Learn 5 ways to safely increase weight gain for kids. A must read for parents of picky eaters or babies and toddlers that are refusing food. Get weight gain recipes and high calorie ingredients too! Affiliate links used below.
When your child doesn’t eat well because they are a picky eater or have some sort of feeding difficulty, there’s often a concern about their weight and height. Basically, are they growing the way they should?
Sometimes we look at our kids and feel they’re so tiny or skinny and we’d feel better with a little more weight on their bones.
Other times, you may have hard numbers after the doctor tells you that your child isn’t growing as they would like. No parent wants to hear this, but if your child is super picky, you’re likely to panic because your kid only has a few foods they’re willing to eat.
Even with the pickiest of eaters though, it’s possible to help them safely gain weight. In this post, I’ll teach you 5 of my most helpful feeding therapist weight gain tips for kids!
* If you’re here because of a baby or toddler that is low weight and they haven’t learned to eat table or finger foods, then check out Table Food School, we just kicked off our annual site wide sale with special bonuses. Learn more here.*
When to Focus on Weight Gain
If your child is on the shorter side or skinny for their age, it’s common to worry about their weight. It’s okay that it catches your attention, but make sure you discuss it with your child’s doctor.
However, the doctor may surprise you with their answer by saying, “They’re growing just fine.”
It’s normal for some kids to only be in the 5th percentile. It’s especially normal if the biological parents aren’t tall or are very thin. One of the biggest factors doctors look at is if a child is steadily and consistently growing. They plot this out on a graph called their growth chart at every doctor’s visit. As they plot out their weight and height over time, a line appears on the graph when the dots are connected.
Ideally, that line should show an upward curve, their growth curve.
If the curve is an erratic line, has plateaued, or turned downward, your doctor will be concerned and likely begin speaking to you about weight gain supplements. If a child refuses to eat or drink supplements like Pediasure, then they may begin to consider a feeding tube, although it does happen, it’s rarely the case.
Be Careful About Worrying Too Much About Weight Gain
The tips you’ll learn below are an excellent support to any supplements your child has and can ultimately help them wean from those supplements, too.
If your doctor said your child is growing fine, but you’d feel better if they had some weight on them, then these tips can give you some piece of mind that you’re taking steps to support your child’s growth in the best way possible.
BUT – it’s important to avoid putting a lot of pressure on yourself or your child to gain weight, if your doctor is not concerned.
Kid’s sense this pressure and it often makes them less likely to eat more food (learn more about why here). The focus on weight gain can also distract you from seeing progress because it’s often slow. Weight gain takes time, and it’s not safe for a child to put on 5 pounds in 2 weeks anyways.
5 Ways to Increase Weight Gain for Kids
How can you safely increase your child’s weight, without pressuring them or stressing either of you out? You can start by using any or all of the 5 tips below to make a difference in their appetite and maximize what they’re eating:
#1: Schedule Meals
One of the most common mistakes I see parents make when their child is low weight is to let them eat whenever they want.
On the surface, it’s harmless, and you hope it helps them get in a few extra calories. But, in reality, it takes the edge off their appetite and in turn, causes them not to eat as much food as the next meal, which may include higher calorie foods.
Toddlers may want a handful of puffs, but they have almost no calories. Yet, by eating a few, they’ve taken the edge off their appetite and would rather play than eat their next meal you prepared that could actually help them put weight on.
Older kids may want a food that’s a little higher calorie like chips or crackers, but again, it doesn’t compare to a food you’ve maximized.
I get how hard it is to tell your child that needs to gain weight that they can’t have a random snack, but it’s usually the best thing for them. Instead, focus on a schedule that has routine intervals. Many kids do great if they have several smaller meals throughout the day. In this case, you’d spread apart meals every 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Serve snacks like a mini-meal.
However, some kids with poor appetite do better with a longer interval, up to 4 hours apart between meals. Experiment with each and see what seems to help your child the most. Keep in mind that it may take a few days to a week or so for your child to adjust and their appetite to develop a cycle.
It’s also okay to adjust your schedule. If it’s been 2 hours and your child claims they’re starving, move up their next meal instead of giving them a handful of some food they’ve requested. If they had asked for a specific food, serve it with the meal.
