You don’t have to wait until you’re pregnant to start eating well. In fact, following a healthy diet before you conceive can help boost your fertility, lower the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida and even reduce your chances of developing preeclampsia during pregnancy.
Also good? Shoring up what you eat now makes for a smoother transition once baby is on board. Use this nutrition guide to plan out your meals.
Key nutrients to eat when you’re trying to conceive
As a mom-to-be, you’ll need a mix of healthy foods that are packed with nutrients, including:
This B vitamin (B9) is one of the most important nutrients you can take before (and during) pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that women should take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily for at least one month before getting pregnant. Not only is folic acid crucial for forming healthy cells, it can also help prevent birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.
Folic acid can be hard to find it in whole foods, so you should make sure your prenatal vitamin contains 400 to 600 mcg. You can also find it in foods like:
- Leafy green vegetables. Spinach, broccoli, bok choy, Swiss chard and kale are all good options. Sauté them in olive oil and eat as a side dish or add them to soups, salads, casseroles and omelets.
- Fortified cereals. Look for breakfast cereals that contain 100 percent of the recommended daily value.
- Oranges and strawberries. These are so yummy, they’re easy to incorporate into your diet!
- Beans and nuts. Just try not to consume too many of these at once, since they can add to the digestive issues you may already be dealing with.
Although many prenatal vitamins contain omega-3s, it’s also important to get your fill from whole foods. You can find them in:
- Seafood. Fish that are high in fat, including salmon, anchovies, sardines and herring, are all good sources of omega-3s.
- Grass-fed beef. Beef from grass-fed cows contains higher levels of omega-3s than beef from grain-fed cows.
- Nuts and seeds. Walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds contain omega-3s, as do plant oils like flaxseed, soybean and canola oils. Add them to your smoothie or sprinkle them on top of a salad for an extra crunch.
Adding more complex, slowly-digestible carbohydrates like fiber to your diet will keep you feeling full for longer. Plus, if you’re planning to get pregnant, increasing your fiber intake by 10 grams per day may lower your risk of developing gestational diabetes by 26 percent, according to a 2006 study.
Some good sources of fiber include:
- Whole grains. Wheat bread, bulgur, oats and quinoa all contain fiber.
- High-fiber cereals. Just one serving for breakfast can really pack a lot of fiber into your diet.
- Fruit and vegetables. Peas, corn and broccoli are all good sources, as are pears, blueberries, raspberries and peaches. Eat the skins or peels for an extra dose.
- Beans and legumes. Lentils, black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, split peas and chickpeas are all packed with fiber. Add them to stews or salads.
Protein will help supply your baby with important nutrients. But some proteins are better than others. If you’re trying to get pregnant, stick to two to three servings a day, one of which should be plant-based (think: nuts, seeds and legumes).
Foods that are packed with protein include:
- Fish. High-fat fish like salmon is not only high in protein, it also provides a dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Lean meats. Poultry (like chicken or turkey), lean beef and bison are all good options.
- Black beans. One cup contains 15 grams of protein. Use them in a breakfast burrito or homemade veggie burgers.
What to eat when you’re trying to get pregnant
It’s never too early to make over your diet. Here are some of the best foods to add to your plate when you’re hoping to conceive:
- Spinach. Aim for four to five servings of vegetables a day. Leafy greens like spinach are a great choice: Spinach is a rich source of calcium, vitamin C, folate and potassium. Try adding a handful of spinach leaves to your smoothie, along with vanilla yogurt and a ripe banana.
- Oranges. Oranges are also packed with vitamin C, calcium and potassium. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vitamin C from citrus fruits can also help your body better absorb iron from non-meat sources. To work more into your diet, try drinking a glass of orange juice or topping your salads with a few slices.
- Milk. Dairy products contain protein, potassium and calcium. Aim for three servings a day, and try to choose products that are fortified with vitamins A and D. Use fortified milk to make oatmeal or as a base for smoothies.
- Fortified cereals. Whether you’re opting for cooked cereals or the ready-to-eat kinds, look for products made from whole grains and fortified with iron and folic acid, and little to no added sugar.
- Chickpeas. Beans and peas are excellent sources of protein — and they also provide a dose of iron and zinc. Chickpeas are loaded with protein, zinc, potassium and fiber. (Other good options include pinto beans, soybeans, white beans, lentils and kidney beans.) Use them to make hummus or bake them and sprinkle on a salad.
- Salmon. Salmon delivers a dose of protein, healthy fats and potassium.
Healthy eating tips if you’re trying to get pregnant
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. You don’t have to eat a “perfect” diet — just tell yourself what you’ll tell your child some day: Do the best you can. And by starting to prioritize healthy eating habits now, it’ll be easier to stick to a healthy diet once you get pregnant.
When in doubt, keep these strategies in mind:
- Eat more fruits and veggies. Produce provides hefty doses of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, potassium and fiber. Aim to eat four to five servings of veggies (at least two should come from leafy greens) and three to four servings of fresh fruit a day.
- Limit your sugar intake. No one can swear off sugar entirely, but it’s smart to temper your sweet tooth whenever possible. Research suggests that too much refined sugar — found in foods like cookies and candy, as well as sugar-sweetened drinks — might interfere with your chances of getting pregnant.
- Analyze your eating habits. If you follow a restricted diet — whether that’s due to personal beliefs or because you’re managing a chronic condition — ask your doctor if you need help filling any nutritional gaps in your meals. (A dietician or nutritionist can also help.) If you suspect that you may have an eating disorder — like bulimia or anorexia nervosa, for example — talk to your practitioner about enlisting the help of a health professional and a support group.
- Practice good (food) hygiene. Food poisoning is risky for anyone, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re pregnant. And some foodborne illnesses can affect your baby’s health even before you conceive.
- Avoid contaminants. For example, methylmercury, a metal found in some seafood including swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark, can harm a baby’s developing nervous system even before conception, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Don’t skip meals. Right now, you might prefer to sleep through breakfast or work through lunch, but once baby is on board, you’ll need to supply him with a steady stream of nutrients throughout the day. Take a look at your schedule now and make sure you have time for three complete meals a day.
- Cut back on caffeine. Despite what you may have heard, pregnant women can drink coffee, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other groups say that moms-to-be should aim for no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day, or around one daily 12-ounce cup of coffee. Drinking more than that during pregnancy can slightly increase risk of miscarriage.
- Don’t smoke. Using tobacco can make it harder for you to get pregnant — and once you are pregnant, it can increase risk of miscarriage. Plus, both smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke can also cause your baby to be born underweight and put him at risk of a host of birth defects and health problems.
- Limit alcohol. A few glasses of wine may make baby-making more enjoyable, but too much can also make it harder to conceive. It’s smart to limit yourself to a couple glasses of alcohol a week while you’re trying, and abstain entirely if you suspect you’re pregnant, since alcohol can harm a developing baby. Best to stick with a mocktail.