Healthy fats are essential for babies and toddlers to support their growth and development. If you’re looking to increase your baby or toddler’s calorie intake, then maximising the amount of healthy fats in their diet is a good way to do it. Here you will find information about what dairy and egg free foods contain these healthy fats, and some tips about how to easily incorporate them in your child’s meals.
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What are healthy fats?
Many of us just think of fats in food as something to be limited, but in fact fats are an essential part of our diet – especially for babies and children. And not all fat is created equal!
Saturated fat, the type of fat which is often found in meat products, as well as things like biscuits, cakes and pastries. Whilst we do need some saturated fats in our diets, it’s generally agreed that we should limit the amount. According to the NHS “Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fats” and this can “raise ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.”
When I’m talking about ‘healthy’ fats, I’m referring to unsaturated fats. These are found in plant foods and oily fish, and tend to be liquid at room temperature. Heart UK describes unsaturated fats as “more heart-healthy. There are different types of unsaturated fat known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and they do different jobs in the body. It’s good to eat a range of foods so that you get both.”
Why are healthy fats important for babies and toddlers?
Whether or not you are trying to support weight gain, healthy fats are something that all children need in their diet. According to SR Nutrition “fat is the most energy dense of all of the macronutrients. It provides more than double the calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates (9kcal/g for fat vs ~4kcal/g for both protein and carbohydrates). For young children, this is important as they need a lot of energy to support normal growth“. They are not just important for growth – unsaturated fats also provide “vitamins and minerals important for growth and development“.
I’ve provided a list of further reading at the end of this article if you’re keen to learn more about different types of fats in food.
Boosting healthy fats to support baby and toddler weight gain
Before we go any further, I should be clear that this article is NOT medical advice; if you’re concerned about your baby or toddler’s weight then it’s always best to talk to a medical professional.
But there are lots of reasons you might want to increase the amount of calories and healthy fats your child is eating. Perhaps your baby has started weaning and is slipping down the centile chart, you have a fussy eater, or a child with a very small appetite. Maybe they’ve lost some weight after a sickness bug and you want to help them recover it.
And it might be that a medical professional has told you to increase calories, but you still need some tips about how to practically do it! That was our situation. My daughter has always struggled to gain weight; this is something which seems fairly common among children with cows’ milk protein allergy (CMPA) and other food allergies.
When she was weaning, her dietitian suggested that I give her a high calorie diet to support her growth. We were lucky to have a great dietitian who taught us a lot about which foods were good to boost healthy fats intake for babies. But I had to learn for myself practical ways to actually do it without spending my entire life cooking!
A few years later my daughter is still very petite with a small appetite. So, I continue to incorporate the tips I learned to maximise the calories she gets on board – even if she only eats a small amount.
Healthy fats for children with CMPA and other food allergies
Including healthy fats for babies and toddlers with cows’ milk protein allergy (CMPA) is particularly important, because many fortified dairy alternatives – whilst being a good match for calcium – fall down when it comes to matching calories. All the ideas I am sharing here are suitable for children with CMPA, as well as soy and egg allergies.
However, be aware that many of the healthy fat sources listed below are in the top 14 most common allergens. Introduce these as you would any other potential allergen; I have some tips in my post about getting started with dairy free weaning about this. If you are already aware of an allergy to any of these foods, hopefully there will be some other safe options on the list.
Dairy and egg free sources of healthy fats, and practical ideas for including them in baby and toddler mealtimes
The following foods all contain the healthy fats that your child needs in their diet:
- Oils such as olive oil, rapeseed oil & avocado oil
- Nuts and nut butters
- Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel
Many of these, particularly the oils, nut butters and ground seeds, can be easily incorporated by stirring them into the types of meals you already make. Below are some practical ideas of easy ways to work these foods into your baby or toddler’s diet.
