Being pregnant doesn’t have to mean you can’t enjoy eating out, going to your favorite restaurants, or celebrating at a fine-dining establishment. Pregnancy is all about making adjustments, not denying yourself, but sometimes you need others’ help in making adjustments, too.
Many restaurants are pregnancy-friendly and with these tips, dining out (or even getting a takeout) will hopefully be a little easier if you know what to look for and ask for. Here, I’m covering different types of cuisine, fine dining and the sort of ingredients you need to ask about on the menu.
Eating Salad at Restaurants when you’re Pregnant
This is probably the most common question raised by pregnant women about eating out. You’re supposed to be eating healthily and choosing nutrient-dense food when you’re pregnant, so a salad seems like the obvious choice, right? Unfortunately, that’s not often the case if you’re eating a salad that you didn’t prepare yourself.
Pre-bagged, pre-packaged or improperly washed salad carries the small but significant risk of listeria, which can lead to listeriosis – one of the most serious types of foodborne illnesses. Many restaurants, particularly chains, have their salad brought in to them pre-chopped or pre-packaged. Even if they’re preparing it themselves in-house, the risk of listeria remains if the salad hasn’t been washed properly. Listeria outbreaks do occur with pre-bagged and packaged salads, and there have been several recalls for this reason (source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
Salad bars and buffets at restaurants carry the same risks as any pre-prepared salad, but with the added hazard that they’re vulnerable to cross-contamination with other salads, meats, or foods that should be kept separately.
Subsequently, it’s better to enjoy salads and veggies at home that you’ve prepared yourself, rather than eat them in restaurants. Salad bars and buffets, in particular, should be avoided by pregnant women.
Which Restaurants Should I Avoid when Pregnant?
This is a general guide, rather than telling you to avoid any particular restaurant. When you’re pregnant, you should still be able to follow safe food guidelines and eat at any restaurant, after having read the menu thoroughly. There are a couple of caveats when eating out, though:
- Pay attention to Food Hygiene standards, food inspections and other indications of whether a restaurant has good food safety protocols. As many kitchens are closed-door (and you can’t see them), this is your best indication of the hygiene standards. In the USA, the website Yelp has started to include food inspection ratings on their restaurant reviews, or you can ask your state department of health.
In the UK it’s much easier – you can either use the official Food Standards Agency website or Scores on the Doors, both of which let you know where a restaurant did well (or not) on food hygiene.
- Avoid eating at buffet-style restaurants in pregnancy. Although the food is usually freshly prepared, the open nature of the buffet system means that it’s vulnerable to cross-contamination. This is more to do with the behavior of the people who use the buffet (where utensils and foods are easily mixed), rather than the fault of the restaurant.
At buffets, food is also kept at warm, rather than steaming hot temperatures before you eat it – which is more likely to encourage the growth of bacteria. A small number of bacteria will not harm an ordinary healthy adult but pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should take extra care and avoid buffet-style eating. If there’s a menu, order from that instead.
Can I Eat At Fast Food Restaurants in Pregnancy?
Although not known for their nutritious or healthy food, there is nothing to prevent you from having fast food very occasionally in pregnancy. After all, it’s a frequent craving that many pregnant women seem to have. Fast food (or ‘junk’ food) is high in salt, calories and fat and is almost all processed. It shouldn’t be eaten often in pregnancy.
However, if you have a craving or it’s the only food you think you’ll keep down during a bout of nausea, then there is nothing ‘wrong’ with having a very occasional meal at a fast-food restaurant. There are some items common to many fast-food chains that you should avoid, such as:
- Salads – as covered in the point above, fast food chains have pre-prepared salads that are unsuitable for pregnant women. This includes the salad or lettuce sometimes found in the sandwiches or burgers. Ask for yours without salad.
- Soft serve ice cream, milkshakes or cold drinks made in the same machine should be avoided. For more information, you can read more about this in an article I wrote about ice cream, including soft-serve.
- Choose smaller portions where possible – sometimes a kid’s meal will satisfy a craving without piling on the calories, salt, and fat. Go easy on the additions like cheese, bacon, or going the next size up.
- Ask for your order to be made up fresh, so it’s steaming or sizzling hot before you eat it, rather than sitting in the hot box or under a heat lamp for a while.
If you have a specific fast-food restaurant in mind, I already wrote a detailed guide to eating at McDonald’s for pregnant women and also cover many of the sandwich chains (including Subway) in my article on eating sandwiches in pregnancy.
Eating at Sushi / Japanese Restaurants When You’re Pregnant
The advice on whether you can eat sushi in pregnancy varies from country to country. In the UK, the National Health Service says that sushi is fine (source: NHS) because it’s very often frozen first, which kills potential parasites.
In the USA, the FDA advises that pregnant women should avoid raw fish, including sushi and sashimi in their guide on serving fish. Other countries seem to disagree, too. In Japan, sushi is deemed fine to eat, whereas in Australia, pregnant women are advised to eat sushi that is ‘freshly prepared’ as many sushi restaurants display the fish at or near room temperature.
If raw fish has been frozen first, then the risk of it containing parasites is low. However, you also have to consider how the fish has been stored and prepared, after it was frozen and before it’s served to you. There is a risk of cross-contamination, and unlike cooked fish, any surface bacteria will not be killed as there is no cooking process.
As with many food types in pregnancy, it’s often safer to make an adjustment instead of denying yourself completely. Skip the raw fish if you don’t want to take the risk, and remember too that not all sushi is raw (the term ‘sushi’ actually refers to the rice, rather than any ingredient like fish).
Some sushi rolls are made with cooked salmon, chicken or tuna, for example. You could try grilled seafood like eel (unagi), or non-fish types like omelette (Tamago). Grilled or tempura veg are fine if served hot. Miso soup is both safe and a healthy option for pregnant women. Also, remember Japanese restaurants often have a much wider menu than just sushi, so you could also for teriyaki, stir fry, or ramen. In each case, ensure it’s cooked fresh and served hot.
Eating Chinese Food or dining at Chinese Restaurants in Pregnancy
Chinese restaurants should be treated like any other when you’re pregnant – watch out for ingredients that you’d normally avoid, and ensure that the food is served hot and promptly. Some considerations about Chinese food in particular are:
- Be aware that Chinese food often contains monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some restaurants don’t use it and will usually advertise this as a selling point. MSG occurs naturally in many foods, but in Chinese cuisine, it’s frequently used as a flavor enhancer. Scientific studies have been unable to pinpoint why some people react differently to MSG, and it’s classed as ‘generally recognized as safe’ as a food additive (source: FDA). If you don’t normally have any particular reaction to MSG then there’s no need to avoid it in pregnancy. If it doesn’t agree with you, then it’s better to choose food without it.
- Chinese food is often high in salt or sugar, depending on the sauce, and sometimes contains many additives like colorings or flavor enhancers. Although these aren’t harmful in small amounts, you can cut down on the salt, for example, by not adding further soy sauce or similar condiments. Dishes with sauces often contain more sugar than you might think, so opt for leaner options like stir-fries or omelets.
- Some Chinese foods that are deep-fried can often be oily and high in fat (such as won tons, spring rolls, prawn crackers). There’s no reason to avoid them if they have been freshly made, but try to eat them in moderation.
Eating Indian Food (Or Indian Takeaway) When Pregnant
I’m a big fan of Indian food and eat it all the time. One thing about it comes up time and time again, and that’s whether or not pregnant women should eat spicy food, as most Indian cuisine can be. Yes, you can go ahead and eat Indian food (or takeaway) in pregnancy. Spicy food won’t harm your baby, but it might cause heartburn or discomfort if you’re not used to it.
There are no dishes that are ‘unsafe’ on their own, but you can follow some guidelines to make healthier choices when you eat Indian:
- Stick to tomato and vegetable-based sauces (jalfrezi is a good one as it has tomato, peppers, and onions). The same goes for dishes containing lentils (dal), spinach (saag), or cauliflower (gobi). In fact, a lot of authentic Indian cuisine is vegetarian, so it’s a great way to eat more veg. If there’s a lot of ghee (the oil you see sometimes on top of takeaway curries) then try to drain it off before eating it.
- If you’ve been prone to heartburn during your pregnancy then this one good reason to choose milder, rather than spicy dishes. However, try to avoid ‘creamy’ curries such as korma or butter chicken, as these are high in fat and calories and will also exacerbate heartburn.
- If you’re having a starter or snack, healthier options include lean tandoori meat like chicken or prawns (which are also more filling), rather than deep-fried items like samosas or onion bhajis.
- Chutneys (like mango chutney), pickles and sauces are usually safe for pregnant women to eat, as restaurants often serve commercially-made versions, which are pasteurized. If having a takeaway and want to be absolutely sure, heat it up for a few seconds in the microwave until steaming. If you’re helping yourself to chutney or pickle from a jar at home, then this should be safe cold if stored correctly.
- The best side options are plain pilau rice or a single roti or chapati. Naan bread has more calories, so if you’re going to eat it, have it plain or with garlic. Peshwari or other filled naans are often higher in fat, calories and sugar.
- Indian sweets and desserts, although tasty, are very sweet and high in sugar. They’re probably best avoided, or at the very least, shared or halved.
Fine Dining When You’re Pregnant – Some Tips
Whether it’s to celebrate an anniversary, birthday, or just as a treat, you can still eat at fine-dining restaurants when you’re pregnant. The key is to look out for common menu items that may have to be avoided, and to let the wait staff know your dietary requirements when you make a reservation – this especially applies in the first trimester when they may not realize you’re pregnant!
Here are some tips for eating at fine dining restaurants in pregnancy:
- Let the restaurant know beforehand when you book the table. Many restaurants are aware of what pregnant women shouldn’t eat. Some aren’t, yet should be happy to accommodate you. Use this list to advise of things you are avoiding or substituting.
- The wine list will be off-limits, so choose a mocktail, non-alcoholic spritzer or other soft drink. Some fine dining restaurants have bartenders who are excellent mixologists, who would regard making something non-alcoholic and tasty as a welcome challenge. Chances are, there are interesting soft drink options already on their menu.
- Avoid any undercooked or raw meat and fish. This, unfortunately, is how many fine-dining restaurants serve red meat like beef, venison or lamb. It also means items like tartare or fish that are seared, but not cooked, should be avoided. You can either request for it to be made well done, with no pink, or substitute it for something else that is usually cooked through, like chicken or fish.
- Avoid dishes containing raw or undercooked egg or unpasteurized ingredients. Raw egg commonly appears in some sauces like hollandaise, some salad dressings like Caesar, or some desserts like mousse or ice cream. Check beforehand as many scratch-made items contain raw egg. The same goes for undercooked egg – swap poached or runny eggs for ones cooked through.
- Be cautious if meat, fish or egg is cooked in a water bath (also known as sous vide). This is a common, professional way of cooking at a low, consistent temperature but it doesn’t get high enough to kill potential bacteria. Instead, look for roasted, pan-fried, oven-baked or sauteed items.
- Remember that if you normally drink coffee at the end of a fine dining meal, you should make sure it doesn’t take you over your daily caffeine limit, which is around 200mg for pregnant women (or roughly two mugs).
Can I Eat Out at Restaurants in the First Trimester?
There is nothing particularly special or different about eating out in the first trimester over any other. However, it’s a good time to get into the habit of choosing healthy, nutritious options, keeping an eye on your portion size, and checking for foods to avoid.
The only thing to consider is that in the first trimester restaurants or their wait staff may not realize that you’re pregnant, so let them know when you’re making a special request and they’re usually delighted to accommodate (and congratulate) you.