If you’ve just announced to family and friends that you’re expecting, you have probably already received enough advice to last a lifetime—and commentary on what you are or are not eating.

So many pregnancy food rules have been over-generalized and under-contextualized that it can make the whole process of being pregnant feel like living under constant restriction and surveillance. And with so much of the process already out of your control, all of the pregnancy diet do’s and don’ts can feel like one more thing controlling you.

When it comes to growing a whole other human, there are some general best practices around prenatal nutrition, along with pregnancy food rules that have been inflated. It’s best to understand both.

The importance of nutrition in pregnancy

Nutrition is important for every person. And during pregnancy, it serves both you and the growth of your baby. While you may experience food aversions and cravings during this time, there are some essential nutrients to incorporate into your diet.

Essential nutrients during pregnancy:

  • Folic acid for neural tube development
  • Fiber to promote digestive health
  • Iron to prevent anemia and support blood circulation
  • Calcium for bone and teeth formation
  • Omega-3 fatty acids to support brain and vision development
  • Vitamin D for calcium absorption and bone health
  • Protein for tissue and organ growth
  • Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as minerals like zinc and magnesium, are also beneficial

Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains will help you check all of these off the list, along with taking a daily prenatal vitamin with DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and folic acid.

Best foods for fetal development

As you may assume from the list above, a well-rounded pregnancy diet that pulls from all the food groups is a great general rule for planning your daily meals so you feel as good as possible (whatever that means for any particular day) and your baby gets what it needs for development.

Of course, this is to also acknowledge that some days—particularly in the first trimester—are just about surviving and eating enough. Whereas other days you may feel particularly ravenous. So, nutrition tips for expectant parents should be taken as guidelines, not guilt trips.

Here are a few foods (not an exhaustive list!) to put in rotation that help with fetal development:

  • Calcium-rich foods for pregnancy: dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, and non dairy foods like broccoli and kale.
  • Iron-rich foods for pregnancy: lean red meat, poultry and fish, plus beans and vegetables.
  • Protein-rich foods for pregnancy: lean meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, plus beans, peas, nuts and seeds.
  • Vitamin A-rich foods for pregnancy: carrots, dark leafy greens, winter squash, peppers, mango and papaya.
  • Vitamin C-rich foods for pregnancy: citrus fruits, strawberries and kiwi, plus broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and tomatoes.
  • Naturally occurring fats during pregnancy: olives, avocados, nuts, dairy and meat.

Take a look at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for nutrient-rich meal ideas during pregnancy.

How to ensure food safety during pregnancy

Here’s the deal: many of the foods pregnant people are told to avoid stem from the fact that pregnant people and their unborn children are particularly susceptible to more severe foodborne illness. The key culprit is the listeria bacteria, which is found on fruits and vegetables, in unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses, in raw or undercooked meat, poultry or shellfish and in prepared refrigerated meats.

All people, regardless if they’re pregnant, share these risks. But unique to pregnant people is that if listeriosis is passed through the placenta, it can cause pregnancy complications, such as premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth or serious health problems for the newborn.

Foods to avoid during pregnancy:

  • Unpasteurized milk. Soft cheeses that are made from raw milk, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses, such as queso blanco. Note: many of these can be made from pasteurized milk for safe consumption, so check the label.
  • Raw fish, including sushi. Cooked sushi rolls, like tempura, can be safe to eat if the fish is low in mercury and has been heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fish known to be high in mercury. This includes shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Albacore tuna is also higher in mercury; choose “light” tuna instead.
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads. Since foods like these are designed to be eaten cold and can’t be reheated to an internal temperature suitable for killing bacteria.

Safe food practices during pregnancy:

  • Wash produce thoroughly. Although most listeria infections are caused by contaminated foods, the bacteria can be found in soil and sometimes on plants.
  • Cook your meats until well done (juices should run clear and there should be no pink inside). This includes reheating processed meats before eating—foods like hot dogs, luncheon and deli meats and refrigerated smoked seafoods—should be reheated until steaming.
  • Pay attention to food and beverage recalls.
  • Brush up on basic food safety guidelines during pregnancy.

While not technically a foodborne illness, the parasite Toxoplasma is also dangerous during pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis is most frequently associated with cat feces and undercooked meats. The keys to preventing toxoplasmosis are to:

  • Cook meat, poultry and seafood to the minimum safe internal temperature. Buy a meat thermometer and check out these guidelines from the USDA.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching raw meat, unwashed vegetables, soil and sand.
  • Have someone else change the litter box, if possible. If you have to do it, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Wear garden gloves when working in the yard and wash your hands when you’re finished.
  • Avoid drinking untreated water, particularly in less developed countries.

We want to provide you with the information so you can make informed decisions about your pregnancy, including what you choose to eat, or not. Learn more nutritional tips (for prenatal to postpartum), like choosing quality carbs, eating plant-forward foods and balancing healthy fat intake, here.

For any specific pregnancy food questions, chat with your provider, or schedule your first prenatal visit >