By Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD, CDN with Elyse Falk, MS, RD, CDN
A Real Mom’s Question
How should a parent handle instances when one child has a HUGE sweet tooth, and is underweight but the other kids in the same family are a normal weight or overweight? For example, at dessert time, all the kids want ice cream – maybe one child shouldn’t have a ton and the other really could use it. How does a parent deal with this situation in a way that doesn’t create food issues?
Two Real Moms’ Answers
Focus on Equality
First and foremost, everyone should be treated equally at the dinner table. In order to prevent any type of discord between the kids, you’re far better off teaching them the importance of nutrition and their health in a more neutral setting.
Regardless of weight, children need to focus on eating balanced meals and snacks. Sweets, like cake, cookies, and candy, are what we like to call “sometimes foods,” because they are foods that are okay to eat some of the time.
The child with the huge sweet tooth has to learn to eat an array of flavors – not just those made mostly of sugar – otherwise they may develop nutrient deficiencies or simply close their mind to the idea of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, eggs and low-fat dairy. Even an underweight child should not make sweets his or her primary source of nourishment. Instead, teach them to focus on increasing the amount of nutrient-dense foods they consume throughout the day. Young children need to learn to eat the kind of food that’s necessary for their bodies, and observe healthy role models who guide them, so that they can grow into confident eaters.
Did your family’s pediatrician recommend that your child gain weight, or are you assuming this? Do your children’s height and weight fall into in the same percentiles on the growth chart? If so, it is probably safe to assume that both of your children are at appropriate weights. In general, the focus should not necessarily be on gaining weight. Instead, it should be on eating enough nutritious food on a daily basis. Consider seeking counseling with a registered dietitian.
If your child’s weight is truly beneath their height on the growth curve, your child has not grown in a year, or if a physician prescribed weight gain, then you’ll need to focus on increasing the quantity of food your child is consuming while simultaneously looking for ways to add nutrient-dense foods to their intake (this refers to a small serving of food that is high in calories). As Mommy Faulk reminds, children have smaller stomachs than adults and often can’t consume large amounts of food at a time. Because of this, they may need to eat smaller, nutrient-dense meals more often.
You may also want to ask yourself: Is my child a picky eater? Don’t forget that, just because school sets aside time for lunch doesn’t mean your child is eating. Perhaps something happened at school that is causing them not to eat, or maybe they don’t have enough time to eat. This may be the problem, especially if your child has lost a significant amount of weight in the past 2 months (>/= 2%) and could possibly put them at risk of developing an eating disorder. In other words, in order to remedy the situation, it’s essential to first determine why your child is not meeting their nutrition needs.
Quick Tips to Increase Intake Without Increasing Quantity
- Add 1-2 tbsp of wheat germ to yogurt, meatloaf, cereal, muffins, etc.
- Add an extra slice of cheese to their sandwich.
- Add granola to low fat yogurt or allow them to eat it plain.
- Put peanut butter on their muffin.
- Make smoothies with protein powder and lots of berries.
- Add a morning snack of raisins or nuts at around 10 a.m.
- Provide a snack of crackers and a spread like hummus before bed.
- Encourage healthy fats such as avocado, olives, olive oil, nuts, and nut butters.
- Have all-natural nutrition bars and packaged low-fat milk available on the go.
- Let them have a mini-meal when they get home from school, like a sandwich, grapes, low-fat cheese, hearty soup, homemade English muffin pizza, etc.
- Add olive oil to whole-grain pasta and veggies; let child dip whole-grain bread into olive oil with their meal.
Behaviors to Implement
- Talk to the school to help your child to remember to eat.
- Help your child relax before meals and decrease anxiety to prevent emotional fullness.
- Encourage your child to help choose the menu.
- Do not discuss food issues and/or weight at the table.
- Focus on your child’s behaviors around food and commend them for trying new foods or practicing self-care.
- Make meals an enjoyable time so they are not rushing to finish and leave the table.
- If the pediatrician is concerned, have them talk to the child with a parent in the room and explain why they need to get more nutrition.