method. We have done pasta, pizza, paninis, salads, chicken strips, burritos, stir-fry, and veggie burgers all by providing the most basic ingredients the kids already like and then really being creative with the sides and toppings and sauces and dips. We have seen more experimentation from the kids, less waste (because they only put on their plate what they’ll eat), and very accurate and conscious carb counting. What’s more, I’m enjoying meal planning again, because my kids are happy and their father and I are happy too!

Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring. Jen and Kim are real moms of kids with type 1 diabetes and have been compensated for their contributions to this site.

Related topics:
In the Spotlight: 5 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters
OUR Most Important Meal of the Day
Our Afternoon Snack Strategy

Recent posts from Jen & Kim

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10 Healthy Meals Picky Eaters Will Eat

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Are you having a hard time finding quality recipes your picky eater will eat?

When it comes to feeding our picky eaters, it can be tough to find recipes that provide nutrition while pleasing the pickiest of palates. For this reason, we’ve put together a list of 10 healthy meals picky eaters will eat and have some nutritional value in them so that we can worry a little less.

If you have a child that wants to eat chicken nuggets for every meal, every day, and are tired of stocking up on homemade chicken nuggets (or whatever their favorites are) and wished your kids would eat healthier options, check out these ten ideas to help you add a little more variety and nutrition to their meals.

#1 High Fiber Chocolate Bites

Perfect for snack time, these add a little more nutrition in each bite. Pair them with a little yogurt for a delicious, protein-rich snack. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional goal: tons of natural fiber.

#2 High Fiber Chocolate Smoothie Bowl

This smoothie beats the fiber cereal and it tastes like chocolate. Eat it out of a bowl, with a straw, or pack it in a thermos for a nutrition-filled snack. Bonus: tastes like dessert but a lot healthier! Grab the recipe.

Nutritional goal: extra protein and fiber.

#3 Banana Split Oatmeal Bar

For kids that don’t’ like plain oatmeal, this strawberry-banana combination has everything they want and more. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional goal: fiber + protein balanced breakfast, and added fruit.

#4 Ham, Egg & Cheese Breakfast Pizza

Pizza for breakfast, you say? The eggs make the base, just a touch of cheese, and a little bit of ham make scrambled eggs so much more fun to eat! Bonus: add chopped veggies for added nutrition and then you can say they ate veggies for breakfast. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional goal: extra protein, introduce the texture of eggs in a kid-friendly way.

#5 Blueberry Baked Oatmeal

Baking the oatmeal changes the overall texture and my kids say it tastes like blueberry pie. Add a splash of milk and it’s now a-la-mode. Grab the recipe. Nutritional goal: hearty meal, fiber + protein balanced breakfast, and added fruit.

#6 Crunchy Turkey Pinwheels

Wrap it up and cut it into bite-sized pieces and many kids will eat it! Grab the recipe.

Nutritional Goal: something other than a sandwich, variety of textures.

#7 Mini Pizza Quiches

Pizza, but not really pizza. These bite-sized baked eggs are perfect for breakfast or lunch and add protein in each bite. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional Goal: something other than a sandwich and extra protein.

#8 Broccoli and Cheese Nuggets

When in doubt, make nuggets” as I explained in this recipe post, was my friend Anne’s advice to me. Broccoli and Cheese nuggets to the rescue for kids that need a little convincing when it comes to eating their veggies. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional Goal: veggies, get kids to like “green” foods.

#9 Ranch Veggie Cups

The truth is, a little bit of salad dressing is perfectly okay, especially if it gets your kids to eat their veggies. Pack these fun and easy Ranch Veggie Cups for lunches or for snacks on the go. Grab the recipe.

Nutritional Goal: additional veggies made portable. Note: substitute for favorite dip or hummus here.

#10 Green Berry Juice

It’s not a meal, per se, but it does work as a snack! Seriously though, how great is it to get your fruits and veggies in one delicious drink that the kids will love? Grab the recipe.

Nutritional Goal: additional veggies/greens in the classic smoothie.

What are your go-to nutritious recipes that please your picky eater?

