Underweight toddlers are a genuine concern for their parents. There are foods to help toddlers gain weight and they tend to be high in calories. This list of food for toddlers to gain weight will help!
I had an underweight toddler, so I know first-hand how worried you may be.
As a pediatric nutritionist and registered dietitian, I’ve worked with many picky toddlers and helped them gain weight with healthy foods.
In this article, you’ll see my favorite nutrient-rich foods with extra calories that help toddlers gain weight and how to use them in your child’s diet.
- How to know if your toddler is too thin, or underweight
- Which foods are high in calories and promote weight gain
- Other tips for feeding the toddler who needs to gain weight
When my first child was “diagnosed” as underweight, my pediatrician alerted me at my daughter’s annual check-up when he looked at my child’s growth curve.
He told me my child wasn’t gaining weight as expected. He based this on the CDC growth chart 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 a great option to offer. Naturally high-fat foods like nuts, seeds, dry fruits, and seed butters are good examples of this.
You can also add sources of fat to food like butter, sour cream, and vegetable oils. Foods made with fat, like French fries or granola, will also be higher in calories.
If food is low in fat naturally, then adding a fat source is a good way to ensure enough calories.
RELATED: How to Talk with Toddlers About Food
Get your guide to help your toddler eat:
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 predictable 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 plenty of 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 get adequate nutrition for weight gain.
Also, encourage self-feeding. Toddlers like to be in control.
Finger foods are a great way to accomplish this.
High-Calorie Foods for Toddlers to Help with Weight Gain (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 which tend to be a source of healthy high calorie foods.
You can’t beat the nutrient content in some of these foods!
So, not only are you providing 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. Not sure how much food to give your toddler? I’ve got you covered with portion sizes for toddlers.
Nuts, Seeds, and Legumes
Nuts and seeds are naturally higher calorie foods because of their fat content. They are an excellent source of healthy fats and vitamin E.
Add nut butter to crackers, bread, or toast. If you offer nuts, chop them so they aren’t a choking hazard. And beans can be offered as a finger food, or you can make them into my popular Baby Bean Bites.
Here are some ideas:
- Peanut butter
- Cashew butter
- Chocolate hazelnut spread
- Cashews, chopped
- Peanuts, chopped
- Refried beans
- Beans topped with shredded cheese
Full-fat dairy products should be the option when your toddler is underweight.
Thankfully, there are many foods in the dairy food category that children like.
- Whole milk and dairy foods made with whole milk (see below)
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, for toddlers. More than that may interfere with their appetite and reduce eating in other areas.
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.
- Full-fat cheeses
Skip the low-fat versions!
Many kids like melted cheese (e.g., a quesadilla or a grilled cheese sandwich), spreadable cheese, or shredded cheese options.
- Colby cheese (My favorite cheese as a child, and for a grilled cheese sandwich.)
- Cheddar cheese
- Cheese slices (great as a snack)
- American cheese (A frequent snack for my kids when they were younger!)
- Full-fat yogurt (made with whole milk)
Any flavored, full-fat yogurt is a nutritious food for toddlers and will aid them in gaining 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 milk 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
- 100% fruit juice
Protein Foods: Meats, Fish and Eggs
Red meat like beef or lamb is a nutrient-rich protein option. Shred, dice, or 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 nutrient-dense 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 calories, but these are the highest.
You can boost the veggie calories further by adding butter to corn and peas, swiping avocado on toast, and frying, sauteing, or roasting 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
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 whole grains as a vehicle for an additional fat source and calories.
Some high 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 butter, and other oils to these foods to boost calories even more.
If you’re offering cereal, add whole milk or a high-calorie plant-based alternative to increase calories further.
Other Food 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 and tend to be a source of empty calories.
But, they can help you get more calories into your toddler and help with good weight gain.
- 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!