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.
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).
Beneficial fats, especially plant-based fats have about nine calories of fat per gram, while each gram of protein or carbohydrate provides about four calories, so a meal made with fats can contribute to wanted weight gain.
Flaxseed oil: Add to it everything. It’s mild flavor, will go unnoticed in a smoothie, drizzled on 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.
Avocados: Make guacamole or mix avocado into a fruit smoothie.
Full-fat dairy has more calories and fat than the reduced-fat varieties, yet a comparable amount of nutrients.
Smoothies: Smoothies are an easy way to ingest needed nutrients and calories, especially if you add coconut oil, coconut milk or almond butter, full-fat yogurt, nut butters and seeds.
Grate cooked eggs into salads, sauces and soups.
Cook pasta, rice and whole grains in chicken broth.
Dried fruit lacks water, making it easier to eat more sizable quantities for 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.
Grated, frozen chicken liver provides essential nutrients. It doesn’t greatly affect flavor when frozen and grated into food. My kids have never even noticed.
Behavior and routine
Drink after a meal, not during. Even water can fill up a little belly, tricking a child into feeling full. Many toddlers and preschoolers drink so milk and juice that they aren’t hungry enough for food at mealtime.
Set meal and snack times. Eating in the stroller or car conveys to your children that eating well is not a priority.
Sit down to meals with your children, so they see healthful eating modeled.
Turn off the TV. Many young kids will be too captivated by the screen to eat at all.
Exercise: Yes, exercise burns calories, but it also ensures a child is hungry enough to eat well.
Provide healthful snacks in between meals. Children’s stomachs are small, so they cannot always eat enough food during their meals to meet their nutritional needs. Snacks also sustain a young child’s energy and mood.
Add a snack before bedtime. Healthful fat and protein can help build tissue while sleeping. Avoid sugar so sleep is not affected.
Keep in mind that this approach to eating works for most kids, not just those who need to put on a few extra pounds.
For a recipe that is full of healthful calories, try these energy balls. They are a crowd pleaser, and a nutrient-rich one.
1 cup peanut butter, sunflower butter or almond butter
1 cup raw or regular honey (start with less if regular honey and add more if needed)
3 cups rolled oats 1/2cup ground chia seed or flaxseed
1 cup mini chocolate chips or cacao nibs
1 cup any combination of nuts, seeds and soft dried fruit, such as sunflower seeds, raisins and dried cranberries
Sweetened shredded coconut, for rolling (optional
Combine the butter and honey in a large mixing bowl and stir until smooth. Gradually add the oats and chia seed or flaxseed. Add the cacao nibs or chocolate chips and the nut-seed-fruit mixture, and mix gently to combine.
Use your hands to roll the mixture into balls approximately the size of ping-pong balls. If desired, roll them in shredded coconut. Place the balls in paper mini-muffin cups.
At this point, you can eat them, but they’ll be less sticky after a night in the refrigerator. Layer the balls in an airtight container, using wax paper to separate the layers, and refrigerate for 7 to 10 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
Makes about 40 balls.
Nutrition: Per ball (using equal amounts of sunflower seeds, raisins and dried cranberries): 130 calories, 3 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar.
Casey Seidenberg, co-founder of Nourish Schools