Okay… so it may seem obvious how to get your child to gain weight (cookies, cake, etc.), but what about in a healthy way? Lately, this has been the issue I face with my twins. Having been instructed that they need to put on more weight, I have been left slightly perplexed because, well, they won’t eat! Breezy Mama turned to Melissa Halas-Liang, MA RD CDE spokesperson for the California’s Dietetic Association, for tricks to get your child to eat, how to help your kid or baby gain weight in a healthy manner and more.
What foods are the healthiest ways to help a child gain weight?
For children who would benefit from additional calories in their diet:
- Consider adding healthy oils and spreads to their toast or veggies.
- Always choose whole fat dairy products when the child is less than 2 years old. Full fat dairy has the essential nutrients the child needs while his brain and body are still rapidly developing.
- Let your child create his or her own unique trial mix using a combination of nutrient dense nuts, seeds, dried fruits and dark chocolate chips that he or she enjoys.
- Also, see more ideas listed below.
For babies, what is the healthiest way to help with weight gain?
Growth rate varies for all babies and a parent should not be overly troubled about a slow rate of growth unless the pediatrician expresses concern. But do ask questions and don’t ignore your instincts. Go over the growth chart with your baby’s pediatrician: a misplaced plot on the growth chart can make a big difference when in the accuracy of your child’s height and weight in terms of normal growth progression.
What is important to ask is why your baby may not be gaining weight, as he should. An area of concern is inadequate nutrient intake. This could be because of poor breastfeeding technique or difficulty latching, infrequent feeding, or an incorrect formula for your baby. It is also possible that the baby has an intolerance or alteration in the intestinal absorption of nutrients. These are all concerns that parents should address with their doctor, the baby’s pediatrician, lactation consultant or registered dietitian.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies are breast fed up until at least 1 year of age, and exclusively fed breast milk through the first 6 months, at which time solid foods are introduced. After reaching age 1 children can begin drinking whole fat cow or goat milk. I utilized organic whole milk kefir milk staring at one year of age. As mentioned before, adequate amounts of fat in children’s diet is critical for brain development and growth up to age 2.
If a child still refuses to eat, how can a parent get them to fatten up?
After the first birthday, growth slows down significantly and appetite declines so keep food portions small!
Allowing the child to have some say in their choices helps grow independence and autonomy while still giving some boundaries. If you present two options and allow the child to choose, you are not simply forcing, and the child may be more inclined to eat what she or he has chosen. But do offer a variety of color, for example black or mahogany rice instead of brown rice and different color veggies, fruits and whole grains. Each color provides a different nutrient, which is important for creating a healthy child.
You can also increase the child’s daily activity to help stimulate their appetite. Be sure to carefully evaluate this, too much exercise with out increase calorie intake could backfire. Track and trend and re-evaluate.
Continue to encourage whole nutritious choices that will meet your child’s energy needs. Listed below are a few strategies that work when faced with the challenge of raising a picky eater:
- It may help to let go of the struggle and accept that some children are just challenging eaters! We know that threats or rewards are not beneficial in the long run and likely would not work with challenging eater to begin with.
- Remember encourage in a neutral tone, but don’t force him to try new foods.
- Never insist that he empty her plate.
- Offer food when your child is hungry, not as a pacifier, reward or punishment.
- Try healthy home made shakes and smoothies with ideas from question #2.
- Don’t classify foods as good or naughty. All foods, even sweets and treats are fine when eaten in moderation.
- Have conversation be the focus at mealtime. Don’t overemphasize all the foods he is or isn’t eating.
- Set a good example. If you don’t eat vegetables, why do you expect your child to eat them? Children learn by example. Be a good one.
- Many children are scared of trying new things. This can limit the foods they will eat. Have fun with food art and get kids involved in food shopping, prep work and gardening. They are more likely to eat it if they’re involved.
- As your preschooler gets older, new things will captivate their interest. All experiences, including food choices, will expand. The more your child is exposed to a food, even if he doesn’t eat it, the more likely he will be to eventually try it!
- Let your child be a kitchen or garden helper. Even young toddlers love to be part of meal preparation. Children are more likely to eat food they help prepare.
- Try the one bite rule –everyone tries one bite!
- Offer new foods along with old favorites.
- Mini-kid size sandwiches can help introduce new foods, like crunchy cucumber. Try cutting them in fun shapes with cookie cutters and remember a half sandwich is a preschool serving size.
- Don’t ask your child to try a new food after a bad day at school or when he is tired or not feeling well.
- Don’t be limited by your own taste preferences; you may not like olives but your child could love them. My daughter loves sushi and I won’t touch it.
- Preschoolers grow more slowly and are very busy little people. Don’t worry about how much your child eats as long as growth is within normal limits. Sometimes we misjudge what a child-sized portion should be.
I have always been told to trust a child to know when they have had enough to eat, so what happens to this theory when a pediatrician would like to see better weight gain after weighing a baby or toddler or even an elementary school student?
