Tips for Feeding the Skinny Kid

Tips for feeding the skinny kid

How to Help the Skinny Kid Gain Weight

I was a skinny kid when I was young. One of my memories is of my freshman year in high school when during gym class all the girls had to get weighed and measured (yes, even back in the ’70s we were weighed in front of everyone at school). 

Weighing in at roughly 90 pounds, I mostly remember the teacher announcing, “Jill weighs 90 pounds ….”

I was the lightest of all the girls in my class. And it was the first time I felt different…the first time I felt public shame. Embarrassed to be so behind in maturation compared to my peers.

At the time, I hadn’t “developed” yet. I hadn’t started my menses and I was rail thin. It wasn’t until I showed up for my senior year in high school that I reached my current 5’8″ and had filled out my frame.

Back then, my parents weren’t worried about my growth and development. I was active everyday playing basketball, and I had a voracious appetite and a love of food and eating. They just accepted things as they were, and probably also recognized that I was very similar to my mother’s frame and development tendencies.

Today though, the skinny kid may cause his parent to sprout grey hairs and yell incessant pleas from the table to eat. We worry more now about nutritional status, peak growth, and present and future health. In a world where so much attention is given to prevention and treatment of childhood weight problems, thin kids can be just as concerning to their parents, especially the child who is not eating enough. Naturally, parents want to help their child gain weight and grow.

Thin kids who aren't eating can be just as concerning as those kids who are overeating. Here's how you can feed the thin child. #skinnykid #fearlessfeeding #healthyeating Click To Tweet

If your child is skinny and you are worried about whether she is getting enough nutrition, here are some tips to help calm your fears and feed your child:

First, Check your Child’s Growth Chart  

Children show us they are thriving through their normal growth and development as demonstrated on the Center for Disease Control growth charts.  Your pediatrician plots your child’s weight and length/height routinely at well-visits and check-ups. 

Children who are growing normally will track their growth predictably on their own personal growth curve.  Children who are not gaining weight appropriately may demonstrate a flattening of their growth curve or show a decrease from their usual growth channel percentile. 

The growth chart is a good indicator of your child’s overall nutritional status.  If your child appears to be maintaining a usual and predictable pattern on the curve, you can rest assured that your child is getting adequate calories for normal growth.

Consider an Age-Appropriate Multivitamin

While children may be naturally or constitutionally skinny, some are thin due to selective or extremely picky eating. These kids may not be getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. 

If your child doesn’t eat one of the major food groups (dairy, fruit, vegetable, grains, proteins), consumes more processed foods than whole, natural foods, or is having difficulty gaining weight, a multivitamin may be a prudent addition to his/her daily diet.

Every Bite Counts for Nutrition 

Every bite of food and every gulp of liquid can make a contribution to your child’s ability to gain weight, grow and be better nourished. Keep these nutritional boosts in mind:  

  • Be sure to add and/or cook vegetables with fat, such as butter and/or oils. 
  • Add sauces such as cheese, hollandaise, or sour cream to boost calories.
  • Dip fresh fruit in yogurt, fruit dips, or peanut butter. 
  • Double dress pasta–rinse and toss with olive oil, then add butter, cheese or sauce.
  • Choose 2% or whole milk, instead of skim or 1% fat.  
  • Reconstitute soups and prepare oatmeal with milk instead of water. 
  • Boost baked goods such as these healthy muffins, cookies, or pancakes with an extra egg or dry milk powder.  Tips for feeding the skinny kid

Add In a Pre-Bedtime Snack 

Smoothies, milkshakes, instant breakfast drinks or peanut butter toast are good snacks that pack extra protein and calories before sleeping.  Check out my 51 Snacks for Kids blog for more snack ideas or download this handy snack guide.

If you’re stuck in the cycle of junky snacks, take a look at my Healthy Snack Planner — it will help you revamp the way you think about and offer snacks to your child.

Stick to a Meal & Snack Schedule  

Plan meals and snacks to occur on a consistent basis, as it can help support the cycle of hunger and promote adequate nutrient intake. Aim to offer meals and snacks every 3-4 hours and maintain this regular routine. And of course, offer balanced meals.

