While much focus in the U.S. has gone towards childhood obesity, many families across the country actually deal with the opposite problem. While thousands of parents worry about their children who are overweight, there are also thousands of us out there who worry about an underweight child.
There are various reasons that a child could be underweight for his or her age and height. Perhaps the child is an extremely picky eater, has a super fast metabolism, or is just so tall that they never seem to be able to develop much of a layer of fat. Obviously, there can be medical reasons that cause a child to remain underweight, as well.
Of four children, my husband and I have one who remains consistently underweight. At birth, our son weighed in at a hefty 9lbs., 6 ounces. He breastfed solely for many months, and took to solid foods just fine. In fact, his favorite baby food was squash! However, about two weeks before his third birthday, our son came down with the flu for the first time in his life. It hit him very hard, and he narrowly avoided being admitted into the hospital. By the time he began to recover, he had lost 4 pounds. It doesn’t sound like much, but 4 pounds can be an awful lot of weight for a preschooler to lose. From that time on, no matter how much we have tried to help our son catch up weight-wise, he really has just never been able to re-establish a weight that reaches above the 25th percentile on childhood growth charts. Currently 12.5 years old, our son is at the 49th percentile for height, and only at the 16th percentile for weight. He has shot up a few inches in the past year, leaving him looking downright skeletal. Trying to keep his weight up, or help him to gain some weight, without resorting to just feeding him a ton of junk food, is a challenge, to say the least.
If you are looking for tips and ideas for helping an underweight child to maintain or even gain weight, consider the following suggestions.
Stock up on the healthiest snacks that your underweight child will eat – Our son has been a picky eater ever since that bout with the flu 9 years ago. It seems that the excessive vomiting during that illness permanently affected his attitude and feelings towards food to such a degree that we have not been able to reverse it. However, there are several healthy snacks that he will eat which help keep his calorie intake up. Even if you have a picky eater on your hands, try these healthy snacks: peanut butter on apples; string cheese; granola bars; yogurt raisins; granola with dried fruit; bananas; and yogurt drinks.
Try to stick to quality meats – Processed chicken nuggets and Lunchables might be something your underweight child will eat, but don’t let these kinds of products become a staple of your child’s diet. If your family eats meat, your underweight child especially should be fed the best quality foods you can supply. Try roasting a turkey and freezing leftovers in small portions that you can thaw and feed your underweight child conveniently. Frozen chicken can easily be baked in a roasting bag with a can of cream of chicken soup for a substantial entrée that even picky eaters may eat. I often prepare scrambled eggs for my son because it is one source of quality protein that I can almost always get him to eat. It doesn’t have to be fancy or super expensive, but quality protein should be available to an underweight child. They need extra growth support, and a consistent diet of pepperoni and hot dogs just isn’t going to cut it.
Whole milk can help – If your underweight child tolerates milk products, whole milk can be an easy way to get in a few more calories during the day. I confess there are times when I even use chocolate syrup in my son’s whole milk for weeks on end, just to get him to drink a little bit more. He gets sick of it after a while, but it does the trick most of the time.
Look for some simple, but less obvious, food choices – For instance, the one dish my son will always eat heartily, is Mexican beans and rice. From the time of that flu when he was a toddler, during times when he seems to be looking particularly thin, we try to offer beans and rice as much as possible. He won’t eat cheese on it, unfortunately (I’d really love to sneak in a bit more protein and calories!), but he will eat a large plate full of this dish.
Make an attempt to stick to treats that have some nutritional value- My son would eat an endless amount of gummi candies and Jolly Rancher suckers if I’d let him. I try really hard to rarely allow him these kinds of treats, and stick to heartier treats instead. Treats like pudding, chewy chocolate-chip granola bars, and ice cream not only satisfy his sweet tooth, but they offer some measure of nutrition, as well. If you are going to give them cookies, try to make the time to bake them from scratch rather than giving them packaged, processed cookies. This way, you know exactly what went into the cookies and know that your child is actually consuming real butter and real eggs in their dessert. In any case, try to offer only foods that have some nutritional value. You don’t want your underweight child suppressing their already small appetite with nutritionally absent foods like chips, hard candy, or gummi worms.
Consider offering your child a few extra snacks per day – It’s likely that many underweight children just don’t think about food very often. My son doesn’t care much about food, so he doesn’t usually ask for any outside of regular meals. I have to ask him throughout the day if he’d like a yogurt, or string cheese, or an apple with peanut butter, etc. He’s almost always happy to sit and actually eat the snacks, he just doesn’t think to ask for them. You can likely add 300 to 500 calories per day to your underweight child’s daily intake simply by offering a few extra snacks throughout the day. Even if it’s just a piece of wheat bread spread with peanut butter, or a glass of whole chocolate milk, it’s still extra calories, and extra nutrition, in their body.
Helping an underweight child to keep their weight up can be a really tough task. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you to create some solutions that will help your underweight child gain a little weight.