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Parenting is hard work, and for me, a big part of that has been trying to keep up with the demands of my hungry, hungry hippo (better known as my kid). Between breastfeeding and pumping about every 2 hours around the clock, feeding myself has become both a huge challenge and, at the same time, an absolute necessity.
While breastfeeding is often touted as a great way to lose weight, the reality is that weight loss should not be the goal. Producing milk to feed a child takes a lot of calories — typically an average of up to 400 above what you need to maintain a prepregnancy weight. You’ll also need upwards of 16 cups of fluids a day from foods and beverages, far more than the standard 9 cups or so that most nonlactating people need.
But now I’m a special breed of lactating mom — I’m a registered dietitian. That means people love to know what I eat in a day for lots of nutrients for me and the wee babe. I’m honestly just trying to listen to my ravenous hunger and survive over here… but I do know something about how to eat right for breastfeeding. I’m sharing my own personal menu plan, plus some of the very best foods to keep you (and your milk supply) going strong.
Just like with any other healthy diet, it’s helpful to think about your breastfeeding diet in terms of big-picture categories. Start with these building blocks as you plan your meals and snacks.
Does breastfeeding increase your protein needs? You bet! In fact, a small 2020 study found that lactating women’s protein needs may be even higher than previously believed — up to 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight for those who exclusively breastfeed. (For reference, that’s a whopping 129 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.)
To fill up your protein stores, choose meats like chicken, turkey, lamb, lean beef, and even organ meats. (I get it, liver might not be your fave, but since organ meats are extremely nutrient-dense, they’re a top-notch choice for breastfeeding.) Other healthy high protein animal foods include salmon, tuna, trout, eggs, and Greek yogurt. Or, for plant-based protein, reach for tofu, beans, and legumes.
With all the extra calories breastfeeding requires, you know fat’s gonna be involved — but choosing the right fats is key. Olive oil, avocados, full fat yogurt, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds all pack plenty of good-for-you fats to add calories and boost satiation.
Fruits and veggies
You’ve probably heard the advice to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies, and that advice doesn’t change while breastfeeding. Use antioxidant-rich veggies (like carrots, brussels sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, and bell peppers) and fruits (like berries, apples, melons, grapes, and citrus) to create a colorful palate of nutrients and crunch.
Although some grains, like oats and barley, have long been touted as magical charms that’ll boost your milk supply, these recommendations are rooted more in folk wisdom than scientific evidence. But that doesn’t mean high fiber, nutrient-dense grains shouldn’t play a major role in a breastfeeding diet. Stock the pantry with oats, barley, whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, buckwheat, and other whole grains.
Haul out the heavy-duty hydroflask — the higher fluid needs of breastfeeding are no joke! To prevent dehydration and keep your body producing plenty of milk for baby, water is, of course, the best beverage. Still, including other drinks like the occasional juice or decaf tea and coffee can also help you reach your daily fluid target.
While we’re on the subject, a word about caffeine: A couple of cups of regular joe is usually A-OK while breastfeeding. Just be careful to keep caffeine intake moderate. Overdoing it (to the tune of 300 milligrams per day or more) could make baby restless and jittery — the last thing you want when nap time rolls around.
5:30 a.m. pre-breakfast snack
2 apple pie vegan protein granola cups
1 shot espresso + 2 cups almond milk
3 cups sparkling water
While I’m up pretty much all night long, this is the first time during the day that I emerge from my pumping dungeon (aka my bed) and try hard not to climb back in. Since I don’t exactly have ample energy at this hour, a couple of protein cups give me just enough to jump on the treadmill for a pre-breakfast workout. They’re loaded with oats, hemp hearts, walnuts, freeze-dried apple, and vanilla protein powder and pair beautifully with a (much-needed) shot of espresso.
7:30 a.m. breakfast
Banana & Coffee Overnight Oats with 3/4 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
3 cups sparkling water
Left to my weeknight schedule, I’d be eating raw rolled oats for breakfast, but some pre-mixed overnight oats (which you can buy in single-serve jars and refill pouches) make breakfast actually happen for me. I just add almond milk the night before and wake up to a jar filled with organic thick-cut oats, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and spices with no added sugar or salt.