Stay Active  

Encourage your child to stay physically active. Daily activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, and it helps build and sustain the appetite cycle, causing hunger, which leads to eating.

Don’t Plead, Beg, or Threaten Your Child to Eat 

Although tempting to do so, when you plead for your child to eat more, beg or bribe him with dessert or even threaten to take food away if he doesn’t eat enough, this sets up a negative dynamic around food for your child. 

These are also controlling feeding behaviors, and may backfire in the long run, causing your child to be pickier and/or eat less. 

What should you do instead? Provide ample opportunity to eat with a regular schedule of meals and snacks. Offer nutritious, acceptable foods. Although you can’t force your child to eat, you can allow him to choose which foods he’ll eat from what you have offered and let him make decisions about how much he will eat.

Still Struggling?

Remember, some children are naturally thin and some are thin due to suboptimal or inadequate nutrition. If you’ve tried these suggestions, consider further assistance from a Registered Dietitian or your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s weight.

If you think part of the problem is related to a limited food variety, my resource, Try New Food: Help New Eaters, Picky Eaters and Extreme Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Food, can help! It takes you through some steps to encourage your child to expand his food repertoire without pressure or negative feeding.

Want more expert tips? Join my Newsletter or check out my podcast, The Nourished Child!


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  1. I too have a very thin 8 year-old son. He has allergies (peanut and otherwise) so we have to be cautious about what he eats. He is having difficulty focusing in the classroom although he is a very good student (Honor Roll). I have been reading about the Feingold Program and am curious as to what you may know about this in terms of reducing/eliminating additives and food coloring from his diet to improve his focus. He gets a multi-vitamin daily as well as a Dannon immune booster drink. We have made many changes at home including air purifier, Hepa filters, dust mite encasement covers, etc. and we are beginning to see some improvement in his immune system, but we still have the focus issue that concerns us. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on how diet can play a role in improving allergies, behavior, etc. Thanks!

    1. Sandy, A well-balanced diet, including all food groups, is the cornerstone of a nutritious diet and will support your child as he progresses through growth and development. A child with food allergies can still obtain a nutrient-dense diet, and in your case with a peanut allergy, other protein sources such as dairy products and lean meats can ensure your son the proper amount of protein needed for optimal growth. Offering your child nutrient-dense, whole foods at regular feeding intervals, and avoiding too many processed foods (which contain additives, preservatives, and food colorings) will get your son started on a healthy path. Consult your pediatrician if you are concerned about issues regarding ability to focus and sustain focus before you eliminate additional foods from his diet. Children need a variety of foods daily and elimination of foods and/or dietary modifications should be overseen by your pediatrician in consultation with a pediatric dietitian, if possible.

  2. So true that we have lost focus on the thin kids of today. If you can’t get your kids to have a chewable multi, try liquid drops or fortified foods like breakfast cereal with iron. Totally support the idea of exercise to increase hunger levels. I have first hand knowledge from my fuss pot four year old. As a dietitian I have tried all the usual tricks and more, but the best day of eating for the week is Thursday – post swimming lessons!

  3. Thanks Jill. I’m a dietitian (although not much pediatric experience) and mom of a 14-month old boy. You mention that picky eaters or kids who eliminate a group need a supplement. What if their intake varies? Is it worth giving a supplement on the days I don’t feel he ate well? What’s your take on vitamin D?

    1. Nour, thanks for your comments. Your son is still of the “age of introduction”, and because many foods are new and potentially yet untried, it is difficult to determine whether food group consumption is inadequate. It is typical that a young toddler’s intake will vary and this reflects appetite, growth, and interest. For the young toddler, exposure to a variety of new foods, from all food groups is the goal. An age-appropriate multivitamin, given in age-appropriate doses may provide peace of mind and insurance on those days that your child does not eat well. However, a multivitamin is not necessary if you offer all the food groups daily, set up a feeding environment that is nurturing and positive and encourages trial and error with eating and new foods. Most young toddlers when provided with a variety of foods will eat to their appetite and will consume, over time, adequate nutrition.