What you eat during pregnancy is a big deal. At least it feels that way to those of us lucky enough to experience this magic. It’s a time of incredibly mixed emotions and many questions. In my practice as a Dietitian I find that most individuals, whether growing a little person or not, are incredibly confused as to what food is actually healthy. We’re not confident in our food choices, and being pregnant throws a curve ball into the game, with questions like “how much should I be eating?”, “can I eat cheese?”, and “how come all I want is carbohydrates?”
I have comforted a number of friends though first trimester sickness, and guilt for wanting to eat all of the carbs in the world. Though my advice has changed over the years with experience and counseling clients, and now even moreso as I go through my first pregnancy, I have always keenly offered comfort. The mummy guilt starts early, in the first weeks of growing a baby, and I am happy to help ease this because I find guilt to be a particularly unproductive, usually destructive, emotion. Pregnant ladies should be focusing on more important things, like where to find a good pregnancy pillow and what the heck is swaddling a baby?
Here are a few thoughts on nourishing yourself and your baby during pregnancy. I will break it up into trimesters, for ease of reading, with today’s post being principally about the first trimester. I’ll also delve into my own eating habits, as I have received a few requests I do so. Lastly, know that though general advice applies to most people, everyone is different and if you are struggling or are unsure of your choices, please see an Accredited Practising Dietitian for advice (raising my hand over here).
A few quick tips for nausea and food cravings
I wrote some first trimester nausea tips on my dietitian website, as well as suggestions for healthy food craving alternatives, so you can check out those posts for more detail. Personally I found the following strategies most useful: keeping my blood sugar levels steady, eating small amounts often, sipping on fluids to stay hydrated, getting fresh air and distracting myself so as to not wallow in the nausea.
Holy heck I feel like s**t
During the first trimester, as all the hormones rush in, you often experience all-day hangover-style nausea where the only antidote appears to be dry crackers or fries. Beware, this feeling can take you by surprise. I was certainly shocked to experience this kind of hormonally-charged sickness, as it was like nothing I had ever felt and was in no way relieved by a cozy blanket, hot water bottle, soup and time on the couch (as was my usual sick-day protocol). You may also experience super strong food aversions (vegetables, bleh) and a weird appetite (often reduced, sometimes increased) during this time.
But you’re not just feeling sick, you’ve also just discovered you’re growing a baby and are overwhelmed with the incredible responsibility of this task. You want to do the best for your baby, while also managing to make it through the day. That’s often a major conflict. “Want chips, should eat kale…AHHH what the frick do I do?!?!?!”
The truth is, during this time, many of us need to forgive ourselves for eating a less vibrant than usual diet. I’m certainly not encouraging you to eat all the fried food in the world, but for many of us, making fresh green vegetable juice and eating poached salmon on a bed of quinoa with sautéed silverbeet and extra virgin olive oil is a horrifying thought. You might need to settle for a fruit juice (with vegetables snuck in, carrots and celery work well), some well-cooked salmon covered in some sort of sauce and a bed of mashed potato, rice or pasta. Still pretty great, but somewhat less sparkling and nutrient-rich than the former option. Know that it is likely a short-term experience, and after a couple months you’ll hopefully be able to stomach the foods we all know are good for us (hello vegetables). In fact, our diet before conception (and that of your baby daddy) is arguably more important than the temporary period of increasing hormones and sickness. So make nutritious food choices, exercise, get off the booze and caffeine, manage stress and get a good amount of sleep in the months or even year before you and your partner want to conceive. Your health behaviours at this time can influence the health of your baby.
That said, you may experience no food aversions, and yay for you! Or you may struggle all throughout you’re pregnancy. Everyone is different. My experience, however, is what most people tend to experience, a funky first trimester or so (weeks 5-18 for me). Ooooh the first trimester was a learning experience for me. My whole world flipped! This may sound a tad dramatic, but know that prior to our positive pregnancy test, my work and my hobbies revolved around food. To all of a sudden find my main interest incredibly off-putting completely threw me. I started reading Jane Austen novels instead of cookbooks, watching BBC dramas instead of Nigella Lawson, searching for quick-to-assemble meals instead of lingering in the kitchen, and even finding more interest in my clients’ sleeping habits than what they ate. I found new ways to fill my days and food became a necessity rather than a pleasure. Eating every couple of hours to keep my blood sugar levels steady and help mange my nausea was a chore. I didn’t even know myself.
