Want to Lose Weight? Get a Toddler

“My formerly sedentary lifestyle was stolen away by an adorable maniac who’s constantly trying to open the oven or grab the dog’s tail or eat mascara.”
profile picture of Marygrace Taylor
ByMarygrace Taylor
May 2020
mom embracing her toddler on the couch
Photo: Marygrace Taylor

I’ve never been the kind of person who struggled to keep weight on, not even close. Enjoying sugar in moderation has never really been my thing, and never once in my life did I forget or not have time to eat a meal. Then I had a baby—and everything changed.

During my pregnancy I gained around 45 pounds. But within a few months of my son Eli being born, I found myself 10 pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight without making any devoted effort to get there. I was burning extra calories from breastfeeding, and crazy postpartum anxiety pretty much killed my appetite. Having a newborn also didn’t leave much time for baking, one of my favorite pre-baby hobbies.

Fast forward a ways, and I have a crazy/awesome 21-month-old. I stopped breastfeeding a few months ago, the anxiety is (thankfully) long gone, and I even manage to find time to bake a few times a month. I gained a few pounds back after stopping nursing, but even so, I’m still a size smaller than I was before becoming pregnant, despite having way less time for formal exercise and picking up not-so-great mommy moves like nibbling on the bits Eli leaves on his plate.

I fully attribute the change to daily life with a toddler. Before you have a kid, it’s easy to roll your eyes at those articles where movie stars claim to stay a size 0 from running after their 2-year-old. I still think it’s a big exaggeration (and I’m not a size 0), but there’s definitely something to it. Once your kid becomes mobile, you’re never sitting down for more than a few minutes. If you’re not playing with them, you’re trying to keep them from destroying the house or straight up hurting themselves.

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The whole not-sitting thing has only become more true since we’ve been staying home to fight the spread of COVID-19. Without much to do outside of the house except take walks or visit the occasional park, Eli has more energy than ever to burn inside. I spend a good portion of each day playing games that involve chasing him around the house. When I need a break, he usually takes to climbing on the couch or terrorizing the dog, so it’s only a matter of minutes before I’m back on my feet to play safety cop. Even when he’s napping or asleep for the night, I still often find myself running around, trying to get all the stuff done that you couldn’t do when he was awake. (Like fold laundry just once, without it getting unfolded and tossed back into the hamper.) Which is a far, far cry from before he was born, when I’d spend hours after work reading on the couch or watching Netflix.

It’s not just the fact that my formerly sedentary lifestyle was stolen away by an adorable maniac who’s constantly trying to open the oven or grab the dog’s tail or eat mascara. (All true.) Having a toddler forced my relationship with food to change pretty dramatically. If I still had the time to cook elaborate, mouthwatering meals every night and enjoy them slowly with a glass of wine (vintage jazz playing softly in the background, natch), I totally would! And pre-quarantine, if my husband and I could have still gone out for cocktails and brunches and fancy dinners multiple times a week, you bet we’d do it.

But that’s not our life right now. Cooking simple meals that Eli will eat means I’m not always interested in grabbing a second helping. (Really, one can only eat so much baked sweet potato.) And honestly, I rarely have time to have seconds or even finish my firsts, since he wants to get up from the table after 10 minutes.

As for dining out? Before stay-at-home orders went into place, my husband and I ate at restaurants once a week at most, when my mom would babysit. And since I knew I’d have to be up by 7 a.m. the next morning, I’d never have more than one drink. Even now during quarantine, we only get takeout for dinner once a week or so. While I’d love to have pizza or Thai every night, it’s not the kind of thing I want for Eli, so most of our meals are of the home-cooked variety. Apparently that all this adds up to a lot of calories saved.

I know these happy-accident changes don’t happen for everyone after becoming a parent. Some moms find it difficult to lose weight after having a baby no matter how hard they try. Pregnancy can do weird, sometimes irreversible things to the human body. Finding the time and energy to cook healthy meals and exercise when you have a small child is no joke. And I’ve definitely stress-eaten my share of takeout or chocolate on hard days after getting Eli into bed.

Having said all that, I’ll also say this: Taking steps to grow a healthy eater has motivated me to eat healthier myself. And that’s a change that any parent who’s looking to get into better shape can make. I’m not just talking about making sure there’s always a fruit or vegetable on our plates. (There is. But he definitely doesn’t always eat it.) Pre-mom me would think nothing of snacking on crackers and cheese while I made dinner. Or having a bowl of ice cream every night while I watch TV. Or grabbing a handful of cereal when I walked in the kitchen just because. But now I don’t do those things because Eli is watching me. I don’t want him to snack mindlessly whenever or ruin his appetite for a real meal or think that dessert comes after every single meal. I want him to learn that eating happens mindfully, sitting at the table, at meal or snack time. And that sugar is a fun “sometimes” food—not one meant for every day.

If you told me years ago that I’d be making these kinds of changes, it would’ve sounded pretty terrible. How could I let a toddler dictate the way I eat? But the fact is, I’ve chosen to make these changes because I want Eli to have a healthy role model, not because I’m worried he’ll freak out if he can’t have cookies before dinner even though he sees me eating them. (Okay, he would totally freak out, and yes, I’d rather avoid that. But I swear it’s not my main motivator.)

And as luck would have it, these changes have done more for my body—and probably my health—than any healthy habits I’d try and quickly abandon before becoming a mom. I’m sure things will evolve as Eli gets older. In a few years I won’t spend my days chasing after him, and eventually our dinners might get leisurely enough where I can enjoy that glass of wine if I feel like it. But I’ll still keep modeling healthy eating habits as much as I can. By the time he’s older and not watching me 24/7, maybe they’ll truly have become my habits.

Marygrace Taylor is a health and parenting writer, former KIWI magazine editor and mom to Eli. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.

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