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.
Kimberly’s mom was worried. At her last check up, Kimberly 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.
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.
In this article, you’ll learn how to help picky eaters gain weight with my favorite nutrient-rich, calorie-dense foods, as well as other tips and techniques for adding calories I’ve used as a pediatric nutritionist.
Do You Have 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: 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.
Recognizing picky eating when you see it is a key to addressing it positively and effectively. #pickyeaters #pickyeatinghelp Click To Tweet
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
Has experienced weight loss, or is losing 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 Picky 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.
For this article, I’ll focus on one aspect: weight gain foods.
List of High Calorie Foods (with Nutrients!)
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.
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:
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)
Turkey (dark meat from thighs or legs)
Cheese (slices, sticks, cubes, shredded, etc)
Milk (whole or 2%)
Full fat yogurt
Black olives (and others)
Filled pastas such as tortellini, ravioli and gnocchi
Fruited bread like raisin bread
Granola (bars, bites, etc)
Some ready-to-eat cereals (with clusters or dried fruit)
Plant oils such as olive and vegetable
Tapenade (olive dip)
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
Ways to Add 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
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.
More Picky Eating Help
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!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: February 6, 2019
Updated on: May 5, 2019