Deb Williams and her children, Rhys, 2, and June, 10 months, at their home in Bowdoinham. After giving birth to her son, Williams treated herself to sushi, and after having her daughter last summer, she wanted ajo sauce, a Colombian garlic sauce made with raw eggs, from Maiz. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Carrying a baby for months on end can be among a woman’s toughest life challenges. And doing it without any well-earned comfort from the likes of alcohol, sushi, Italian subs and eggs Benedict seems almost unfair.

But following some dietary restrictions are one of the necessary bummers of pregnancy. “When you’re pregnant, you’re in a more vulnerable state,” explained Jessica Monroe, a registered dietician specializing in prenatal care who is based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and licensed in Maine. “Your immune system is suppressed, and so you’re more susceptible to food-borne illnesses.”

Conflicting information on what foods are actually safe for pregnant women makes the subject all the more fraught.

“Right now, the guidelines are pretty clear from the American Pregnancy Association and among most OB/GYN professionals, though the up-to-date research is not reflected in the current guidelines,” said Jacqueline Stevens, registered dietician and owner of Home Grown Nutrition in Brunswick, who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum nutrition.

The current guidelines recommend avoiding raw or undercooked meats, fish, poultry and eggs, largely because of the risk of listeria, salmonella and vibrio. Likewise, if a pregnant woman wants deli meats, they need to be heated until steaming.

“The big reason is because of the risk of listeria food-borne illness,” Stevens said. “But what we do know now is that is super, super rare. It’s actually more likely you could get listeria from eating spinach from a salad bar than from having deli meat, but they don’t say to avoid salads.”

Advertisement

Unpasteurized dairy products like raw milk are off-limits, and the guidelines caution against soft cheeses like Brie, feta and blue cheese, which are thought to be more vulnerable to listeria and salmonella (though Monroe tells her clients to check the label, and if a soft cheese is made with pasteurized milk, it’s OK). The guidelines also say pregnant women should avoid fish with high mercury content, like shark, swordfish, orange roughy, big eye (ahi) tuna, king mackerel and tilefish. Canned light tuna is considered a safe choice, as is six ounces or less of albacore tuna a week.

Monroe said there’s a popular misconception that pregnant women should steer clear of all seafood. “Seafood has so many benefits that you want to try to include it while you’re pregnant, just not the high-mercury fish,” she said. “Most seafood is fine.”

Moreover, Stevens noted that recent studies have shown that babies from mothers who ate seafood regularly while pregnant developed higher IQs than babies from mothers who avoided or seriously limited their seafood intake.

“It’s definitely hard for pregnant women, because they’re hearing different things from different people,” Stevens said. “What I try to do with my clients is let them know the latest research but also the current guidelines and let them make informed decisions. Some OB/GYNs and midwives are up to date on new research, which helps explain why one OB/GYN might say something different to them than another one. I do think the recommendations will change soon, because it’s been a while since all this new evidence has come out.”

Food restrictions don’t necessarily magically end once baby arrives. According to the Mayo Clinic and CDC, nursing moms should also consider limiting their intake of alcohol, caffeine and high-mercury fish. But for new moms, such information can also be contradictory. “There are no foods that need to be completely avoided while breastfeeding! Moms can eat up!” Stevens wrote in an email.

For Mother’s Day, we talked with a handful of Maine moms about what foods they indulged in right after delivering their babies and also to some of the local restaurants popular with maternity ward patients. Of course, the babies are the real reward for nine months of sacrifice and hours of painful labor. But the moms said the salmon rolls, triple-cream Brie and Champagne were sure worth the wait, too.

Advertisement

Deb Williams, 36, of Bowdoinham; mom of Rhys, 2, and June, 9 months

“It’s like the more you can’t have something, the more you end up craving it,” said Deb Williams, a Bowdoinham mother of two. “You go so long without it, nine months, right?”

Williams’ son Rhys at 1 year old sits in Maiz in Brunswick, with his mom’s arepas and ajo sauce in the foreground. Courtesy of Deb Williams

After she gave birth to Rhys at Mid Coast Hospital, her husband brought her a variety of sushi rolls from Watami in Brunswick. “That was one of the ways that people found out I had my baby, because I put a picture of the sushi in my hospital room on my Instagram story with just a caption saying ‘Finally.’ And so then people were like, ‘Oh, did you have your baby?’

“With June, I ended up having a planned C-section, and in recovery you’re not supposed to eat too much,” Williams continued. “One of the first things we had delivered was my favorite arepa from Maiz in Brunswick, the Garlic Lover, with extra ajo sauce (which the menu plainly notes contains raw egg). I remember really wanting to eat the whole thing and all the sauce, it was so lovely to have the taste. But I could only eat about half of it because of the C-section recovery. I had to take it easy.

