The first forty days can make or break your postpartum healing
I had four things I wanted to check off my list before I could go into labor: I needed to finalize and hand off my project for work (I don't recommend anyone work right up to their due date btw), finish the peel-and-stick vinyl tiles in our 1960s rental kitchen, complete the 6000+ piece Harry Potter Hogwarts castle my husband got me for Christmas in an unsuccessful effort to distract me from prolific nesting, and to meal prep for the first 40 days after my homebirth.
I think I accidentally hacked postpartum meal prep, and let me tell you, it's a GAME CHANGER.
"The first 40 days" refers to the laying-in period in Eastern traditions for a new mother. In the US, this practice (albeit for a much shorter period of time) is sometimes known as the 5-5-5 rule. The recommendation is that new mothers spend as much time as possible in bed with their baby, followed by light physical movement around the home and on short walks before easing back into day-to-day responsibilities. Giving birth is not a singular moment in time, it redefines our lives and resets our bodies. The time and care we devote to healing and nourishing ourselves determine our physical recovery and mental health, not just for the few weeks after the baby arrives but in subsequent pregnancies and far into the future. While today we have become far removed from the needs of women's bodies, almost every cultural tradition honors the mother after birth and nourishes her in nearly the same way.
There are a lot of resources out there for what to eat when you're pregnant (all hail Lilly Nichols Real Food for Pregnancy), and somewhere in the birth courses, you'll hear about hiring a postpartum doula to help cook or have friends organize a meal train, but until recently, not a lot of accessible and science-backed information existed in the mainstream about postpartum nutrition, caloric needs, gut microbiome, and remineralization. I'm not going to dive too deep into these topics here, but the Freely Rooted podcast and the books linked throughout this post are a good place to start.
Nutrition, not just food, is critical for healing.
Across the board, the principles of postpartum nutrition are the same.
eat soft, warming foods like congee, soup, stew, and curry
prioritize food high in collagen and healthy fats like bone broth and offcuts of meat
consume foods high in minerals like bone broth, grass-fed liver, oysters, seaweed, bee pollen, adrenal cocktails, whole food vitamin C (acerola), egg yolks, and raw milk to replenish the significant stores transferred to your baby during pregnancy
include live fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, yogurt, and kombucha to shore up the gut microbiome
soak, sprout, or ferment hard-to-digest foods like grains, nuts, seeds, or beans (PUFAs) when possible
nourish yourself with enough calories (more than you would think) and eat frequently - especially while nursing
My prenatal health journey had brought me deep into ancestral or pro-metabolic eating by the time my acupuncturist recommended The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou. I fell in love with not only the beauty of the tradition of caring for and nourishing new mothers but the familiarity, warmth, and intuitiveness of the recipes. Some ingredients or preparations were new to me. Congee with black sesame paste is up there on my favorite comfort foods list now. Other ingredients like organ meats and gelatinous bones were familiar due to my Ukrainian-Jewish upbringing but were brought to life by warming spices and new preparations. I go back to the recipes from the book time and time again and have adapted and made many of them my own at this point. Regardless if you follow these recipes or prepare your own, my method of postpartum meal prep has saved my family time and reduced decision fatigue while allowing flexibility and creativity in our routine. We aren't forced to eat the same thing all week long, but our staples are always ready to prepare, so there are no hangry freak-outs or heat-of-the-moment arguments about what to cook.
Postpartum meal prep is not about hoarding casseroles, or ready-to-bake lasagna. This is my guide to making ready-to-cook, large quantities of nutrient-dense, ancestral, and healing foods that you'll crave for the first 40 days and beyond.
Invest in more food storage.
You can be thrifty, but make the space to store your food. It'll pay off quickly. I promise. We rent a duplex with more storage space than every Brooklyn apartment I've lived in combined, but to make our space useable, we invested in an Ikea storage combo for the dining room for dry goods and a chest freezer in the basement for meat, bone broth, and soup packs. I also got a box of quart and half-quart mason jars for dry and freezer storage, and we bought a vacuum sealer for fresher meat and bone broth packs. The combination of vacuum-sealed bags and mason jars works better for me than zip locks or Tupperware, but use what you have. Most of the time, investing in nice-to-have tools isn't worth it until you've made a habit stick in the first place.
Stock up on the staples.
