Best Foods for Weight Gain in Toddlers & Kids to Support Healthy Growth

Best Foods for Weight Gain in Toddlers & Kids to Support Healthy Growth

If you have a toddler or kid at home who struggles to gain weight, you might feel stress and pressure to get them to eat. In my experience working with families in my private practice, weight issues create more stress than just about anything else. Because of this, we want to focus on the best foods for weight gain to support their growth.

Weight gain in kids can be challenging for many reasons. Genetics, picky eating, oral motor issues, high activity, and various other health issues and medications can contribute. Luckily, with the right combination of foods and interventions, they can start growing and gaining weight on track. 

As a parent of two young kids and a practicing pediatric dietitian who works with a lot of underweight kids, I know the stress you can feel at each weight check visit. I hope this article helps you feel more confident in helping your child gain weight.

If at any point you feel like you need more support helping your child with their weight gain goals, I’d love to help you. You can schedule a 1:1 session with me to review your child’s individual needs or send me a message if you have questions. 

Best food for weight gain in toddlers and kids

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Underweight toddler or child: what is normal?

When your child visits the pediatrician’s office they usually will take a height and weight as part of their routine visit. They then plug those numbers into a growth chart to track changes over time. An individual plot doesn’t tell us a whole lot about a child’s growth, but several plots give a decent picture of the changes occurring. 

Several charts are used to assess growth. For babies/toddlers 0-2 years the World Health Organization charts are used. Then from age 2-18 years (in the US) the CDC growth charts are used. 

Starting around 2 years old, they will also look at Body Mass Index (BMI), which takes both weight and height into account. BMI alone is not a very good indicator of health, but it can give us some information as part of the bigger picture as to how a child is growing. If a child falls below the 5th percentile for BMI the pediatrician will flag them as underweight.

To better capture the growth of children who fall outside of the “normal” ranges (below the 5th percentile and above the 95th percentile), we also use z-scores. The z-score measures the standard deviation (SD) above or below the mean (average), which is the 50th percentile on the growth chart. Children who fall more than 2 standard deviations below the mean are considered malnourished.

Tracking z-score trends over time gives us a better picture of change, especially for children who fall lower (or higher) on the charts. By looking at z-score numbers we can see if the growth trend is improving, stabilizing, or worsening. We also use the z-score numbers as a diagnostic criterion for the degree of malnutrition.

Healthy weight gain guide (PDF download)

This is a guide I created for the clients I work with in my private practice for extra support with their kids weight gain. If you would like these ideas in an easy downloadable PDF guide, you can grab it below. I’ve included some of my favorite foods, recipe ideas, and homemade supplements to increase protein and calories for weight gain.

Healthy Weight Gain Guide
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Meal, snack and recipe ideas to help your child with healthy weight gain
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When to be concerned about an underweight child?

If you suspect your child is underweight, losing weight, or plateauing, start by discussing with their pediatrician. They usually have a system within your child’s medical chart that plots the growth and should be able to tell you if there is a concern. 

However, (because I have experienced this before with clients), if you have a fear about your child’s growth and don’t feel supported by their pediatrician, I would suggest getting a second opinion. You know your child best and if you think there is a problem, be sure to advocate for your child. 

While pediatricians have a wealth of knowledge on many topics, they often don’t have the time to get into the details about growth, food, and nutrition in their short appointments with you. This is where a pediatric dietitian can come in and give you the support you need.  

Specific things I look at when working with clients struggling with weight gain:

  • weight changes between visits (average gain/change over time)
  • height/growth changes over time
  • z-score trends
  • a comprehensive evaluation of the foods they are eating, quantities, etc. 
  • mealtime patterns/environment
  • medications/supplements
  • more, depending on the situation

I pay especially close attention to average weight and height change between visits. This means that I will calculate the change in weight and height over the period between visits and get an average weight/height gain per day or month. 

This is slightly different from plotting their weight on the growth charts because we are looking at the weight change vs. just the percentile range. They might still be tracking in the “underweight” range, and have a negative z-score, but if their standard gain is at or above goals and z-score is improving then we know our intervention is working. 

Best foods for weight gain in toddlers & kids

If your child is underweight, the first step is to start maximizing their intake. This means that each bite of food they take matters. When you think about weight gain the first thing that usually comes to mind is calories. And, calories are important, but we also want to focus on the right type of calories. Providing foods with empty calories might temporarily fill their bellies but are not the best choice long-term. 