It is important as a parent, not to force your child to eat when they are not hungry, just because you believe they need to gain weight. Try paying more attention to their hunger cues and offer nutritious meals or snacks at that time. As long as you are providing wholesome options and setting good examples by eating with your child, the chances are your child will gain weight appropriately, if there are not other underlying metabolic or behavioral issues.
More important than focusing on your child gaining weight is focusing on providing healthy, nutrient dense choices and servings that are appropriate for his or her age. Keep in mind that all children grow at slightly different rates, and it is important to be patient as your child grows and develops at his or her own pace. Ask you parents about your own growth spurts as a child-sometimes they actually do remember!
Here are some tips you can use to be sure the choices you provide are wholesome and adequate for your child’s needs:
Choose Nutrient Dense Foods:
- Nuts, avocados, seeds –like sunflower seeds, cheese, dried fruit, veggies with hummus, salsa or bean dip, fresh fruit, yogurt or kefir milk
- Potato chips and highly processed snack foods are not nutrient dense. They are “empty calories” loaded and contain little nutritional value. They are okay once in a while- for a birthday party or sleepover for instance, but should not be your everyday choice.
Desserts Can Be Healthy and Fun:
- Try smoothies –if weight gain is needed, add peanut butter with frozen bananas (if child is over 2 with no history of nut allergy). ‘
- Avocados make a great addition to fruit and yogurt smoothies.
- Many granola cereals or granola bars are high in calories, but can also be healthy.
Having four daughters, I’m also sensitive to issues that could lead to eating disorders down the line and have read that if a parent is too controlling with food (forces a child to eat every bite), a child might develop an eating disorder as a teen to establish their own control. Again, how does a mom get around this when told their child must gain weight?
The best way to create a healthy attitude towards food with children is to provide a good example. Children learn best when parents eat how they want their children to eat. This creates a healthy food environment and sends a positive message to children about the importance of balanced and nutritious meals. Make your child be the focus of the meal instead of every bite they are or are not eating. Encourage them to talk about their school day, homework assignments, play dates, or upcoming events. Creating a positive food environment early in life, help a child to build a healthy relationship with food. This will be important in the tween and teen years when body image comes more in to play.
Apply these tips when considering modifying your child’s food habits:
- Be a positive role model for your child. Show them you can fit physical activity into your busy life. Be active together as a family! Encourage movement, like parking further away, taking the stairs instead of the escalator and getting outside to take the dog for a walk.
- Don’t discuss dieting in front of your kids; focus more on healthy choices and fitness.
- Set reasonable goals and limits for your child -this makes success realistic and obtainable. Remember that limits or rules need to be appropriate for your child’s age and understanding of food. Don’t expect a two or three year old to sit through a 30-minute meal and not get up from the table.
- Don’t reward good behavior with unhealthy foods.
- Your job is to provide healthy foods in the right serving size. The child’s job is to eat it according to their hunger. Offer often and encourage the one bite rule, but don’t force or bribe.
- Having a variety of foods available, including dessert, teaches the child portion control. If you offer cake for dessert, let the child know that one piece is enough if they ask for seconds. Save the rest for tomorrow.
- Don’t completely ban junk food, especially for school age children. Children may resent you for it –but it can also make the “forbidden” food more desirable.
- Set limits but don’t be too restrictive.
Any other advice you’d like to share?
Make food fun –not a chore. Start by making some food art together. They may be more likely to try a sunflower seed if it’s the teeth of Mr. Chompy Apple!
Remember to visit www.superkidsnutrition.com for healthy meal ideas, snacking tips, and other parenting resources. Raising a good eater can be a challenge at times, but with love and support you can establish good habits that promote healthy growth.
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About Melissa Halas-Liang, MA RD CDE, founder of SuperKidsNutrition.com
Melissa Halas-Liang is a nationally recognized nutrition educator and wellness expert. Recently awarded California’s Dietetic Association’s (CDA) Excellence in Community Dietetics award, Melissa has over 15 years of diverse experience in nutrition education/curriculum, clinical/critical care, nutrition management, counseling, media, and writing.
Melissa holds a BS in Clinical Dietetics, a MA degree in Nutrition Education, is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator and past Certified Nutrition Support Dietitian for 10 years. She has the Certificate of training for Childhood, Adolescent Weight Management, is a certified Wellness Coach and currently serves as the spokesperson for CDA.
In August 2006, she founded SuperKids Nutrition Inc (www.superkidsnutrition.com) to save the world one healthy food at a timeTM. Through SuperKids Nutrition she provides nutrition articles, resources, learning activities and newsletters to thousands of schools in over 35 states and motivates parents, teachers and kids to create a healthy life. Melissa is creator of the Super Crew characters, a cast of superhero kids who get special powers from eating healthy, colorful foods utilized in engaging curriculum. Through SuperKids Nutrition’s website, blog, facebook page and twitter she offers fun tips and tools for eating healthfully.
A RD with a diverse skill set, Melissa provides nutrition counseling in Los Angeles with a holistic approach through LA Nutrition Coach and teaches nutrition to the public through dozens of universities on-line at www.nutritioned.net.