When I was pregnant with my first, I thought constantly about what life might be like after the baby was born: dressing him in tiny outfits, tucking him into a cozy bassinet and rocking him to sleep while listening to soft lullabies (needless to say, I was completely unprepared for the harsh reality of life with a newborn). But what I never considered was how I would take care of my own body in the weeks and months after giving birth – or how a poor post-baby diet could have such long-lasting effects. I had no idea how little time I’d have to even think about healthy eating (let alone time to prep and cook healthy meals), which meant I ended up spending my days reaching for whatever was convenient and could be eaten with one hand (usually junk of course). I’m certain this only made me even more tired and sluggish than I already felt, and it made losing the baby weight a huge challenge, even months after he was born (maybe that explains why I never lost the last 10-15 lbs – oops!).
This time around, I have a better idea of what I’m in for, and I know I need to plan for healthy post-baby meals or I’ll fall right back into the same bad habits as I did the first time. So I’ve spent a little bit of time writing down meal ideas, searching for recipes and putting together a plan for keeping my diet as healthy as possible while managing a new baby. Here are a few suggestions for making healthy eating simple in those early weeks of new motherhood by preparing while you’re still pregnant; go ahead and customize them to suit your own lifestyle and goals. And remember, planning ahead for healthy eating isn’t just for new moms – it’s a great way to stay on track anytime there’s a disruption to your regular habits, be it an upcoming surgery, out-of-town visitors or a crazy work week.
Create a master shopping list: Keeping a master grocery list is a good way to make sure you’re always stocked up on the ingredients you need to create healthy meals. Start by writing down all your grocery staples; you’ll probably continue to add to the list over the course of several days as you remember more foods you like to keep around. My own list includes lots of items like canned beans, canned tomatoes, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, frozen veggies and chicken stock which can be used for tons of different meals and which last for months on the shelf or in the freezer. Once your list is complete, type it up on your computer and save it to the desktop for easy access. When it’s time to go shopping you can either print out the list as is, or refer to it and create a smaller written list with only the items you’ve run out of. You’ll save time you would otherwise use to create a list from scratch every week (or more), and you won’t have to rely on your memory (which is sure to be fuzzy during the early weeks) to determine what you need. And as time goes on and your eating habits change, you can easily delete, edit and add to the list as needed.
Load up on freezer meals: In those early weeks of new motherhood, your freezer is your best friend; as long as you have time to thaw and reheat, you’ll have warm, healthy meals on hand. The possibilities for freezer meals are absolutely endless – there are blogs out there dedicated entirely to freezer cooking – so your own tastes will dictate what to make. I’ve found tons of meals by searching Pinterest and Googling ‘healthy freezer meals’. I now have a long list of meal ideas which I need to pare down, and I plan on doing the actual cooking when I’m 34 or 35 weeks along, since my mom will be in town to help me (and she’s a great cook!). And while you’re at it, don’t stop at freezer meals. Use your freezer to store meal ingredients and you’ll cut way back on chopping and cooking time when you make meals. Stock up on freezer bags and airtight freezer-safe containers, and use them to store chopped veggies, cooked rice, cooked beans, sauces, dough or even almost-cooked pasta. A few ideas to get you started: Top 10 Freezer Meals, How To Make Your Favorite Meals Freezer Ready, Slow Cooker Beans for the Freezer, and Freezing Pre-Portioned Rice.
Schedule food prep time: While your goal should be to do as much prep work as possible before the baby is born, it’s inevitable that you’ll still need to spend time putting together meals after your little one’s arrival; after all, you can’t eat out of the freezer forever. But by scheduling food prep time every week, you’ll simplify the cooking process and establish a healthy habit you can keep up long after your baby has outgrown her newborn clothes. I set aside one to two hours every Sunday for food prep, and my husband knows that I’m off mommy-duty for that chunk of time (prepare your hubby for this from the get-go and you’ll be very thankful you did as the months roll on). I use that time to:
- Write down my meals for the week (or at least dinners).
- Wash and chop fruits, and put them in containers so all I have to do is reach into the fridge for a healthy snack.
- Assemble a big salad for the week’s lunches.
- Put nuts, trail mix and other snacks in single-serving containers or bags.
- Cook any large batches of food I’d like for the week – usually soup, chili, etc.
- Prep freezer ingredients and meals, if needed.
Keep a list of meal ideas: If you like the idea of eating from a meal plan, go ahead and create one for yourself – it’ll make mealtime that much easier. But personally, I need the flexibility to choose from a few different options at mealtime, so I started a file on my computer with a list of healthy, easy ideas for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and desserts. Thanks to exhaustion, I felt pretty much brain-dead for the first few months of my son’s life so just thinking of a nutritious lunch idea was often more than I could manage. Now all I need to do is pull up the file when I’m hungry or when I’m stumped for a healthy dinner idea. The ideas on my list are meals that I can usually put together with ingredients I always have on hand, so they eliminate the need for planning ahead.
Teach your partner how to grocery shop: Fortunately, my husband never needed much supermarket training; we actually used to enjoy grocery shopping together back when he was just my boyfriend and babies weren’t even on our radar. But if your husband hasn’t stepped inside a grocery store since he was 6 years old and clinging to his mother’s arm, you’ll need to teach him a thing or two – preferably before the baby arrives. There will be plenty of times you’re just too tired/busy/covered in spit-up to make it to the store, and you’ll need him to be able to navigate the supermarket without a 10-minute explanation of where to find each item on the list. And who knows? He might even take over the food shopping responsibilities entirely! I actually enjoy going to the supermarket so I’m the main shopper in the house, but my husband still does the shopping for the week on a pretty regular basis. So how much supermarket training is actually needed? Only you can answer that. I think most men just need to get comfortable with grocery shopping, so sending him off to the store with a not-too-complicated shopping list a few times should do the trick. Others might need you to accompany them to the supermarket the first several times so you can help them find certain items, pick out ripe fruits and veggies, choose between store brands and national brands, etc. Either way, he’s just as capable as you are, so don’t let him play dumb – you’ll live to regret it! And yes, plenty of men already know their way around the inside of a grocery store, so I don’t mean to sound patronizing. If your husband is already a supermarket pro, more power to you (and him). Just make sure he passes that important skill onto your future sons!
Bust out the slow cooker: A slow cooker is an absolute must for hands-off cooking, and you can use it for any meal of the day. If you struggle to fit a healthy breakfast into your day, seek out some slow-cooker breakfast recipes (like apple oatmeal, breakfast burritos or baked apples) that you can toss together the night before, and you’ll wake up to a hot breakfast every morning. And keep in mind that while the slow cooker is great for comfort foods and heavier dishes, you can still use it when eating light. Browse healthy slow cooker recipes from Eating Well, Delish and The Gracious Pantry.
Be realistic: No matter how much prep work you do, there will be times, especially early on, when you order takeout or eat potato chips for dinner – don’t even think twice about it. This isn’t about eating the perfect diet or sticking religiously to any meal plan; the idea is to make your life simpler so you don’t have to think about food – not so you’ll stress about the nutritional profile of every bite you take. And while we’re all eager to shed the baby weight, your initial focus should be on healing your body – that means plenty of nutritious foods and as much rest as you can manage to get. Be kind to your body, and you’ll recover sooner, which means you’ll be better able to start up a fitness routine, regain your strength and get your body back.
What’s your best strategy for simplifying mealtime after a new baby is born?
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