My fussy eater is not putting on weight, what can I do?
Many parents I speak to are really concerned that their child is not eating enough.
Parents are also often worried that their child is too skinny or doesn’t seem to be putting on weight.
The underlying concern is usually that a child will not grow properly or that not having enough food, calories or nutrition may be harmful in the long term.
Although there are picky eaters who are not able to consume enough calories to grow, this is uncommon.
Even among super selective eaters it’s incredible what our amazing bodies can do, even given the most limited of diets.
If you are concerned that your child is underweight or losing weight, it’s important to get them checked out.
Having that worry is not okay and can also lead to inadvertent unhealthy feeding practices.
Often when a child is checked out, they are tracking on their own growth curve. I know that I had ongoing heated debates over my second child as he was 95th percentile for height but only 5th percentile for weight.
My son was born a little early and super skinny and although he breast fed well, he was always tall but very slim. His weight didn’t please the health nurse as it was 5th percentile (but then someone has to be) but it did track nicely along his own path.
Genetics can play a large role in how our children grow too so sometimes that can give us a new perspective when looking at our child.
However, if our child does need additional calories and they are picky there are some strategies to support them:
Strategies for weight gain for fussy eaters
1. No pressure – the first instinct when we have a child who doesn’t eat very much is to push them to eat more. Although this seems logical, it can often backfire and especially if we have a hesitant eater.
Taking pressure off is usually more effective in the long run. I was speaking to a mum whose daughter was losing weight and had been told to increase her calories. She started out by sitting with her and making sure she ate a certain amount of everything served and then moved to “you can’t do this, until you’ve eaten that”.
Food and feeding got to be miserable for everyone and the outcome was that her daughter began to eat less, not more.
2. Schedule meals – having set meals is usually better for increasing appetite than feeding ad hoc or on-demand. I know this may seem counter intuitive. If we’re trying to help a child eat more, then surely feeding them when they are hungry makes sense?
It makes total sense on the surface, but what tends to happen is that a child is either filling up on less nutrient dense snacks than they would eat at meals – and therefore not putting on the weight we’d like.
Or they are ‘topping up’, which is when they’re eating a handful of this and a handful of that and never getting full, but not feeling super hungry either. Doing this often means meals and therefore high calorie foods don’t get eaten.
3. Add in fats/calories – If we have a child who doesn’t eat a lot of volume, then making every mouthful count is a good idea.
Even if a child is on a limited diet, there are many calorie dense foods that feature on fussy eater menus.
If we are adding to a food already eaten, I would advise always starting with very small amounts to gain acceptance. We can create the most fabulously nutrient rich and calorie dense food, but if a child turns their nose up, we’re sunk!
If we are offering something new, like a dip for fruit, we will probably have to persevere for a while so that our child becomes familiar with the new offering and is comfortable about trying it.
Modelling, without putting on pressure is usually the best way to approach this.
i) Peanut, tahini, or other nut butters – these are a great source of fat and nutrients. We can serve on bread or toast as they were designed for, but don’t forget other places too like crackers or fruit muffins.
Add a little to smoothies or baking. We can also soften and use for a dip for veggies or fruit. Or we can spread on anything from pancakes to Weetbix.
ii) Cream/coconut cream – we can add cream to many places we would usually use milk, like cereal, hot drinks, pancakes.
iii) Cheese – is often a favourite for fussy eaters. There are many places where we can add some extra. Grated over veggies or sprinkled onto potatoes. Added to the pancake or the pasta (next to it is also fine).
iv) Butter/olive oil – adding more butter or oil can be fairly simple. An extra scrape of butter on the toast or adding some to the veggies. We can cook in a little extra oil or add some to baking or pasta.
v) Yoghurt – is a frequently accepted food. It can be used as a dip for fruit, added to smoothies, or semi frozen like an ice cream. We can also spread on pancakes or add to cereal or even savoury foods like chicken.
vi) Dried fruit – is calorie dense and doesn’t take up a lot of tummy space. Many fussy eaters like one or more of raisins, dates, apricots etc. as a snack. We can also add to baking, cereal, fruit, or veggies or incorporate into a muesli bar or bliss ball.
vii) Potato – fries are frequently accepted by picky eaters. If hot chips are what they will accept at the moment, then working on home-made, or store bought but home-cooked is a great next step.
viii) Avocado – I’m surprised how many fussy eaters are okay with avocado. If it’s not a win on its own, it can often be added to smoothies and baking. Or mixed with cream cheese for a simple guacamole.
ix) Other dairy – milk, cottage cheese, sour cream can all be added to dishes. I frequently blend cottage cheese to make it smooth then use in a cheese sauce. Or add milk to recipes that ask for water, like when I’m making bread.
x) Nuts – are a great source of trace elements like zinc and selenium. If a child is happy to snack on them then great, and they are crunchy and dry so can be a win. If not, then we can grind and substitute for some of the flour in baking or use in bliss balls or muesli bars.
4. Add in protein – darker meats are generally higher calorie and higher fat. So, for example, chicken drumsticks or thighs (which we can slice, crumb and nugget if necessary) are a good bet.
Mince is commonly accepted and is easy to use in burgers, bolognaise or meatballs.
Eggs, if not eaten on their own are usually fairly easy to add into recipes like pancakes, fritters, muffins, cakes and biscuits. You can also blend into sauces or add to rice or potato.
5. Drinks – drinking is frequently easier than eating for fussy eaters. But it’s important not to fill the tummy with drinks instead of food if a child is over a year old.
Either serving as a snack or near the end of a meal is better than having instead of food.
Smoothies can be a great way to add in calories if accepted by a child. Nut butters, avocado, yoghurt and cream can be easy to add into a drink.
6. Desserts – there are many ways we can introduce more calories through desserts while still focusing on nutrients.
Dairy-based desserts like custard or yoghurt are often accepted. Or we can add cream to fruit or pancakes.
If we do have a child who needs to put on weight, it’s always a balancing act between making foods more calorie dense and then they eat less as they are more filling and making sure we maximise opportunities for adding more calories in.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, please do get it checked out as often they are growing within their own curve. Without that constant worry you can still work on strategies but without the added pressure.
For more support around getting food eaten please check out our videos: https://the-confident-eater.teachable.com/p/trying-foods
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/