I loaded up on rice, nuts, seeds, and teas for all my recipes, along with potatoes, squash, onions, etc. Nuts.com had almost all the less common ingredients I needed from the First 40 Days cookbook, and we grabbed coconut water, rice, beans, etc. at Costco and on Thrive Market. For grains and flour, having a large supply pays off so fast you'd be amazed. We haven't bitten the bullet quite yet on ordering a quarter or half cow from our local farm, but we did place some bulk orders from Fed from the Farm and ordered fish backs and a few treats from the Fulton Street Fish Market since quality fish and seafood around us is pretty limited. If you enjoy them - or can learn to - canned smoked oysters, sardines, and even tuna or salmon on sourdough toast or rice is a quick and mineral-rich snack, so stock up! Crown Prince brand smoked oysters have been my go-to, but I've been seeing ads for sustainably farmed North American oysters and clams popping up, so going to give those a try.
I got a little magnetic dry-erase board at Target and stuck it onto the chest fridge in the basement. I took inventory of the bones, meats, fish, ready-to-cook soup packs, fruits, and veggies we had so that we didn't need to dig around to find anything. I recommend a simple written list on the fridge regardless of what's there. You can minimize food waste by just knowing what you have. Since we do laundry downstairs, we placed the freezer nearby with a little shopping basket so that grabbing meat or soup packs, even with a baby or basket full of laundry, could be an easy addition to our regular routine.
Pre-portion your dry sides.
I was eating congee twice a day, at least for the first 3 or 4 weeks postpartum, Congee with sesame, congee with butter-stewed apples and bacon, and congee with stew. It really didn't matter what I put on top, but it helped bring up my milk supply, soothe my digestion, and quell the bottomless pit of hunger. We pre-portioned the basmati and sushi rice so that all we needed to do was rinse or soak the rice and pop it in the instant pot. No hauling out the big bags and pulling up the ratios to measure. You can take this approach with any dry bean or grain or make oatmeal packs with chia, nuts, and whatever else you want to add to soak overnight or boil quickly. Basically, remove as many barriers to cooking and eating as you can for the first while.
Process your veggies.
Pre-processing veggies removes so many excuses for not cooking. I peeled and shredded or sliced potatoes to pop in the freezer in portions ready to go in the pan or air fryer. I chopped apples to throw in oatmeal or congee and shredded carrots to keep in the fridge for raw carrot salads. Lately, I've been shredding or slicing extra zucchini or winter squash every time I prepare it for dinner, so I have a portion or two of those less common sides ready at a moment's notice.
Make soup or broth packs.
There are no original ideas, but I will go ahead and take credit for this one! Make bone broth packs! Pre-roast your bones on large cookie sheets, peel carrots, chop celery, onions, scallions, ginger, and whatever else you typically make broth with, and add your peppercorns, bay leaf, and even your ACV into the pack. Seal it up and write cooking instructions on the bag. We tossed a bone broth pack into the instant pot every few days and had broth available 24-7. I took the same approach for soups and stews of all kinds, prepare everything you'd put into the pot, including any pre-roasted meat, and write the instructions on the bag. If ingredients go in at different times, you can put a smaller bag of secondary ingredients in the larger freezer bag. This is significantly less cumbersome than trying to cook and freeze large batches of liquids, and honestly, frozen and reheated soup doesn't taste as good to me.
Make a hydration station.
Hydration is queen for milk supply. I pre-mixed a canister of my Mama Tea Blend and placed the tea infuser and honey beside it on the counter. For adrenal cocktails, I kept orange juice and coconut water in the fridge but kept my minerals all together for easy access. Write out proportions in dry-erase marker on the canisters or make a recipe notecard so your partner/ friend/ family member can bring you a nourishing drink whenever your hands are busy. Having a drink and a snack every time you're nursing will make that special time much easier!
Take care of your body and it will take care of you.
In the first two blissful weeks postpartum, my husband fed and cared for us around the clock, all while working from home full time. There was always something nourishing ready to heat up and throw in the instant pot or on the stove, if he was in a crunch, and other times he was able to prepare more creative meals with our pre-prepped ingredients like broth and chopped veggies. When I was alone for over a week with our two-week-old newborn and two dogs to walk in the most horrendous series of winter storms I'd seen in my life, I had what I needed to power my body through the witching hours, the sleepless nights, and the inevitable physical and mental growing pains of matrescence. I hope that this post helps expecting mamas, especially, prepare for and prioritize their own nourishment after the baby arrives, and I hope that by prioritizing our own recovery, we can shift the bounce-back culture to a culture of community and care.
The links above are meant to be informative, and while there are some affiliate links included, I will never link anything that I didn't use myself or don't stand behind fully.