Parental awareness and concern about a child’s weight is common. It is just one of the many things that keep us awake at night worrying, about our the wellbeing of our little ones!
Personally, my sons struggle with weight gain has caused me no end of worry over the past couple of years. He is a teeny tiny little thing, still wears size 00 pants at the age of 2.5 years old and his weight puts him in the 3rd percentile for his age.
Fortunately I have had the support and knowledge of some wonderful paediatricians and paediatric dieticians to learn strategies that have helped me to support my son’s growth, development and weight gain.
The following strategies can be used to encourage and support weight gain in toddlers and children, in a healthy way!
1. Don’t Focus on Weight Gain Unless You NEED to.
If you are concerned that your child may be underweight, it is important to consult your GP or paediatrician. Don’t just diagnose your own child with a weight problem.
Doctors can become concerned if your child’s weight or height percentile changes from a pattern it’s previously been following. If this is the case, and assuming your child has no underlying medical concerns, it would be reasonable to take steps to encourage and support weight gain.
However, it is important to bear in mind that children can be a perfectly healthy weight sitting anywhere along a growth chart. For example, although my son is only in the 3rd percentile, he’s doctor interprets his growth chart in the context of his overall well-being, his medical history (born prematurely) and the fact that he is currently meeting all of his developmental milestones. In this case, it is okay for him to sit in the 3rd percentile, as long as he continues along this trajectory and doesn’t start slipping backwards.
We used the following strategies to help my son to achieve and now maintain a healthy weight.
2. Make A List of High Calorie Foods
Knowledge is power. The first thing you want to do is to make a list of nutritious, high calorie foods. Now stick that list somewhere you can’t miss it, like the fridge door! By creating this list, you have given yourself quick and easy access to information that will be useful in helping your little one put on weight. And by sticking it to the fridge you have provided yourself with a resource to help you write your grocery list and prepare meals/snacks.
Below is a list of healthy high calorie foods, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. I like to make sure that I have the following products as staples in the fridge/pantry and that they feature in my weekly meal plan.
· Plant based oils (e.g. olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil)
· Full cream dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter, margarine
· Meat, fish and chicken
· Legumes such as lentils and beans
· Nuts, seeds and their pastes (e.g. peanut butter, tahini, hummus)
3. Add Calories at Every Single Eating Opportunity
Now that you have your list of healthy high calorie foods, you want to ensure that you include at least one of these foods with every meal and snack.
For example, you could serve:
· porridge made with cream
· sandwiches with liberal amounts of high calorie/ high protein fillings (butter, cheese, ham, chicken, baked beans, avocado, mayonnaise, etc)
· crackers with avocado, cheese, cream cheese, tuna, hummus or nut paste
· scrambled eggs topped with melted cheese
Also, just because you are including high calorie foods at every eating opportunity does not mean that you need to forgo fruits and vegetables. You still want to aim for a varied and balanced diet. You can easily include fruit and veg alongside your high calorie options.
For example, you could serve:
· Full cream yoghurt mixed with fresh or dried fruit
· Vegetable soup with cream
· Omelette with cheese, ham, tomato and mushrooms
You can also try to choose higher calorie versions of fruits and vegetables. Potato, peas, beans, lentils, dried fruit and bananas are all great options.
4. Meals as Snacks
Snack foods can be notoriously low in calories and nutritional value. A great way to limit your child’s exposure to low calorie snacks is to serve meals as snacks. There is no rule to say that your little one can’t have tuna mornay (made with cream and vegetables) as a snack!
5. Have a Set Meal and Snack Routine
One of the most common pitfalls is “grazing” or excessive snacking. Set meal and snack times at least 2-3 hours apart so that your child has time to get hungry before sitting down to a nutritionally balanced, high calorie meal/snack.
6. Communicate the Plan
Ensure that everyone who cares for your child is aware of the strategies that you are trying to implement. Talk to childcare providers, grandparents and other family members about why this is important and give them details on what they can do to help. Healthy weight gain will be easier to achieve if everyone is on the same page and taking consistent steps.
When I spoke to my son’s childcare provider about the importance of him putting on weight, they were more than happy to support this goal. I asked them to take simple steps such as adding butter and/or cheese to vegetables and offering additional serves of high calorie foods.
7. A Word on “Junk” Food
You may think that high calorie foods like chips, biscuits, or fast foods will help your child put on weight, but in fact they can have the opposite effect! Foods like this may actually reduce your child’s appetite for nourishing, energy dense foods. These types of foods can provide lots of calories, but are low in the nutrients that are important for your child’s growth and development.
With that being said, it can be a good idea to liberalise your child’s diet a little bit when you are trying to support weight gain. As with all things, sugar and refined foods are ok in moderation.
8. Top It Up – Toppings, Sauces and Dips
Enriching foods with sauces, gravies, dips or toppings is a fantastic way of squeezing in additional calories.
You could try the following:
· Top veggies with melted butter or grated cheese
· Serve homemade meals with a dollop of mayonnaise on the side
· Serve crackers alongside dips such as guacamole or hummus
· Add plenty of gravy or cream based sauces to meals
9. Make Mealtimes Fun
Early childhood is the time in which your child is developing a relationship with food. Research has shown that eating together as a family can have a positive influence on a child’s food preferences, eating habits and even their behaviour, academic abilities and psychosocial well-being!
Try to make family meals times as pleasant and relaxed as possible and avoid distractions like TV or iPads.
10. Super Supper Smoothies
Smoothies are a delicious and nutritious way of getting your child to eat more calories! The biggest trick I found for this was to only serve a smoothie after dinner. When I served smoothies earlier in the day, say at breakfast or lunch, I found that it impacted how much food my son would eat at his next meal (because he was still so full!). And when I served it with dinner, he would fill up on smoothie and not eat his actually meal.
My toddler super smoothie recipe contains banana, peanut butter, full-cream milk, full-fat greek yoghurt, spinach (you can’t taste the spinach) and maple syrup! My son LOVES them!
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