At midnight on New Year’s Eve 2017, instead of celebrating with champagne I had my head in the toilet thanks to a severe bout of morning sickness being 10 weeks’ pregnant.
And if you told me at the time I should ‘eat healthy during my pregnancy’ I would have slapped you. It’s hard to truly understand how the feeling of the flu combined with an all-day hangover affects what you want (or don’t want) to eat unless you’ve gone through it yourself.
Nonetheless, I tried my hardest not to subsist on biscuits and toast. I’ve always eaten well and was determined to do the same even when 24/7 nausea was stronger than Superman on steroids. I think I did pretty well – my standard day’s menu was fruit, rice cakes, vegetable crisps, plain popcorn, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free toast with avocado or peanut butter, chicken, and carrot and celery sticks. (And yes, a fair amount of chocolate biscuits.)
Not brilliant (if I had to analyse it, I’d say it was too little good fats, too little protein, too high in carbs and not enough vegetables) but it wasn’t awful.
Luckily I’ve been feeling back to my old self since 14 weeks (I’m 19 weeks now), and have gone back to my regular diet (just with a lot more snacking).
I think eating well takes effort, but it’s not necessarily hard. When you realise how good you can actually feel from healthy food – and how quickly unhealthy food affects you – it becomes easier and easier to make good choices consistently.
That said, it can be daunting knowing where to start. But I do believe it’s really important that we try. Eating healthily during your pregnancy makes you feel better mentally and physically, gives your baby the best head start, helps with steady weight gain (rather than sudden weight gain, hello stretch marks) and will help you get back to a healthy weight post-pregnancy.
Here are my top tips to help.
How and what to eat
1. Start the day with a solid breakfast.
When you’re in the throes of morning sickness it’s often advised to keep crackers or biscuits next to your bed to eat first thing in the morning. While this may help temporarily, those processed grain-based foods won’t do anything for your health long-term. I always felt so much better when I dragged myself into the kitchen and had a nourishing breakfast. My favourite was (and still is) avocado toast, but even some days mashing an avocado felt like running a marathon. Those times I had my gluten-free granola with almond milk or coconut yoghurt (easy peasy), or something I’d prepped earlier (when I had the smallest burst of energy) like my chia puddings or zucchini slice.
2. Eat small snacks frequently.
Morning sickness meant I got into the routine of eating small meals and snacks every 2 hours (which helped my nausea a lot). I’m not nauseous anymore, but I still like eating every 2-3 hours. But when you’re eating so often it’s important it’s good food, otherwise that’s when the unhealthy weight gain can creep up. My favourite snacks are bliss balls, apple wedges with peanut butter, carrot sticks with hummus, and dark chocolate. For more see my list of 25 healthy snacks.
3. Increase your veggies.
During weeks 6 to 14 I couldn’t even look at a spinach leaf without feeling queasy. (Apparently it’s an evolutionary trait that many women have aversions to fresh produce!) Some days I’d go the whole day without eating any fresh veg except for half a carrot. Now that I’m out of the nausea-zone, I’m back to eating as many serves of veggies a day as I can. The best ways I do this are to replace grains with vegetables (e.g. zucchini noodles instead of regular noodles, cauliflower rice instead of white rice and using lettuce cups as wraps), snacking on carrot and celery sticks with hummus, making my own kale chips, and putting spinach in my breakfast smoothie. For more ways I’m doing this, check out my post on 20 ways to eat more vegetables.
4. Cut down on sugar.
It’s a good idea for everyone to reduce their sugar intake, but pregnant women even more so. More sugar = higher risk of pregnancy weight gain, gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia and your baby having a lower birth weight. Easy ways to cut down include reading nutritional labels and avoiding anything with 5g or more sugar per 100g, not adding it to your coffee/tea/baking, and cooking from scratch instead of buying packaged meals. For more specific strategies, see my list of 20 ways to reduce sugar and 12 ways to stop sugar cravings.
5. Make easy swaps.
Change doesn’t have to be drastic – it can be as easy as making a few simple swaps. For example: sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, homemade granola over store-bought “healthy” (aka full of sugar) muesli, almond milk instead of cow’s milk, dark chocolate over milk chocolate (if you don’t like dark chocolate, start with the 40‐50% cocoa and build it up to 70‐85%), gluten-free pasta over regular pasta, coconut oil over vegetable oil, herbal tea over coffee, grass-fed meat over conventional grain-fed meat, and organic produce over non-organic.
Preparation = payoff
So much of healthy eating is not just what we chose to put in our mouths but how we prepare. Set yourself up for success by organising your environment and planning your meals – a little prep goes a long way.
6. Plan your meals in advance.
7. Clean out your kitchen.
Go through your pantry, fridge and freezer regularly and throw out any junk that’s accumulated. If any of that junk belongs to your husband or kids and they’d throw a tantrum if you binned it (speaking from personal experience…), either move it to another shelf or put it in opaque stackable containers.
It’s also nice to actually clean your pantry and fridge shelves regularly – not the most fun job (unless you’re slightly OCD like me, in which case it’s genuinely soothing) – but worthwhile. Empty your cupboards, wipe any shelves (getting rid of sticky honey spots is so satisfying) then put back everything neatly.
8. Stock your kitchen with healthy staples.
When my pantry is full of healthy staples, I’m more likely to cook or bake at home. I regularly stock up at bulk whole foods stores with things like mixed nuts, almond flour, shredded coconut, coconut milk, tinned tomatoes, quinoa, coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pine nuts, cacao nibs, herbal tea and nut butters. (See my full list on how to stock a healthy pantry here.) I store everything in labelled glass jars so I can see what I’ve got easily.
Note: If morning sickness or tiredness means you can barely get off the couch to shower let alone trek around a supermarket, ordering online is definitely worth the cost of delivery.
9. Wash and store fresh produce.
As well as practicing good food hygiene (essential during pregnancy), properly washing and storing your fresh fruit and veg means it’ll last longer and you won’t waste money when you find those floppy carrots and soggy spinach hiding at the back of the vegetable drawer.
Learn what to do with your fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs so they’ll never go to waste by reading my post here.
10. Cook in large batches and freeze.
I love the saying ‘make once, eat twice’. When cooking feels like a chore, do it less! One way is to make meals in large batches, then store individual portions of leftovers in the freezer. Choose meals that will freeze well like Shepherd’s Pie, my healthy meatloaf, lasagna, bolognaise sauce (my husband eats this with spaghetti but I have it with steamed broccoli) or my Growing Greens Soup.
Bonus: Have the right mindset
11. Attitude is everything.
Being healthy mentally is just as important as being healthy physically.
If your diet is flawless, you drink gallons of water and take your prenatal vitamins 100% of the time *buuuut* you feel restricted and pressured and scared of messing up… that’s not healthy.
More than ever, pregnancy is a time to be gentle with yourself. Forgive yourself if you slip up! We all get cravings, or want to bury a bad day with chocolate biscuits or indugle in a cheeseburgre ever now and then. #TruthBomb – while writing this post, I literally ate an entire 100g block of dark chocolate. Is that ideal? Nope. But it happens. I eat well most of the time, and I got my 8 glasses of water and 5 serves of veggies in today. So I’m okay with it. Be okay with yourself too when you eat or do something “unhealthy”. As I always say – life is messy and perfection is boring!
P.S. Now I’d love to hear from you. Do the above tips resonate? Are there any tips you could add from experience?