Healthy snacks to help kids gain weight

Healthy snacks to help kids gain weight

Dr. Stan Cohen, MD

Is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Center for Digestive Health Care / GI Care for Kids, whose books on nutrition for parents led him to start Nutrition4Kids with his co-founders.

Finding snacks to help your child gain weight? That almost sounds like a mistake or way too easy. But there are actually a lot of kids who are underweight and "skinny." They may be growing taller, but they aren't putting on weight the way they should or they want to participate in athletics and want some extra muscle and energy. 

They might be:

  • Losing calories and nutrients from malabsorption
  • Using up too many calories with an illness
  • Not eating very much / not much of an appetite
  • Not many choices because of food allergies

Whatever the problem, you as their parents and your doctor need or want them to gain weight. Again, that sounds almost too easy, but for many kids that actually is hard, especially when we add in the idea of making their snacks (and meals) healthy. Another article focuses on the meals. Here we are focused on snacks. 

Obviously, you can offer candy bars, pastries and sodas, but those aren't the healthy snacks that are going to provide the best options or teach them how to maintain their weight when they are adults. It's not that they can't have an occasional cupcake or other sweet—as long as they are eating a healthy diet otherwise. 

Basic Principles

  • Calories add up. An extra apple or slice of bread a day adds a hundred calories. A hundred calories a day means that in 1 month, you've added about 3000 calories. That's almost enough to gain a pound (it takes about 3500 extra calories to gain a pound). That can be a danger (of too much weight), unless those extra pounds get turned into muscle with sports, activities and exercise.    
  • Increase the calories in each bite: a baked potato is a diet food really-until you begin adding cheese and butter and sour cream or ground beef with gravy—then that loaded baked potato is also loaded with calories. So load everything. Instead of offering a cracker, put hummus, salsa, cheese, peanut butter (or another nut butter) on it. If they're going to drink milk, stir in instant breakfast or milk powder (see double milk below). 
  • Water is healthy, but it doesn't have any calories and can fill kids up. So if you want them to drink water or other healthy fluids like milk, or offer it after you give them a sandwich or snack. 
  • Don't let them fill up on snacks too close to meal time. You may be giving them a healthy snack but then they might not eat their next meal.   

Suggestions

  • Vegetables are low calorie foods (about 25-50 calories per cup), perfect for someone who wants to lose or control their weight. But they can be good to help weight gain if you use them to dip into hummus, ranch dressing or cheese (think broccoli and melted cheese).  
  • Fruits (they average 100 calories per cup) taste great with chocolate, peanut butter, or honey. (an apple with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter can be 250 to 300 calories). 
  • Double milk. If you use whole milk and add Nido (which is whole milk powder that is normally added to water), that brings the calories up to almost 40 calories per ounce—more than in the highly advertised, high calorie drinks, and without all that extra sugar. Even if you use 2% milk and add non-fat dry milk to add less fat, you still get almost 30 calories per ounce. 
  • Super shake. Add a scoop of rich ice cream to a glass of milk. Then a packet of instant breakfast. You can add fruit or more flavoring like chocolate syrup, if desired. You can use soy or alternative milks and ice creams. Great calories (440 / 8 ounces of whole milk, 1 scoop ice cream and a packet of instant breakfast) and protein. But it's filling so only do in the early afternoon or after the evening meal, which is even better timing.
  • Bread has roughly 100 calories per slice (a bagel or large pita has 200 calories). Top with something nutritious and it's a great snack (or mini-meal). And follow that with a nutritious drink or water.
  • Granola, trail mix, yogurt are all great, quick snacks, especially when you mix them with raisins or other fruits—and of course, dried fruits are too. 
  • You can put fruit in a waffle cone and top with yogurt or frozen yogurt
  • Put yogurt and fruit between graham crackers or make a fruit kabob and top with chocolate
  • Wrap a slice of meat (careful with deli meats, they often have extra salt) around some cheese. A fun snack. 
  • Careful with how much toddlers put in their mouths at once. No nuts or skins for kids under 3. 

100 Calories (or more)

  • Fruit 1 cup
  • Dried fruit ¼ cup (raisins, apples, apricots)
  • Vegetables 2 cups
  • Breads 1 slice (an English muffin is ½ that)
  • Pasta 1 cup (without sauce)
  • Meat (lean) 2 ounces
  • Egg 1
  • Cheese 1 ounce
  • Yogurt ½ cup
  • Milk (whole) 2/3 cup
  • Ice Cream ¼ cup
  • Nuts 1 1/2 tablespoons
  • Nut Butter 1 tablespoon
  • Hummus 1 tablespoon
  • Toaster waffle 1
  • Pretzel 1 ounce
  • Chips (baked) 1 ounce 
  • Kale chips 2 cups
  • Potato chips 10 chips
  • Popcorn 3 cups 
  • Honey 2 tablespoons

We'd also love you to share your favorite snacks and suggestions (send them to us with the ingredients and a picture if you can).

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