I was a skinny kid when I was young. One of my memories is of my freshman year in high school during gym class when all the girls had to get weighed and measured.
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. It was the first time I felt different. The first time I felt public shame.
Embarrassed to be thin and behind my peers in maturation.
At the time, I hadn’t “developed” yet. I hadn’t started my menses and I was 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 whether I was underweight or about my growth and development.
I was active everyday playing basketball. I had a voracious appetite and a love of food and eating.
My parents accepted things as they were, and probably recognized that I was very similar to my mother’s frame and maturation tendencies.
Today though, having a skinny kid may cause you to sprout grey hairs and yell incessant pleas from the table to eat.
You may worry more 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, your underweight child can be just as concerning.
Especially if he’s not eating enough.
Naturally, you probably want to help your 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
Help for the Underweight Child
If you have a child who is underweight and you’re worried about whether she is getting enough nutrition, here are some tips to help calm your fears:
First, Check the 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 predictably on their own personal growth curve.
Children who are not gaining weight appropriately may demonstrate a flattening of their growth curve.
Or, they may 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 of growth on the curve, you can rest assured that your child is getting adequate calories.
Consider an Age-Appropriate Multivitamin
While children may be naturally or constitutionally thin, some are skinny due to selective or extremely picky eating.
These kids may not be getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. He may also lose weight.
If your child leaves out one of the major food groups (dairy, fruit, vegetable, grains, proteins), consumes more processed foods than whole, natural foods, or is losing weight or 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 help your child gain weight, grow and be better nourished. Keep these nutrition “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.
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.
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.
Encourage your child to stay physically active. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it helps build appetite.
Daily activity is part of a healthy lifestyle. Exercise helps build and sustain the appetite cycle, causing hunger, which leads to eating.
Don’t Plead, Beg, or Threaten Your Child to Eat
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.
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: How to Help 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? Check out my podcast, The Nourished Child!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: September 5, 2018
Updated on: May 8, 2019