Underweight and skinny kids

While all current health media focus is on overweight children, sometimes parents find themselves with the opposite problem – underweight children. Are you worried that your child is too skinny?

But before you begin to worry, you should consider whether your children’s slimness may actually be part of their genetic make-up.

"Parents should also consider that maybe their child is actually a healthy weight but they can’t see it because the rest of the family tends to carry a little extra weight? Or perhaps some of the other kids in the school photo are actually a little over-fat and that makes your child look underweight?"

Provided your local medical doctor has told you there is no underlying medical problem or cause for your child being underweight, parents could apply the following tips to increase their child’s weight and nutrition.

1. Feed and fuel your child at least six times a day. Make sure you keep an eye on the clock and call your child in and away from playtime for some food and drink. If you skip meals, then chances are that you may be forgetting that your child needs to eat regularly and on time. Be organised and when you go out with your child close to meal and snack times, take food for your child to eat with you.

2. Just because they’re skinny, doesn’t mean nutrition is not important. Don’t fall into the trap of always serving ‘junk foods’ like lollies, chips, biscuits, soft drinks, cordials, fast foods, and chocolate. Growing children need vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients, as well as energy-providing food.

3. Get the foundation solid with great quality food and you will always be confident that your child is getting enough vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre, even if they are not ‘filling out’. It’s surprising how little food and variety your child needs to reach their protein, vitamins and mineral daily requirements. Once the foundation food quantities are met, you can offer any other foods and drinks your child wants to fill them up and out, without guilt and anxiety.

4. Keep your child focused on the task of eating. If your child is easily distracted away from food, turn off the TV, computer and put games aside around feeding time.

5. Set some ground rules at meal times such as "everyone stays at the table until dad/mum’s finished", even if your child doesn’t want to eat what you’ve served. Because they are sitting with food in front of them, they may end up picking at it! This is useful if your child wants to rush off and play rather than eat. But don’t force or nag them to eat. You’re just asking them to stay at the table. You don’t want to turn meal times into an argument or stressful event.

6. Trick their little eyes. Serve their usual small meal onto an adult plate so it looks really small. Serve their drinks into big glasses but only partway fill them. If it doesn’t look like a lot, then maybe they’ll tackle it and finish it off! But surprisingly, the reverse can work as well. If you serve a child much more than they need, then there is a chance they will actually eat more. Which approach you end up taking depends on your child – you will soon see. If they complain the meal looks too big, then use the empty-looking big plate and half-filled big glasses trick. But if they tend to play with their meal, then try an over-filled larger plate.

7. Make it easy for your child to eat. That may mean peeling and cutting up their fruit, serving family favourites such as mince and mash that don’t have to be chewed much or offering foods that can be eaten with fingers rather than a knife and fork, such as filled taco wraps/shells and frittata with salad.

8. Serve milk drinks rather than water or cordial with meals and snacks. Milk is a powerhouse of protein, riboflavin, and energy.

9. Choose and serve foods that are energy and nutrient rich. Make some simple switches to double up their energy intake without making them eat more. See the table below for some swift simple switches.

10. Add olive oil dressing to their salad. Spread the avocado/butter/margarine generously on their sandwich. Roast vegetables in safflower or sunflower seed oil rather than on a rack. Buy fruity yoghurts, regular custard and full cream milk rather than reduced fat/no-fat milk. Just because you’re watching your weight, doesn’t mean that your child ought to eat ‘diet’ meals and foods.

11. Serve milky desserts after the main meal. Custard and yoghurt served with fruity crumble or a creamy rice pudding with jam and sultana spots are some ideas.

12. Add some ‘boosters’ to top up the energy intake even further. Boosters sneak the extra energy in. Add skim milk powder to their milk whether it’s to drink or pour on cereal. Throw in some flavour as well if you like. Pack cheese sticks, dried fruit, nuts and crackers to eat in the car; use every opportunity to encourage your child to snack and ‘top up’. Add ground almond meal to breakfast cereals, milk drinks, mashed vegetables, and pasta sauce. Stir a beaten egg into soups and hot noodles.

13. Watch your language and conversation around body size and shapes. If you buy any women’s magazines, then a celebrity’s diet or body shape is bound to feature on the cover or inside. Your child will see that. If you also talk about people being fat, on a diet, over-eating, or you are watching your own weight by counting calories or you obsess over food labels and your own body shape, then a child picks up on this quickly. Children mirror a parent’s pattern and chatter. Catch yourself out and avoid this kind of chatter, especially if your child has suddenly started eating less and is starting to lose weight – they may have started dieting because of this unhealthy conversation.

TABLE:

You can double the energy intake of your child without making them eat more with some simple healthy switches*.

Instead of this:

Try this:

1/2 cup diced watermelon

1 lady finger banana or a tablespoon of sultanas or 1 dried peach half

1 wrap bread

1 small bread roll

1/2 cup popcorn

1 snack-sized tub of yoghurt (100g)

4-5 jube lollies

4-5 macadamia nuts

4-5 strawberries

1 mandarin or 4 lychees

Vegemite on toast

Avocado, peanut butter or cheese on toast

Mashed pumpkin

Mashed orange sweet potato

3-4 tbs crispy breakfast cereal (even the kids’ sugar flavoured ones)

2 tbs muesli (toasted or untoasted)

A chocolate frog

2 pikelets with jam

A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement doesn’t add the energy fuel (kJ and cals) that your child needs to fill out. Only add a supplement if your child doesn’t even eat enough of the essential foundation foods.

* For more healthy ideas on ensuring your underweight children are being properly nourished, Trudy Williams’ book, "this=that child size this: a life-size photo guide to kids’ food serves", can help, containing more than 342 life-size photos of different types of food and serving suggestions, in each of seven food categories.