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It can be tricky to navigate a restaurant menu when you're pregnant. You may be ravenous – or nauseated. You're not entirely in control of what (or how) the chef is cooking. But if you learn about the special nutritional considerations for pregnant women and watch out for the foods and beverages to avoid during pregnancy, dining out can be the treat it's meant to be.
By Bonnie Rochman
Reviewed by nutritionists Eleana Kaidanian and Bridget Swinney
You'll find lots of good options for expecting moms at Mexican restaurants, but plenty of nutritional bombs too. (Chips! Sour cream! Melted cheese!) It's easy to overdo carbs and saturated fat.
Best bets: Tacos and burritos with protein-packed beans and grilled veggies are a great choice. Pick black or pinto beans over refried, which may be cooked with lard. Say yes to avocado and salsa (pico de gallo especially, which is just chopped fresh vegetables). Taco salad can be good; ask for it to be served on lettuce instead of a taco shell. And caldos – hearty broth-based soups with chicken, fish, or beef – are tasty and nutritious.
Avoid: Anything slathered with cheese and sour cream. Limit yourself to a few chips, which are high in calories, salt and fat. Also, some soft cheeses found in Mexican cuisine, like queso freso, may be made with unpasteurized milk, which makes them unsafe to eat during pregnancy. (Pasteurized-milk versions are on the market and are perfectly safe – but in a restaurant, it's hard to know what you're getting.)
Chinese restaurants offer a wealth of pregnancy-friendly choices if you're wise about ordering. Order whole-grain brown rice (it has more fiber than white) and steamed or sautéed protein and veggies instead of high-fat, deep-fried dishes.
Best bets: Start off with steamed vegetable dumplings or wonton soup (if the wontons aren't fried). To give your baby a nutritional boost, pick entrees with generous quantities of vegetables, like chicken and broccoli or beef with snow peas. Bok choy with tofu contains high-quality protein as well as calcium. Ask for low-sodium soy sauce and dishes with minimal sauces to avoid extra salt.
Avoid: Egg drop soup, as the egg may not be fully cooked. Lo Mein is high in sodium and fat, and crowd-pleaser General Tso's chicken is deep-fried. Also steer clear of orange chicken or any dish that's topped with a thick, sweet sauce, which means loads of sugar.
Some expecting moms avoid Japanese places solely because of one off-limits item: sushi made with raw fish. But with all sorts of light and delicious options, Japanese can be one of the healthiest and most pregnant-friendly cuisines.
Best bets: Sushi rolls made with cooked seafood, like eel, or veggies like avocado or cucumber. California rolls made with imitation crab (it's actually cooked fish, often pollack) are safe. Tamago (omelet atop rice) or spinach gomae (cooked condensed towers of the leafy green) are great choices. Bento boxes with teriyaki chicken or beef, rice, veggies, and miso soup are fine too. Ask for low-sodium soy sauce – you won't be able to taste the difference.
Avoid: Sashimi (raw fish on rice), poke salad (raw tuna cubes), and sushi rolls featuring raw fish. Although tempura is safe and tasty, go easy: The caloric batter coating negates the healthy vegetables within.
Italian is a go-to comfort food for many pregnant women – and it can be delicious and healthy if you're choosy. Get a mixed green salad to start, and order a pasta dish that features veggies.
Best bets: Pasta with marinara sauce, meat sauce, or seafood. (Just make sure mussels and clams have been cooked until their shells open.) Ravioli usually come in smaller portions and are often filled with pureed veggies, making it a good choice. A wood-fired pizza is great too, as long as it's not loaded with tons of cheese.
Avoid: Fettuccini and other pasta with Alfredo sauce. It tastes heavenly but is sky-high in saturated fat. Like uncooked deli meats, prosciutto – dry-cured Italian ham – shouldn't be on your plate as it can harbor listeria. And if you order Caesar salad, make sure the dressing isn't made with the traditional raw eggs.
Heat, flavor, and powerful aromatics make Thai food crave-worthy. And you'll find many healthy items to choose from.
Best bets: Dishes with plenty of vegetables and healthy protein like lettuce wraps with chicken and stir-fries with vegetables and tofu, chicken, or beef. Start with fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper or tom yum goong (hot and sour soup). Punch up the health benefits of pad Thai by ordering extra protein (chicken, shrimp, or tofu), but leave off the bean sprouts or make sure they're cooked to avoid listeria.
Avoid: Papaya salad. When unripe, the fruit contains a substance that may trigger uterine contractions. Go easy on Thai curries – they're thickened with rich coconut milk, which is high in saturated fat and calories. Same goes with the popular soup tom ka gai (chicken in coconut milk). Some Thai dishes are drenched in sweet sauce, so ask for less sauce or have it on the side. And if you order Thai iced tea with sweetened condensed milk, think of it as a dessert, not a beverage.
There's a reason the Mediterranean diet is held up as the gold standard for nutrition. It's focused on whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats – all good for expecting moms and growing babies.
