Eating for Two: What to Eat While Pregnant


Last year I got a late Christmas present—on December 26, I found out I was a few weeks pregnant. The very first thing I did was eat a celebratory piece of cheesecake (it’s silly, but I felt as if I was giving the embryo a treat—thank you for implanting!). My second priority was to start reading about what I was actually supposed to be eating, which I suspected was not the cheese enchiladas, endless milkshakes, and french fries I dreamed of as the ideal indulgent pregnancy diet. To prepare for pregnancy, I had already cut out alcohol and started taking folic acid supplements, but how else would I have to change my ways in the months ahead?

20080226-whattoexpect.jpgI didn’t think it would be that radical; after all, I already eat tons of vegetables and a reasonable quantity of beans and lentils, sneak whole grains into dinner every now and then, and try to enjoy a wide variety of foods in moderation. (Um, except for baked goods—when I bake exceptionally good cookies or bread, I find ways to justify eating quite a lot.) Despite my having always scoffed at vitamins, I picked up a prenatal multi just to make sure any gaping nutritional holes were plugged. Then I turned to What to Expect When You're Expecting, eager for little hints about how I could best nourish myself and the baby.

Holy cow! These were not little hints—these were rather strict guidelines. While urging me not to stress out, the authors frequently reminded me that these were perhaps the most important nine months in my child’s nutritional life. The rare indulgence—a blueberry muffin, two scoops of ice cream—was permissible, but for the most part the developing baby needed a diet of straight superfoods, if possible broken out daily into three servings of lean protein, four servings of calcium-rich foods, three servings of vitamin C–rich foods, three to four servings of leafy green or yellow vegetables and fruits, one or two servings of other fruits and vegetables, “some” iron-rich food every day, four servings of fat, and a whopping six or more servings of whole grains and legumes. Some foods, of course, do double duty—yogurt is protein and calcium, beans and lentils fall into the protein and whole grain categories, and greens are, well, green in addition to being full of calcium and vitamin C—but the prospect of trying to work all this out, even in a casual way, made my head spin.

Conflicting Advice

Poking around the internet revealed that the prescriptions in What to Expect are considered to be relatively rigorous, an ideal to shoot for rather than a realistic daily plan, but over and over again I encountered the idea that what I ate while pregnant would make or break my child’s future intelligence and physique. Pregnant women who start at a healthy weight should eat only about 300 extra calories a day, beginning only in the second trimester, and their nutritional needs are so high that those extra calories should definitely not be empty (like the un-recommended extra calories I, nearing the end of my first trimester, have recently been consuming in peanut butter cookie form). If you aren’t nervous now about getting it right, just consider all the conflicting advice and bickering about the many ways you might get it wrong (hot dogs, soft cheese, sushi, Diet Coke?) and the mortal confrontation between the Puritans, who think three ounces of wine at dinner is child abuse, and the Europhiles, who claim that their mothers treated morning sickness with cigarettes and martinis, so what harm can a small glass possibly do?

Variety and Vitamins

If you care about food and lack the resources to hire a personal nutritionist and chef, it’s a lot to process. Me, I’m back to counting on variety and vitamins to keep me balanced and healthy. I’m making an effort to eat more fish, which I think of as a luxury, in affordable, low-mercury forms like sardines and canned salmon, and am searching for whole grain dishes I am actually excited to eat. My new snacks are sunflower seeds (protein), tomato juice (vitamin C), and ants on a log (excuse to eat peanut butter, protein), joining old favorite snacks cheese (calcium) and almonds (protein).

Meg Hourihan’s excellent post from last summer, "How I Ate While Pregnant," comes to mind frequently when I encounter scare stories about what not to eat. Painfully, I cut out coffee when this was published, but I’m probably eating more dessert than I should, since my only cravings so far seem to be SWEET and PEANUT BUTTER.

Although—and perhaps I should not admit this in a public forum—it’s sometimes hard for me to tell whether I’m actually craving a cookie or ants on a log or if I’ve just lowered my willpower and blamed it on pregnancy. This is such a happy time, and baking and eating cookies is one of the best, easiest ways I know to amplify joy. As long as I’m walking everywhere and eating all the healthy stuff, too, I don’t feel so bad about celebrating a little every day. We’ll just have to see if I feel the same after my next weigh-in at the obstetrician’s office.

Meantime, I’ll be sharing the ways I find to work more whole grains, fish, and other foods high in virtue into my diet and baby’s without making our dinner table look like a postcard from some grim commune. I’m no doctor or nutritionist—I’m a pregnant lady with an internet connection, a library card, and a lot of cookbooks—but I’m fairly confident that most of us would do well to add more healthy meals and snacks to our repertoires. Unless, of course, you’re already easily getting your six servings of whole grains and legumes and more than five vegetables every day, in which case, who are you, and will you please share your secrets with all of us?