Over the last four and a half years, there have only been about two months that I haven’t been breastfeeding. I was still nursing my first son while pregnant with my second, but toward the end of my pregnancy he self-weaned. My 19-month-old is still going strong now.
A reoccurring joke over these years has been to call me the family goat. I often times finish what nobody else wants on the table, and my appetite can rival that of my 6’1” husband. Nursing women like me need about an extra 500 calories a day, though it seems like I often need even more than that, especially on a busy day when I am running around with the boys.
It’s often said that breastfeeding gives you a rare opportunity to eat whatever you want and not gain weight. Although I do eat what I want, what matters to me most is adding things to my diet that make me feel good, give me steady energy, and are good for my son as well. I do love the occasional dessert, especially if it is pistachio gelato, but I have found that sweets actually make me hungrier and grouchy. In terms of dessert, I do best if I have something small and not overly sweet, like a piece of dark chocolate, after a meal. Sweets on an empty stomach, like for a snack, are the worst. They can cause a blood sugar spike, a subsequent overcompensation of insulin, and then crazy hunger and irritability. And new research shows that the sugars that I eat, especially fructose, could be passed through to my son via my milk and even increase his risk for obesity. So I would rather keep sugar to a minimum for both of our sakes.
Through trial and error, I have figured out a few ways to keep up with my appetite by adding in nutrient-dense foods rather than sweets or other empty-calories. Here are some of my favorite tricks:
— Eat a protein-rich breakfast. Things like muffins, cereal, pancakes, or oatmeal leave me wrecked by mid-morning. I do best with non-sweet, high-protein options like eggs with sautéed spinach or sliced avocado, frittata, a smoked salmon and cucumber sandwich, or dinner leftovers like Thai curry. I try to include a vegetable, even if it is just some arugula or salad on the side of my eggs or sandwich. If I eat this way, I am less hungry for the rest of the day, have more constant energy, am more likely to stay away from sweets, and am more patient with my kids. Just as I am a more calm and pleasant person if I eat this way, my kids are too, so I try to give them a high-protein, non-sweet breakfast as well.
–Add in a mini-meal instead of lots of snacks. While eating something like a banana as a snack is okay, I find that it leaves me hungry after 20 minutes. Having something more substantial that contains protein, like almond butter on the banana, is helpful. I feel even better if I have an actual small meal. My kids eat dinner at 5pm and my husband and I eat later, around 8pm when he gets home from work. At 5pm, I typically eat a small plate with my kids, and it helps me to get to 8pm without grazing. The crock pot works really well for us for this routine because it is easy to prep the dinner in the morning and keep the same thing that my kids and I eat at 5pm warm for 8pm dinner as well.
–When eating out, order extra vegetables instead of dessert. There have been countless times that I have found myself still hungry at the end of a meal when eating out, and it can be frustrating. The natural solution would seem to be to order a dessert. But the dessert doesn’t help satisfy my hunger and doesn’t leave me feeling good. I have found that what works much better is to order an extra vegetable side dish upfront. If there are cooked vegetables available as a side order, like sautéed spinach or a grilled vegetable plate, I go for that. If not, then I order a salad or a cup of soup. That way, I’m full by the end of the meal and not as interested in the dessert.
–Cook a big batch of vegetable-centric food at the start of the week. On Sunday or Monday, I like to make a big pot of soup or cook/roast a big variety of vegetables. These leftovers are there waiting for me in the refrigerator later in the week, making it easy to eat something good without a lot of effort.
–Carry some non-sweet snacks and a water bottle for emergencies. I nearly always have some snacks and water with me, which makes me laugh because these may seem to be there for the kids when really they are just as important for me. Sometimes when we are out, I will nurse my little guy and then almost immediately feel extremely hungry or thirsty. If I have something healthy already with me, it makes things so much easier. Otherwise I have to rely on whatever I can find nearby, which is often not that great. Some of my favorites are raw nuts like almonds, pecans, or hazelnuts paired with an apple or a few carrots. Sometimes I am organized and have neatly peeled and cut carrots packed, and sometimes I run out of the door with washed, unpeeled whole ones in my bag. Either way works!
–For drinks, stick to water (still or sparkling) or herbal tea. These options don’t contribute extra sugar to your diet and the extra fluids help keep your milk supply going strong. I do love my morning coffee; actually it’s often the only thing making me want to get out of bed. I prefer adding a splash of heavy cream to it rather than milk because the higher-fat and lower-sugar profile of the cream helps me to not feel as jittery or hungry later in the morning.
To all of the other nursing moms out there: what are your favorite healthy foods and tricks to add in the extra energy you need?