Full disclosure on the postpartum nutrition front: While pregnant with my daughter, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. As someone who would happily survive on toasted baguette with butter and jam for the rest of my life, let me tell you, it was no walk in the park. I had to cut out all refined sugar and so much other good stuff like bread, pasta, rice, pizza, many fruits, and, of course, sweets. I was due over the summer, and every time I passed the ice cream parlor near my apartment, I stared at it longingly.
So, the second my baby was out of me (and, with it, the gestational diabetes) I went hog wild. Nobody likes hospital food, but I gave birth in a tiny town in Austria, where the offerings are not so shabby, and every morning I waddled to the little kitchenette on the maternity floor (in my lovely diaper and pressure socks) and filled my plate with everything that had been forbidden: white bread with disgusting quantities of butter and jam, grapes, bananas, muffins, pastries, and chocolate.
The food I ate over the next few months, with my baby at my boob, was not so different. I distinctly remember sitting in the rocking chair one day, stuck under my perfect sleeping girl, mindlessly eating one homemade banana muffin after another out of a Ziploc bag. It wasn’t pretty.
There is, of course, a better way to fuel your mind and body for the early stage of motherhood: eat a healthy mix of complex carbs, proteins, fats, while being mindful about sugar. When I started eating this way I felt — surprise, surprise — really good. Two eggs sustain you for longer than a croissant (who knew?).You can fill up on a yummy salad of veggies and farro with feta and almonds (and feel no guilt about going for more in an hour). You can bulk up on healthy snacks — macadamia nuts, pears, cheese. All were snacks that I could eat one-handed, of course. When I did have sugar (because, really, who can live without it?), I enjoyed it in smaller portions and not at, like, every single meal.
Things I tried to keep in mind:
Go easy on yourself. This might be my mantra for motherhood in general, but it is especially important when it comes to nutrition in this postpartum period. Don’t obsess over whether or not you’re going to lose the baby weight. You will! (Or maybe you won’t. But it’s not worth worrying about now anyway.) Let yourself eat. You need it.
You need more fuel. Really. A nursing woman needs up to 500 extra calories per day, according to Julie Peacock, a holistic and integrative nutritionist in New York City. So your caloric demands may be higher than you realize. And mother nature is smart: Your body will protect and feed the baby first, which means if you’re not careful, you can get really depleted. Do not forget to feed yourself, and do so frequently.
Prep, prep, prep. If someone else can take on some meal duty during those first weeks of nursing, great. Regardless, you might consider cooking a few meals or snacks for yourself in advance during those final weeks of pregnancy. That way you’ll always have things on hand to grab from the freezer when you’re hankering.
Eat protein. It can be tempting to fill up on sugar and carbs (believe me), especially if friends are swinging by with dessert baskets and homemade sweets. But you need protein in your diet to feel good. Throw two chickens in the oven so you have them all week. Snack on cottage cheese, cheese sticks, almonds, hard boiled eggs, plain yogurt, almond butter or avocado on rice cakes. Carbs are often momentarily satisfying, but protein and good fat keep you fuller for longer.
Go for good carbs. Just so we’re all on the same page, carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and dairy products — and we do need them to stay healthy. But instead of grabbing, say, a sesame bagel, which has basically zero nutritional value and will leave you hungry and tired in an hour, think about richer carbs: lentils, legumes, whole-grain breads. Make big vats of things that you can later pull out of the fridge and eat with one hand.
Think “insta-meals.” Peacock recommends having not only snacks, but insta-meals at the ready in the fridge. Soups or grain bowls packed with farro, beans, or quinoa will keep you full.
Drink lots of fluids. You know this already but here’s your friendly reminder that you need lots of water. You know how your babe is stealing your food intake? She’s doing the same with water – so make sure you stay hydrated.
Speaking of fluids, go for a smoothie. They’re easy to sip while nursing (and you never know: the sound of the blender might soothe a fussy baby?). Throw in bananas, yogurt, berries, cinnamon, and a little honey. If you’re feeling adventurous, add some kale.
Enlist friends. Don’t turn down any opportunity to avoid cooking, especially in those early days! When friends ask what they can do to help, ask them to bring you food. Even if you think you have enough, say yes, and freeze it.
Continue taking a prenatal vitamin. Your body is working hard to feed this other creature and to heal itself. These can help.
Go ahead, sip some wine. In small amounts, of course. Midwives in Ireland recommend Guinness. My midwives in Austria brought me Prosecco. Does it help with nursing? Who really knows. But it can calm you down (which is huge), and possibly encourage letdown.
Here’s the secret I learned after my baby was weaned and happily eating her own meals: These so-called guidelines apply to all of us, breastfeeding or not (I mean, except the 500+ calorie part). “Eat real food. Not too much,” as foodie author Michael Pollan says. Enjoy it. Share it with others. Don’t obsess. Rinse, wash, repeat.