Iron is a critical mineral for growing kids but unfortunately iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, with infants and young children at the highest risk (1) In this article I highlight how much iron our children need, discuss iron rich foods for kids and detail how we can maximise the absorption of iron.
IRON RICH FOODS FOR KIDS – WHY IS IRON IMPORTANT?
Iron is a mineral that helps the body deliver oxygen to cells and is important to support growth and brain development.
It is critical during the first few years of life when children are growing at a fast rate. It is also of particular importance when girls commence menstruating, due to blood loss removing large quantities of iron from the body.
If your child’s diet lacks iron, he or she might develop a condition called iron deficiency. Left untreated it can affect your child’s growth and development.
Ideally, to prevent iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia our children should eat a diet consisting of foods that are naturally rich in iron.
HOW MUCH IRON DOES MY CHILD NEED?
The below info-graph shows how much iron children need depending on their age and sex. The daily recommended iron intake for adult males is 8mg and females (18-50) is 18mg so taking this into consideration, you can see that children have fairly high iron needs.
(Recommended Daily Iron Intake For Children (Australia & New Zealand)). (2)
TYPES OF IRON & HOW TO AID IRON ABSORPTION
There are two types of naturally occurring iron found in our diet
- Haem iron – found in animal food (e.g red meat, poultry & seafood) is absorbed well by the body.
- Non-heam iron – found in plant foods (e.g beans, lentil, fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables ) is less well absorbed.
Although many vegetarian foods are a good source of iron, our bodies don’t absorb it so well. If your child is following a vegetarian or vegan diet, more care is needed to ensure they get enough iron.
Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others can hinder it. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat:
- Combine iron-rich food with fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C. (Vitamin C aids absorption)
- Where possible include both animal and plant sources of iron in the same meal. (Animal protein boosts iron absorption from plant sources.)
- Cook your plant foods to improve the amount of available iron (e.g the body absorbs six per cent of the iron from raw broccoli, compared to 30 per cent from cooked broccoli.)
- Limit dairy during or directly after having a source of iron. (Calcium inhibits absorption of iron)
- Don’t allow your child to drink more than 24 ounces (710 millilitres) of milk a day. (If young children fill up on milk, then they often don’t eat many other iron-rich foods. Milk also decreases the absorption of iron)
IRON RICH FOODS FOR KIDS
To give some context to how much iron our children need, the above picture details the iron content of many dietary iron sources. Below I discuss some iron sources and give suggestions on how you could serve them.
- MEAT, FISH & POULTRY are all good sources of heme iron, which is absorbed most efficiently by the body.
- However, many children find meat challenging to eat. Some children do not like the taste, others find meat too dry and hard to chew.
- I found my children didn’t enjoy big chunks of meat but did enjoy recipes using ground beef & fish.
- Experiment and don’t be afraid to serve foods that even you don’t like. (My fussier eater loves chicken liver pate and sardines, both foods I didn’t think he would enjoy.)
- BEANS & LENTILS
- If your kids don’t like meat then beans and lentils are a great compromise. Add to tomato-based sauces for extra absorption.
- Alternatively make dips, such as hummus and serve with capsicum (bell pepper) strips (Vitamin C).
- FORTIFIED CEREALS & OATS
- A low sugar fortified cereal (such as Wheetbix), or a plate of oatmeal is an easy way to help your little ones increase their iron intake. Top with fruit rich in Vitamin C (such as strawberries/blueberries for extra absorption)
- Egg yolks are a good source of iron. Serve eggs in a variety of ways for breakfast, lunch or dinner. With a side of Vitamin C rich fruits or veggies.
- Use them in baking or in pancakes and serve with chia jam or fresh berries.
- DARK GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES
- Dark leafy vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale are some of the best vegetables for iron. However many kids turn their nose up at them.
- Try incorporating spinach into a variety of dishes, including soups, sauces. It will wilt and may be more acceptable. You can even blend it into sauces.
- Roasting vegetables, in my opinion, is a kid-friendly way of cooking vegetables. Try serving roasted broccoli or kale chips.
- To boost absorption, try serving them with fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C. E.g Sprinkle kale chips on top of chilli made with a tomato based sauce, blend spinach into a tomato-based pasta sauce.
- NUTS & SEEDS
- Serve a handful of nuts and seeds such as cashews, almonds and pumpkin seeds with some fresh berries. (Do not serve young children whole nuts as they can be a choking hazard)
- Add nuts to homemade granola and top with mango and berries to aid absorption.
- Use almond flour and chopped nuts in baking.
- DRIED FRUIT
- Dried fruit such as raisins and dried apricots are a source of iron that kids love to eat!
- Add to homemade granola and top with vitamin c rich fruit to aid absorption.
- Use in baking (great as a natural sweetener.)
IRON RICH FOODS FOR KIDS (RECIPES)
Below I have compiled a list of some Healthy Little Foodies recipes that are a source of iron, detailing which ingredient provides the iron and whether there is a vitamin C rich food present.
- MAIN MEALS
- Turkey Meatballs in a Tomato Sauce
- Why it is good -Iron from the turkey and vitamin C from the tomato sauce.
- Slow Cooker Beef Stew
- Why it is good -Iron from the beef and some vitamin C from the Capsicum (bell pepper.)
- Chicken Chickpea Stew
- Why it is good -Includes both animal (chicken) and plant (chickpeas) sources of iron and cooked in a tomato sauce (Vit C)
- Super Charged Chilli
- Why it is good – Includes both animal (beef) and plant (beans) sources of iron and cooked in a tomato sauce (Vit C)
- Sweet Potato & Chickpea Curry (V)
- Why it is good – Chickpea and sweet potato are sources of iron. Sweet potato is also a source of Vitamin C which is good for iron absorption.
- Lentil & Sweet Potato Shepherds Pie (V)
- Why it is good – Lentils are a source of iron and sweet potato is a source of iron and Vitamin C.
- Turkey Meatballs in a Tomato Sauce
- Salmon Croquettes
- Why it is good – Salmon is a source of iron
- Tuna & Potato Cakes
- Why it is good – Iron from the tuna
- Curried Lentil Bake (V)
- Why it is good – Lentils, egg and sweet potato are sources of iron. Sweet potato is a source of vitamin C
- Sweet Potato Wedges (V)
- Why it is good – Sweet Potato is a source of iron and Vitamin C.
- Sweet & Sour Quinoa Balls (V)
- Why it is good – Quinoa is a source of iron and the tomato and pineapple aids absorption.
- Chickpea Pancakes (V)
- Why it is good – Iron from chickpea flour
- Salmon Croquettes
- SNACK IDEAS
- Apricot Balls
- Why it is good – Iron from the dried apricot and cashew nuts. Serve with some fruits high in vitamin C to aid absorption.
- Filled Dates
- Why it is good – Both dates and peanut butter are sources of iron. Serve with some fruits high in vitamin C to aid absorption.
- Fruity Chickpea Cookies
- Why it is good – Iron from chickpeas, chia seeds, oats and dates. Vit C from blueberries & raspberries.
- Apricot Balls
- Gupta PM, Perrine CG, Mei Z, Scanlon KS, Iron, Anemia, and Iron Deficiency Anemia among Young Children in the United States, NCBI, 2016 May 30 doi: 10.3390/nu8060330
- 2) National Health and Medical Research Council and New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2006, Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, <https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/iron>, last accessed 21/03/2019
Disclaimer: This information is intended for general use only. It is not medical advice and is not intended to replace the personalised care and advice given to you by your health professional. I am not a health professional and I do not know your child. You should always discuss any concerns or questions about the health and well being of your child with a healthcare professional. Please refer to my full disclaimer for more info.