Remember when the swell of your pregnant belly thrilled you? Now that your little one is on the scene, chances are you're not quite as enthralled with your tummy pooch. But what mom has the time and energy to follow a super-strict weight-loss plan? The good news is you don't have to: Making the following nearly effortless tweaks to your routine can help you cut calories, eat healthier, and get your pre-baby body back once and for all.
We know that getting more zzz's is about as easy as persuading your child to try a new veggie. But if you can manage to nab just 30 additional minutes of shut-eye a day, it may help you ward off extra pounds. That's because sleep deprivation can masquerade as hunger. "We often think daytime fatigue is a sign that we need to eat something to boost our energy, when, in fact, we're just tired," says Lisa Sasson, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. What's more, studies show that lack of sleep may disrupt the hormones that regulate your appetite, so you'll end up eating more during the day. You may feel guilty putting off the chores you normally tackle while your kid naps, but you'll look and feel a lot better if you rest instead.
No, we don't mean picking at leftover chicken strips -- we're talking about using a kid-size dish to help cut calories. You'll feel satisfied because your eye thinks you're still getting a heaping portion of food. Don't want to dine off of a plastic Dora the Explorer plate? Use salad or appetizer dishes instead. And while we're on the subject of plates...
You don't hand your child the entire box of Cheerios at snacktime, do you? No, you pour a sane amount into a bowl and ask her to sit down while she munches. You should do the same to prevent mindless eating. What's more, if you graze all day while you're on the go, you may not even notice that you've eaten, and you'll feel less satisfied than if you'd paused to sit and savor meals and snacks.
The only things that should be on your table at mealtime are the place settings. Leave the serving platters in the kitchen -- if you stare at them while you eat, you're more likely to want extra helpings. The exception to the rule? Be sure to keep the salad bowl within easy reach. Loading up on filling veggies is always a winning weight-loss move (as long as you don't overdo the dressing).
It's the focal point of most homes, but if you spend all your time in a room full of food, you'll naturally want to eat. If everyone tends to gravitate there, remove any junk food from the counter and stash it in the back of a cabinet to avoid temptation.
Children are perfectly tuned in to their hunger cues—they know when they need to eat and they stop when they're full. For an effective weight loss trick, take a page from their playbook and get reacquainted with your body's signals. "A lot of moms get so busy juggling their responsibilities that they don't notice how hungry they are and may not eat anything for seven or eight hours," says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women. This sets you up for fridge raids later in the day: Research shows that people end up eating double and even triple the amount they usually do when they go that long without a meal. Prevent these binges by eating every three to four hours, says Dr. Peeke. Join your child at snacktime and stop noshing just before you're full.
This weight-loss weapon helps you ditch pounds—and hunger pangs—because it fills you up for fewer calories, says Melinda Johnson, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. A study in Nutrition Journal revealed that women who swapped white bread for high-fiber varieties were more likely to hit their pre-pregnancy weight 10 months after giving birth than moms who stuck to the white stuff. Other great sources of fiber: fruits, veggies, small portions of nuts, and whole-grain cereals. Just don't be tricked by a "made with whole grains" label -- it doesn't necessarily mean a food is fiber-rich. Instead, look for products that contain at least three grams of fiber per serving and list the word "whole" as the first ingredient on the nutrition label.
Ever since you heard that it's the worst type of fat for the heart, you've probably avoided giving your child foods containing partially hydrogenated oil (another term for trans fat). But if you're trying to slim down, you shouldn't let the stuff pass your lips either. A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggested that eating a diet high in trans fat is one of the common reasons why women struggle to lose postpartum pounds. Researchers don't know why trans fat in particular derails weight loss, but avoiding foods that typically contain it (such as cake made from boxed mixes, doughnuts, and fried food) is still a smart health move, since these items are often packed with calories and other types of waistline-wrecking fats.
If tea or coffee is your go-to drink when you're exhausted and need a pick-me-up, make sure you know how many calories are lurking in your cup. Add-ins such as whole milk, sugar, and flavored syrup can pack on pounds—yet many people forget that liquid fat and calories count, says Sasson. (One possible explanation: Because beverages don't fill you up the way food does, they don't seem like diet saboteurs.) Sidestep weight gain by using sugar substitutes or sugar-free syrup and reaching for skim or low-fat milk—only kids under age 2 need to chug whole milk. If you're a juice lover, you can easily slash the sugar and calorie content by diluting it with water or seltzer.
Good news for moms pressed for time: When it comes to blasting calories, doing several short bursts of exercise is just as effective as sweating through one long workout. But don't assume that taking a few leisurely strolls will dramatically change your body, warns Dr. Peeke. Ramp up the intensity—and your metabolism—by doing intervals, such as jogging for five minutes followed by five minutes of strength moves and another five of crunches. Lifting weights is especially helpful for moms looking to shed pounds fast, since muscle burns calories more efficiently than fat does.
If you never met a bag of chips or cookies you couldn't polish off in one sitting, try noshing on foods that come in child-size portions to avoid going overboard. Most likely you've got plenty of them in your house right now, such as variety packs of cereal and mini bags of animal crackers. Try stashing a few in your purse or desk drawer. How convenient is that? These healthy, portable picks will keep you satisfied (and away from the drive-thru) on overscheduled days.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.