In the cycle of trying to conceive, pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding, and wrangling toddlers, the word balance doesn’t come easy, but it sure is important—especially when it comes to diet.  Nourishing your body with the all it needs to thrive during this time may seem overwhelming, but veggies can actually do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.  Whether you’re strictly plant based or eat a lil’ of everything, plants are your friend— especially in pregnancy. This week, Rachelle Mallik of The Food Therapist offers some sound strategy on how to incorporate more from the produce isle into quick, easy meals.

What added benefits does increased plant intake bring to pregnancy and postpartum? 

There are so many! Let’s take it benefit-by benefit:

Fiber: Plant foods naturally contain fiber, which can help ease pregnancy and postpartum-related constipation. Eating fiber-rich plant foods also makes you feel full and promotes satiety, which can help with weight management during pregnancy and postpartum.

Folate: Folate is a crucial nutrient in the early stages of pregnancy. In addition to a prenatal vitamin containing folic acid (the form of folate found in supplements), women should consume folate from a variety of foods. Go for dark leafy greens, broccoli, peas, asparagus, and whole grains, especially quinoa, amaranth, and wild rice.

Protien: Pregnant women need about 71 grams of protein per day, or 25 grams more than before pregnancy. While we tend to think of animal sources when it comes to protein (meat, fish, dairy), many plants are abundant in protein, especially legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soy), nuts, seeds, and whole grains. One cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein, about as much as 3 whole eggs!

Iron: The same is true for iron. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and dark leafy greens, especially spinach and Swiss chard, contain non-heme iron (the type found in plant foods). Eating these with vitamin-C rich foods can help boost absorption (eg spinach salad with bell peppers and lemon vinaigrette).

Vitamin A: Vitamin A is important for cell differentiation and baby’s development, and needs increase during pregnancy and even more substantially during breastfeeding. Fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, and mango are excellent sources of beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A). High doses of supplemental vitamin A are not recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women, so these foods are a safe way to increase your intake.

Added bonus: Eating a variety of foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding can affect the flavor of amniotic fluid and breast milk, which may help your baby accept different flavors after starting solids. Eating lots of cauliflower during pregnancy and breastfeeding doesn’t guarantee your baby or toddler will like them, but it could help!

Keep in mind that certain nutrients that are important for a baby’s development are found primarily in animal foods, like vitamin B12 and DHA. If you are vegan or vegetarian, it’s a good idea to eat foods fortified with these nutrients and/or take a supplement or multivitamin containing these. Talk to a registered dietitian for individualized recommendations that meet your needs!

Any shortcuts to easily add plants to our everyday meals? 

Those pregnancy cravings and aversions can be challenging, but they tend to get better in your second and third trimester. When you have no energy and the idea of cooking is exhausting, here are some tips and go-to grocery picks:

-Prepped veggies like pre-cut broccoli, “riced” cauliflower, zucchini spirals, baby greens

– Frozen foods like fruits and vegetables, veggie burgers, frozen falafel, whole-grain breads

– Pantry items like beans, lentils, crushed tomatoes, skipjack tuna, dried pasta, nut butters

Cold foods can be more appealing than hot, so make smoothies your friend. Two simple combos are frozen bananas, baby spinach, strawberries, and fortified unsweetened soy milk, or frozen banana, canned pumpkin puree, cinnamon, almond butter, and fortified unsweetened soy milk. Throw in a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flax for a little boost of omega-3 fats.

What some killer combos we should be focused on? 

Legumes, like beans and lentils, and dark, leafy greens are all good plant sources of iron and folate. Easy ways to incorporate these would be black bean tacos with sauteed kale, avocado and salsa on corn tortillas or whole wheat spaghetti with zucchini spirals, cannellini beans, and (no-added sugar) marinara. And dark chocolate is a delicious way to sneak in some extra iron!

What are some of your favorite plant-based quick foods, like snacks and pasta?

I love stovetop popcorn popped in olive oil and sprinkled with smoked paprika and salt. Some of my favorite packaged snacks include Mary’s Gone Crackers and Simple Mills crackers (paired with hummus or white bean dip), Kind Bar Nuts & Spices, Lara Bars, Harvest Snaps Snap Pea Crisps, roasted chickpeas like Biena or Saffron Road, dry roasted nuts, black bean tortilla chips with guacamole or simply mashed avocado, and Q’ia Superfood Cereal packets.

What about non-dairy milks? Any in particular better than others during pregnancy? 

When picking a non-dairy milk, it’s important to consider the whole package and put it in context with your diet. Soy milk is safe during pregnancy and lactation, and contains high-quality protein in similar quantities to cow’s milk. Oat milk is a newer addition, and can be a good option for those with nut allergies, but may need to be avoided by people with celiac disease as oats can be contaminated with gluten. Other non-dairy milks like almond or coconut are much lower in protein than cow’s milk or soy (0-1 gram per cup compared to 7-8 grams per cup), but they may provide other nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. I would encourage pregnant and breastfeeding women to buy fortified plant milks to make sure they’re getting calcium and vitamin D. While I’ve found most private label and shelf-stable non-dairy milks are fortified, some of the more “artisanal” brands are not – so read labels! If you drink non-dairy milk that is not fortified, I recommend taking a separate calcium supplement since prenatal vitamins (and multivitamins in general) tend to be low in calcium.

Thanks for the knowledge, Rachelle! You can keep up with Rachelle on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.