I’ve been speaking to a lot of mums this week about kids iron needs and how they can boost their child’s iron levels and not just by feeding them big plates of red met (although it is a wonderful source of iron!). A lot of children don’t enjoy the taste or texture of meat, or are following a more plant-based diet, which puts them at an increased risk of iron deficiency. In fact, babies, toddlers, preschoolers and teenagers are all at higher risk of iron deficiency, because their iron needs increase during these periods of rapid growth. Thankfully there are plenty of iron-rich foods you can include (or sneak in, if you need) to ensure their daily iron needs are being met.
So why is iron so important? Iron is a mineral that is essential for life – it helps carry oxygen through the blood, supports energy production and healthy immune function but when it comes to our kids, one of the most important things to remember is that iron is vital for their brain development.
Did you know that from 6–24 months a babies iron needs are the highest they will ever be in their life? -At this age they actually require more iron per day than an adult male! Even more important to note is that iron deficiency in babies cannot be undone. Even when corrected, low levels of iron during infancy has been found to impact language development, motor development, and emotional development.
How much iron do kids need per day?
- Infants who breastfeed tend to get enough iron from their mothers until 4–6 months of age.
- Infants aged 6–12 months need 11mg
- Toddlers aged 1–3 years need 9mg
- Kids aged 4–8 years need 10mg
- Kids aged 9–13 years need 8mg
- Teen boys should get 11mg
- Teen girls should get 15mg – girls need additional iron to replace what they lose monthly when they begin menstruating
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency
Too little iron can impair your child’s ability to function well. However, most signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in children don’t appear until iron deficiency anaemia occurs. Some of these signs and symptoms might include:
- Behavioural problems
- Weaken immune system – frequent colds or infections and long recovery times
- Loss of appetite
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
- Slowed growth and development
- Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, paint or chalk.
- Pale skin – a good way to check this is by looking inside their lower eyelids
Increased risk factors of iron deficiency
- Low birth weight babies
- Premature babies
- Restrictive diets
- Avoidance of red meat or animal products
- Excess consumption of milk (calcium blocks the absorption of iron)
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as coeliac disease
Iron in foods
There are two types of iron that we can get from foods: Iron from animal sources is called heme iron and iron from plant-based sources is called as non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed more efficiently. Serving foods that contain vitamin C alongside your iron rich foods will also increase iron absorption by 3x – think tomato, broccoli, capsicum, sweet potato and lemon.
A note on iron-fortified foods: Generally, iron-fortified foods are not something I recommend. Most iron-fortified foods have been highly processed and the iron they contain is a synthetic (not naturally occurring) form of iron that is not well absorbed by the body. Fortified iron is also one of the leading causes of constipation in babies. However, if your child is on a particularly restrictive diet or is a fussy eater, then there is a place for iron-fortified foods but I always prefer real food sources of iron.
Yes, red meat is a great source of heme-iron but there are plenty of other foods, both animal and plant-based, that go a long way to ensuring to child’s daily iron needs are met. These are my favourites:
Liver is my number one food when it comes to boosting iron. Gram for gram it’s more nutritious than any other food – that’s a superfood – and is considered one of the most important first foods for young children in many traditional cultures. Liver is packed with a powerful combination of iron, vitamin B12, folate (expectant Mumma’s take note), copper and zinc as well as vitamin A and D, brain-building choline, anti-inflammatory omega-3s, antioxidants, mood-boosting amino acids and so much more! Just 75g of chicken liver contains 9.2mg of heme iron.
Where you source your liver from is particularly important as pesticides, chemicals and hormones are stored in liver (the liver is like the mop of our bodies toxins). This means choosing liver from organic and pasture raised animals, and I would not recommend eating liver if it is not from an organic and reputable source. Chicken livers have the mildest taste and are nice and small, so they are the ones I mostly use. I’ve found these and these in health food stores and supermarkets.
Most peoples faces screw up when I suggest using liver, and I totally get it, it took me a while to get used to the idea too but it’s actually very easy to incorporate in to foods and I promise it will go unnoticed, even to the most discerning/fussy of tastebuds. I keep some chicken livers in the freezer and grate a small amount off to add to foods like bolognese (try this recipe for my Sneaky Bolognese), vegetarian chilli, meatballs, burgers, meatloaf or rissoles. If you just can’t get past the idea of raw liver, then you can get freeze-dried liver in a capsule form that you can simply open and sprinkle the contents in to your savoury foods. Again, always source organic, I use this as it’s the only organic one on the market that I am aware of. And burnt-out Mumma’s, these capsules are essentially like a B-vitamins multi – they’ll help you if you’re struggling with adrenal fatigue and low energy levels and so much more.
