Weight Gain Foods for Kids: Best Options and Tips

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All kids need to gain weight as they grow and mature, but for some kids, gaining the appropriate amount can be a real hurdle. In fact, despite increasing rates of childhood overweight and obesity, plenty of kids need a little help putting on some pounds.

With the right nutritious foods, you can help your child gain weight the healthy way. Here’s a look at the best nutrient- and calorie-dense choices to create meals and snacks for your kiddo that are both nourishing and weight promoting.

When working to budge the needle on the scale, consider all food groups. It’s not just a steady diet of burgers and pizza that will get your kid to gain weight (though that may be their preferred route!). Even some fruits and vegetables have more calories than you might think.

Try any of the foods in these categories:

Protein

  • red meat, including ground beef, steak, and lamb
  • white meat, such as chicken and turkey (especially with skin)
  • pork sausage, pork chops, bacon, ham, and ribs
  • fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, and sardines
  • eggs
  • nut and seed butters, such as cashew butter, almond butter, peanut butter, and sunflower butter
  • nuts and seeds, including pecans, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, and flax seeds
  • soy proteins, such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk

Dairy

  • full fat yogurt
  • full fat cheese
  • whole or 2 percent milk
  • buttermilk
  • half-and-half or cream
  • sour cream
  • cream cheese

Fats and oils

Carbs

Fruits and vegetables

Beverages

  • smoothies with substantive ingredients like full fat yogurt, nut butters, or coconut milk
  • protein shakes boosted with protein powder, avocado, nut butters, or chocolate milk (best if you opt for homemade shakes with all-natural ingredients)
  • hot cocoa with whole milk

There are a variety of causes for underweight in kids, many of which are related to three little words (which can sound kinda scary): failure to thrive.

This medical term isn’t a disease and doesn’t have a single definition, but it usually refers to a child’s slow growth caused by lack of nutrition.

In babies, failure to thrive may occur because of feeding problems, such as:

  • difficulty with latch in breastfeeding
  • an allergy to formula ingredients
  • reflux

These can all lead to a child falling behind in their growth pattern.

Children of any age may experience failure to thrive due to:

  • an undiagnosed food allergy or intolerance
  • illness
  • oral problems
  • gastrointestinal conditions
  • behavioral, developmental, or neurological issues

Certain medications are also notorious for interfering with appetite, causing weight loss or weight plateaus in kids.

Drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children — such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall — are especially known for their side effect of decreased appetite. If you think your child’s medications may be affecting their appetite or weight gain, speak with their pediatrician about your concerns. Don’t stop any medications abruptly.

Sometimes, your kid’s slow weight gain might just be as simple as them not taking in enough calories for their age. Active, growing kids may require more calories than you realize. Preteen boys, for example, often need as many calories as adults.

For the record — and for your own peace of mind — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines “underweight” as falling in the bottom fifth percentile of the growth chart.

No matter the cause for your child’s slow weight gain, the good news is that, as a parent, you have lots of control over one primary healing factor: their diet. A nutritious, high calorie eating pattern is the best place to start.

You can also set a good example by modeling healthy eating behaviors and making nutritional choices.

When a plot point on your child’s growth chart falls below where you expected, it’s only natural to take notice. But some variation in the growth process is normal.

Pediatricians typically look at your child’s weight progress over time, rather than a single low weigh-in at a well-child visit. They can also help focus your efforts at home on helping your child gain weight.

Don’t worry if your child skips a meal here or there or suddenly turns up their nose at certain foods (or, for toddlers — let’s be honest — an entire category of foods).

Kids’ appetites can be fickle. Give your child time and space, knowing that this very well could be a temporary phase. (But do continue to offer a wide variety of foods!)

Using the foods listed above as building blocks, you’ll be well on your way to creating meals and snacks that help your child fill out. To boost their healthy weight gain even further, try these tips.

Don’t let kids fill up on beverages

Hydration is certainly important for kids from infancy to the teenage years. But sometimes too much liquid can compete with food for space in your child’s tummy. To promote appetite, try offering foods before beverages at mealtimes. Also, avoid sugary beverages like sodas and fruit juices.

Allow eating whenever hunger hits

Sure, for most of us, eating shouldn’t be an all-day free-for-all. For kids who struggle to put on weight, however, allowing food at any time of day can be a perfectly acceptable approach.

Consider getting away from the pre-set meal and snack times you think of as “normal” or “right” and simply encourage your child to eat whenever they’re hungry.

Try several small meals per day

Here’s another strategy that goes hand-in-hand with the “eating is always OK” model.

Rather than sticking to a tight schedule of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, feel free to play with the frequency of meals and snacks. Your child may take in more calories by eating six to eight smaller meals per day than by eating three.

Don’t let kids load up on empty calories

Foods like soda, potato chips, and fast food may lead to weight gain, but since these choices are generally low in nutrients, they won’t do your child’s health any favors. Opt for more nourishing, whole foods as often as possible.

Include high calorie add-ons in everyday foods

We’re not too enthusiastic about the practice of hiding healthy foods in “kid-friendly” packages (lookin’ at you, hidden veggie cookies), but incorporating high calorie additions into everyday foods is a different story.

For example, nut butters, avocados, coconut milk, and other calorie-dense ingredients can all easily make their way into smoothies to add bulk.

And when your child needs to gain weight, there’s nothing wrong with using buttermilk in pancakes, sour cream on baked potatoes, or extra cheese in pasta or casseroles.

Don’t limit exercise

Since weight gain is essentially a calories-in versus calories-out equation, it might be tempting to tell a child who is underweight not to get too active. But kids need plenty of daily exercise. Unless advised by your doctor, it’s best not to limit their activity.

Visit a dietitian

Putting together all the pieces to help your child gain weight can be stressful. You don’t necessarily have to go it alone!

Seeking help from a dietitian, especially one who specializes in pediatrics, can make a world of difference. With expert knowledge of childhood nutrition, a pediatric dietitian can guide you toward making the best choices for your child’s diet.

You never have to be embarrassed to ask your pediatrician a question, even if it feels silly. (Seriously, they’ve heard it all.)

If you’re concerned that your child isn’t gaining weight appropriately, or if they seem to have regressed in their progress along the growth chart, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns to your pediatrician.

Additionally, if you feel your child appears “scrawny,” has low energy, or has experienced behavioral changes along with a dip in weight, go ahead and pipe up. These are all valid reasons for further investigation.

Make sure to keep all recommended well-child visits to adequately monitor the progression of your child’s weight.

It’s also definitely worth seeking professional help if your child refuses to eat for a lengthy stretch, such as more than 24 to 48 hours, especially when you can’t discern an underlying reason, like illness.

Since medications can interfere with healthy weight gain, be sure to also discuss the implications of any new medications with your pediatrician.

As much as we in grown-up land may think of weight loss as a good thing, this doesn’t necessarily apply to our children. A significant number of kids actually need help putting on pounds.

Get creative with the foods and suggestions listed above to round out your child’s diet for weight gain the healthy way.

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