We all hear the phrase “eating for two” a lot. But what in the heck does eating for two even mean? Trying to figure out what to eat during pregnancy, and especially how much to eat, can be really confusing. I know that I experienced plenty of days where I didn’t want to eat a thing (read here for tips on surviving morning sickness), but also plenty where I was so hungry that I wanted to eat my whole dang kitchen. I know I’ve worried both about eating too much while pregnant AND not eating enough, because I know that both sides of that spectrum could result in problems for my baby.
There is a LOT of information out there. Now, I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor or an expert of any kind. But I have been pregnant three times in the past six years. Here’s what I’ve found, from my personal experience, to be good guidelines on not just what to eat during pregnancy but how much of it to eat to keep both you and your growing little one healthy.
Doing these things has kept me feeling good and has kept my weight gain steady and healthy (I’m up 22 pounds at 32 weeks, which both my doctor and I are happy with). So for what it’s worth, here are my two cents on “eating for two.”
What Eating for Two Is NOT
First off, let me say this: eating for two is NOT eating twice as much as you used to. I think of it this way instead: Eating for two means that the quality of your nutrition is now twice as important as it was before.
Are you eating to support another human being? Yes. But this human being is not a full-sized adult. This human being, depending on your stage of pregnancy, might be as small as a raspberry or a banana. Eating double your former calorie intake will NOT help your baby in any way and will only result in your gaining more weight than you need to. And this isn’t just about vanity: excessive pregnancy weight gain really could spell trouble for your baby. As this article from What to Expect.com outlines, gaining too much could lead to things such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and a rough delivery.
But does the nutritional quality of what you eat matter? YES! Your baby needs a long list of nutrients to grow and develop healthily. This is why prenatal vitamins are so, so important. And beyond that, eating in a healthy, balanced way means that your baby will get sufficient carbs, fat, and protein to grow from that itty-bitty raspberry into a watermelon-sized newborn. So don’t think of eating for two as a time to eat a whole lot MORE than you did before, but instead a time when you can be more motivated than ever to eat nutritiously.
Deciding How Much to Eat During Pregnancy
Okay—so you shouldn’t eat double what you were eating before. But how much more should you eat?
There are lots of calculators out there that can help you figure this out. I personally found this one helpful, but there are many to choose from. Anyway. Find a calculator and plug in your info to get a starting point for about how much you should eat daily. Or if you aren’t into counting calories, just think about the amount of food you eat non-pregnant that allows you to more or less maintain your weight. Throw in a snack or mini meal on top of that amount to give yourself the extra caloric boost pregnancy calls for.
Try that number/amount for a couple of weeks and see what the scale does. If (1) you feel good eating this amount, and (2) you’re maintaining or slightly gaining during first trimester, or gaining .5 to 1 lbs per week during your second and third trimesters, you’ve nailed it. But if you are gaining too little or too much, adjust up or down by a snack and wait another few weeks.
There are all sorts of formulas and numbers you could use to determine the “perfect” amount to eat while pregnant. But the most important two things are to listen to how you feel and to watch the scale. With a bit of trial and error, you’ll find a place where you aren’t constantly hungry but where your gaining patterns are healthy.
You found your magical number or amount to eat! Now all you need to do is simply consume that exact amount on autopilot from now until delivery and you’ll be set, right? Unfortunately, no.
Be aware that your amount/number to eat may change over pregnancy as your baby gets bigger and has higher caloric & nutritional needs. Be okay with this. If you find yourself feeling hungrier, eat more! Or, on the other hand, if you suddenly find yourself gaining 2 or 3 pounds a week consistently, take an honest look at your eating and see if you’ve started snacking out or boredom or in response to emotions and reign that in. Just keep asking yourself the two key questions: Does eating like this feel good? And what is the scale doing in response to this type of eating?
Foods that Are Unsafe for Pregnancy
Now, there’s a lot of information out there about foods that may harm your baby: non-organic produce, caffeine, high fructose corn syrup, protein powder . . . the list goes on. While some of the no-no lists may be conflicting or consist of others’ personal opinions, here’s the list of foods the American Pregnancy Association recommends women should avoid because they are universally, conclusively acknowledged to be unsafe (see the full article here).
