Children aged 6-12 are still growing, which means they need a lot of energy for their size. If your child is underweight, they may not be getting enough calories.
Your GP will weigh and measure your child and talk to you about what your child is eating. If there is a possible problem with your child’s diet, your GP can provide nutritional advice that will help bring them up to a healthy weight.
Paediatric dietitian Jacqui Lowden, from the Manchester Children’s Hospital, explains basic child nutrition and what to do if your child is underweight.
A healthy, balanced diet for children
"All children need energy and nutrients from a varied and balanced diet," says Jacqui.
If your child is underweight, it might seem tempting to fill them up with high-calorie but unhealthy foods, such as sweets, cake, chocolate and fried fatty foods. But it's important that your child gains weight in a healthy way, and this means eating a balanced diet.
Once they reach the age of five, you can start to make your child’s diet similar to the healthy, balanced diet recommended for adults (children under five need a diet higher in fat and lower in fibre). That means three meals a day and healthy snacks.
A balanced diet includes:
- starchy carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice and potatoes, which should form the basis of every meal
- lean protein, such as lean meat, fish, pulses, beans and eggs
- five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (for ideas, see 5 A DAY and your family)
- a low intake of saturated fats (found in biscuits, cakes and pies)
- a low intake of animal fats (found in processed meats such as sausages and bacon)
- grilled or baked foods instead of fried food
- diluted juice or water instead of fizzy drinks
- chocolate, sweets and cake only occasionally
Learn more about the different food groups and how they form part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Children's meals at home
“This is a good time to sit down and think about how your family eats,” says Jacqui. “Do you take time for proper meals or do you rely on snacks and quick fixes? If so, that might be part of the reason your child isn’t consuming enough calories.”
Make time for a proper breakfast and dinner and eat together as a family. Make mealtime a fun part of the day. When possible, cook from scratch instead of using ready meals. That way you know exactly what is in your food.
To help your child gain weight, increase their servings of healthy carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta and potatoes.
During the week, your child will eat lunch at school. It’s impossible to monitor exactly what your child eats away from home, but you can help your child make healthy choices.
- Talk to your child about the importance of a healthy and balanced diet.
- Give your child a packed lunch or prepaid school dinners, instead of giving money that your child can spend on food.
- Find out what the school's healthy eating policy is.
Packed lunches are a great way to provide a nutritionally balanced lunch. A good packed lunch should include carbohydrates, protein, calcium and a portion of fruit and vegetables.
- Sandwiches with a filling of lean meat, tuna, eggs or cheese provide carbohydrates and protein.
- Quiche or pasta salad are tasty alternatives to sandwiches.
- A milkshake, yoghurt or piece of cheese will provide a serving of calcium.
- Cut vegetables into small segments to make them easier to eat. Dried fruit counts as one portion of fruit.
- Don’t forget a drink. Water, milk or fruit juice is best.
Get ideas for what to put in your child's school packed lunch.
Snacks for kids
If your child isn’t consuming enough calories, you can help boost their daily intake by providing healthy snacks.
Younger children in particular will need snacks between meals because their stomachs are not large enough to allow them to consume all the calories they need in three meals.
On school days, you can provide a healthy snack for your child to eat at morning break.
Great snack ideas include:
- dried fruit
- small sandwiches with a protein filling, such as cheese or eggs
- cheese and crackers or cheese on wholemeal or brown bread
- yoghurt, which contains protein and calcium
- breakfast cereal with milk for a great bedtime snack
- other energy-dense foods such as bananas and avocados
Keep your child active
Physical activity burns calories your child has consumed. But even if your child is underweight, it's still important that they're physically active.
Physical activity helps them develop strong, healthy bones and muscles. It’s a crucial part of the way they learn about themselves and the world. And, best of all, it’s great fun.
Children over five should do a minimum of 60 minutes of at least moderate-intensity activity each day. But the amount of physical activity your child should do may be different if they're underweight. Your GP, practice nurse or school health visitor can advise you on this.
Find ideas on how to get active with your child.
Monitor your child's progress
If you provide a healthy diet using these guidelines, you should see your child’s weight and growth improve.
Make sure you take your child back to your GP to check that their weight gain is happening as it should.