If you have a toddler or preschool child who is struggling to gain weight, you're definitely going want to read this article! Lots of practical tips to help toddlers gain weight, including high-calorie foods for toddlers and tips for getting calories into toddlers without force feeding them, even if they are picky eaters.
As a parent, I know how stressful it is to worry about your toddler not gaining weight.
If you've been following along with our story, you'll know that our son has had trouble gaining weight since he was a baby. He's had a little bit of everything from reflux to sensory issues, But luckily, we've overcoming a lot of picky eating issues over the last few years, mostly thanks to feeding therapy and consistent work at home.
Even though our son is eating a much wider variety of foods now, he is still underweight. He is just super active, and doesn't like eating large amounts of food, which adds up to not gaining weight quickly.
So I am sharing all our best tips to help our toddler son gain weight. I will start with listing the traditional foods recommended for toddler weight gain, and then I'll discuss how we approach getting our son to gain weight, since he does not eat many of these foods yet!
Make sure to read the whole article, because it contains lots of helpful advice from someone who's been through it all when it comes to feeding my son!
Disclaimer: Please do not take this article as health advice, and do not skip consulting with a pediatrician, nutritionist, or dietician because of any advice you read on the internet. If you are concerned about your child's weight gain, please visit the doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions and get advice that is specific to your child. There are lots of resources online, such as this article about the average weight for toddlers, but every family and child is different. I am just a mom sharing my experience. Talk to your pediatrician about what is a healthy weight range for your child.
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Healthy high calorie foods for toddlers
Of course, the most obvious thing to do is to increase the amount of high-calorie foods your child eats. This can be achieved two ways: by offering your child ice cream, chicken nuggets, pizza, French fries, and other foods that are not so healthy. Or by offering them these healthier options.
And don't worry, I give you tips for what to do if your child doesn't eat any of these foods! Just keep reading. And no, our son doesn't only eat healthy foods! He's a toddler, after all!
High calorie fruits and veggies:
- Raisins or other dried fruit, such as dried cranberries, dried apricots, prunes, dates (these are high in sugar, but also high in antioxidants and calories)
High calorie dairy and dairy alternatives:
- Full-fat yogurt
- Full-fat cottage cheese (try it whipped if your child doesn't like the texture! You can even blend in some nut butter for more calories!)
- Mozzarella sticks
- Cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
- Coconut milk (from a can)
- Butter (OK, not the healthiest, but organic butter from grass-fed cows is a better choice than many other fats out there!)
- Powdered milk (whole milk) and powdered buttermilk - these can be used in place of water in many recipes, or can even be added to actual milk or buttermilk to bulk up those calories!
High calorie proteins and fats:
- Chicken nuggets
- Fish sticks
- Salmon (healthy fats and great for brain development!)
- Dark chicken meat (more fat and calories than chicken breast)
- Nuts (only if your child is old enough to eat them safely!)
- Nut butters (almond, peanuts, cashew) or nut-free alternatives (flax, sunflower seed)
- Olive oil (to use for cooking)
Yes, but our picky eater won't eat these foods, what do we do??
Here's where you get smart! Get creative with how you serve these foods:
- Sneak some avocado, nut butter, or avocado oil into a homemade high-calorie baby food or smoothie. Check out this post on how to make high-calorie baby food for LOTS of tips of how to sneak in those calories.
- Try making salmon nuggets (use my tuna nuggets recipe as a jump start)
- Stir cream cheese into mashed potatoes, if your child likes mashed potatoes but does not like cream cheese
- Turn mashed potatoes into a higher-calorie snack by making mashed potato nuggets
- Dip bananas into chocolate, or smear a small amount of peanut butter on it
- If your toddler seems to not like chicken, make a chicken salad with pineapple (a lot of picky eaters have texture issues and don't actually dislike the taste of many foods. See my tips for how to get picky toddlers to eat meat - if they don't like the texture of chicken, they might be more open to something like a chicken salad)
- Make frozen yogurt from full-fat yogurt and serve it as "ice cream"
Here's how we make sure our son gets enough calories
Our son actually has a pretty healthy diet (see how we got him to try his first vegetable!). He loves things like cucumbers, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, and berries. The problem is, those foods don't have too many calories.
Instead of taking away his favorite nutritious foods and replacing them with unhealthier high-calorie foods, or instead of expecting him to eat avocado (he won't, we tried!!), we approach his meals like this:
Tip #1: Most meals and snacks we stick to his favorite healthy foods, such as brown rice, chicken, salmon, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, mixed veggies, cucumber, tomato, etc.
