By: Virginia Watkins
Gestation and childbirth are no easy task, even at the cellular level. Your body needs specific foods to replenish nutrient stores, help you feel more energized, and to support the healing process. If you are breastfeeding, eating a nourishing diet not only helps you feel better, it can increase the quality of your breast milk.
Besides filling your pantry and fridge with nourishing foods, it’s important to make time to eat. Ask your partner or a friend to take your baby for a walk while you sit down and enjoy a meal for twenty to thirty minutes. That simple act can feed you in many ways; it supports better digestion; the body can absorb nutrients more efficiently in a more relaxed state; and mindful eating leads to more satisfaction so you’re more likely to eat the amount that you need.
Here’s a list of five foods you can buy or easily make, some yummy serving suggestions, and how they benefit you and your baby.
- Cultured dairy
Organic whole milk yogurt and kefir help replenish calcium stores. Their supply of healthy fat and protein also stabilizes blood sugar levels, resulting in more energy and better moods. While some women are not able to digest milk, cultured dairy contains much less lactose than regular milk and has beneficial probiotics. These healthy bacteria strengthen the immune system and help with nutrient absorption.
Calcium, in particular, is used in utero for growing bones. Even if you’ve taken calcium supplements before and throughout your pregnancy, food remains the best source of absorbable calcium.
Serving Suggestions: To reduce processed sugar intake, look for plain organic whole milk yogurt and kefir. Use bananas and berries as natural sweeteners or a spoonful of preserves, local honey, or maple syrup. Add crumbled walnuts or slivered almonds for an even greater nutrient boost.
- Mollusks (oysters, mussels, and particularly, clams)
These two-shelled morsels contain more iron than liver or red meat. If you’re not a meat or mollusk eater, spinach and molasses are good sources of plant-derived or heme-iron, but they still provide less iron than animal foods, which contain more absorbable heme-iron.
During childbirth, women commonly lose blood, which can result in an iron deficiency. Without enough iron, a postpartum mom can feel sluggish and depleted, and even become anemic. Since most postpartum moms are also sleep deprived, it becomes more important to support energy levels with adequate iron intake. After having my children, I could feel my energy levels improve postpartum when I ate liver and other iron-rich foods; I even craved them.
Serving Suggestions: Squeeze lemon on your oysters or add clams to tomato sauce as vitamin C improves the body’s ability to absorb iron.
- Dark Leafy Greens
Looking for a great source of calcium that’s not in a pill or glass? Fresh greens such as rainbow chard, beet greens, dino (lacinato) kale, escarole and arugula are some of my favorites. For convenience, look for the pre-washed varieties. These foods provide a wide spectrum of valuable minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. They’re also good at stabilizing blood sugar levels.Serving Suggestions: Steam greens gently in a covered pot or skillet with a little water or broth; remove center rib of kale or chard and chop thinly to use in salads with a 30-Second Homemade Vinaigrette (see recipe below); add to wraps; or mix greens in warm grain salads with quinoa, millet, or farro.
- Natural Sugars
It’s 3pm and you need a boost. Instead of reaching for foods with processed sugar or a sweet caffeinated concoction at your local café, keep a variety of fresh seasonal fruit on hand. If you’re looking for gluten-free alternatives, try roasting Japanese sweet potatoes and delicata squash; I find these sweeter and more delicious than the other varieties.
Fresh fruit and starchy vegetables contain important nutrients and fiber that slow down digestion, reducing a blood sugar spike. Without the spike and crash, energy levels remain more stable and less erratic.
Serving Suggestions: Bring along a piece of fruit when you leave home for a healthy snack on-the-go. Eat your fruit with some nuts. The combination of fruit and nuts will further reduce a spike in blood sugar levels and also satisfy hunger for a longer period of time.Cooking Tip: Preheat oven or toaster oven (it cuts off automatically) to 350 degrees, scrub potato, yam, or squash and place on a tray. Cook for 30-60 minutes depending on the size. The flesh should pierce easily with a fork when done. Serve with coconut oil, nutmeg or cinnamon, and sea salt. With squash, slice open and remove seeds first.
- Nuts and Seeds
Choose your favorites and keep on-hand in a container in your stroller, car, or purse. Hunger may strike unexpectedly if you are breastfeeding. Look for raw or roasted as roasting doesn’t decrease the nutrient content significantly. Choose salted or unsalted; salt is essential for proper cellular function.
Nuts contain good-quality fats, protein, and fiber, all of which assist in stabilizing blood sugar levels. They are easy to tote and to eat with one hand for a snack if you are holding your baby with the other.
I recommend almonds for their superior calcium content, walnuts for their high omega-3 content and versatility (soaked and toasted walnuts are my go-to nut), pumpkin seeds for their high zinc levels, which helps with tissue repair, and sesame seeds for their high calcium content.
Serving Suggestions: Hummus contains tahini, a paste made with sesame seeds, so if you like hummus, eat it with sugar snap peas, carrots (scrubbed but not peeled as most of the nutrients are in the skin), and cherry tomatoes. These veggies are all easy to prepare and are full or phytonutrients. Personally, I prefer dipping carrot sticks in roasted salted almond butter for a yummy high-calcium snack.
30-Second Homemade Vinaigrette
Makes about ¾ cup
- 2 Tbs aged vinegar such as sherry (my favorite), red wine, or champagne vinegar
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Sea or mineral salt & fresh ground pepper, to taste
Shake together in a sealed jar until well blended. Shake again as needed.
It does not need to be refrigerated. Both vinegar and olive oil are shelf-stable ingredients.
This week make a commitment to try at least one or two of these foods recommended here. Start with what appeals to you most and notice if you feel more nourished.
Virginia Watkins completed her post-graduate studies in Nutrition Education at Bauman College in Berkeley, CA. While an undergraduate at Duke University, she studied French cooking in Montpellier, France, continuing an early fascination with food. In addition to working with families and individuals, Virginia has spoken to hundreds of people in community talks and workshops, organizes grocery tours, and teaches hands-on, in-home cooking classes to individuals and groups. She is also the mother of a two well-fed boys, ages five and eight.