Sensuous Food for the Mother-to-be

By Cynthia Lair, Author and Creator of Cookus Interruptus
Issue 138 – September/October 2006

salmon over quinoaI teach at the School of Nutrition and Exercise Science of Bastyr University. Several months ago, during an all-faculty meeting about learning objectives for the university as a whole, as well as for each department, the facilitator asked us to think about what we wanted our students to be able to do after they graduate from Bastyr. I immediately had an answer: “Eat without fear.”

Our Western medical model is based on a mechanistic view of nutrition. We dissect foods in an attempt to quantify their contents. Charts are drawn up to show us how an average egg contains a certain number of calories, so many milligrams of this, international units of that, and grams of such and such. Then we decide how many units of each of these macro- and micronutrients will be used up by an “average” pregnant woman weighing x pounds and walking x kilometers per week. After the data are gathered, someone crunches the numbers and makes recommendations of how many units of each nutrient needs to be poured into this average pregnant woman to make sure the machine works.

Don’t get caught up in the fear, the math of popular nutrition. Let your intuition and senses emerge to discover the best food for feeding our future.

Building a Baby
It’s true that reading labels should be encouraged so that pregnant and lactating women don’t put unusable or harmful substances into their bodies. It’s also true that there is substantial evidence showing that pregnant and lactating women need more of all of the known nutrients—protein, fat, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins A and C—as well as overall calories. Name it, and the pregnant or lactating woman needs more of it.

But so far, only a tiny percentage of all the miraculous nutrients that compose natural foods have been identified. In the early 19th century, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats were thought to be the compounds that comprised all foods. The second wave of discoveries about nutrition came with the identification of vitamins and minerals. We found that for the macronutrients to metabolize in the body, the presence of certain vitamins and minerals was also required. Recently, polyphenols, another set of nutrients in food plants, were discovered. There are hundreds of these naturally occurring chemical compounds, and they give plants what they need to manufacture not just various antioxidants and colors, but flavor.

Consider, too, that feeding a mother and child is more than a math quiz. Vitamins and minerals and grams of whatever are all good to know about, but we take their presence on faith—these substances are invisible to us. When you eat kale, your taste buds can’t tell how many milligrams of calcium and vitamins A and C are present.

Sense your diet
The pregnant and lactating female represents the human form in its most creative state. By emphasizing the color, flavor, vitality, and simple beauty of food, we honor the artistry of pregnancy and lactation. By encouraging sight, smell, taste, and touch, we tap into the highly sensitive state of pregnant and nursing mothers. Food that is locally in season is not only at the peak of flavor but also at the peak of nutritional content. Foods that have fully developed polyphenols offer higher vitamin and mineral contents, but it is also likely that such foods will have more flavor. When food is cooked to perfection, without too much or too little heat, the flavor is at its peak. And when a food’s flavor is at its peak, so is its nutrient bioavailability. The bright, perky leaves of freshly picked kale, the deep orange of butternut squash, the naturally tight, red flesh of a wild Alaskan salmon, the buttery flavor of a fresh pecan right out of the shell, the amazing geometric patterns of young cabbage, the unbelievably gold color and sweet taste of the yolk of an egg laid by a pastured hen—one that got to peck in the soil for worms and bugs, which creates higher omega-3 fats in the yolk—these are the clues to the potent, nutrient-dense food that pregnant and lactating mothers need.

So instead of computing what breakfast to feed our posterity, how about sensing it? The body has a highly developed intuitive sense of what it needs. If we limit our choices to foods that nature presents—foods that are fresh, local, organic, and in season; foods rich in color, flavor, and good looks—the pocket calculator can be left for balancing the checkbook.

1. What am I hungry for?
Let’s say it’s something that’s not all that rich in nutrients, such as a fast-food hamburger or a Twinkie. Make a leap toward quality to transpose your desire. Would a grilled steak from a healthy grass-fed cow, alongside salad and warm, whole-grain sourdough bread, do the trick? Do summer berries topped with fresh-whipped organic cream and a homemade oatmeal cookie sound right?

2. Where should I shop?
This is the fun part. Start exploring what your local community has to offer. Many farmers will sell their eggs, poultry, beef, and pork directly to the consumer. Check out and click on your state. The same is true for milk and milk products from healthy cows and goats. Consider becoming a member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, so you can pick up or have delivered to you a box of fresh, locally grown produce every week. (See for a list of CSA groups.) Shop at your local farmers’ market—it’s not only economical, it’s a social and educational event to talk to the farmers about the food you buy. Beyond that, some grocery chains sell great-looking organic whole foods and know where the food they sell comes from. Shop there.