GRAB THE 10 RECIPES PICKY EATERS WILL LOVE EBOOK.

Fussy eaters and diabetes

With so many children being fussy eaters, try these tips for getting mealtime calm back on the menu – whatever their age.

The term ‘fussy eater’ takes on a whole new meaning when a child has diabetes. It’s no longer just about how to make your child eat a few peas for the sake of getting some type of vegetable or fruit in them. It’s also about how to manage the tricky balancing act between how much they eat (or don’t) and their insulin dose, in order to avoid ahypo.

The problem – and your anxiety levels – can quickly worsen once your child realises the attention they can get if they refuse food.

In the short term, you can try to deal with the risk of a hypo by offering them milk or fruit juice – as these will provide some carbohydrate. But try not to fill them up completely with fluids because this will only make it harder to get them to eat something.

If the problem continues and your child is constantly refusing to eat at mealtimes, talk to their healthcare team about the possibility of changing their insulin type and/or regimen.

Preventative action

With a little forward planning, you can help reduce the chances of a food-fad strop occurring in the first place.

From about 45 to 30 minutes before your child’s meal, try to avoid giving them a drink. Many young children – especially pre-school age – prefer drinking to eating and easily fill themselves up with fluids.

Once it’s time for the meal to begin, remember that children are very easily distracted. So, although it may sound obvious, sitting them down at a table to eat – with no TV or similar distractions – is often a really effective way to get them to eat well. Better still, try to sit down and eat with them because children love to copy.

Offer small portions and praise your child as they eat, while trying to ignore any unhelpful behaviour. Limit the mealtime to around 30 or 40 minutes and, if they refuse to eat, try not to make a big deal of it because this attention may be just what they are looking for. Instead, just clear the food away and don’t offer lots of alternatives (other than something to prevent a hypo).

In between meals, your child may need snacks to help maintain control of their blood glucose levels. For example, they may need a snack when they are being active and they may also need a snack just before bedtime. But try to plan healthy options for these snacks, and keep an eye on the portion sizes to make sure they aren’t excessive – otherwise your child could end up eating most of their food in between meals, which stops them from being hungry enough to eat the meals themselves.

Healthy snacks for all ages

  • Fresh fruit, individual packets of dried fruit, or mini pots or tins of fruit (in fruit juice – not syrup).
  • Toast, bread, crumpets, bagels, pitta bread, English muffins, currant buns, teacakes, fruit cake, or malt loaf.
  • Homemade milkshakes made with fruit added to semi-skimmed milk, and/or natural yogurt all blended in a liquidiser. Children under 2 should have whole milk because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat milks. Don’t give children skimmed milk until they’re at least 5.
  • Rice cakes, breadsticks, savoury biscuits (like crackers or cheese biscuits).
  • Originally published in Diabetes Balance magazine – become a Diabetes UK member and get your copy.

