A nutritionist’s guide to the best foods for pregnancy, from the early days to the third trimester

As soon as you see that faint positive line on a pregnancy test, the questions start rolling in. What are the best pregnancy foods? Or, more likely, which foods should I avoid during pregnancy? Some off-limits foods are a no-brainer: You should avoid alcohol and raw sushi and undercooked meats, but other foods you might regularly enjoy, like salmon, may still be A-OK per the latest research on eating fish in pregnancy

Pregnancy marks a major physical change—your amazing body is busy growing a whole new human, and as a result, your nutrition needs will change, too. But gone are the days when “eating for two” was the rule of thumb. When it comes to pregnancy nutrition, you’ll want to focus on quality where you can—maximizing whole, unrefined foods, a variety of complex starches, lots of fruits and veggies, brain-boosting fats and plenty of protein. These will make up the building blocks for your developing baby and your own changing body over the next 10 months. 

But if those new pregnancy symptoms mean you can only stomach plain bagels for the entire first trimester? Not to worry, mama. We’ve got tips for managing morning sickness and recommendations for the best prenatal vitamins to help you fill in any nutrient gaps. 

Here’s what else you need to know about what to eat and what not to eat during pregnancy—plus evidence-backed tips on nutrition for pregnancy.

Related: The 10 most important foods to eat during pregnancy 

Best foods for pregnancy

So many pregnancy nutrition resources focus on the “don’t list” first—which can be kind of a bummer. As a board-certified and licensed nutritionist, I think it’s a mistake not to highlight all the foods you *can* eat during pregnancy. Here are the healthy foods for pregnancy to prioritize on your plate over the next three trimesters. Note that these lists are not exhaustive!

(Of course, filling your plate with these foods is one thing—but actually being able to stomach them when you’re in the throes of morning sickness is something else entirely. Read more about our best morning sickness remedies below.)

Complex starches

Complex starches are slow-burning carbohydrates that will stabilize your blood sugar over a longer period of time. (Read: more energy!) They’re also higher in fiber to keep everything moving—digestion slows the further along you get in pregnancy, meaning constipation can be an issue. Know also that carbs are a major building block for your little bean—now (or ever, really) is not the time to engage in any type of restrictive diet. 

Aim for: 3 to 4 servings per day

Look for: Oats, quinoa, whole grain bread, sourdough bread, black rice, wild rice, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, peas, sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, popcorn

Related: The 10 most important foods to eat during pregnancy 

Lean proteins

I typically recommend pregnant women get upwards of 70 to 100 grams of protein per day (most adult women are typically getting 30 to 50 grams per day outside of pregnancy), as it’s another highly important macronutrient building block for this high-growth period. Animal-based proteins are a good source of iron, the need for which is increased in pregnancy. If you don’t eat animal protein, talk to your doctor about whether you might need an iron and/or B12 supplement to avoid the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.

Aim for: 8 to 9 ounces per day

Look for: Lean meats like chicken, turkey, lean cuts of beef, salmon, cod, halibut, tuna, sardines, anchovies, eggs, tofu, tempeh

Related: 5 ways to add protein to your pregnancy diet

Leafy greens, colorful fruit and lots of vegetables

Pregnancy is a time when you’ll really want to amp up your intake of fruits and vegetables, which are packed with nutrients and antioxidants to help your body handle the stress of pregnancy and growing a baby. Eat the rainbow and vary your intake as much as you can. 

Aim for: 7 to 9 servings of vegetables and 2 to 3 servings of fruit

Look for: Tomatoes, strawberries, red peppers, raspberries, carrots, oranges, peaches, lemons, broccoli, spinach, arugula, asparagus, kale, romaine lettuce, apples, blueberries, blackberries, onions, white potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, squash

Related: 5 ways to clean up your pregnancy diet

Dairy and plant-based fats

Opt for full-fat dairy, which has both protein and good fats to help keep you full—and to help build baby’s growing brain. Plant-based fats, like avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, all make for easy snacks. 

Aim for: 4 to 6 servings per day

Look for: Cow milk, goat milk, almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, kefir, yogurt, hard cheeses, avocado, avocado oil, butter, ghee, olives, olive oil, nuts, nut butters, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, ground flax seeds

Natural sweeteners

Honey, maple syrup, dark chocolate and coconut sugar are solid options when you’re wanting something sweet during pregnancy, as they boast nutritional benefits while also satisfying sweet cravings. 