3. How do I know what to buy?
Use your senses—see, smell, and touch the food. Put the best-looking, most colorful produce in your bag or cart. And, yes, read the labels. Though many terms on labels are deceiving, if the manufacturer has something to brag about, such as what the animals were fed or how the wheat was milled, the story is usually written on the packaging. If you can’t get to the farmer to ask questions, ask someone in the grocery store. Ask the fishmonger how that halibut was caught and where it came from. And look at the halibut itself. Is it shiny and pinkish-white? Does the food you’re thinking of buying make you salivate?

4. How do I compose a meal?
This can be easier than a hundred million diet books make it seem. Start with a whole grain, such as brown rice, millet, or whole wheat. Add a protein source that sounds yummy—perhaps fresh eggs, fish, or lamb would be nice. Or from the vegetarian side—black beans or a fermented soy product like tempeh are great protein options. Bring on some fresh fruits and vegetables that rock your socks and you’ve got nutrition. A dark, leafy green or two every day is perfect for moms of the unborn or just born. Don’t forget those toppings that can make all the difference in texture, flavor, and color: toasted pumpkin seeds, tiny currants, cultured yogurt, apricot chutney, pickle relish. Remember that the nutrients in foods work together like a tribe or a team—they aren’t as nourishing or tantalizing alone. Baked potatoes benefit from butter, sour cream, and fresh chives in every way.

5. Who will cook it?
If someone asked you to build a bookshelf by tomorrow, unless you’ve been making things from wood for many years, you might become frustrated and fail miserably. The same is true of the craft of cooking—confidence can be gained through practice. As you become more skilled, you’ll find more ease and joy in the task. Assigning one day to prepare some basics can make each week easier. Make a pot of grains or a crock of beans; toast some nuts or blend up fresh pesto. Having these things ready to use can make a huge difference in time during the week.

6. What’s for dinner?
So glad you asked. Following are some recipes to play with, and a list of resources that you might have seen or heard of before; if not, check them out.

Emerald City Salad
This whole-meal salad was inspired by one served in the delicatessen at Seattle’s unique natural foods grocery chain, Puget Consumers Co-op. The warm rice and lemon dressing slightly wilt the assertive greens, making them quite tasty. The combination of whole grains, vegetables, olive oil, and cheese makes the dish complete on its own.

Thai Steak Salad Over Soba Noodles
Choosing beef from healthfully raised cows is important nutritionally, ecologically, and politically. To learn more, check out If you can’t find grass-fed or humanely raised beef from a local farmer, ask questions at your food co-op or grocery store to find a good source of these products.

Grand Slam Granola with Yogurt and Fresh Raspberries
Lightly toasting nuts, seeds, and oats in butter and maple syrup results in a very tasty and nutritious breakfast or snack for pregnant or nursing moms. Granola also travels well in a Ziploc bag. Serve a handful over whole-milk yogurt full of live cultures and top with fresh raspberries!

Huevos Rancheros with Fresh Avocado & Black Beans

This dish is simple. Buying fresh eggs from pastured hens makes the flavor deeper and richer. Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Chopped Tomatoes with green chiles is an excellent product to use; some or all of the chile peppers can be omitted.

Caribbean Gingered Salmon over Quinoa with Cucumber Relish
This recipe is an adaptation of a delicacy that Dr. Bruce Gardner, a family practitioner, prepared for us one summer. It is equally awesome with halibut.

Three Sisters Stew
When Native Americans grew corn, they planted beans at the base of the stalks, which served as bean poles; in the ground between the stalks they grew squash. The three sisters—corn, beans, squash—lived harmoniously. This is a satisfying, flavorful dish to prepare when the winter squash and corn are ready for harvest.


Recipes reprinted from Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children and Their Parents, by Cynthia Lair (1998); and from Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players and Parents, by Cynthia Lair with Scott Murdoch, PhD, RD (2002); both published by Moon Smile Press;


Johnna Albi and Catherine Walthers. Greens Glorious Greens. St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Sally Fallon. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 1999.
Aliza Green. Field Guide to Produce. Quirk Books, 2004.
Cynthia Lair. Feeding the Whole Family. Moon Smile Press, 1998.
Cynthia Lair. Feeding the Young Athlete. Moon Smile Press, 2002.
The Moosewood Collective. Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. Fireside, 1990.
Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press, 2006.
Rebecca Wood. The Splendid Grain. William Morrow, 1999.

Websites—To find community-supported agriculture in your area.—A source of safe, healthy, grass-fed meat and dairy products.—The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website provides much information about sustainably harvested fish and fishing methods.—Discussion and location finder for raw, pasture-fed dairy products.

Cynthia Lair has been a member of the nutrition faculty of Bastyr University since 1994, and recently began teaching for the University of Washington School of Nursing. She is the author of two cookbooks, Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children and Their Parents, (1998); and Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players and Parents (2002); both published by Moon Smile Press;

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