#2. Add the Fat
One of the easiest ways to work on weight gain is to add fat or high calorie additions to the foods they’re already eating. If your child eats oatmeal, mashed potato, yogurt, toast, noodles, baby food, or smoothies, you can start to add in small amounts of other foods that can make a big difference with the total calories, fat, and protein they’re consuming.
Here’s a list of foods that are high in calories/fat/protein and can often be added to other foods:
- Peanut butter (any nut butter)
- Chia Seeds
- Full Fat Yogurt
- Pecans and other nuts
- Full Fat Coconut Milk
- Olive Oil
- Sweet Potato
- Whole Milk
- Heavy Whipping Cream
- Coconut oil
If you’ve got a picky eater, start by adding very small amounts of any of the foods above to the food your child typically eats.
For instance, you might only add a 1/2 teaspoon of peanut butter to their favorite smoothie. Or, a tablespoon of mashed avocado. If your child accepts it, you can gradually increase the amount.
If your child refuses the food that you’ve mixed something else in, all is not lost.
The next time you serve it, add in nothing or a very tiny amount, then very slowly increase how much your mixing in. Be careful to not let the add-in eventually overpower the original food. Meaning if your child accepts peanut butter instead of butter on their toast in the morning don’t put so much on that they can’t physically chew it because its so thick!
3. Maximize the Foods They Eat
In addition to adding in foods to beef up the calories and fat, you can also work on new foods that are high in calories. Choose foods that are similar to those your child already eats. For instance, if your child loves potatoes try a cheesy potato casserole that’s high in calories.
Focus on a few recipes or types of food for a month or two, especially for picky eaters. They may need to be exposed to it several times before deciding to eat it.
Here are some specific weight gain recipes to try:
- Banana Pumpkin Sweet Potato Bread
- Homemade Alfredo Sauce for Noodles
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Milkshake
- High Protein Snicker Doodle Muffin
- The Picky Eater Approved Chicken Nugget Recipe
*If you have a baby or toddler that isn’t eating table foods, work on that to expand what they can eat. Some babies aren’t motivated by baby foods and will barely eat it.
4. High Calorie Smoothie/Drink
In addition to the food that they’re eating, you’ll also want to consider what your child is drinking. I like to focus on water in between meals, but during a meal, serve milk. You can fortify this with several of the add-ins from tip #2.
Think about adding a few tablespoons of heavy whipping cream to their whole milk, or a half teaspoon of oil. Coconut oil works great if it’s melted and the milk isn’t cold. Olive oil is an option too.
You can also serve a high calorie smoothie like this weight gain smoothie or a supplement like Pediasure or Carnation Instant Breakfast (talk to your doctor about using any supplements first) as a snack or before bed.
Affiliate links used below. See our full disclosure.
5. Teach Them About Appetite
Some kids that have poor weight gain don’t feel hungry and simply aren’t motivated to eat. This is related to a little known sense called interoception. Interoception sends signals to the brain for all of our bodily functions, including appetite. If your child isn’t ever feeling hungry, it could be immensely helpful to help them begin to make that connection.
It’s critical that as you teach them about their appetite, that you approach it as educational and not with stress or pressure.
For older kids, you can begin to talk about how their belly feels. Does it feel empty or full? You can also point out when you feel hungry or full and what that specifically feels like.
Get some kid’s digestion books from the library (or, check out this one on Amazon) and teach them how the food enters their stomach and that they fill it until they feel the food pushing a little on their stomach!
Younger kids may need a visual, like a jar that can represent the stomach. You can show them how the food needs to fill the jar when they’re eating at a meal so they can have all the energy they need. Head to how to teach kids about nutrition to learn more.
Babies and Toddlers That Need More Help
As an occupational therapist, it’s common for me to see babies and young toddlers that are struggling with weight gain because they haven’t learned to eat table foods. They only want their baby food or milk.
Yet, it’s critical that they learn how to eat table and finger foods.
Usually, there’s an underlying issue that’s making it difficult for them.
That underlying issue, like difficultly coordinating chewing or tolerating textures, needs addressed so they can learn how to eat. Plus, there’s a specific order to the types and textures of table foods offered. To learn every detail of getting your child to eat table foods well, join us in our online program: Table Food School.
We just kicked off our annual site wide super sale with special bonuses, but it will only be available for a short time!