“You want to reward yourself when you first have your baby,” Williams added. “Someone said giving birth is like running a marathon. It kind of makes sense that you’d want to celebrate with some of your favorite foods.”

Martha Leonard, co-owner of Maiz

Advertisement

“Our ajo sauce is a garlicky homemade mayo, so it has raw egg. It’s amazingly delicious, but not a lot of pregnant women feel safe eating it,” said Martha Leonard, co-owner of Maiz, a fast-casual Colombian restaurant with locations in Portland and Brunswick.

“We’ve noticed that husbands will come and pick up our food for their wives in the hospital,” she added. “I know a lot of garlic sauce-loving moms. That always makes us feel really good. It’s an honor that these women crave our food, and I’m so happy that we’re able to fuel a new mother.”

Julie Pezzino, center, with her children Aurora and Sal. Photo courtesy of Julie Pezzino

Julie Pezzino, 43, of Portland; mom of Sal, 8, and Aurora, 11

“I had a well-deserved glass of Champagne after having my children,” said Julie Pezzino, executive director of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.

While pregnant, Pezzino said she craved the “cliches,” like pickles and chocolate. “Really anything that elevates your taste buds.” But her go-to was spicy food – Thai and Indian being her favorites. “There was a local hole-in-the-wall Thai place I used to eat at in Pittsburgh. I believe I would get the pad see ew, with a little spice, of course.”

After giving birth both times, Pezzino had a grilled cheese sandwich from the hospital cafeteria. “My labors were both 24 hours long, so any food after was amazing. Those were the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve ever had,” she said.

Advertisement

Rachel Katyl and her newborn, Owen, in the hospital in 2020. Courtesy of Rachel Katyl

Rachel Katyl, 38, of Portland; mom of Oliver, 6, and Owen, 3

“With my first pregnancy, I was really strict with following all the quote-unquote rules,” said Rachel Katyl, a mom of two from Portland. “With my second, I was definitely a lot looser. I had lunchmeat the second time around, and I drank a little coffee during both of my pregnancies.”

Katyl’s tray of sushi in from Yosaku, in her hospital room. Courtesy of Rachel Katyl

After Owen – her second – was born, she had a sushi dinner with salmon, eel and tuna rolls from Yosaku on Danforth Street in Portland.

“I’m a big fan of Yosaku, I usually go there for my birthday,” Katyl said. “Labor is not an easy process, so I was definitely hungry and excited to eat it.

“I knew I was going to enjoy it after not having it for so long,” she added. “And it was so good, just delicious. It stinks to go without it for so long. I tried to have vegetarian sushi at one point, which is basically just vegetables, and it’s just not the same without the raw fish.”

Ram Tray, co-owner of Yosaku 

Advertisement

“There’s been quite a few people who’ve come in here to bring food back to their wives in the hospital over the years, because that’s what they wanted, sushi,” said Ram Tray, co-owner of Yosaku, adding that they’ll occasionally buy the dad a drink while he waits for the food. He recalled one time when another customer heard the news of the baby and picked up the sushi tab for the new dad.

“It’s a pretty small community. Most of (the parents) are longtime customers, and we’re a go-to for them,” he said.

Karen Watterson, 63, of Portland; mom of Lara, 33

“I remember you weren’t supposed to eat too much tuna because of the mercury,” said Karen Watterson, of Portland, whose daughter, Lara, is now in her 30s. “But I loved a big, fat tuna sub when I was pregnant, with the really mayo-y kind of tuna, like they make in Italian delis. With hot peppers especially.

“But I have a real sweet tooth, and the thing I wanted my husband to bring me right after I gave birth to Lara was ice cream,” she added. “Of course, I had plenty of it while I was pregnant. He brought me my favorite ice cream, Brigham’s Mocha Almond with their hot fudge. There was a Brigham’s right down the street from Newton-Wellesley Hospital.”

Mysette Misenga, of Saco; mom of Ariel, 7

Advertisement

Mysette Misenga, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gave birth to Ariel at Maine Medical Center. After delivery, she said she drank lots of black tea.

“In our culture, when you have a newborn baby, you should drink hot tea all the day long, because we’re breastfeeding our babies, and because the tea is warm it will produce a lot of milk,” Misenga said.

“After we give birth, we eat our traditional cassava leaf, but cooked in a different way – in a lot of water, and not much spices, just maybe a little onion and salt. It’s a simple way, but it produces a lot of milk for the baby.”