Look for: Sweets or baked goods made with honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, molasses, dark chocolate. 

Related: Motherly created the flexible pregnancy wellness class mamas have needed for so long 

Morning sickness remedies

The silver lining when dealing with nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (NVP), better known as morning sickness? It can actually be a positive sign, as morning sickness is associated with a lower risk of miscarriage. But all that queasiness and throwing up can make eating a varied diet difficult to say the least.

Morning sickness can start as soon as 6 weeks of pregnancy and in some cases, can last until the second trimester, but it generally peaks around 9 weeks and starts to reduce around 14 weeks. In most cases, it’s completely gone by 22 weeks. 

Foods that fight nausea during pregnancy

  • Ginger and ginger tea
  • Foods high in vitamin B6, like sunflower seeds and pistachios (or ask your birth provider to recommend a B-complex supplement)
  • Dandelion tea
  • Peppermint tea
  • Probiotic foods, like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt (but taking a probiotic supplement might be more palatable)

Related: Taking probiotics in early pregnancy may reduce morning sickness

Eating regular small meals, including a snack before you get out of bed in the morning (try keeping crackers or nuts in your nightstand drawer) can also help waves of nausea pass that might otherwise occur when your stomach is empty. 

Related: Have morning sickness? Here’s how to get the nutrition you need, according to a dietitian

Sample pregnancy meal plan

Breakfast

Oatmeal with maple syrup, cinnamon, pecans and frozen raspberries

Snack

Whole-milk or plant-milk plain yogurt with frozen blueberries

Celery sticks with nut butter

Lunch

Avocado chicken salad with sourdough toast

Butternut squash soup

Snack

Hard-boiled egg with olive oil and sea salt

Nuts, seeds and dark chocolate trail mix

Dinner

Roasted salmon with asparagus

Wild rice with herbs

Related: 5 tips to combat pregnancy fatigue

Water intake in pregnancy

Don’t overthink it: Drink water to thirst, or for a general goal, aim to imbibe roughly half your body weight in ounces. Tea, soups and watery vegetables (watermelon!) all count toward your hydration goals. You can also try adding electrolyte powders to your water, which may be helpful when exercising. 

Related: How much water should a pregnant woman drink?

Foods to avoid during pregnancy

Foods to avoid in pregnancy tend to be any that are typically served undercooked or raw, unpasteurized or cured, or grown or prepared in conditions that might carry a risk of bacterial contamination. 

Because pregnancy is a pseudo-immunocompromised state, your normal defenses against infection and illness, especially food-borne illness, are down. Pregnant women are 10 times more likely to get listeriosis, a severe infection caused by the food-borne bacteria, listeria, than non-pregnant women. Listeriosis can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or preterm labor. 

Not everything raw will contain listeria, but since heat destroys it (along with other potentially pathogenic bacteria or parasites), it’s best to avoid uncooked foods to reduce your risk.

Additionally, alcoholic beverages, caffeinated beverages, certain medicinal herbs, cannabis and even CBD could have detrimental effects on the development of your fetus, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. 

What not to eat during pregnancy

  • Raw or undercooked meats, eggs and seafood, including sushi made with raw fish
  • Deli meats and hot dogs unless heated
  • Unwashed produce
  • Raw or unpasteurized dairy products or juices
  • Pre-cut fruit or fresh-squeezed fruit juices
  • Sprouts, such as alfalfa or mung bean
  • Soft cheeses or cheeses with mold or mold-ripened rinds, such as brie, blue cheese, feta, queso fresco
  • Soft-serve ice cream
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and caffeinated tea or other energy drinks
  • Medicinal herbs that aren’t considered safe for pregnancy

Read more: 10 foods to avoid during pregnancy (and why) 

Pregnancy nutrition needs by trimester

Here’s a quick breakdown of increased nutrient needs per trimester, from early pregnancy all the way to the third trimester. 

First trimester nutrition

In terms of caloric intake, things should generally stay the same from your pre-pregnancy diet. The fetus is still so small and weight gain is minimal in the first trimester, but make sure you’re meeting the daily recommended intake for folate (600 mcg per day), which can come from leafy greens, beans and legumes and fruit. If you’re taking a prenatal vitamin, most of your folate intake can come from your supplement. 

Related: What to eat during the first trimester of pregnancy 

Second trimester nutrition

They don’t call it “the honeymoon trimester” for nothing. You’re hopefully starting to surface from that early pregnancy nausea and fatigue, if you haven’t already, and your reward is increased energy. But all that energy burns off quickly, and the second trimester is a time of major growth for your little one, too. Aim to increase your calorie intake by approximately 300 to 350 calories per day during these months. Add more nuts, seeds and olive oil drizzles to your salads, incorporate more yogurt and hard cheese snacks, or a sliced apple and peanut butter if you’re on the go.

Related: What to eat during the second trimester of pregnancy 

Third trimester nutrition

Baby’s growth is really picking up now, and you’ll need to match that with more calorie intake. Try to get an extra 400 to 450 calories per day through foods like smoothies, yogurt bowls topped with nuts and berries, oatmeal and other ways to sneak in more fiber. You might feel a bit more tired as sleeping becomes more difficult and middle-of-the-night wake-ups are becoming more common. Aim to incorporate more magnesium-rich foods like chickpeas and pumpkin seeds into your daily diet to help promote restful sleep. 

Related: Nutrient-dense pregnancy smoothie

Nutritional needs during pregnancy

Aim to consume these important nutrients on the daily, but know that your prenatal vitamin should cover any gaps. 

  • Iron: 27 mg/day
    • Promotes healthy red blood cell function and prevents iron-deficiency anemia
    • Found in: Meat, white beans, liver, lentils, spinach, potatoes. Vitamin C foods aid absorption.

Related: Are you getting enough iron during pregnancy? 

  • Calcium: 1,000 mg/day
    • Necessary for bone growth and muscle function for both you and baby
    • Found in: Yogurt, cheese, sardines, milk, salmon, almonds, kale, turnip greens, broccoli
  • Vitamin D: 600 IU/day
    • Promotes bone and teeth development, along with eyesight and skin
    • Found in: Cod liver oil, salmon, fortified milk and plant milks, sardines, eggs, mushrooms

Related: Taking vitamin D during pregnancy may lower your baby’s risk of eczema 

  • Folate: 600 mcg/day
    • Essential for spinal cord development in the fetus
    • Found in: Spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, avocado, peanuts, wheat germ, bananas, cantaloupe
  • Choline: 450 mg/day
    • Promotes fetal brain and spinal cord development
    • Found in: egg yolks, red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, cruciferous vegetables

Related: Choline in pregnancy boosts kids’ attention – Motherly 

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: 300 mg/day
    • Essential for fetal brain and eye development
    • Found in: Shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish, tuna, flaxseeds, walnuts, fortified milk and eggs
  • Iodine: 220 mcg/day
    • Necessary for thyroid function and fetal brain development
    • Found in: Iodized salt, fish, shellfish, seaweed, milk, yogurt

Healthy pregnancy snack ideas

Snacks are a pregnant woman’s secret weapon to fend off nausea, fatigue and general hunger, of course. Here’s a list of nutritionist-approved favorites.

  • Hummus or tapenade with sliced raw veggies
  • Nut butter with apple or celery sticks
  • Mixed seeds (i.e., pumpkin, sunflower) and dried cranberries
  • Hard-boiled eggs with olive oil and sea salt
  • Whole-milk yogurt with frozen blueberries
  • PB&J with milk or non-dairy milk
  • Chia pudding
  • Smoothies
  • Avocado boats with lemon or lime juice, salt & pepper
  • Popcorn with olive oil, sea salt and nutritional yeast
  • Homemade energy balls using nut butter, oats, seeds, raisins, honey or dates
  • Hard cheese, nuts and olives
  • Dates stuffed with nut butter, honey drizzle
  • Dates stuffed with walnuts, olive oil drizzle and salt
  • Kale chips
  • Beef, turkey or plant-based jerky

Related: 14 first-trimester snacks you can actually stomach, according to a nutritionist 

Choosing a prenatal vitamin

The short answer is yes, you do need to take a prenatal vitamin in pregnancy. Because pregnancy is a state marked by increased nutrient needs (so is breastfeeding, btw), prenatal vitamins can offer extra support in a convenient format. 

Ideally, you’ll begin taking your prenatal vitamins six to 12 months before you start trying to conceive. If you’re on a faster timeline, even three months before you start trying is best (eggs take three months to mature, so it’ll take that long for you to get results). But if you’ve already started trying to conceive or are already pregnant, don’t worry. Just start taking a prenatal vitamin as soon as possible—it’s never too late. 