Tip #2: We cook his portion of the food with extra calories, when possible. For example:
- When making scrambled eggs, I add heavy cream to my son's batch and cook them in a little extra olive oil
- I add extra oil to his roasted broccoli and cauliflower, and add some cheese on top
- When reheating his rice, I reheat in a skillet with olive oil instead of in the microwave
- When making him a sandwich, I add butter or mayo to both sides of the bread, or add an extra slice of cheese
- When making him a salad, I add extra oil to his dressing
- I stir in extra oil and an extra egg into his batch of pancakes
- I make him a high-calorie baby food instead of opening a store-bought pouch
Tip #3: For one meal or snack a day, we add a high-calorie food option that is not necessarily healthy to really add those calories, such as:
- Deep-fried French fries, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, mozzarella sticks, etc.
- A piece of chocolate, a muffin, or cake for dessert
- A serving of potato chips
- Pudding made from full-fat milk or canned coconut milk, and a little butter
- Juice (not every day - we don't want him to ask for juice instead of water)
We switch up the high-calorie foods so he does not get used to having Fries, cake, or chips every day. Other calorie-bomb treat ideas: fried plantains, fried yuca, breaded chicken cutlets, cheesecake, chocolate, cake pops, cookies, deep-fried oreos, burgers, etc.
We try for the high-calorie foods to not be sugary, because we don't want his taste preference to change to prefer sweets and candy instead of healthy snacks.
I find that this balance works best for us because our son is still used to eating healthy foods most of the time. He still sees his usual healthy favorites, such as brown rice, salmon, roasted veggies. They just happen to be cooked in a way to add extra calories to the meal. And on top of those healthy meals that he has with the whole family, he gets a "treat" meal too, since sadly all the unhealthy foods have more calories.
Another good option is to serve your child food with a Pediasure drink or an Orgain drink instead of with water or milk, to add more calories and nutrition.
But as I said before, ALWAYS check with your pediatrician what they recommend for your child's diet. For us, we need to add fats to my son's diet because he gets enough carbs and protein from his favorite foods, such as salmon, chicken, rice, and pasta.
If your child needs more protein or carbs, then figure out ways to get them to eat protein-rich full-fat dairy, or starchy carbs, such as potatoes, yuca, whole grains.
It's not just about the calories
As I hinted, we definitely do not want to pressure our son to eat or force feed him. It is important to us that he has a good relationship with food and enjoys eating. We took this Mealtime Works course and learned all about how to approach feeding a picky eater, and not pressuring was lesson 101.
We do NOT expect him to finish his whole plate.
We always try to sit with our son and have meals together and create a relaxed atmosphere for eating. We praise him and encourage him when he tries something new, and don't make a big deal when he refuses a new food, or refuses a favorite food that we expected he would eat.
Make it easy for your child to eat
You would be surprised how much the shape and presentation of food can affect whether a toddler wants to eat, and how much they want to eat!! Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Cut up fruits and veggies into small pieces
- Cut French toast into small bite-sized squares
- Cute sandwiches in half so they are not as overwhelming
- Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes from pancakes, toast, etc
- Give your child spoons for crumbly foods that fall off from forks (like rice, orzo, etc)
- Offer ketchup or another favorite dip
Our journey to overcoming picky eating took about two years. Have patience with your child. Gaining a pound requires eating 3,500 calories. For a small child, who only eats roughly 1000 calories a day, eating even 100 more calories per day is a significant increase in food intake! So if a child eats 100 calories extra, it would take him or her 35 days to gain just one pound.
Of course, this is just an estimation and your child's level of physical activity will have a big impact on this, but I just wanted to give an example how even if your child actually eats the extra snacks and extra hidden calories, it is a long and slow journey.
At the end of the day, a healthy relationship with food and a confident child is more important than an extra pound or two of weight!
Hang in there mama!!
Other resources for picky eating:
- How to get a toddler to eat when they refuse
- Food chaining - how to get a toddler to eat tomatoes
- Feeding therapy for picky eating
- Easy things you can do NOW to help prevent picky eating
- Division of responsibilities in feeding
Toddler-friendly recipes to try:
- Toddler-friendly recipes with hidden vegetables
- Breakfast recipes with hidden vegetables
- High-calorie egg and cheese breakfast pockets
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