Underweight toddlers are a genuine concern for their parents. High-calorie foods can help toddlers gain weight and grow better.
I had an underweight toddler, so I know first-hand how worried you may be. As a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve worked with many picky toddlers and helped them gain weight. In this article, you’ll see my favorite nutrient-rich foods for toddlers to gain weight and how to use them in your child’s daily diet.
- How you know if your toddler is too thin, or underweight
2. Which foods are high in calories and promote weight gain
3. Other tips for feeding the toddler who needs to gain weight
The Underweight Toddler: How Do You Know if Weight is a Problem?
When my first child was “diagnosed” as underweight, my pediatrician alerted me at my daughter’s annual check-up. He told me my child wasn’t gaining weight as expected. He based this on the CDC growth charts for children.
While the child growth charts are the gold standard for evaluating overall kid’s growth, there are some other ways you can tell if your little one isn’t gaining weight:
- Appears thin, or small for age, and lacks “baby fat”
- Isn’t outgrowing his clothing size
- Is noticeably smaller than peers of the same age
Why are Certain Foods Better for Weight Gain?
Food is the first thing I advise parents to address. This is because toddlers are still in that “learning phase” with eating. We want them to eat food and learn about it while doing so.
Foods with a natural source of fat will always be the highest calorie foods you can offer. Naturally high-fat foods like nuts, seeds, and butter are good examples of this.
You can also add fat to food. Foods made with fat, like French fries or granola, will be higher in calories.
If food isn’t high in fat naturally, then adding a fat source is a good way to increase its calories.
Optimize Your Feeding Schedule, Too
While high-calorie foods are the focus of this article, your feeding schedule deserves a mention as well. When feeding an underweight toddler, it’s important to have a schedule for eating.
I like to call these “opportunities to eat.”
Set up your routine with 3 meals and 3 snacks per day – 6 eating opportunities – so that your toddler has multiple opportunities throughout the day to get adequate calories and nutrition.
Focusing on 6 eating sessions releases the pressure on you and your child to eat optimally at every meal or snack. It’s likely with this approach your toddler will meet his nutritional needs for weight gain.
High-Calorie Foods for Toddlers (By Food Group)
I think it’s helpful to have a list of foods that are high in calories. Although there are many processed options to add to the list, I have focused on whole foods. You can’t beat the nutrient content in some of these foods!
So, not only are you getting the calories for your toddler, you’re boosting nutrients as well.
I’ve added some serving suggestions for these foods, which can boost their overall calorie content even further.
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Nuts and seeds are naturally high in fat, and are an excellent source of healthy fats and vitamin E. Add nut butters to crackers, bread or toast. Chop nuts so they aren’t a choking hazard for your toddler. And beans are a great finger food for toddlers, especially my Baby Bean Bites.
- Peanut butter
- Cashew butter
- Chocolate hazelnut spread
- Refried beans
- Beans topped with shredded cheese
Full fat dairy products should be the offering when your toddler is underweight. Thankfully, there are many foods in the dairy food category that children like.
Note: If your child cannot consume dairy products or you choose not to serve them, pea protein milk or soy milk are the highest calorie plant-based milk alternatives to use as a substitute.
- Whole milk
A cup before bedtime is a good way to get some additional calories in. Keep milk drinking to 3 servings a day or 16 to 24 ounces. More than that may interfere with your toddler’s appetite and reduce eating in other areas.
- Full fat cheeses
Skip the low-fat versions! Many kids like melted cheese (e.g., quesadilla or grilled cheese sandwich), spreadable cheeses, or shredded cheese options.
- Colby cheese (My favorite cheese as a child, and for a grilled cheese sandwich.)
- Cheddar cheese
- American cheese (A frequent snack for my kids when they were younger!)
- Full fat yogurt
Any flavored, full fat yogurt is a nutritious food for toddlers to gain weight. Yogurt with fruit on the bottom is even higher in calories. I’ve done the homework to help you select the best yogurt for kids.
- Ice Cream (try it straight up or mixed into a milkshake.)
- Chocolate Milk (and other flavored milks like strawberry or vanilla milk)
If your toddler is two years or older, you can offer flavored milk. Thankfully, there are a few low sugar chocolate milk products for children. Current recommendations advise you to avoid offering children under two years any form of added sugar.
Here are some of the highest calorie fruits for toddlers to gain weight:
- Dried cranberries
- Dried apricots
- Dried mango
Protein Foods: Meats, Fish and Eggs
Red meat as a stand-alone protein option is one of the highest calorie meats to eat. Shred or dice/chop meats as they can be tough for a toddler to chew. Or serve meat the baby-led weaning way, cut into finger-length strips.
Here are some of my other favorite high calorie protein sources for toddlers:
- Chicken Drumstick (and other dark meat pieces like chicken and turkey with the skin)
- Ground beef
- Ribs (pork or beef)
- Oily fish like salmon
- Fried fish
There aren’t many veggies that are high in caloric intake, but these are the highest. You can boost the veggie calories further by adding butter to corn and peas, swiping avocado on toast and fry, saute or roast potatoes in oil.
- French fries
- Sweet Potatoes
Fats have about 50 calories per teaspoon. They will always be a calorie boost to any foods you add them to. Here are some ideas:
- Olive oil
And here are some ways to use them:
- Swipe butter on bread before you make a peanut butter sandwich
- Add mayonnaise to sandwiches, use it on the outside of bread for a grilled cheese sandwich, or let your little one use it as a dip for veggies and French fries
- Toss some oil onto salad, raw veggies, or cook veggies with a little oil
Toddlers usually enjoy grain foods as part of their diet, even when they’re underweight. Use grain foods as a vehicle for additional fat sources and calories. Some higher calorie grains for toddlers are:
- Breakfast cereal, especially granola or cereals with added fruit like Raisin Bran
You can add fats like butter or olive oil, nut butters, and oils to these foods to boost calories even more.
If you’re offering cereals, add whole milk or a high calorie plant-based alternative to increase calories further.
Other Foods for Toddlers to Gain Weight
You don’t want to focus too heavily on these foods, because they contain something you should keep an eye on: added sugar.
But, they can help you get more calories into your toddler and tip the calories in the right direction.
- Maple syrup
- Pastries and Donuts
Need More Help with Feeding Your Toddler?
Check out our resources, especially The Nourished Child Blueprint program. Get the full picture on nourishing your toddler, inside and out!