The best foods for weight gain in toddlers and kids are foods that provide calories from protein and healthy fats, including the micronutrients needed for growth. These include iron, zinc, vitamin D, and calcium. 

Kids need a good combination of foods from a variety of food groups to promote optimal growth and development. The macronutrients (protein/fat/carbohydrates) are important but so are the micronutrients (iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D, among others). Focusing on higher-energy foods that also provide key micronutrients for growth is important. 

Whenever possible, I encourage parents to focus on protein sources that are complete proteins. Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids (building blocks for growth.) However, you can also combine various protein sources throughout the day to get complete proteins as well. 

The following foods are my favorite sources of protein and healthy fats to help promote weight gain in toddlers and kids (these also include the key micronutrients needed for growth.) 

1. Eggs

Eggs are a great source of protein and fat to support weight gain in toddlers and kids. Since they are often well-accepted, they are also great for picky eaters. Eggs contain about 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat per egg and are a source of complete protein. 

Eggs are also a nutrition powerhouse of micronutrients for growth including B vitamins, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B6, calcium, and zinc (all key for growth in kids).

2. Milk and milk alternatives

Toddlers and kids tend to love milk making it a great complete protein source to help promote weight gain. The best milk for toddlers and kids is full-fat animal milk or milk alternatives with similar nutritional composition. One cup of milk contains about 8 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein as well as calcium, vitamin D, B6 & B12 (plus other trace minerals.)

Be careful with total milk intake though, limiting to 12-16 oz max per day. Too much milk can fill their bellies and lead to a lower intake of iron-rich foods, potentially contributing to low iron. 

3. Yogurt 

Full-fat yogurt is one of my favorite high-calorie foods for toddlers and kids who need support with weight gain. Most kids love yogurt and you can serve it in so many ways. The best yogurt for babies, toddlers, and kids are those that a full fat, plain, or lightly sweetened and contain probiotics (good for their gut.)

6 oz. of plain Greek yogurt contains about 6 grams of fat, and 16 grams of protein and is a good source of calcium. If your kids don’t like plain yogurt (I hear you) do a ½ and ½ mix with their favorite flavored yogurt. This will increase the protein and decrease the added sugar. 

4. Cheese (hard cheese & cottage cheese)

Cheese is another often easy sell for kids. Lots of foods they love contain cheese and they also tend to love cheese (like string cheese) for snacks and as part of meals. Different cheeses have varying nutritional compositions.

One string cheese has about 6 grams of fat, and 7 grams of protein and is also rich in calcium. 4 oz. of cottage cheese has about 5 grams of fat and 13 grams of protein. Try using cottage cheese as a dip for crackers (really good mixed with a ranch flavor packet) or with fresh or canned fruit to encourage your kids to eat it. 

5. Meat (chicken, beef, pork)

This can be a tough category of food for some kids, so if you’re kids are not big into eating meat (that is pretty normal) focus on the other foods for now. For kids that do like some meat, it is a great source of protein. 1 oz of meat contains about 7 grams of high-quality protein, though the fat will vary based on the type/cut of the meat you buy. Meat is also rich in iron and zinc which are important for growth and development in the body. 

6. Fatty Fish

Fatty fish are those that contain oil in their soft tissues and the cavity around their gut. While not all kids love fish, for those that do it is a great food to include regularly. Good fatty fish sources are salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines, and white fish. These fish are rich in nutrients that help promote weight gain and growth.

They contain Omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fats), as well as vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and iron. Many kids prefer fish in the form of tuna sandwiches or tuna on crackers. You can also experiment with adding fish into foods you serve in different ways, like these simple salmon burritos

7. Beans

Beans are a great source of plant-based protein for kids and also provide fiber, which helps with constipation. ¼ cup of beans has about 10 grams of protein as well as calcium, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C. Refried beans or beans mixed into other dishes tend to be most popular with kids/picky eaters. So focus on providing beans in a way they enjoy. T

hese white bean muffins are a favorite in our home. 

8. Nuts & seeds (and butters)

Nuts and seeds provide a lot of nutrition in a little package. Good sources include cashews, pumpkin seeds, almonds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, and chia seeds. You can also get these in nut butter form (which is often easier for younger kids) to avoid choking risk. 2 tbsp of peanut butter contains 16 grams of fat and 8 grams of protein.

