When it comes to eating healthily during pregnancy, a woman’s cravings can sometimes get the best of her. Even the most disciplined moms-to-be find themselves struggling to eat enough folic acid-rich foods, among other prenatal diet recommendations, when all they can think about is pickles or pizza.
However, consuming enough folic acid—which helps prevent congenital heart defects and neural tube defects—is critical for both mom and baby, particularly during the first 30 days following conception.
“Folic acid has a very important role to play in translating DNA into protein, and that’s what babies are busy doing when they’re developing their parts in the first trimester of pregnancy,” says Roger W. Harms, MD, vice chair of the OB/GYN department at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and medical editor of The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. Fortunately, there are ways for moms-to-be to eat right even when they’re struck with a major change in appetite.
1. Analyze your cravings.
It may seem simple, but knowing the essence of your cravings is an important first step in taking charge of what you eat. From there, you can consider ways to work in folate-rich foods.
If you have an urge for nachos, for example, think about whether you want the cheese, the salt, or the crunch of the chips. Armed with an awareness of your craving category, you might be able to substitute a healthier alternative, such as homemade kale chips, or create a more nutritious variation by layering folate-rich greens and beans with cheese and vegetable chips.
2. Collect ideas in a food journal.
Keep a list of the top folate foods in the front of a notebook, and gather recipes that contain those ingredients. (Visit pnmag.com/folaterecipes for a few to get you started.) Make note of ones that sound palatable so when you’re hungry and battling cravings, you’ll have an assortment of ideas to consider.
3. Think multiculturally.
Build upon the flavors you’re craving by taking inspiration from cuisines around the world. A craving for pickles, for example, could be the start of a French bistro-inspired meal: Serve a healthy handful of cornichons alongside a lentil and spinach salad topped with salmon. (See recipe on page 36.) Saag paneer, an Indian favorite, will satisfy your creamy cravings while providing folate and protein.
4. Give in—but in moderation.
Eating healthfully, for you and your baby, doesn’t have to mean denying your cravings. “I feel that it’s important to honor the craving, but not overdo it,” says Laura Desai, mom of one in Los Angeles. Rather than indulgence, this approach allowed Desai, who is a vegan, to satisfy her heightened sweet tooth in a nutritious way.
“I try to satisfy the sweet craving first with fresh fruit, prunes from the farmer’s market, or soy yogurt. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have something small like a bowl of cashew ice cream, a vegan chocolate, or another little treat of some sort,” she says.
5. Keep it simple.
If you’re fatigued and not in the mood to cook, think of easy preparations with pantry staples. For a simple but delicious no-cook salad, toss a can of chickpeas with capers, chopped parsley or cilantro, olive oil, and salt and pepper.
Alternatively, plan ahead for fatigue and batch cook during the weekend. “I would make a big pot of lentil soup with spinach and carrots and have that in the fridge to make sure I had an easy, protein-filled lunch in the day to keep my energy up,” says Anne Marie Canlis, mom of three in Seattle.
6. Treat your senses.
Eating is not just about taste and smell—it involves all five senses. Once you’ve found a way to work a healthy item into what you’re craving, take it a step further and consider your surroundings. Use your favorite dishes, dim the lights, arrange fresh flowers, and turn off the TV. Enjoy the ritual of sitting down for a meal, even if you’re by yourself.
7. Have smart snacks available at all times.
You’re more likely to eat a healthy snack if it’s just as convenient as its nonhealthy counterpart, so keep your pantry—and purse—well stocked. If you’re craving something salty like potato chips, you may be able to divert your attention with a handful of peanuts, or at least eat them with guacamole. Or if you need a quick pick- me-up, reach for a bag of trail mix instead of a candy bar. (Try making your own with peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit and chocolate chips.)
8. Put your healthy cravings on overdrive.
If you’re lucky enough to crave veggies, think about how you might be able to incorporate folate-rich forms into each meal. Add sauteed greens to your morning omelet. For lunch, pack a double punch of folic acid in your spinach salad by adding orange slices; dress it with feta, pine nuts and a simple vinaigrette.
9. Disguise the healthy food if you must.
Along with cravings often come food aversions and nausea, which can make it difficult to eat right. When folate-rich foods such as beans or spinach nauseate you, look for ways to mask those smells by changing the preparation—like roasting vegetables instead of boiling them.
Charity Parenzini, mom of two in Seattle, found her usual appetite for healthful foods sabotaged by constant nausea in early pregnancy, yet found a trick to getting through the rough weeks. “It’s easier to fit a food in when it’s in a ‘one-dish meal’ since it’s hidden—chili with kidney beans, dahl with lentils, or quiche with spinach or broccoli,” Parenzini says.
10. Take prenatal supplements as insurance, but don’t rely on them.
Many doctors prescribe or recommend a prenatal supplement for their patients, and for good reason. But eating right has lifetime benefits as well.
“As far as we know, it’s adequate to get these nutrients [including folic acid] in supplement form, but in general, the entire pregnancy benefits from a balanced diet,” Harms says. “It’s probably a great idea to concentrate on those things that constitute a healthy and well-balanced diet rather than pursuing it as a specific supplement off a store shelf.” If intense nausea gets in the way of your ability to eat healthily, Harms suggests talking to your care provider about how to mitigate the symptoms.
Recipe to try: Fennel-scented salmon atop a lentil and spinach salad
Heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids from salmon, folic acid from lentils and spinach, a bright, rich flavor from a mix of ingredients… this salad has it all. Serve with a crusty baguette and a spritzer of sparkling water and orange juice for additional folic acid.
• 1/2 cup French green lentils, rinsed and debris removed
• 2 cups water
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 1/2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon plus 1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
• 4 tablespoons extra-virgin
• olive oil, divided
• 1 1/2 tablespoons shallot, minced (optional)
• 1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
• 2 6-ounce wild Alaskan salmon fillets
• 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper
• 1⁄8 teaspoon ground fennel seed (or fennel
pollen, if available)
• 2 cups baby spinach
• 6 cornichons, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400°F
Prepare lentil salad. Combine lentils, water, and bay leaf in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes until lentils are tender. Drain and discard bay leaf. While lentils are cooking, make the dressing: Stir together sherry wine vinegar, mustard, and ½ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Gradually add 3 ½ tablespoons olive oil, whisking constantly until emulsified. While lentils are still hot, add shallot, parsley and three-fourths of the dressing; toss to combine. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Cook salmon. Wipe salmon dry with a paper towel. Brush an ovenproof baking dish with olive oil, and set salmon fillet inside, skin side down. Brush salmon with the remaining olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and fennel seed. Bake until just cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Assemble and serve. To serve, divide spinach between two plates. Top each with lentil salad and a fillet of salmon. Drizzle remaining dressing over spinach and garnish with cornichons. Serves two.