Here’s what I did in a typical day…
My first trimester eats
I’d wake up each morning a little later than usual, hobble downstairs and reach for something that moderately appealed to ensure I got something in my stomach as soon as possible. Some people like to keep food next to their beside table, but I only really did this when middle of the night hunger and eating happened (a couple of 3am dried figs each night got me through week 12). I’d climb back up the stairs and get into bed, munching on something whilst reading. This would usually be half or a full piece of toast or some fruit. Grapes were a favourite for a while.
After about half an hour (I stopped scheduling clients for 9am and decided to take my time in the mornings), I’d force myself out of bed, put on some workout clothes and go for a walk. My pace was super slow, and sometimes I’d have to intentionally breath through the nausea, but the fresh air and movement really helped. I even took strips of fresh ginger to munch on during the early weeks, which helped me make it through. I’d then come home and have breakfast.
A note on coffee: the recommendations are for a maximum of 200mg caffeine per day during pregnancy. So I could have continued to enjoy a coffee a day if I wanted. My body, however, told me “nooooooooooo!!”, proclaiming it to be devil juice, and assuring me I didn’t need it. I listened. I’d occasionally have a weak tea, but was cautious to not get too herbal or weird as there aren’t a lot of studies on the safety of these things. Any research I did or questions I’d ask people would result in ” possible increase of miscarriage”, and so I was happy to set it aside and revel in the fact that I didn’t even want I and didn’t even get one caffeine withdrawal headache (which was a total surprise).
My first trimester breakfast was not entirely dissimilar to my pre-pregnancy breakfast, though was certainly far less embellished. My porridge went from jazzy, rich ingredients like tahini and cacao to plain with perhaps only honey and cinnamon.
I used to get a lot of goodness from all the nuts and seeds I’d top my porridge with (brilliant fats, vitamins, minerals and some protein), but because I went off nuts for a while I looked to replace them with something more palatable. My saviour was chia seeds, as they’d slip into my porridge really inoffensively and provide me with a lot of nutrients. In terms of portions, during those early weeks I was managing about 1/4 cup rolled oats, which is a tiny portion for me. I made up for this in snacks later in the day. A decrease in physical activity level also helped to balance things out. Remember at this stage you don’t need extra calories to support your baby, so it’s certainly not about eating for two.
Other days, when I could look at yoghurt, I went for a serve with muesli or granola (with juice!! I have started to loooove orange juice), as this was crazy simple and less smelly. Seriously, your sense of smell can become so heightened during pregnancy. The smell of the kitchen was repulsive, as was the washing detergent and the fridge (even Ben was repulsive at times). Fresh basil was particularly offensive. And cold foods are often easier to handle so muesli and yoghurt featured a bit.
If I wanted toast for breakfast, I’d try to have it alongside some yoghurt, as a way to balance my blood sugar levels and get in protein, calcium, B vitamins and probiotics. Though sometimes yoghurt wouldn’t appeal and I’d settle for a nice protein/fat topping (again, to help balance my blood sugar levels and manage my nausea) like avocado and cheese. When nut butters and eggs appealed later on, I was all over them too.
Lunch was my most “altered” meal. Pre-pregnancy, I’d dive into abundant salads with endless vegetables, daily. During the first trimester, the thought, smell and taste of most vegetables made me feel really sick. Zucchini and beetroot were gag-worthy (I think I overdid zucchini noodles right before my nausea kicked in, as result of Santa getting me a spiralizer at Christmas). So I had to make do with what appealed, and so while I still ate salads after about week 7, they looked more like roasted potato and pumpkin with tuna and spring onion. I adored the spring onion and parsley (hated basil), and took whatever green I could get. Frozen peas and tinned corn also helped my vegetable consumption move beyond the potato realm. Luckily avocado was quite palatable, so I’d often have toast with avocado and feel pretty great for getting some green in.