Diabetic Picky Eater needs advice

Member Comments About This Blog Post

  • IMHISTORY1
    TomKatKashey, thanks for the tips. This 800 calorie (VLCD) was wonderful for me. I saw my doctor once a week and a team made up of RN’s, dietician, and behavioral therapist. I was closely monitored. I was able to quit Humalog completely (from 75 units a day) and reduce Lantus from 60 units twice a day to only 20 units once a day. The day I started, my fasting sugar was 303. It was very steady as long as I was on the 800 calories, 4 beverages a day. I also got to quit taking Lasix and Warfarin. The health risks I had going in to this demanded drastic steps. This isn’t for everyone. So, I am on a modified version of it now, but it is harder for me to follow. I would never recommend this to someone to even think about trying unless they were going to have very close medical supervision.
    2318 days ago
  • KAHSEY20000
    Hi! Eating frequent small meals works for me. I try to eat something about every 4 hours. You can get in your protein with peanut butter with celery, an apple, or just a couple of crackers. added. Personally, I haven’t seen a healthy diet at 800 calories. Most MD’s suggest 1200 calories per my diabetes educator.. Much lower, and you’re gonna get hypo. Also, too much protein can affect your kidneys. You don’t want protein “albumin” in your urine. Really stresses the kidneys with filtration.. I’m a type 1 diabetic, but since I’ve had it for over 50 years, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m doing to me. As you know tho, no 2 diabetics are the same.. Hope you get yourself straight soon. Those highs or lows completely ruin you for awhile. God Bless, Kathy
    2318 days ago
  • MISSUSRIVERRAT
    Slim-fast Hi Protein (best price is at Wal-Mart) has 20 grams of protein and is very low-carb. It comes in chocolate and vanilla and tastes great !
    They are 180 calories for a container.
    2320 days ago
  • KARENKANDO
    Ketosis is what occurs naturally when doing a high protein diet – like Atkins. And it does cause rapid weight loss. The last time I did Atkins, I ate tons of food and still lost 12 lbs the first week. I think I lost about 25 pounds the first month. Maybe it was the low number of calories (800) that required close supervision when you were doing the VLCD program – and not the ketosis itself. I’ve read many Atkins books and I can’t remember him ever saying that close medical supervision was necessary. But, again, on that Atkins diet, on is eating as much as they want – way more than 800 calories a day. Maybe you could put together a food plan high in lean proteins (chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef) and high in fiber (veggies, veggies, veggies along with some flax seed) and just a few carbs – run it past your nutritionist – and see if that would work for you. Just an idea. If you are eating high amounts of protein and fiber, you can keep your calories at about 1200 a day and NEVER feel hungry. Getting your calories through food instead of beverages is important because that way, you learn how to eat to live and not over do it. But! If the beverages seem to help you, maybe you could find a quality substitute for the VLCD. I’ve seen some high protein mixes at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart that also have huge amounts of vitamins/minerals and fiber. I can’t remember the names of them – but just check the labels and look for those that are highest in protein/fiber. It could be that you won’t be able to find an exact match in a store, but maybe you can come close. And if you can, then maybe you could just drink 2 protein shakes a day, 1 balance meal and a couple of healthy snacks Actually, I could use some motivation on my end. If you put together a program (and get approval from your doctor/nutritionist, etc.), I’d be happy to do the program with you! We could be a support system for one another. . . if you are interested. If not, that’s ok too – it won’t hurt my feelings. I just had the idea and thought I’d put it out there for consideration. Ok, I’ll stop rambling now. Best of luck to you!!!!
    2321 days ago
  • IMHISTORY1
    My nutritionist tells me that diabetics have the same dietary standards and needs as those who do not have diabetes! The VLCD is based on 800 calories a day. The drinks have 25 g of protein and 10 g of carbohydrates. You can add up to 10 more grams of carbs and stay in ketosis. I have searched high and low and can’t find any other meal replacement drinks that are that high in proteins. I am told that one of the side effects of ketosis is not feeling hungry. Being in ketosis is one of the many reasons you have to have close medical supervision.
    It has been very difficult the last week trying to judge insulin needs. I just have to watch it very closely.
    2321 days ago
  • KARENKANDO
    I would think your diabetes would dictate what you can and cannot eat, and I’m not diabetic so I fear any advice or opinion I might have to offer would be a moot point. But! As I read your blog, all I could think about was what’s in those VLCD beverages? Is there a way you can find out? Because you never had any hunger, my suspicion would be that the beverages were high in protein and fiber. If that’s the case, then maybe you could device an eating plan (same number of calories as the drinks) that are composed primarily of protein and fiber. Think that might work? Best of luck to you.
    2321 days ago
  • WERSPBUDDIES
    When I see food that I don’t like , or that is not healthy I imagine that its one of the foods that I can’t eat.
    2322 days ago
  • Disclaimer: Weight loss results will vary from person to person. No individual result should be seen as a typical result of following the SparkPeople program.

Here’s some easy ways to increase fruit and vegetable intake with kids:

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Do you have picky eaters? A recent study looked at how many 14-18 year olds met the recommendations for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Only 8.5% nationwide met fruit recommendations and only 2.1% met vegetable recommendations.

Lots of fussy eaters in the US!

Healthy eating patterns are associated with reduced risks for cardiovascular risk, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, obesity, and more. Yet in the US, healthy eating is not common.