10:00 a.m. mid-morning snack
KIND Protein Crunchy Peanut Butter bar
1 shot espresso + 2 cups almond milk
This morning I’m shooting a video for my YouTube channel, which means food needs to be fast and hand-held. I’ve been stashing KIND protein bars in my purse and babe’s diaper bag because they have a nice, short ingredient list with 12 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. The majority of protein comes from nuts, making them a filling snack that leaves me full for hours!
Oh, and I need another latte, because breastfeeding and pumping every 2 hours is EXHAUSTING.
12:30 p.m. lunch
Bagged kale salad with berries, almonds, feta, balsamic vinaigrette + 4 oz chicken breast
3 cups sparkling water
When you’re trying to get a video shot in between feeds, there’s no time for an elaborate lunch. I just threw together a few cups of pre-washed bagged kale, some berries, almonds, feta, and a splash each of balsamic and oil. I also added a few ounces of chicken breast that I grilled up and froze the week I gave birth.
Also, if you haven’t noticed, I drink a lot of sparkling water because, let’s be honest, plain old water is just that — plain. I use a Soda Stream to keep myself motivated to drink up all day.
3:30 p.m. mid-afternoon snack
Cottage cheese + blueberries + powdered peanut butter
2 cups Mother’s Milk tea
This is one of my favorite high protein snacks, and it helps get me through that last leg of the day when I’m out for a walk to prevent the kid from having a meltdown during “witching hour.”
I also take a to-go mug full of Mother’s Milk tea, which is made up of a special blend of herbs like fennel, fenugreek, and blessed thistle that are thought to improve milk supply. (Though, TBH, evidence is pretty sparse for its efficacy.) But hey, I see it as a flavorful way to get in more water, and I actually like the taste, so no harm, no foul, in my book!
6:30 p.m. dinner
Cabbage roll enchiladas with steamed green beans and quinoa
1 glass dry California chardonnay
These babies are the love child of a cabbage roll and an enchilada, and OMG they are good. I made a quadruple batch and froze them in little tin containers so all I have to do come 6 p.m. is warm them up. I serve them with some boiled green beans and a scoop of quinoa I prepare at the start of each week.
As for the booze, research suggests that the whole “pump-and-dump” recommendation is a bust. Even though enjoying an occasional glass of wine or a beer isn’t usually an issue, ideally you’d wait 2 or more hours after each drink before nursing. Nursing right after having a drink could reduce your baby’s milk intake by 20 to 23 percent and lead to agitation and poor sleep. The highest alcohol levels in milk occur 30 to 60 minutes after drinking an alcoholic beverage.
If you do opt to have a drink, don’t get drunk. Intoxication is still a huge risk for falling asleep with your baby, and you should never bed-share when you’ve had something to drink.
7:30 p.m. bedtime snack
Halo Top Peaches & Cream
OK, so like every other millennial, I am obsessed with Halo Top and other slightly lighter ice creams (though you can incorporate any kind in moderation!). I try to portion out my cartons (my freezer only has so much space now with the breastmilk in there), so I eat about half a pint most weeknights. My all-time faves are Peanut Butter Cup, Mint Chip, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, but I love their seasonal flavors as well.
It’s recommended that all expectant pregnant people take a prenatal vitamin, but many don’t realize they should ideally continue its use after birth (especially those that are breastfeeding or chestfeeding). Not only is baby dependent on me getting all the necessary nutrients to pass onto him, but I kinda need to not get malnourished, too.
I love the Baby & Me 2 prenatal supplement by MegaFood because, like all of their products, it’s made with organic or sustainably grown whole foods and combines the optimal levels of iron, methylated folate, B vitamins, vitamin D, and choline for nursing mamas like me.
1:30 a.m. midnight snack
18 Crunchy Dill Quaker Crispy Minis Rice Chips
3 cups sparkling water
You thought I was done, right? HA! A mother’s day is NEVER done! I always keep these mini rice cakes by my bed to get through some of the nighttime feeds. They’re pretty low in calories and fat, but most importantly, they taste like chips and give me something to look forward to in the dark hours of the night. This and a TON of water. Honestly, every time I wake up during the night, I start chugging water like I’ve been stranded in the desert for days.
Breastfeeding and chestfeeding are a serious workout, and fueling the beast means eating — a lot! In fact, there are days when I plow through a nacho platter and have cheesecake for dessert and don’t think anything of it. The important thing (whether breastfeeding or not) is an overall pattern of healthy choices. Listen to your body, fuel it well, and you and your little one will be nourished and well-fed.