Very early on I favoured toasted cheddar cheese sandwiches with chives or spring onion. I’d sometimes treat myself to chips on the side (note, go for the plain salted chips rather than flavoured ones. Check the ingredients list on both packets and you’ll see why). Chips tended to make me feel better, whether crisps or fries. But it’s a fine line between “ahhh this is great” and “ahhhh I feel sick”, so I’d stick to a handful or two at a time and indulged infrequently. If I needed a fix, my go to was home-roasted potatoes.
Multiple snacks would happen in the afternoon, due to reduced portions at meals and the need to keep my blood sugar levels steady. Snacks are a pregnant lady’s best friend.
Smoothies were super helpful during my first trimester. I could get in a dose of protein, calcium, B vitamins, fibre and healthy fats from a simple blend of milk, frozen banana, and chia seeds. Importantly, they helped me stay hydrated! I really struggled with hydration during the first trimester, which is SO important. I was never cramping or severely dehydrated, I simply had to really try to drink my water, constantly forcing myself.
Fruit, yoghurt, muesli with milk or yoghurt were other easy snacks. And even a piece of toast with nut butter, particularly on days I hadn’t had any bread at breakfast and lunch. For diet variety I try to not have bread multiple times a day, mixing it up with other starchy foods like wild rice and sweet potato. But during the first trimester my desire for most foods was limited and bread became a key feature (though gradually quinoa and sweet potato became appealing again, thank goodness). I’d favour my dad’s homemade sourdough, local breads like Flinders Sourdough, or Lievito.
Gradually cucumber became tolerable, and I’d choke down a few bites of fresh, summer cucumbers in between cheddar cheese on grain crackers. Cheese remains a favourite way to get in some calcium, fat and protein, and while soft cheeses are not recommended during pregnancy, I adored the hard cheeses like cheddar. These snack plates happened more from week 9, I believe.
And later on, hummus! I went off hummus for a good while, plain chickpeas too. But it’s such a nutritious spread, I was super happy to be including it again. Here are my favourite crackers, by Dr Karg. BEST. Clearly you’d need to be a doctor to craft this tastiness.
Dinner was my easiest meal. For a while I felt a lot better come 5pm and could actually assemble a meal that wasn’t toast. Dinner was the meal I could get in the most vegetables (alongside a serve of pasta or potato, of course). I found myself wanting red meat more often than before falling pregnant, though chicken wasn’t (and still isn’t) appealing. I did enjoy fish, but was cautious to not have it too often and to avoid the higher mercury fish. Smaller fish is a good bet, and if you go for sardines and anchovies, that’s even better as they’re loaded with super valuable omega-3 fatty acids! All I wanted was tuna, though (which isn’t new for me), but there’s mixed reports on how much tinned tuna you can eat when pregnant, and each brand is different (using varying breeds of the fish). I found this a little frustrating as I’d eat it every day if I could (though that would make me a bad sustainable eater…Sirena tuna in oil, why are you so tasty?!!?). Anyway, I developed a goal of not having it more than 2-3 times a week, which also allowed for good diet variety.
Favourite dinner meals (i.e. ones I found vaguely acceptable – I wasn’t in LOVE with any food, really), were: bolognaise pasta bake (any kind of pasta, really), grilled meat and potatoes (with whatever veg I could cover in cheese or tomato sauce), slow-cooked lamb or beef meals, tuna casserole, soup and later on, when more vegetables became appealing, summer plates.
This is a trap, because it’s highly appealing (you don’t have to cook!) and often you order foods you don’t cook at home (fries!), which is fun. And you’re tired from growing a human so who can be bothered cooking? But in the interest of saving money and ensuring I got the best nourishment possible, I was pretty strict with myself during this time, ensuring I didn’t default to getting takeaway or dining out. We’d eat Grill’d every now and then, had Indian once, fish and chips twice, went on one Maccas run, shared a couple of a pizzas at DOC on a date night and enjoyed the odd meal out with friends and family. But as a rule, we stayed home for dinner, favouring quick, easy to prepare meals. Though I didn’t turn my nose up when my mum offered to cook us food!