Click here to learn more about Table Food School
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
My son is almost 2 and has been struggling with his weight since he’s been born. I pumped breastmilk for him until he was 8 months old and decided to switch to formula because he just wasn’t gaining enough. He’s been 21lbs since he was 15 months old and I’ve tried everything. Pediasure, whole milk, putting anything and everything in his oatmeal, the butter, the heavy cream, it just isn’t doing anything. My son is picky, he will only eat a handful of foods like oatmeal, peanut butter crackers, sometimes chicken nuggets or eggs, French fries, toast and maybe a pop tart and bananas. But that’s honestly all. I offer him new things, veggies with his dinner, noodles, meat, those little cups of assorted fruit. He just won’t touch it. He also doesn’t talk, so while he does communicate with sign and body language, he can’t tell me what he wants to eat. I’m driving myself absolutely crazy trying to get him to gain weight. We have weight checks every month and while he is growing in height and head size, his weight isn’t budging. I literally put myself in therapy because I keep myself up at night worrying. I don’t know what else to do.
Hi Desiree! Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear about your stress and struggles. We definitely understand. And despite how difficult it is, you are not alone! You’re doing a great job. First, we always encourage discussing weight issues with your pediatrician. Maybe even ask for a referral to an Occupational Therapist for feeding therapy? Some hands on, one-on-one assistance might be very helpful in this situation. In addition, because you mention he doesn’t/can’t communicate, on top of the picky eating, it could be that he has some sensory sensitivities to overcome. I’d definitely recommend checking out our free Sensory Workshop- save your seat here! It has a lot of information and guidance for getting to the root of the problem. I truly hope this helps! Please let us know if you have any additional questions.
I must say I find your site very helpful and informative but at the same time, it doesn’t help my particular situation. My beautiful son C.J. will be 15 months old this month and is still drinking from bottles and eating baby foods. But, he’s different than most. From the time he was about 2 months old to the time he was about 9 months old was in and out of the hospital for several different medical issues. At around 2 months old they found out he was asperating. We then had to begin to add thickener to all his bottles. He also had to have a surgery on his bowels and other issues.
He seems to have a very strong interest in what we’re eating but when we offer him some he will literally throw himself away from it. Lately he has been gagging at the site of everything he normally eats. Bottles, baby foods, even his crunchies (those veggie or cheddar flavored puffs) sometimes which is also the most advanced thing i can get him to eat willingly that’s close to table foods.
As of the past couple weeks I literally have to force him to take a bite of something or force his bottle in his mouth so he realizes he won’t gag on it but he’s gagging at the site of it. I know his mouth hurts because he’s being in his molars but I’m concerned at his lack of not wanting to try anything. Plus I was just told that he’s dropped off the growth curve which is concerning.
Could his medical issues have put him behind? Could his asperating be the issue? I’m very worried about his weight. He does eat plenty or so I thought of the things he will eat. I just don’t know how to get him to eat other things as well. What can I do?
Thanks for reaching out. Often times when kids have something that happens to them medically it can have an effect with moving on with their eating. I would try to work on just having him do some sensory play outside of mealtimes, to work on touching/looking at different textures to start. If you have any concerns with aspirations, I’d bring those up with your doctor. We do have a free workshop that will be helpful with where to start to tackle the feeding difficulties. You can save your seat HERE
Thanks for your reply Desiree,
My son doesn’t have an issue with sensory type things. He plays with all sorts of stuff. Stuffed animals, plastic juice bottles, boxes, rubber teething toys, a plastic hair scrunchie (which is his favorite), rubber blocks and balls with different textures. So I don’t feel the issue lays there but I appreciate the idea. He also has great hand eye coordination.
My husband brought up a point. Because he has been diagnosed as aspirating and we were having to thicken his formula and now milk he feels that the foods with thicker and more grainy textures are going down his throat slower but then he possibly tries to take a breath and is starting to inhale it. Could that potentially be happening? Will your workshop talk about how to get my son to start eating table foods?
Any questions or concerns with aspiration, I’d bring up with your son’s doctor. They will know better on what is recommended for your son’s case. Yes, the free workshop does walk you through the steps and strategies for eating table foods. With the aspiration, I would just make sure you are also following what foods are recommended from the doctor as well!