Best bets: Hummus and lentils are packed with fiber and protein (hummus gets extra calcium from tahini, too). Bulgur, the main ingredient in tabouli, is a great way to get your whole grains, plus it's full of parsley, which is rich in lutein. Grilled chicken or lamb kabobs, served with a side salad, are another good choice.
Avoid: Gyro sandwiches. They can be made with meat that's very high in fat, and the fat content rises when it's doused in rich tzatziki (a yogurt, cucumber, and olive oil sauce). A better bet is souvlaki, made of grilled or broiled chunks of leaner meat and vegetables. Don't overdo it on foods wrapped in phyllo dough (like baklava and spanakopita) – it's high in fat.
American cuisine ranges far and wide. While diner classics like cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes aren't nutritional winners for expecting moms, there's usually a decent assortment of menu items worth ordering.
Best bets: A grilled chicken or portobello mushroom sandwich, or add salmon or chicken to an entrée salad (get the dressing on the side). Hamburgers made from lean ground beef provide iron you badly need during pregnancy, but keep yours to a quarter pound of meat. Many restaurants serve half a pound or more.
Avoid: Fried chicken, french fries, and fried mozzarella sticks (are you seeing the pattern here?). You don't need the saturated fat. Hot dogs and bacon are made with nitrates, so it's best to limit them. Club sandwiches with cold deli meats can harbor listeria. And sundaes and shakes are full of calories and sugar, so make them an occasional treat.
You may think of creamy sauces and lots of oil, but this Southeast Asian cuisine also boasts plenty of good options for health-conscious pregnant women.
Best bets: Tandoori dishes typically feature chicken or other meat marinated in yogurt and spices, then baked. Grilled chicken tikka is another healthy choice. Lentil-based dal is high in fiber and a great source of iron and folic acid. Aloo gobi is both pretty and good for you. Its yellow color comes from turmeric and other antioxidant spices. Chana masala is a good vegetarian option. Chickpeas – its main ingredient – are a good source of protein. Mango lassis are delicious and packed with vitamins C and A. Ask for one with less sugar – you can always add to taste.
Avoid: Heavy, rich curries. (The popular chicken tikka masala is loaded with cream, butter, and calories.) And pakoras taste great, but their golden-brown color comes courtesy of a deep fryer. Samosas filled with spiced vegetables or potatoes are a better choice.
Though they tend to be shrines to overindulgence, steakhouses serve up some great dishes for expecting moms. Don't assume steak is off your pregnancy menu: Red meat is one of the best sources of iron, a crucial nutrient for moms-to-be.
Best bets: Petite filet mignon delivers a healthy dose of iron without the hefty saturated fats of a rib eye. (With their ample marbling, rib eyes are arguably the worst option.) Not a carnivore? Fish is often offered at steakhouses, and salmon, with its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is a great choice.
Avoid: Fish with high levels of mercury, like swordfish. Check that your Caesar salad isn't made with raw egg. And skip fatty add-ons like the dollop of butter plopped on top of the steak. Instead of buttery mashed potatoes or potatoes au gratin, have a hearty baked potato, with butter and sour cream on the side.
French cuisine is renowned for its rich sauces and creamy custards, which can be high in saturated fats that expecting moms don't need. But the French also know flavor – and how to make vegetables, fish, chicken, and beef delicious.
Best bets: Bordelaise and other wine-based sauces (the alcohol cooks off) are lighter than cream-enriched sauces. Ratatouille is a win, with its tasty combination of tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini. An elegant poached pear is a good pick for dessert.
Avoid: Hollandaise, béchamel, and béarnaise sauces (loaded with butter), creamy au gratin potato casseroles (packed with butter and cream), and pommes frites (just elegant french fries). For more nutrients with less fat, choose a sautéed veggie or plain potato instead. Make sure soft cheeses like Brie are pasteurized, and skip pâté, which can harbor listeria. Check with your doctor before having a glass of wine with dinner.
The most important meal of the day! Set yourself up right with a nutritious combination of protein and whole grains.
Best bets: Scrambled eggs are nice, but an omelet with plenty of vegetables is even better. Add wheat toast and some fresh fruit on the side. Oatmeal with fruit provides the goodness of whole grains and fiber. Sprinkle walnuts on top for protein, antioxidants, and omega-3s. If you order pancakes, boost nutrients by choosing buckwheat or whole-wheat flour and limit the syrup to cut sugar (try adding fruit for sweetness). Coffee's okay, though no more than 16 ounces, to avoid excess caffeine.
Avoid: Breakfast offerings that resemble dessert, like pancakes and French toast slathered with sugary sauces, whipped cream, and fruit toppings. Same goes for buttery croissants and chocolate chip muffins (bran or carrot muffins can be high in calories but often have more nutrients). Bacon and sausage often contain nitrates and a lot of sodium.
Marcella Gates is a writer and editor based in Northern California.
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