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How to Help Picky Eaters Gain Weight

How do you help picky eaters gain weight? The underweight toddler or older picky eater is a worry for parents. Often, their kids won’t eat and as a result, lose weight.

In this article, you’ll learn how to help picky eaters gain weight with my favorite high calorie foods for kids. You’ll learn how to add calories and nutrition to everyday meals so that your child is more likely to put on some weight.

Kimberly’s mom was worried. At her daughter’s last check up, she hadn’t gained weight. Mom suspected this, as she hadn’t bought new clothes for her in a while, and those she wore were sagging on her slight frame.  

Three year old Kimberly was a typical toddler. Busy, explorative, sometimes cranky, and opinionated.

She was experiencing lots of changes: She started pre-school, gave up naps, was becoming more social with friends, and as toddlers often do, was becoming more selective and fussy with food.

The doctor advised she switch back to whole milk and get her to eat a snack before bedtime. She followed his advice, but it wasn’t enough. She needed more help.

Is Your Toddler a Picky Eater?

Studies suggest that up to 50% of children are picky eaters. Picky eating is hard to measure in a study setting, as quantifying it is often dependent on a parent’s perception of their child’s eating behaviors.

The good news is that we know when it typically sets in: between ages 2 and 6 years.

We also know it happens at a developmentally sensitive time when toddlers and preschoolers have a drive to explore, be independent and autonomous, which may come in conflict with a parent’s desire to control or assist the child.

Picky Eaters List of Typical Eating Behaviors

Recognizing fussy eating when you see it is a key to addressing it effectively.

There are certain signs that run true, although each child will be different in their eating behaviors and symptoms of picky eating. Here are some of the most common signs of picky eating:

  • Refuses to eat certain foods, especially veggies
  • Rejects food that was previously liked
  • Eats the same preferred foods, over and over
  • Refuses to try or eat anything new
  • Demonstrates fussiness with food such as wants food prepared a certain way
  • Shows disinterest in food or a lack of appetite
  • Eats limited amounts of food
  • Has a limited diet
  • Eats slowly
  • Has experienced weight loss, or is losing weight
Recognizing picky eating when you see it is a key to addressing it positively and effectively. #pickyeaters #pickyeatinghelp Click To Tweet
How to Help Picky Eaters Gain Weight

When Picky Eaters are Underweight

Many children who are picky will continue to gain weight and grown normally despite the appearance of barely eating enough food. This is often why healthcare professionals tell you to not worry about it and wait it out.

Yet, this advice may not be in the best interest of the child, particularly if the child is showing signs of weight loss or significant nutritional gaps in the diet.

If your child is underweight or losing weight, you’ll want to take action and help him gain weight in ways that avoid too much pressure to eat.

Remember, angst around eating is counterproductive. Power struggles with your child will delay progress and may make eating worse.

How to Gain Weight for Fussy Eaters

There are a number of ways to help selective eaters gain weight. Some strategies involve adding calories to foods and choosing high calorie foods for weight gain.

Other measures include setting up a structured approach to feeding during the day. And others involve revamping your feeding approach to be more positive.

Usually, it’s not just one method that moves the needle. Rather, it’s a holistic, integrated approach using food, feeding and knowledge of your unique child.

I cover the complete guide to helping picky eaters in my new workbook: Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods.

Toddler picking a raspberry out of an adult's hand.

For this article, I’ll focus on one aspect: weight gain foods.

High Calorie Food Ideas and List

Certain foods are naturally high in calories and working these into the diet of your picky eater may increase overall calorie intake. One of my favorite foods for helping kids gain weight fast are those that contain healthy fats like avocado, nut butters and nuts and seeds.

Of course, some foods are high calorie but not full of nutrients.

For example, candy, chocolate, cookies and fried foods are high in calories, but low in nutrients. To help your child gain weight healthfully, incorporate nutrient-rich high calorie foods such as:

  • Eggs
  • Beans, especially in dips (hummus), soups (black bean or chili) or mixed into dishes (pasta, rice)
  • Peanut butter and other nut butters
  • Nuts (offer age-appropriately as these can be a choking hazard for young children)
  • Chicken drumsticks and thighs (with skin)
  • Hamburger
  • Turkey (dark meat from thighs or legs)
  • Deli meats
  • Cheese (slices, sticks, cubes, shredded, etc)
  • Milk (whole or 2%)
  • Full fat yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Banana
  • Mango
  • Canned fruit
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Avocado
  • Edamame
  • Black olives (and others)
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Filled pastas such as tortellini, ravioli and gnocchi
  • Fruited bread like raisin bread
  • Muffins
  • Bagels
  • Granola (bars, bites, etc)
  • Some ready-to-eat cereals (with clusters or dried fruit)
  • Butter
  • Plant oils such as olive and vegetable
  • Mayonnaise  
  • Sour cream  
  • Cream cheese
  • Guacamole
  • Hummus
  • Tapenade (olive dip)
  • Salad dressing
  • Jelly and jams

While some of these foods may seems exotic and out of the realm of reality for your child, you can still give them a try.

I’ve seen kids gobble up black olives, mashed avocado and sweet potato fries at the total dismay and surprise of their parents.

Anything is possible if you create the opportunity.

Picky Eaters: Anything is possible if you create the opportunity. #pickyeaters #pickyeatinghelp Click To Tweet

Adding Calories to Foods

Boosting calories in the foods your child already likes and eats is another approach to increase the overall caloric content of the diet and promote weight gain.

This has been a successful tactic with many of my clients, however, I must warn you that altering a food your child already likes comes with some risk.

In some highly sensitive children, modifying the foods they like may backfire, leading to food refusal.

Take this ‘adding calories to foods’ approach carefully and watch for signs of food rejection. If you see them, change direction.

Tips for Adding Extra Calories to Foods

Here are some ways you can add calories to foods:

  • Add butter to vegetables, pasta, rice, and breads in generous amounts.
  • Substitute whole milk, half and half, or cream in recipes calling for water or milk.
  • Saute vegetables with olive oil or butter instead of steaming.
  • Double dress pasta by draining first, adding olive oil to coat, then add sauce, butter, cheese.
  • Use fruit dips or whole milk yogurts as a high calorie dip for fresh fruits.
  • Use hummus, guacamole or cheese dips for fresh or blanched veggies.
  • Serve canned fruits in heavy syrup instead of “natural juices”.
  • Blend Carnation Instant Breakfast or Ovaltine with whole milk for a high calorie drink or as the base of a smoothie.
  • Add shredded or sliced cheese to vegetables, breads, eggs, and pastas.
  • Add an additional egg to recipes for pancakes, muffins, waffles, and other baked goods.
  • Use peanut butter, age-appropriately, as a spread or dip with fruit, vegetables, crackers, and breads.
  • Use butter as a base for sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly, nut butter and banana or grilled cheese.
  • Reconstitute fruit juice and soups with less water.
  • Make hot cereals with milk or juice instead of water.
  • Add chopped eggs to casseroles, salads, and vegetables. Cook eggs in oil or butter.

Need More Help for Picky Eating?

If your child isn’t gaining weight or growing well, try some of these high calorie, nutrient-rich foods and incorporate more calories into the foods your child is already eating.

Even small increments in caloric intake can move the needle and improve weight status.

Remember, there is so much more that goes into feeding picky eaters and helping them grow into kids who enjoy healthy food.

Be sure to take a holistic approach that nurtures and nourishes your child. Check out my workbook Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods!

And, head over to my parent education website for more resources including guidebooks, workshops and classes.

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