Sunflower seed butter (a hypoallergenic choice) contains a similar 18 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein. Nut butter is a great choice for kids because you can get it in a wide variety (almond, cashew, sunflower, peanut butter) and serve it on toast, sandwiches, and mixed into foods like smoothies, oatmeal, muffins, etc. 

9. Tofu

Tofu is another great plant-based protein source. ½ cup contains 6 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. There are also many ways you can serve tofu and the great part is that it takes on the flavor of whatever you are cooking it with pretty well. 

My favorite way to serve tofu to kids is either crispy air-fried tofu, I use the extra firm version for this, or in a chocolate pudding (best with the silken tofu). Tofu is rich in plant-based iron as well as calcium. 

10. Protein powder/supplements

I saved this as the last one in the protein category because I always like to encourage whole-food sources of protein first. However, there are times when kids might benefit from a protein powder or a liquid protein supplement. If you’re thinking about adding in a supplement be sure to talk with your child’s doctor or pediatric dietitian to find the right fit.

You can read more on the best protein powder for kids in this post. Protein powders vary as far as their protein content so be sure to check the individual labels for serving size. I also don’t recommend giving adult protein powders to children. 

11. Avocado

This is one of my favorite foods for kids because it is rich in healthy fat and calories and is quite versatile. You can serve avocado plain (like on toast with butter), mixed into foods (like guacamole as a dip), or try avocado pudding, or add it to a smoothie for extra calories. 4 tbsp (¼ c) of avocado has 8.5 g of fat and is a good source of fiber.

These are a good bang for your buck when it comes to fat and calories in a small volume. A perfect, healthy food for weight gain in toddlers and kids. 

12. Oil (coconut, olive, avocado)

Oils are great for adding to food when cooking and can help bulk up the calories and fat in a meal. I like to use coconut oil when cooking food like pancakes because I like the flavor it adds and I tend to use avocado oil and olive oil when cooking veggies, meats, and eggs. Various oils have different types of fats and using a variety of both heart-healthy oils (like avocado and olive oil) and oil like coconut (higher in saturated fat) is best. 

13. Butter (grass-fed) or ghee

Adding butter to food makes everything taste better. For kids, especially babies, toddlers, and young kids, fat is key to brain growth and development. It is also a great way to promote weight gain.

When looking to add more calories, butter is a great way to do that. Butter is a great addition to toast, sandwiches, waffles, mixed into oatmeal, etc. Aside from fat (12 g fat per tablespoon), butter doesn’t have a whole lot of health benefits, so use it in combination with the other foods discussed in this post. 

14. Avocado mayonnaise

Mayo is a great addition to sandwiches/wraps, yummy mixed with tuna (another great fat/protein source), and good for homemade ranch dressing. Getting an avocado oil-based mayo ups the health profile. 

1 tbsp has 11 grams of fat, which can help add calories to food for your underweight toddler or child. Similar to butter, mayo doesn’t provide much more nutrition than simply adding fat/calories, so best to use it in combination with the other foods we discussed. 

15. Other healthy fat sources (also protein sources, see previous)

Nuts and seeds, nut and seed butter, fatty fish, full-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese).

Best foods for weight gain in toddlers and kids

High-calorie foods for kids (10 easy meal ideas)

Protein and fat are the two most important macronutrients to provide calories to promote weight gain. However, sometimes it can be hard to think of ways to put a meal together. Here are some of my favorite high-calorie meals/snacks for weight gain in underweight toddlers and kids. 

