How Children Can Gain Weight Healthily

A child eating chips with guacamole.

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While many kids naturally gain enough weight as they grow, kids that are underweight may need a little help. You might think gaining weight should be easy for kids. Just do all of the things that experts advise that you don't do when you are concerned about being overweight. However, it's not usually that simple—and it's important to gain weight in a healthy way.

For one thing, simply trying to overeat or eat whatever you want to gain weight isn't necessarily going to be healthy. Plus, kids who have problems gaining weight usually don't have a very good appetite, so they may not eat much, to begin with.

Gaining Weight Healthily

Although many parents think that their kids don't eat as well as they would like, unless they are actually not gaining weight well, it may not really be an issue. Note that there is a difference between being thin and underweight. If your child is thin and eats a lot of junk food, encourage healthier eating and give them a multivitamin if you think they are missing out on important nutrients.

Research shows that children who have difficulty gaining weight, such as kids with limited diets, are more likely to have adverse impacts on their nutrition, growth, physical activity, and overall health.

Always check in with your child's pediatrician before making big adjustments to your child's diet and to find out if these changes are recommended.

Kids who really need help gaining weight might include those who are underweight, picky eaters, children with chronic medical conditions who may need a special diet, and children who take medication that may interfere with their appetite.

Gaining weight can be a challenge for some kids taking stimulants, such as Adderall XR, Concerta, or Vyvanse, to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These medications often reduce appetite, making it less appealing for kids to want to eat. Adjusting the dosage or changing medications can help.

Whatever the reason, some general tips for healthy weight gain can include not skipping meals and eating four or five small meals a day, instead of trying to eat three bigger meals, since your child likely won't eat all of them anyway. Additionally, encourage one or two regular healthy snacks each day.

Avoid low-nutrient, energy-dense foods, such as junk foods with empty calories, including candy, chips, and soft drinks. Eating high-nutrient, energy-dense foods, which are high in calories, but also have vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, such as whole milk, yogurt made with whole milk, and peanut butter.

Steer clear of low-energy or non-energy-containing drinks, such as diet soda and fruit drinks, as they can fill up tummies without providing much in the way of calories or nutrients. Also, limit drinks at mealtimes, so that your child doesn't fill up too much to want to eat enough food.

Most importantly, encourage your child to eat when they are most hungry, and to at least eat something, instead of totally skipping a meal, if they aren't hungry at a certain time of day.

Consult a registered dietician for extra help, especially if your child has malabsorption or a chronic illness causing them to be underweight.

Helpful Foods

In general, while you want your child who needs help to gain weight to eat high-calorie foods, these should be high-nutrient or nutrient-dense, energy-dense healthy foods rather than low-nutrient food. So you want foods with a good amount of protein and fat and other nutrients in a small package, such as:

  • Cereal with whole milk
  • Cheese or yogurt made with whole milk or 2% milk
  • Fried eggs
  • Orange juice
  • Peanut butter
  • Trail mix with dried fruit, seeds, and nuts
  • Whole milk or 2% milk

You might also make a list of the foods that your child actually likes to eat and then try to find more nutrient-dense and energy-dense versions of those foods. This should include fruits and vegetables and a variety of foods from all of the food groups.

Supplements

Although nutrition experts usually don't recommend giving kids supplements to help them gain weight, it can often help to supplement the food they are eating and drinking with extra calories, such as by adding the following nutrient-dense foods to certain other foods:

  • Avocados
  • Cheese
  • Honey
  • Instant breakfast mix
  • Margarine
  • Mayonnaise
  • Peanut butter
  • Powdered milk
  • Salad dressing
  • Sour cream
  • Wheat germ

For example, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of powdered milk to 8 ounces of whole milk (150 calories) can add an extra 30 to 60 calories to your child's glass of milk. Or you could add a packet of meal replacement powder to a glass of whole milk and add an extra 130 calories to that glass of milk for a total of 280 calories.

Tips

You can also substitute milk or powdered milk for water in some recipes, like when making pudding or oatmeal.

Or you could add a serving of cheese to some of your child's favorite foods to boost them by about an extra 60 calories.

Even a banana can get a boost of calories by adding a tablespoon of peanut butter, to get your child an extra 100 calories for this snack.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that many of these tips for gaining weight aren't usually necessary for toddlers who may only eat one meal a day. This can be developmentally normal at this age, as many toddlers and some preschoolers may only eat one good meal a day and they will only pick at the other meals.

This kind of toddler diet is usually normal as long as your child doesn't overdo it on milk and juice and they are gaining weight well. Older kids should be eating meals more regularly. Talk to your pediatrician to confirm whether or not your child is at a healthy weight and if any dietary interventions are needed.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Helping your child: tips for parents and other caregivers. Reviewed October 2019.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy food choices for your family. Updated March 4, 2021.

  3. Chao HC. Association of picky eating with growth, nutritional status, development, physical activity, and health in preschool childrenFront Pediatr. 2018;6:22. doi:10.3389/fped.2018.00022

  4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Safe weight gain tips for underweight kids. Reviewed April 2021.

  5. Powell SG, Frydenberg M, Thomsen PH. The effects of long-term medication on growth in children and adolescents with ADHD: an observational study of a large cohort of real-life patientsChild Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2015;9:50. doi:10.1186/s13034-015-0082-3

Additional Reading
  • Adam Drewnowski, Victor Fulgoni III, Comparing the Nutrient Rich Foods Index with "Go," "Slow," and "Whoa" Foods, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 111, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 280-284.
  • American Dietetic Association. Healthy Weight Gain. www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6852