What to look for when choosing a prenatal

  • Divided doses: Divided doses make it easier for your hardworking digestive system to break down all those nutrients. For a two-dose formula, take one pill in the morning and one pill before bed. 
  • Folic acid, iron and choline: It can be hard to reach the RDAs from diet alone for these specific micronutrients, so make sure your prenatal contains these to help you meet the baseline. 

A note on forms of folate: You’ve maybe heard of the highly common genetic variant known as MTHFR, which, if you have this variant, it’s widely assumed to mean that your body has trouble converting folic acid into its active form, L-methylfolate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says this is a myth: People with MTHFR variants can process all types of folate, including folic acid. Whether the prenatal you choose has folic acid or 5-MTHF, the methylated form, it doesn’t matter.

Related: Looking for the best prenatal vitamin? 7 reasons why your search stops here

What to avoid when choosing a prenatal

  • Added dyes or colorants
  • Excess levels of vitamin A: Look for vitamin A levels at 100% or under of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), which is 770 micrograms, as excess levels of retinyl palmitate (the supplemental form) can cause birth defects.

Related: The 5 best prenatal vitamins, according to a nutritionist

Are probiotics safe for pregnancy?

While there isn’t a lot of data on their usage in pregnancy, probiotics are generally considered safe for use in pregnancy and lactation. “There is no reason they shouldn’t be used—they are going to stay in the gastrointestinal tract, not affect the baby in the uterus,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, an OB-GYN and clinical professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale University School of Medicine. 

Probiotics may confer benefits throughout pregnancy and birth: They have been shown to prevent some infections in pregnancy and prevent preterm delivery, as well as be protective against morning sickness. A new study has found that taking probiotics may significantly reduce symptoms of morning sickness in the first and second trimester. If you are interested in taking a probiotic during pregnancy, be sure to talk about it first with your birth provider.

Related: Probiotics in early pregnancy may reduce morning sickness

Frequently asked questions about pregnancy nutrition

Q. When do pregnancy cravings start?

Pregnancy cravings often appear during the first trimester, peak during the second, and fizzle out during the third. Sweet foods are high on the list of the most-craved foods, as are savory foods like pizza or fried foods. Studies have estimated that anywhere between 50 to 90% of women experience food cravings during pregnancy, so they’re highly common, but experts don’t fully know why pregnancy cravings happen. They may be due to changing hormones, as a protective measure or to ward off a nutrient deficiency. 

Read more: Are my pregnancy cravings normal? A dietician explains what you should know 

Q. What are some foods that fight nausea during pregnancy?

Bland foods are the name of the game. Bagels, crackers, toast, bananas, rice, and similarly simple starches tend to be more appealing for those with morning sickness (better known as all-day sickness, generally speaking). Ginger and peppermint can help quell nausea in between meals, and research shows that vitamin B6 and probiotics may help to reduce morning sickness, too.

Read more: Have morning sickness? Here’s how to get the nutrition you need, according to a dietitian 

Q. How much weight should I gain in pregnancy? 

When it comes to weight gain in pregnancy, understand that there’s a wide range of what’s normal. In clinical terms, your recommended weight gain in pregnancy is based on your pre-pregnancy weight and how many babies you’re carrying. 

But rather than focusing on the numbers on the scale, focus instead on listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. If you have questions about pregnancy weight gain, your birth provider is your best resource.

Read more: Gestational diabetes may not be linked to pregnancy weight gain, study says 

Q. What to eat when you have gestational diabetes?

If your birth provider has diagnosed you with gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that can occur during pregnancy, it means that your blood glucose level is elevated and your body isn’t producing enough insulin to stabilize it. Having gestational diabetes can sometimes affect birth outcomes for your baby and set you up for a higher risk of type 2 diabetes later in life, so it’s important to manage the condition by keeping your blood sugar stable the best you can. That looks like eating a combination of fiber-rich foods, lots of protein, fats and fruits and vegetables. But exercise and stress relief and sufficient sleep are also important for keeping your blood sugar under control. Talk to your birth provider for more tips.

Read more: 7 delicious recipes for mamas with gestational diabetes 

Sources

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Nutrition during pregnancy: FAQs. Updated March 2022.

Brown, JE & Lechtenberg E. Nutrition through the life cycle. 2017. Boston (Ma.): Cengage.

Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets: Health Professional Fact Sheets.

Mahan LK, Raymond, JL. Krause’s food and the nutrition care process. 2016. St. Louis (Mo.): Elsevier.

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