If your child is picky, nutrition might be on your mind a lot. Did you know that iron is one of the most common nutrients picky eaters are likely to miss out on? In fact, even balanced eaters may struggle to get enough iron because kids need a lot of it to help red blood cells carry oxygen to every part of their growing bodies.
Some kids may become so low in iron that they develop iron deficiency anemia – the most common nutrients deficiency in the developed world. Those babies and toddlers who were born prematurely or with low birth weight, drink too much cow’s milk and do not eat enough iron-rich foods seem to be at a higher risk.
In this post, I will walk you through steps to ensure your child is getting enough iron, even if her eating habits are far from perfect.
What are the best sources of iron?
As you may already know, we can get iron from animal or plant foods. Here are the best sources of iron, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements:
Animal: red meat, poultry, pork, fish, shellfish, and eggs. Animal sources provide heme iron. About 20-25% of it gets absorbed.
Plant: fortified cereals, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, beans and pulses, dried fruits and molasses. Plant sources provide non-heme iron. Only 2-15% of it gets absorbed.
Risk factors for iron deficiency anemia in children
- History of prematurity or low birth weight
- Delayed introduction of solids
- More than 24oz of cow’s milk in young children less than two years of age
- Vegetarian and vegan eating
- Very limited diet
- Possible gastrointestinal diseases
- Lead poisoning
Signs of iron deficiency
Milder cases of iron deficiency can be asymptomatic but as the iron blood levels go lower, a child may experience the following symptoms:
- Low energy levels
- Sore tongue
- Pale appearance
- Brittle nails
- Low appetite
- Cravings for non-food items such as paint or ice, known as pica.
How much iron does your child needs
Babies are born with a store of iron in their bodies that lasts them through the first 6 months. After that, they need a steady source of iron from the solid diet.
Here are recommended daily amounts of iron for babies and children:
7-12 months – 11 mg
1-3 years – 7 mg
4-8 years – 10 mg
9-13 years – 8 mg
14-18 years – 14 mg for girls
How to help your picky eater get enough iron
If you are trying to calculate exactly how many milligrams of iron your child gets from her diet, you may find it quite challenging. Not only does its levels vary greatly even in similar foods like different cuts of meat, but iron absorption rates are also very different, depending on the source and combinations with other foods.
A much easier strategy to help your child get enough iron is by following these two steps:
- Serve iron-rich foods at least twice a day
- Use strategies to improve iron absorption
How to help your picky eater absorb more iron
Iron is a very finicky mineral, and it does not like being around certain foods. Some of its “plate mates” may boost, or, on the contrary, reduce the amount of iron that actually gets absorbed by the body.
Here are some tips to help your child absorb more iron:
1. Pair iron from plant or animal sources with vitamin C-rich foods like fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C helps more iron get absorbed. Example: meatballs + tomato sauce or iron-fortified cereal + orange juice or smoothie.
2. Pair iron from animal sources with iron from plant sources. Iron from animal sources (heme iron) will boost the absorption of iron from plant sources (nonheme iron). Example: fish+tomatoes, chicken+beans.
3. Watch the milk. Dairy can be an easy way to help toddlers get enough calories and nutrition for growth, but some of them can drink their weight in milk! My firstborn was certainly this way. Toddlers and preschoolers only need about 16-20oz (450-550ml) of all dairy per day, and those who get more than 24 oz (680ml) can be at a higher risk of iron deficiency.
4. Serve more fruit or give a supplement with vitamins and minerals. Veggies can be hit or miss with picky eaters, especially the green iron-rich type like spinach and kale. But guess what? If your child eats lots of fruit or gets additional nutrition from a supplement, he is more likely to be absorbing more iron from his diet. It looks like a diet high in vitamins and minerals overall helps with iron absorption regardless of the timing or combination of foods.
5. Avoid serving iron absorption inhibitors close to iron-rich meals. Iron absorption inhibitors are certain substances in food that interfere with iron absorption. Calcium from dairy, phytic acid from grains and legumes, lots of fiber and egg protein may all inhibit iron absorption. But the good news is that you do not need to worry about them if your child seems to be getting enough iron and your doctor is not worried about his blood test results.
If your child is low in iron, consider separating food with iron absorption inhibitors from iron-rich meals. It may also make sense to serve only egg yolks for a while instead of a whole egg since egg protein from egg white may lower the iron absorption rates from the yolk. But please, talk to your doctor or dietitian before making these changes. Your child may not need such advanced measures to keep his iron status in check.
6. Use cast iron skillet or iron fish when cooking. This strategy may add some more much-needed iron to your child’s meals, whether you are quickly scrambling eggs or making applesauce.
Iron-rich recipes and food combos
To put some of the tips above to practice, here are some food combinations and recipes that will help your child get and absorb more iron:
- Hummus with a squeeze of lemon juice
- Tahini spread on a toast of iron-fortified bread with a little lemon juice
- Green smoothie made with spinach, blueberries and mango juice
- Blackstrap molasses added to baked beans or make banana molasses muffins
- Lentil soup with tomatoes
- Bean and sausage soup
- Fortified breakfast cereal served with berries
- 10-minute lemon chicken
- Chicken and chickpea stew
- Meatballs with tomato sauce
- More fruit for snacks. Check my super snack ideas here.
And below are some popular with toddlers iron-rich foods, shared by moms in our Facebook group:
- frozen green peas
- canned beans
- pulled pork and beef
- raisins and dried apricots
- tuna salad with celery
- fortified bread with peanut butter
- potatoes with skin
- prune juice
- trail mix made with dark chocolate and pumpkin seeds
Hope this post will give you some ideas on how to help your child get more iron and improve its absorption. It may be tricky to ensure that our picky eaters get enough nutrition, but sometimes a little extra planning and creativity takes you a long way!
Tell me in the comments, which iron-rich foods do your child love?