Despite an obesity epidemic in this country, many toddlers and children are underweight. Parents repeatedly ask me how to help a child gain weight in a healthful way. This is an important question because the age-old advice of milkshakes and ice cream (or in my opinion even the sugar-laden Pediasure) just doesn't cut it, and can spark a cycle of insulin resistance that can lead an underweight child down a path toward obesity and diabetes.
Parents might want to focus less on the scale and instead direct their energy toward providing their children with enough macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Empty calories, like those in ice cream, might add a few pounds here and there, but they will not provide the nutrients a child needs to build a healthy brain, resilient organs and strong bones. So if you have an underweight child, begin by ensuring all calories ingested are nutrient-rich.
The following foods can help a child healthfully gain weight and thrive:
- Beneficial fats, especially plant-based fats. Each gram of fat has about nine calories while each gram of protein or carbohydrate provides about four calories, so a meal made with fats can contribute to wanted weight gain. Here are some recommended sources of healthful fat:
- Flaxseed oil. Add to it everything! Flaxseed oil has a mild flavor, so it will go unnoticed if mixed into a smoothie, drizzled onto popcorn or tossed with vegetables.
- Coconut oil. Coconut oil adds sweetness and beneficial calories, so add a tablespoon into a smoothie or to vegetables when roasting.
- Nuts and seeds. Pistachios, walnuts and almonds are great choices for kids.
- Avocados. Make guacamole with fresh avocados, onions and tomatoes, or mix avocado into a fruit smoothie.
- Olives are about 80-85 percent healthful fat, and because of their high amounts of antioxidants and phytonutrients (a beneficial plant compound), they have been shown to help prevent disease.
- Full-fat dairy has more calories and fat than the reduced-fat varieties, yet a comparable amount of nutrients. We buy only full-fat dairy at our house, because everyone needs beneficial fats.
- Smoothies. Smoothies are an easy way to ingest needed nutrients and calories, especially if you add coconut oil, coconut milk or almond butter. Get creative with your favorite fruit, full-fat yogurt, nut butters and seeds.
- Grate cooked eggs into salads, sauces and soups.
- Cook pasta, rice and whole grains in chicken broth, adding extra nutrition and a few extra calories.
- Dried fruit lacks water, making it easier to eat more sizable quantities. This means a greater calorie intake.
- Make granola with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and coconut oil, then mix with full-fat Greek yogurt.
- Make trail mix with your choice of nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
- Hummus and bean dips make good snacks.
- Grated, frozen chicken liver provides children with essential nutrients such as protein, Vitamin A, all the B vitamins and iron. It doesn't greatly affect flavor when frozen and grated into food. My kids have never even noticed!