Oils high in unsaturated fats
Examples of oils which include healthy fats are olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado oil and nut oils. The easiest way to increase these is to use plenty when cooking, and stir extra into meals when serving. For example:
- An extra spoonful can be added to stews and pasta dishes
- Stir through a portion of vegetables or add to mashed potatoes
- Drizzle lightly on dairy free pizza, toast or crumpets
- Add an extra teaspoon to soups and dips, such as hummus
- Look for vegan bakes that use oil as an egg replacement, such as these vegan courgette muffins. Or, these chickpea pancakes – one of my baby led weaning favourites – contain a big dose of olive or rapeseed oil.
As well as containing healthy fats, avocados are a source of potassium, folate, Vitamin E and fibre. They’re really versatile and a good way to add creaminess to dairy free cooking. Here are some ideas about how to serve them:
- Mashed with a few drops of lemon juice on toast fingers or oat cakes (add in a little olive oil and sprinkle of ground flaxseed for an extra boost!)
- As a creamy pasta sauce
- Use in smoothies, for example this dairy free mango & avocado smoothie (I highly recommend nom nom pouches* as a fun and easy way to serve smoothies to little ones)
They can also be used in puddings. For example:
- Strawberry and avocado ices
- Chocolate avocado ice lollies
- Baby friendly chocolate mousse made out of avocado and bananas
Nuts and nut butters
As long as your child doesn’t have a nut allergy, then nuts are a fantastic dairy free source of healthy fats. Try to include a range, such as peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts & hazelnuts. However, whole nuts are a choking risk so use smooth nut butters and ground nuts instead. When choosing a nut butter, choose a smooth version with no added salt or sugar such as Meridian*. I buy massive tubs as overall it works out cheaper – and we use a lot!
- Nut butter can be spread on toast, oat cakes or as a dip (you can add a drop of water if it’s too thick). It can also be used as a vegan pancake topping
- Ground nuts or nut butter can be stirred through porridge or dairy free yogurt
- A spoonful of nut butter can be added to your favourite smoothie recipe
- Use cashew nuts to make vegan parmesan (try this Minimalist Baker recipe, but reduce the amount of salt)
- Give energy balls as a snack – these oat and nut butter protein balls are a great option for kids
- Top banana slices with smooth nut butter and some desiccated coconut sprinkles for a quick and healthy pudding
- Use ground almonds instead of flour in a crumble topping
Examples include flaxseed, chia seeds & sunflower seeds. Some seeds are a potential choking risk, so if in doubt then serve seeds ground; many can be bought already ground. I always keep ground flaxseed and chia seeds in the cupboard as they are so easy to add into other dishes without changing the flavour. Here are a few serving suggestions:
- Stir ground seeds through porridge; I always add half a tablespoon of ground flax or chia seed to the oats before cooking
- Seeds and ground seeds can be sprinkled on dairy free yoghurt, or as a dairy free yoghurt sundae topping
- Use whole chia seeds to make chia jam; use maple syrup instead of honey for the under ones
- Make a chia pudding. The consistency is not for everyone, but it’s a great healthy pudding if your baby or toddler likes it!
- Choose seeded breads (not for babies, but when you feel your toddler is at an age to can cope with any whole seeds)
- Add a spoonful of ground seeds when making up an egg free pancake mixture
- Use ground flaxseed to make a ‘flax egg’ as an egg replacer
- You can use ground seed butters in the same way as nut butters. Here is a recipe for ground sunflower and pumpkin seed butter if you want to try making your own!
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are some of the best sources of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. These essential fatty acids are important to support brain growth and development, as well as eye health.
When serving fish to babies, always flake and check carefully for bones. Here are a few baby friendly fish-based meal ideas to try:
- Egg-free salmon fish cakes
- Simply mash up some salmon or mackerel with olive oil lemon, and serve on toast
- Dairy free fish pie is a fantastic family meal , making sure at least one or two of the mix are oily fish
- Flake fish into a range of pasta and rice dishes
- Mackerel pate (made with a dairy free cream cheese) on toast fingers or crackers
I hope you have found these ideas helpful!
Please do share your own tips and tricks for boosting healthy fats in the comments x
Sources and further reading:
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