Misenga said besides milk volume, the cassava’s nutrients help the baby’s digestion. “And we eat sesame, also so we can make a lot of natural milk,” she added. “We cook it like rice in water with a little oil, salt and onion.”

Theresa Chan in Mercy Hospital last year with her third child, Rosalyn. Courtesy of Theresa Chan

Theresa Chan, 37, of Portland; mom of Julius, 5, Ruby, 3, Rosalyn, 10 months

“I gave birth all three times at (Northern Light Mercy Hospital), and their food is so good,” said Theresa Chan, co-owner of Empire Chinese Kitchen in Portland. “The experience at Mercy is amazing. I was there three times in four years, and every time after the first I was so excited to be back. It’s like a spa day. It’s like a resort, and in your gift bag is a baby.

Advertisement

“After the first birth I had a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup from Mercy, and it was phenomenal,” Chan continued. “When you’re in that exhausted, healing mode, to have something very familiar and rich but without overly strong flavors is just so soothing.”

Chan said in Chinese culture, they observe a “sitting month,” a postpartum confinement period when moms stay home with their newborns. The diet is meant to be very simple and mild. Soups and stocks are common fare, because they’re nutrient-rich and their heat won’t shock the mother’s GI tract with cold temperatures. “Pig’s blood soup is what you’re supposed to drink, and I was not going to go for that,” she said. “So my nod to that was to have very soothing tomato soup.”

She gave birth to her next two kids at different times of the day from the first, so Chan ate different meals from Mercy after each. When Ruby was born, Chan had scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausage, and then baked fish with risotto after Rosalyn.

Still, Chan’s mom brought her homemade lotus root and pig’s foot soup immediately after each birth, another traditional Chinese postpartum dish. “She brought her little insulated metal pail of soup for me immediately post-partum,” Chan recalled. “She said, ‘Do not drink any cold water, I am on my way with soup.’ ”

Lily Gilbert with her baby, Ollie. Photo courtesy of Lily Gilbert

Lily Gilbert, 32, of North Yarmouth; mom of Ollie, 6 months

Lily Gilbert said she’d planned to get sushi as her first meal after giving birth to Ollie six months ago. But when the moment arrived, she found herself craving something warm and comforting, so she got a bowl of miso soup from Mi Sen Noodle Bar on Congress Street in Portland instead.

But she can relate to Watterson’s hankering for ice cream.

“When I was pregnant, I was all about the ice cream,” she said. Gilbert visited every ice cream shop she possibly could during her pregnancy, but her favorite was Toots in North Yarmouth. “I would get the ladybug ice cream, which is strawberry with chocolate chips.”

Lila Harron Battis and her newborn daughter. Courtesy of Lila Harron Battis

Lila Harron Battis, 35, of Portland; mom of 20-month-old daughter

Lila Harron Battis can’t recall exactly what she ate immediately after delivering her daughter, now 20 months old. “It was probably just sad hospital food, like ice cream from the labor and delivery ward,” she said.

Battis’ breakfast sandwich from Tandem, with the bakery’s loaded biscuits in the background. Courtesy of Lila Harron Battis

But she’d already treated herself in the days leading up to her baby’s birth. Battis had a planned induction, and because she knew it could take several days, she made strategic food stops along the way to the hospital. First, she and her husband went to The Cheese Shop of Portland for an assortment of cheeses, including a triple-creme Brie.

“I brought it all to make a cheese plate at the hospital, because cheese is one of my great passions in life,” Battis said. “Then we went to Smalls and got a meal at the bar, because we didn’t think we would be going to restaurants again anytime soon. Then we went in for my induction. We sat and ate a little cheese plate and watched ‘Bridesmaids.’ ”

About 30 hours into her induction, her husband brought her a Tandem Coffee and Bakery breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage, American cheese and smoked paprika mayo on a buttermilk biscuit.

“I was so over the moon to eat it. I hadn’t been able to have one for a long time because I had gestational diabetes and I couldn’t do biscuits or bread a lot, and I think that Briana (Holt, Tandem’s pastry chef) is a genius,” Battis said. “So we got sandwiches and a bunch of Tandem stuff for the nurses on the ward. It’s very convenient; I highly recommend it for anyone staying at Maine Med. I bounced on the yoga ball to keep my contractions going while I ate it.

“I was willing to give the cafeteria a shot, but I had one hospital meal and was like, ‘You know what? I deserve better during this experience,’ ” she added. “It was a long haul and you need small comforts wherever you can find them. That Tandem sandwich got me through four hours of pushing and was instrumental in bringing my 9-pound, 12-ounce baby into the world.”

Staff writer Emily Hedegard contributed to this report. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: