I first met Nena at a local playgroup... she's made a recent career change as a natural chef and has lots of helpful tips for cramming in those vital vitamins for mums-to-be...
Tell us a little about yourself and Nena Foster. Food?
I am Nena, and I work as a freelance Natural Chef and am passionate about cooking and eating whole foods in a way that is both nutritious and delicious. I am also a mum of 2 and live in Brockley, South East London. As a freelance chef I do lots of different things, including teaching cookery to kids and families, as well as teaching lacto-fermentation workshops. I also develop recipes for other chefs and brands, work as a food stylist, do a bit of food writing and consultancy work and create content and events for restaurant review and lifestyle site Veggie Option. Nena Foster. Food is my company that attempts to pull together all of the different food-related things that I do.
What sparked your change in career and what is a ‘Natural Chef’?
I have always loved cooking and eating, and as a long-time veggie with food allergies I had to be good at cooking and hosting because friends were too afraid to have me around for dinner! I also come from a science-y background so love tinkering and experimenting. So while on maternity leave with my second, I had the epiphany. I wanted to retrain as a chef and forge a career in food. I knew that I didn’t want to be a classically trained chef, as health and nutrition were already a part of my life, so I found a course at The College of Naturopathic Medicine and signed up! I first started training part-time while working 4 days/week (and raising 2 kids), which was hectic. But about 4 months into my return from work, the opportunity to leave my job and pursue a full-time career in food came up, and I took it. It turned out to be the best decision that I ever made. I knew when I started my chef training that I didn't want a traditional chef career. I needed something that worked around having a family and frankly had worked enough 70 hour weeks. I also wanted to be my own boss and make a career that suited and excited me.
A Natural Chef sounds like more of a mystery than it is. I trained in both nutrition and as a chef and combine this knowledge and skill to create a style of food and cooking that uses unrefined, unprocessed wholefoods in a way that optimises nutrition, but is also delicious.
How can women support themselves through diet during pregnancy?
Looking after your immune system is obviously always important, but in particular during pregnancy as the demands on our bodies are greater. Our immune system is also weaker, making us more susceptible to various lurgies, particularly if you have other children who bring home just about everything going. Most over-the counter remedies that you would normally use when under the weather are also out the window, so turning to natural ways to support and boost immunity are key.
Food is the best way to support your immunity generally, and during pregnancy. Vitamins D, C and the various B vitamins, such as B1, B6 and B12, that support immune function are really important. Including fermented foods in your diet is a great way to get immune-boosting nutrients into your diet. Fermented foods, like kefir, live yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc, are abundant in nutrients and more bioavailable, meaning they are easier for your body to take up and use.
During the fermentation process the food is preserved in a raw-like state, meaning it is more nutrient dense and organic acids are produced that not only gives that amazing and distinctive fermented flavour, but these acids also soften the cellular structures in the food making the nutrients easier to access and the food easier to digest. As well as preserving the existing nutrients, additional nutrients are also produced by the bacteria responsible for the fermentation process. They produce additional amounts of Vitamins A, D, E and K as well as B12. And for those on a vegan diet they are one of the few sources of the all important B12, which is crucial for immunity.
Vitamin K is another important by-product that is beneficial for both mum and baby, as it supports bone development, as well as blood clotting and wound healing. Fermented foods are also great because they support digestion, so women experiencing heartburn, bloating/wind or constipation find that eating fermented foods helps to ease these complaints. Eating food that has been fermented means that the foods are rich in probiotics (healthy bacteria) which also supports the body’s ability to grow and maintain healthy bacteria thought the digestive tract. The bacteria are not only important for mum’s immune system, but also baby’s, as we know that a mother passes on her immunity to her baby until the baby begins to develop their own at around 6 months.
As well as including fermented foods into your diet, it is important to ensure that your diet is rich in fibre, healthy fat, protein and few if any refined or processed foods, including sugar. A diet full of processed food and sugar doesn’t provide the best opportunity for supporting a mum’s and a growing baby’s nutritional needs and can also damage the stomach lining, interrupting the natural digestive process. A supportive diet includes lots of wholegrains, fresh fruit and veg, in fact, even if you eat meat, your plate should be 50% fruit & veg. Veg, whole grains and fermented foods are all great source of fibre, and we all know why fibre is great, and it can become increasingly important for women who find they suffer with constipation in pregnancy, but fibre is also essential for gut health. In fact, fibre is the main food source for your good gut bacteria.
And what about the all important 4th trimester?
Again, a varied, overall balanced diet is important for getting through those early months. You are exhausted and your body often craves sugar and starchy carbs, which provides fleeting energy. So a healthy, balanced diet helps with keeping your energy levels up. Fermented foods are also great for this. Putting food with proper nutrients into your body is so important at a time where you probably are least focused on self-care, but eating well doesn't have to be time consuming. Bypass the biscuit aisle and pick up something more nutrient dense, like nuts or seeds, hummus, fresh fruit & veg. In the cafe opt for peanut butter on toast with fruit instead of a slice of cake. Keep dinners and lunches quick and simple by roasting a big batch of veg at weekend and using that during the week in hearty salads, soups, served with a side of protein or just for picking and dipping. Sometimes though, only a bit of cake will do, and that is absolutely fine. Just ensure that is the exception and not the usual.
During my second postnatal period is when I decided to look more closely at what I was eating and how it made me feel. I gave up some of the cake, bread and sugar, and even coffee at one point, in favour of eating more fresh, simple foods. And despite having 2 children, one of whom was a serious sleep thief, I felt lighter and had more energy than I could ever remember having, even before kids.
Do you have any tips or fail safes for weaning?
Ah, weaning. I both love and loathe it. It is so incredibly exciting introducing food to a baby, but it can be messy and stressful! But mess aside, it is really important how we introduce food to our children as it helps to form their relationship with food. I used baby-led weaning with both of my children and yes, this is much messier, but less stressful than spoon-feeding, as it allows for more independence and control, which I found at 6 months both of my babies were craving. As much as you want a baby/child to eat, if they don’t want to, there is nothing short of force-feeding them that you can do, which doesn't help them to regulate their own appetite nor does it help to develop a healthy association with food and mealtimes. I have been there both personally and professionally, so understand the frustrations, but relaxing and knowing that an otherwise well baby will never intentionally starve himself/herself helps to keep some perspective. Our job as parents or caregivers is to provide hopefully, healthy food that will nourish their little bodies, but they have to decide how much of it they want to eat.
As they get older, it helps to encourage them to try new foods and it also helps if parents/caregivers you are eating the same things, almost as a way to signalling it is ‘safe to eat’. My other bit of advice is to never rule out foods unless there is an allergy or an established intolerance. Things that they ignore or refuse one week, they will gobble up the next. Finally, don’t be afraid to give flavours and spices, where is the rule book that says kids have to eat bland ‘kiddie’ food? Challenge and expand their palates and feed them food that you want to eat.
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