So that’s what I did during the first trimester (and a month beyond), folks. My diet was definitely altered, I had to put in more effort than ever before when it came to eating well and developed new empathy for clients who don’t care about food. But I think I still had a pretty darn nutritious diet. And as I headed further into the second trimester I found myself really excited about nourishing our baby in a less restricted way, with a lot more green that didn’t make me gag.
Follow your intuition
One final note. I felt a bit torn, writing this post…wanting to say what I ate and give some insight as both a dietitian and lady going through her first pregnancy, but also wanting to address a few topics that may be in conflict to this first desire of sharing my own view. Let me explain…
I’m talking about comparison and self-doubt, and the effect this can have on your intuition.
This online, social media world is a funny place. I have been both praised for my healthy eating and scolded for eating fast food. People can be incredibly judgemental, and though I usually only receive lovely notes on my instagram pictures and blog, I am already seeing from those around me that being a parent can encourage unwarranted, sometimes harsh comments. I’ve had friends tell me they feel judged whenever they post a picture. The lesson here is a valuable one. You need to be true to yourself. You need to trust and follow your intuition.
During this new and wonderful period, you’re sure to have a million questions. But who we listen to can be the difference between trusting yourself with confidence and drowning in guilt and self-doubt. Ensuring you seek counsel from qualified health care providers is super important. Don’t visit doctor google and don’t compare yourself to others who aren’t in your precise situation. Sure, you may feel like you’ve wasted the time of your midwife, obstetrician or health care provider if it turns out to be no big deal or an easy answer, but this is a whole new world, you’re just figuring it out! Getting personalised, careful advice will put your mind at ease and will help you nurture your mother’s intuition, which, in this day and age of shiny instagram pictures and facebook friends who aren’t really friends, can be muted and questioned.
I think that people are too connected to each other on a superficial level, and less connected on a deeper level, a place of truth, unfiltered-context and understanding. And as a result, it can be difficult to hear your intuition amongst the noise and barrage of advice that comes when you post a picture or type a status update. Sometimes we ask for advice and opinions, and that’s fair game, take all that comes in those cases. Other times, we just want to show a cute snap or tell people where you can get good food. And I’m not saying that many people don’t have a wealth of knowledge and invaluable tips (some of this advice is absolutely wonderful and loving), but there are also people who don’t know what they’re talking about and even if they do, it may not relate to your situation. So be sure that when taking advice, you know these people well, they know YOU well, and they have your best interests at heart.
How does this relate to food? Even as a dietitian I found making food choices tricky during his time (wait, can I eat chorizo??). So I fully appreciate that it can be a bit of a battle. But it’s always going to be a battle, whether pregnant or not, if you don’t trust yourself and you’re not being true. Ideally you will know when you’re overdoing it, when you’ve gotten into an ‘ice-cream after dinner’ habit and when you’ve given Red Rock Deli too much of your money. You will know if you deserve to enjoy a fast food burger (without being scolded), or if perhaps you should drive home and make yourself a plate of eggs and vegetables instead. You will know what a healthy diet entails and you will only answer to yourself. If you don’t know these things, if you don’t feel you can trust your gut and are confused as to what you should actually be eating (which, again, is not uncommon or unreasonable), I encourage you to see a dietitian. I’m surprised more people don’t, frankly.
Oh, and trust me, I do see the irony in me writing this post about what I do and typing this final message. But know that while I write what worked for me on my diary here, I do not know your specific situation and I am so very keen for you to find what works for you. And to encourage you to trust yourself, to tune out any loud voices that invariably come during this time of pregnancy and new motherhood if they don’t sound or feel right or if they’re judgemental and hurtful, and instead to seek counsel from the right people and tune back into your intuition. It always knows what’s best.
I pinky promise the next post on pregnancy eats won’t be as long.