Kids with type 1 diabetes and their families do tend to eat healthier than the rest of the population, mainly because they have had nutrition counseling and had to learn healthy eating.

Aim for at least 5 fruits and vegetables per day.

Be a good role model. You can’t expect your kids to eat vegetables if you don’t eat them.

Watch your language.

Kids hear comments about adults not liking certain vegetables and then they tend to not try them.

Include a vegetable and a fruit in each meal.

It’s harder with breakfast. Vegetables can be added to eggs, or included in a smoothie. Fruits can easily be added to cereal or a side.

Serve fruit with meals rather than desserts.

Desserts are fine occasionally, but for most meals, serve fruit.

Encourage healthy snacks which include a vegetable or fruit.

Try to have a balanced snack, which includes several of the food groups.

Here’s some great recipes for healthy snacks for kids. Include a fruit or vegetable plus a protein or carb.

Dips are great for snacks such as raw vegetables, or try fruits and yogurt dip, a banana smeared with peanut butter, apples with peanut butter dip. Here’s a fun recipe for Apple Donuts that look amazing!

Try new vegetables.

Studies show it can take 3-5 times of trying a vegetable to like it. Try different ways to cook vegetables, such as roasting. Roasting vegetables tend to make them sweeter.

To roast vegetables, I throw a bag of frozen vegetables into a dish, toss with olive oil and add some spices, and pop in the oven on 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so. Super easy! I rarely steam vegetables anymore, most are roasted because I can put them in the oven while I prepare a side dish of grains and an entrée.

See how I easily make meals in 30 minutes or less with no recipe or plan!

Use dips.

Even though Ranch dressing isn’t that healthy, it does help increase vegetable intake. Try to encourage your child not to drown it in ranch, or make a homemade variety that is healthier.

Other healthier options include hummus, peanut butter, yogurt based dips, and cheese dip.

Alternate between raw and cooked.

My daughter doesn’t like cooked carrots, but she loves raw carrots. So when I cook carrots I also serve a few raw carrots.

Send vegetables and fruits in their lunch boxes.

My daughter takes a baggie of raw celery or carrots along with some dip in a small container. You can find mini dip containers at the dollar store.

Sara takes some type of fruit cut up, such as apples, strawberries, kiwis, or orange slices.

To keep apples from browning, dip them in some Sprite. I keep a bottle of Sprite under the sink for this purpose. It doesn’t matter if gets flat!

Let your child help cook!

Part of growing up is learning to be responsible and learning skills to live on their own. Yes, for little ones, this is still a goal, though very far off. (It happens sooner than you think though!)

Kids are more likely to eat something they created. Let them help with age appropriate activities.

Let them help wash fruits and vegetables, use kid friendly knives, prepare a salad or a mixed fruit cup, spoon some dips into bowls, etc.

Help your child grow their own fruits and vegetable. Have a fun garden!

Gardens don’t have to be huge! You can take a plastic tote and add holes to the bottom, or some larger pots, add dirt, and have them plant some seeds for baby carrots.

My kids loved picking carrots they had grown! Baby carrots are easier than regular carrots. Lettuce is easy to grow in cooler weather.

You can buy a 6 pack of greens, plant, and then your kids can pull off the outside leaves, and the plant will keep growing, making more.

Make fun shapes and names.

We used to call carrots “coins” and talk about their size and how much they might be “worth”. We called broccoli trees. We had bird nest of mashed potatoes with green peas. Make meals fun!

And finally, add cheese sauce.

Yes, cheese sauce is not the healthiest option, but in the beginning, it helps. I’ve added cheese to broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, zucchini and tomatoes, and other vegetables.

Add sparingly but don’t think you shouldn’t add cheese. Cheese has calcium and protein so it’s not bad. Try to minimize processed cheeses and make your own sauce.

Choose one way to increase fruits and vegetables and get started today! If you have a picky eater and need more tips, a great book is Try New Food. by Jill Castle, a pediatric dietitian.

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Sylvia is a registered dietitian, licensed professional counselor, and certified diabetes educator. Her passion is type 1 diabetes and helping parents of children with diabetes. She loves making food fun, easy, and healthy, along with some treats of course!

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