Iron-Rich Foods for Children: Five of The Best
Iron is an important mineral found in the blood and is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. For toddlers, iron is essential for optimal growth, development, cognition and plays an important role in immunity. The requirement for iron in toddlers is high because of their rapid rate of growth. It can be easy for them to fall short of their requirements if their diet isn’t carefully planned. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in children worldwide.1
Signs of Iron Deficiency in Children:1
→ Repeat infections
→ Pale complexion
→ Red eyes
→ Loss of appetite
→ Behavioral problems, especially with an inability to concentrate and maintain focus on a task
→ Increased sweating
→ Pica (strange food cravings for things like ice, plastic toys, eating dirt etc.)
→ Slow growth and development
Children Particularly at Risk of Iron Deficiency:
→ Infants with delayed introduction of solids beyond 6 months
→ Prematurity or low birth weight
→ Children who do not regularly consume haem iron sources (3-4x per week), or only consume in very small amounts
→ Picky/fussy eaters who have poor variety in their diets
→ Vegetarian or vegan children, if their diet isn’t carefully planned 2
There are two types of iron found in the diet:
- Haem Iron is found in animal foods and is well absorbed by the body.
- Non-haem Iron is found in plant foods and is less well absorbed by the body.
To support growth and development, children should be eating a wide variety of iron rich foods every day to make sure they are meeting their daily requirements. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommended daily intake (RDI) for 1-3 years old’s is 9mg/day and 4-8-year old’s is 10 mg/day.3
Five of the best iron rich foods for toddlers:
Red Meat (preferably organic)
- Ground beef used to make Bolognese sauce or meat balls and frenched lamb cutlets are all great finger food options of toddlers
- 100g beef=3.5mg and 100g lamb= 2.5mg 4
Darker Poultry Meats (preferably organic)
- Chicken liver is one of the densest animal sources of iron.
- Spreading organic chicken liver onto toast or crackers, makes a great snack for toddlers. Alternatively, you can add a small amount of chopped liver to stews.
- Chicken and turkey thighs are also a great source of iron and contain much more than the breast meat.
- 100g chicken liver = 11mg and 100g chicken thigh= 1.3mg 4
Eggs (preferably organic)
- Eggs, in particular the yolk are an excellent source of iron.
- Make scrambled eggs, frittata’s, or add to baking.
- A boiled egg also makes a great on the go snack for toddlers.
- 1 whole eggs = 0.6mg
- Lentils are not only a great source of iron but also count as a serving of vegetables.
- Try making lentil patties or adding to soups or stews.
- ½ cup green lentils= 1.5mg 4
In addition to offering iron rich foods, you can also increase absorption by adding iron enhancers, while avoiding inhibitors with meals.
Iron Absorption Enhancers
Vitamin C Rich Foods
- Consuming vitamin C rich foods together with foods rich in non-heme iron may increase iron absorption by up to 300.
- Add a squeeze of lemon juice, adding berries or citrus fruits to iron rich meals.
- Lactoferrin, which can be found in milk plays a key role in maintaining cellular iron levels in the body. This is via the regulation of the absorption of iron and the homeostasis and transportation of iron.
- Too much cow's milk can be a cause of iron deficiency though, as cows milk doesn't contain much iron and has high levels of calcium which reduces iron absorption.
- Lactoferrin supplementation can be a better way of enhancing iron absorption
Foods rich in amino acid lysine
- The amino acid lysine is essential for iron absorption.
- Red meat, poultry and eggs are all great source soft lysine naturally.
- Plant source of lysine include avocado, tomatoes’, most beans and legumes and quinoa.
- Phytic acid found in wholegrains can inhibit the absorption of iron. If iron deficiency is a problem for your toddler, swapping whole grains for refined grains (eg. Whole meal sourdough bread for white sourdough bread) temporarily can help improve absorption and iron status.
- Phytic acid can also be found in legumes, even though legumes are a great source of iron. Try soaking legumes and rinsing prior to cooking to reduce their phytic acid content.
Whole Cow’s Milk
- Due to its high calcium content, cow’s milk can reduce the absorption of iron.5 Toddlers require no more than 1 ½ serves of milk, yogurt, cheese and or alternatives daily. A standard serve is equal to: 1 cup of milk, ½ cup ricotta, ¾ cup yogurt and/or 2 slices of cheese. 6
Ensuring your toddler is getting enough iron each day can be a really juggling act, particularly if they have a smaller appetite. Focusing on including an iron rich food with each main meal, as well as including an iron enhancer and limiting inhibitors need be. Iron fortified foods, can be of real benefit during toddlerhood, where their stomach size is still small and fussy eating may be at play.
- Jacquelyn M Powers, MD, MSDonald H Mahoney, Jr, MD. Iron deficiency in infants and children <12 years: Screening, prevention, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/iron-deficiency-in-infants-and-children-less-than12-years-screening-prevention-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis (2020).
- Baroni, L. et al. Vegan Nutrition for Mothers and Children: Practical Tools for Healthcare Providers. Nutrients 11, 5 (2018).
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008).
- Iron Fact Sheet. (2014).
- Wright, C. M., Parkinson, K. N., Shipton, D. & Drewett, R. F. How Do Toddler Eating Problems Relate to Their Eating Behavior, Food Preferences, and Growth? PEDIATRICS 120, e1069–e1075 (2007).
- Eat For Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines. (2013).