Nothing is worse than feeling like you aren’t doing a good job feeding your baby or toddler. And many parents tell me that when their child is underweight, this feeling can be 10x stronger and harder to deal with. You’re always wondering if they’ve gotten enough calories or how to get them to eat. And even worse, maybe your pediatrician has said something about how they are falling off the growth chart or are only in the 5th percentile on the growth chart. Hearing that can make you wonder…”Is my child going to be ok?”. You may also feel like you need your toddler to gain weight no matter what the cost. Perhaps that means letting them eat their dinner in front of the IPad, or eat their favourite food over and over again out of fear that they won’t eat anything else.
Before we dive into strategies to help an underweight baby or toddler, make sure to brush up on what underweight really means, what is normal and what’s not, and what the true definition of “falling off the growth chart or curve” is. Find all this info in my Instagram post all about growth charts!
It’s not just about extra calories
The first thing that comes to mind as a solution for an underweight child is…they need to eat more! And sure – extra calories are definitely a big part of the equation here. Especially with babies, who are growing at rapid fire pace over the first year of life, getting extra calories in their milk and in the foods they eat is absolutely critical to helping them thrive and grow.
With toddlers, they may only gain an average of about 5 lbs. per year (remember this from part 1 of this blog post, so don’t freak out unnecessarily if they’re only gaining this much weight per year!). Even so, as they become busy and distracted and more mobile, paired with appetite swings that become a common occurrence in toddlerhood, it becomes especially important to make sure that every single bite counts with an underweight toddler. Not to mention that on top of all this, they are often very picky with food. I mean…very picky (as you may already know). And though it’s tempting, as graduates of my Feeding Toddlers online course could tell you, micromanaging your child’s meal by asking them to “Have one more bite” or “Finish your dinner so you can have dessert” are methods that actually backfire and can make picky eating even worse. That’s why, in addition to the many many strategies for tackling picky eating long term that I teach in the course, I ask you to take the focus off of trying to control what your child does and instead put all the focus on what control YOU have without exerting any pressure. And that is choose to serve high calorie foods at every opportunity we can.
Now, on top of just providing calories, we also have the very important role of focusing on the right types of calories we’re offering. A diet high in processed food and low in nutrients can result in a lot of calories going in, but can still leave them to be deficient in nutrients that are critical for maximum height growth and healthy weight gain. Nothing irks me more than seeing high calorie foods lists (even from medical organizations) that list out things like fruit juice, waffles and sour cream as their suggestions for bulking up an underweight toddler.
The nutrients MATTER and putting on weight at the expense of other health outcomes is not the answer. Plus, these high calorie foods won’t have the nutrients they need to actually grow to their full potential!
Side note: that’s not to say that sometimes for an extremely picky child, using these palatable (though not-so-nutritious foods) strategically can’t work in our favour. Sometimes, yes, they are needed to get them to eat the other nutrient dense foods that actually will benefit them in growing in height and weight long term. This is a strategy for another day in an other post!
But, overall, the focus is on how you can use every opportunity to serve high calorie, nutrient dense foods to fuel your little one’s growth well.
Nutrients to focus on for an underweight child
So, now that we know that the right type of calories and nutrients are needed to help them reach their growth potential, let’s go through the main nutrients for us parents to focus on (and what foods they’re found in) to help encourage this optimal growth.
Protein in general helps growth hormone levels and may increase height/weight in children who are extremely picky/have stunted growth. Things like red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, soybeans and quinoa are complete protein sources, which means they contain ALL the amino acids (aka building blocks) that support child growth. Keep in mind though, you can still strategically combine other sources of protein together to get the full gamut of amino acids needed over the day.
Examples of high calorie protein sources include:
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Beans and other legumes
- Hemp seeds
- Nutritional yeast
- Protein powders (may be helpful in some cases, see here for my complete recommendations and get my favourite brand guide)
Healthy fats are known to provide the biggest “bang-for-your-buck” calorie wise, while providing brain fuel, support the hormonal system, PLUS – fat is required to actually absorb fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A, D, E and K! So ideally we want to include a really good source of healthy fat at each and every meal!
Here we are with a quick list of some healthy fats (and as mentioned, all fat is high in calories):
- Coconut/Coconut Oil/Coconut Milk
- Olive/Olive Oil
- Full fat dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, kefir)
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel)
- Nut and seed butters (top tip: these are great added into smoothies too!)
- Chia and Flax seeds
- Tahini and sesame seeds
- Grass fed butter/ghee
- Good quality mayonnaise
Zinc’s been shown to have significant effects on both height & weight in kids, especially those with stunted growth/underweight. It’s found in foods like red meat, whole-grains, dried beans, and seafood – again, picky eaters may not be eating enough of these!
Example of high calorie zinc sources include:
- Wheat germ
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Cashew/Nut Butters
It’s well known that iron deficiency leads to a failure to grow at normal rates, and with the high rates of iron deficiency even in North America (both from lack of high iron foods and too much dairy in the diet), focusing on iron (and vitamin C for absorption) is critical for underweight/short stature kids.
Examples of high calorie iron rich foods include:
- Fortified Oats
- Dried apricots
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium (and Vitamin D) play critical roles in bone growth and for growing children (especially vegan children), getting enough calcium is crucial to optimal health and growth.
Examples of high calorie calcium and Vitamin D sources include:
- Full fat yogurt
- Full fat cheese
- Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Sardines
- White beans
- Soybeans (Edamame)
- Egg yolks
And finally, quick forms of calories from starchy fruit and vegetables is so important as palatable ways to get energy from unprocessed food into your child’s diet. Things like:
- Sweet potato
- Winter Squash
- Goji Berries
So that’s a nice quick overview.
Now, let’s put this into easy action for you so you walk away from this blog post feeling like you still don’t know how to make all those foods into nourishing, high calorie toddler friendly meals.
I’ve got a FREE 3 day high calorie meal plan you can use for your toddler to get you started with tons of nutritious, calorie AND nutrient dense recipes so you can start feeling better about every bite your toddler takes.
*Please note, this is not medical advice nor a prescriptive meal plan.