- Raw (or undercooked) meat or eggs. The risks here include toxoplasmosis and salmonella, both of which can endanger a growing baby.
- Deli meat. If you’re like me and still love turkey sandwiches, though, simply microwave your lunchmeat until it’s steaming. That will kill any potentially harmful listeria.
- Most seafood and shellfish. See the article for more detail, but the mercury content of fish and shellfish is the concern here.
- Soft cheeses. Like lunchmeat, these may contain listeria. Avoid varieties like brie, feta, and Mexican soft cheeses until after baby.
- Unwashed vegetables. Eat your veggies, but rinse them well first! Contaminants in soil can pass to your baby.
- Alcohol. Alcohol can have severe effects on your little one. Don’t go near it.
What to Eat During Pregnancy
Now you’ve got your list of foods to steer clear of while pregnant. But are there certain foods you should eat more of?
My personal opinion is not really. Prenatal vitamins are a must, of course. But otherwise, if you’re eating a decent quantity of nutrient-dense foods, you’re good to go. You’ll find lists of “great foods for pregnancy” that are touted for containing certain nutrients. Those are nice, but my strategy is to think of healthy foods I enjoy and simply fill up on those.
I love smoothies, bell peppers, baby carrots, quinoa, and chicken, for example. However, I don’t really care for raw almonds, kale, or oranges. So I eat the healthy foods I like and don’t guilt myself into eating things I don’t, even if they are on some “great foods for pregnancy” list from Pinterest. In pregnancy and in life generally, if you’re regularly eating foods that are good for your body AND that you genuinely enjoy eating, you’ll be much more likely to maintain a healthy diet long-term.
But What About Cravings?
Ah, cravings. Some people don’t believe in them, but I sure do. Having the bizarre urge to eat and eat and eat TOMATOES, even though I know they give me heartburn, is the weirdest thing! But it’s REAL. Since tomatoes are healthy, I indulge this crazy pregnancy craving pretty regularly. I’ve eaten lots of pizza, lasagna, and caprese this pregnancy. But the key is that I’m eating these in reasonable quantities and at mealtime—not eating a full plate of something else and THEN having a few slices of pizza to top it off.
To a lesser degree, I also crave some of the more stereotypical pregnant-girl things: brownies, ice cream, and cookie dough. Unlike tomatoes, I can’t eat these things daily and stay within the parameters of healthy pregnancy weight gain. (In theory I guess you could, but who out there can really eat a tiny quantity of cookie dough daily without eventually caving and going overboard? Yeah. Not me.) So when I’m hit with a craving for caramel pretzel brownies, do I listen and indulge? Or should the answer to those cravings always be heck no?
I choose to schedule in two fabulous desserts a week. Five days of the week I tell my cravings for Lucky Charms or ice cream NO, period. End of discussion. But twice a week I do let myself order a dish of cake batter ice cream with cookie dough, brownie, and sprinkles mixed in (yes, I seriously do that. Birthday Cake Remix from Cold Stone, how do I love thee?). Or I’ll make a pan of those caramel pretzel brownies, eat two big ones and a glass of milk with my husband and kids, and then put the rest of them on a plate and go take them to a neighbor.
But the key is that I have a concrete way to deal with cravings. As someone who has struggled with bingeing in the past, having this set plan is crucial. It’s SO easy to think, “Well, I’m pregnant, and I need extra calories anyway. So a doughnut is no big deal.” That’s true once in a while, but not daily. Hence my gameplan of scheduled, intentional indulgences rather than evaluating cravings on a case-by-case basis.
The Bottom Line
Repeat after me: Eating for two means that the quality of your nutrition is now twice as important as it was before. Pregnancy is a reason to eat extra healthily, not an excuse to let nutrition fly out the window.
Take this as an exciting and rewarding challenge. Embrace that you’re a little hungrier these days, but don’t let your rumbling tummy justify 3 slices of lemon meringue pie in one sitting. Instead, let yourself indulge these cravings guilt-free but in a planned, intentional, and moderate way. Nourish yourself and your growing baby with all the love and care you can. Fill your fridge and life with nutritious foods you happen to enjoy eating, and eat them in a healthy and moderate way. I know from my own past mistakes that a pregnancy where you are doing “eating for two” right is an entirely different experience from one where you let your nutrition slide. Good luck!