  1. Amped-up oatmeal
    • Cook oatmeal with full-fat milk, add in a drizzle of maple syrup, and creamy peanut butter, and sprinkle in hemp seeds. Add more milk to thin out as needed
  2. High protein/calorie smoothie
    • Mix in a blender: ½ cup full-fat milk, ¼ cup full-fat Greek yogurt, ½ frozen banana, 3-4 frozen strawberries, 1 tbsp ground flax seeds, (optional creamy peanut butter). Add more milk as needed for consistency. 
  3. Chocolate peanut butter shake
    • Mix in blender: ½ cup of full-fat milk (or alternative), 1 tbsp peanut butter, 1 tbsp cocoa powder, ½ frozen banana. 
  4. Powerful avocado toast
    • Whole grain toast with butter, topped with smashed avocado, and sprinkled with hemp seeds (and optional everything but the bagel seasoning). 
  5. Yogurt parfait 
    • Full-fat plain Greek yogurt drizzled with honey or maple syrup for sweetness (or a lightly sweetened yogurt like siggis triple cream), topped with fresh fruit and granola. 
  6. Peanut butter & banana toast
    • Whole grain toast with butter, peanut butter spread on top, topped with sliced bananas, and drizzled with honey then sprinkled with hemp seeds on top. 
  7. Easy egg sandwich
    • In a microwave-safe bowl coat bowl with avocado or olive oil, crack in 1-2 eggs, and whisk. Microwave for ~1 ½ -2 min. Based on the number of eggs. Toast two slices of whole grain bread, and spread with butter (and optional smashed avocado or a slice of cheese). Add egg between the bread slices and serve as a sandwich.
    • For toddlers, I like to cut into quarters. 
  8. Simple banana pancakes
    • Mash 1 very ripe banana in a bowl, add two eggs, and whisk together, add ½ tsp cinnamon (optional). In a skillet, add 1 tbsp coconut oil, and allow the oil to melt to coat the pan. Add ¼ of the pancake mixture to the pan on medium heat and cook for 1-2 min on each side, flip gently so they don’t fall apart. Smear with peanut butter, a drizzle of syrup and sprinkle with hemp seeds for an extra boost. 
  9. Basic bean & cheese burrito
    • Drain and rinse 1 can of black beans and add to a blender or food processor with ½ cup of mild salsa. Puree the two together until smooth. Add to a bowl and mix with 4 oz shredded cheddar cheese. (Optional: you can also add cooked rice to the bowl.) 
    • Warm whole grain/flour tortillas (~4-6) (fajita size) for about 30 seconds in the microwave or on the stovetop. Spread mixture onto the tortilla, fold in the ends then wrap in the sides. Place the burrito seam down onto a parchment-lined pan.
    • Bake in the oven at 375 degrees for about 10 min. Or you can also warm in a pan on the stovetop. Serve with sour cream and or guacamole for extra calories. 
  10. Extra mac and cheese
    • Use your favorite boxed mac and cheese and after adding the butter (before the cheese) add in ¼ cup of full-fat plain Greek yogurt. When blended, add in the cheese pack and milk. Optional-also add some cooked frozen peas for extra protein. 

High-calorie snacks for kids

Generally speaking, kids need to eat every 3-4 hours as part of a normal appetite/hunger cycle. For most kids, this means 2-3 snacks per day. If you are trying to maximize calorie intake, focus on nutritious snacks that contain both protein and fat. Here are a few favorites.  

  • Whole grain crackers with cheese, peanut butter or hummus
  • Fruit and cheese
  • Full-fat yogurt with granola
  • Chomps beef stick (or beef jerky) with fruit
  • Whole grain toast with peanut butter
  • Hard-boiled egg with cheese and crackers
  • A glass of milk (Fair Life whole milk has 13 g of protein and 8 grams of fat per cup)
  • Cheesy egg muffins (blend 10 eggs and ½ c cottage cheese in a blender or food processor. (Optional: hand mix in 1 c of ham/bacon/sausage), add to 12 slot muffin tin, and bake at 375 degrees for about 18 minutes.)
  • Avocado toast
  • Banana or apple slices with peanut butter (or other nut/seed butter)
  • Protein drink (homemade or premade)
  • Frozen yogurt popsicles (mix plain Greek yogurt with blended fresh fruit and 1-2 tsp honey or maple syrup & freeze in popsicle molds.)
  • Fruit with yogurt dip (mix ½ cup plain whole milk Greek yogurt with ½ tsp vanilla extract, ¼ tsp cinnamon and ½ tbsp maple syrup or honey.)

In summary

If you are concerned with your child’s weight, start by talking to their pediatrician. They can review your child’s growth patterns and determine if there is a need for concern. If they are losing or plateauing in weight, getting help from a pediatric dietitian would be beneficial to assess your child’s diet and needs. 

It is important to be careful not to put too much pressure on eating at mealtimes because this can further damage their relationship with food. However, focusing on the best food for weight gain in toddlers and kids is beneficial to supporting their growth and development. 

Foods containing protein and fat as well as iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D are important for growth. Many other vitamins and minerals also play a role in supporting healthy development. 

If you need additional support and would like to schedule a 1:1 consult with a pediatric dietitian, you can reach out to me via my contact page or schedule a consult here. 

Pediatric Dietitian Jessica Gust

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Jessica Gust, MS, RDN
P 805.550.1724 F 805.476.1435
[email protected]
405 E. Branch St. #102 Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

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