A balanced, healthy diet is crucial for good health and even more so when you’re a mum-to-be – but should you really be eating for two and are some foods completely off the menu?
As well as sticking to general healthy eating guidelines – like getting your five-a-day, including whole-grains and choosing more fish, poultry, lean meats and opting for calcium-rich dairy foods – there are some other important changes you can make to your diet when you’re expecting.
Not surprisingly, you now have a need for additional nutrients to support the growth and development of your baby but it is possible to achieve the levels required without increasing your food intake. That’s because your amazing body becomes more efficient at absorbing nutrients while you’re pregnant, which allows you to start building stores of vital vitamins and minerals. So with this in mind there’s no need to eat for two. It’s far more important to focus on the quality of your diet. Follow our guide for choosing nutrient-dense foods to carry you through each stage of your pregnancy.
It is advised that you consult a doctor or accredited health practitioner before embarking on a supplement programme or change of diet. Speak to your GP if you suspect you may be at risk of nutritional deficiency.
Supporting morning sickness
Morning sickness is most common in the early stages of your pregnancy. Severity of symptoms can vary greatly and you should speak to your GP or midwife if you’re really struggling. In less severe cases, some lifestyle changes that may be helpful include:
- Eating little and often, basing meals and snacks on starchy foods like bread, porridge, plain biscuits, crisp-breads, oatcakes, pasta, rice or potatoes.
- Reduce strong smelling foods that make you feel nauseous. Sometimes opting for colder options over hot meals can minimise scent.
- Minimising fatty foods that are harder to digest.
- Choosing quick and easy recipes that need little preparation.
- Keeping a couple of plain biscuits beside your bed – it can help to nibble on one before you get up.
- Batch cook and freeze meals while you’re feeling well. Try some of our freezable recipes below.
- Big batch bolognese
- Chicken, sweetcorn & noodle soup
- Courgette, potato & cheddar soup
Use fresh ginger in cooking and tea. Ginger is a natural antiemetic, so it may help to calm nausea. However, check with your GP or midwife to ensure it is appropriate for you. Ginger is a potent herb which acts pharmacologically, so it may be contraindicated (unsuitable) in some situations.
Grate ginger into an ice cube tray, top with a little water and freeze. When the need strikes, add one or two ice cubes to hot water for a soothing tea. Or, try it in some of the below recipes.
This is an important vitamin from the moment you try for a baby until the end of week 12 (at the earliest) of your pregnancy; that’s why mums-to-be are advised to take a daily 400mcg supplement of folic acid, but don’t forget to also include plenty of folate-rich foods in your diet:
Green leafy vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, spring greens, kale, okra and fresh peas. Get inspiration from our recipes, below.
- Roasted harissa vegetables with kale & ginger
- Salmon & spinach with tartare sauce
- Cherry tomato, kale, ricotta & pesto pasta
Pulses, such as chickpeas, black-eyed beans and lentils.
Fruits, like strawberries and oranges.
- Cinnamon porridge with banana & berries
- Grapefruit, orange & apricot salad
- Frozen fruit sticks with lime drizzle
If you’re diabetic, have had a previous pregnancy with a neural tube defect, or are on a drugs to manage epilepsy, your need for folic acid will be greater – follow your GP’s advice and supplement accordingly.
Many mums claim that this is one of the best stages in pregnancy because, as your baby’s senses develop, you may start to notice them reacting to their environment. You may also start to feel different yourself with your own heightened sense of taste and smell leading to food cravings or dislikes. These changes are unlikely to have an adverse effect, provided your overall diet is balanced and varied. So plan your weekly diet, and as well as following healthy eating guidelines, aim to include two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily variety like salmon, mackerel, trout or sardines.
Constipation is a common problem during pregnancy, so be sure to focus on wholegrain versions of foods, including wholemeal bread, cereals or pasta, as well as oats, barley, fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds. Keep your fluid intake up by aiming for eight glasses of filtered water, herbal teas or diluted juices daily. Try some of the below recipes for inspiration.
- Full of fibre muesli
- Squash & barley salad with balsamic vinaigrette
- Marinated lamb steaks with barley salad
As your pregnancy progresses, include plenty of iron-rich foods in your diet – lean meats like chicken, especially the darker meat e.g. thighs and fish, as well as plant sources, including dried apricots, green leafy veg and pulses. The body doesn’t absorb iron from plant foods as easily, but by including a source of vitamin C with your meal (e.g. a glass of orange juice with your breakfast cereal) can optimise how much you absorb. Tannins found in black tea reduce the rate of iron absorption, so enjoy your cuppa an hour before or two hours after your main meal. Try some of these recipes for inspiration.
- Lentil ragu
- Spring chicken in a pot
- Summery chicken stir-fry
- Moroccan lamb with apricots, almonds & mint
- Lemony rice & peas
Indigestion and heartburn can be an issue later in your pregnancy. Luckily though, for most people, this is only temporary, but it can help to have smaller, more frequent meals, and to avoid lying or bending down after eating – even bending to load a dishwasher can aggravate symptoms, so get someone else in the family to do that job. Fatty foods and spices can aggravate symptoms, too.
Your energy requirements do increase during the last trimester, when you’ll need an extra 150-200 calories a day – that’s the equivalent of about three oatcakes topped with hummus.
Another important nutrient is calcium – your calcium needs double during pregnancy, especially during the last ten weeks when it’s being used to strengthen your baby’s bones. Despite this, you don’t need to eat more because your body adapts to absorb more calcium from the foods you eat. So as well as dairy foods, good sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, canned fish with soft, edible bones (salmon, sardines and pilchards), almonds (unsalted), dried apricots, sesame seeds, tofu, fortified orange juice and fortified soya milk. Try some of the below recipes for inspiration.
- Broccoli & peas with sesame seeds, soy & honey
- Green beans with griddled tomatoes
- Sardines & watercress on toasts
Another important nutrient for strong, healthy bones is vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’. In our diets we get vitamin D from a limited number of foods mainly eggs and oily fish as well as fortified margarines and breakfast cereals. This is why pregnant women are advised to take a 10mcg supplement every day throughout the duration of their pregnancy and while breast-feeding.
Off the menu
Your food choices demand a little more care when you’re pregnant because certain foods can present a possible risk to your unborn baby. It’s best to avoid:
- Raw or partially cooked eggs and any dishes made with them, like homemade mayonnaise, mousses and some desserts as well as soft-whipped ice cream from a machine – unless made with eggs that carry the British Lion Mark. Eggs carrying the British Lion Mark are safe for pregnant women to eat raw or partially cooked.
- Raw shellfish and under-cooked meats (be especially cautious about chicken).
- Soft ripened cheeses like brie, camembert, certain goat’s cheeses as well as blue cheeses like Roquefort.
- Unpasteurised dairy foods.
- Soft-serve ice cream from ice-cream vans – the machines used to dispense the ice-cream may harbour listeria.
- All pâtés, including vegetable and liver and liver products.
- Pre-prepared salads like potato and coleslaw.
- Certain species of fish, such as swordfish and marlin, while limiting fresh tuna steaks and other oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel to no more than twice a week.
- Some countries advise against eating cold cured meats like salami, prosciutto and pepperoni as well as smoked fish, although the current UK advice does not restrict these foods.
- Caffeine – should be limited to 200mg a day – that’s 2 mugs of coffee or 3 cups of tea a day.
- Alcohol – is best avoided during pregnancy and minimised while breast-feeding.
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Whether you’ve had crazy cravings or are struggling to get the right facts, we’d love to hear your experience of finding the right diet during pregnancy.
This page was last updated in July 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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