Pate is another way to eat liver, and probably the most delicious. I use this recipe to make my own when I have the time or I buy this one. Avoid pates from the supermarket or deli as they won’t be organic and will contain additives and preservatives. Pate can be eaten smeared or crackers or veggie sticks or you can add a spoonful to your bolognese.
Chicken isn’t actually up there when it comes to iron content, it probably contains the least amount when compared to other red meats but I’ve included it here as I know a lot of kids are consuming more chicken than any other red meat. The darker meat of a chicken thigh contains more iron than the white meat of a chicken breast – 1 chicken thigh contains 1.1mg of heme-iron. The thigh is also more tender and more nutritious all-round, try this recipe for my Baked Lemon & Herb Chicken.
Eggs (egg yolk)
Egg yolk is another wonderful iron source that also contains omega-3s, vitamins A, E, D and K, choline and zinc – eggs are another one of my top superfoods for kids! 2 large egg yolks contain 1mg of heme-iron. Eggs can be served so many ways or incorporated in to meals, but if your child isn’t fond of them on their own, then try making French toast, mixing a egg yolk through porridge or try this recipe for my Creamy Coconut Rice Pudding.
Oily fish are excellent sources of protein and brain-boosting omega-3s and while shellfish have the edge on iron content, sardines can also pack a powerful iron punch. 85g of sardines contains 2.48g of heme-iron. I know some kids love sardines, but they’re definitely not for everyone. An easy way to incorporate them is in a dip with cream cheese, like this. Give it a try, even if you’re not keen on them, your child might be.
Amaranth is an ancient gluten-free grain that is a good source of iron, as well as protein, magnesium, manganese and fibre. 1 cup of cooked amaranth contains 5.17 mg of non-heme iron. When cooked, amaranth resembles cous cous so you can serve it up as a side dish with saucy meals or add it to things like salmon patties or homemade fish fingers. It’s also yummy when cooked as a porridge, used in muesli bars or mixed through salads or bean dishes.
Apricots are a surprisingly good source of iron as well as being high in magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and fibre. 30g dried apricots (approx. 5) contains 1mg of non-heme iron. Look for organic and sulphite or preservative-free apricots – these will be darker in colour. Because the water content has been removed from dried fruit, it does concentrate all their natural sugars, so it should be enjoyed in moderation, and too much can cause diarrhoea.
Spirulina is great way of increasing the nutrient density of your child’s food and is a good plant based alternative for iron for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae and is a complete protein, high in iron, calcium, zinc and beta-carotene – yep, it’s also another superfood for kids. Spirulina is also a prebiotic food, which helps feed the good bacteria in their gut. 1 Tbsp of spirulina contains 2mg of non-heme iron.
You can add spirulina to smoothies or icy poles like this Mint Choc Chip one, chia puddings or “nice creams” (blitz 1 frozen banana with 1/4 cup coconut yoghurt and 1 tsp spirulinia and you’ve green green dinosaur or mermaid ice cream), and you can also add it to basil pesto.
Beans like black beans, navy beans, and kidney beans are a great way to bump up your child’s iron intake. 1 cup can provide 4.4 – 6.6mg of non-heme iron. Beans are great in a vegetarian chilli, can be added to soups/stews and Mexican meals or try this recipe for my Baked Beans.
If you can, properly prepare your beans before cooking them, this means soaking them overnight in water with something acidic (lemon juice or apple cider vinegar). Soaking them like this reduces the phytic acid that beans naturally contain – phytic acid impairs iron absorption. Tinned beans haven’t been properly prepared but they are fine to use and terribly convenient.
For a plant-based food these little seeds pack a great nutritional punch. Along with iron, they contain protein, zinc, omega-3s, calcium and fibre – they’re actually great for helping to relieve constipation too as they draw water in to the bowel and soften the stool. 1 tsp of chia seeds contains 0.33mg of non-heme iron.
Chia seeds can be added to a variety of baked goods or pancakes but they make great sweet chia puddings when made with coconut milk. Chia puddings are a perfect breakfast or snack for kids because they contain protein, fibre and healthy fats – helping to fill them up and sustain their energy. The beauty of chia puddings is that you can prepare them advance too, make them the night before and they’re ready for breakfast, to pop in to a school lunchbox or enjoy for afternoon tea.
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, swiss chard and beet greens contain between 2.5–6.4 mg of non-heme iron per cooked cup. Though vegetables contain non-heme iron, which is less easily absorbed, they are also generally rich in vitamin C, which helps enhance iron absorption. Try this recipe for my Green (Banana & Spinach) Pancakes.
A word of caution: Avoid the temptation to self-diagnose and give your child over-the-counter iron supplements, because an overdose of iron can be fatal.