Iron is an essential nutrient that the body uses to produce hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that helps your blood carry oxygen to all the other cells in the body.
Iron is essential for:
- supplying the body with oxygen
- muscle metabolism
- maintaining connective tissue
- physical growth
- nerve development
- cell functioning
- producing some hormones
Breast-fed babies usually get enough iron from their mother’s milk, while infants fed with formula should receive iron-fortified formula.
When your toddler switches to eating regular foods, they might not get enough iron. Rest assured, this isn’t common in the United States; only 8 percent of toddlers have iron deficiency.
However, low iron levels can lead to anemia, where the number of red blood cells in your body are too low, potentially causing problems with oxygen getting to key organs.
If your child has low iron levels, you may notice that they:
- are pale
- appear irritable
- don’t want to eat
Longer term, it can lead to:
- slower growth
- delayed motor skill development
- a higher number of infections, as iron supports the immune system
Symptoms may not appear at first, but in time, your child may experience:
- pale skin
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- decreased appetite
- slow weight gain
- difficulty concentrating
Iron is essential for a rapidly growing toddler. That’s why a lot of cereals and other toddler foods are fortified with iron.
The recommended daily requirements for iron vary by age.
- age 0–6 months: 0.27 milligrams (mg) per day
- age 6–12 months: 11 mg per day
- ages 1–3 years: 7 mg per day
- ages 4–8 years: 10 mg per day
Infants born preterm or with a low birth weight usually need more iron than those born with a healthy weight.
Heme vs. nonheme iron
Dietary iron has two main forms: heme and nonheme. Plants contain nonheme iron. Meats and seafood contain both heme and nonheme iron.
The body doesn’t absorb nonheme iron as easily as heme iron. This is true for both toddlers and adults. If your child eats a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet, aim for twice as much iron as the recommended amount.
The body absorbs iron better when you consume it with a source of vitamin C. To enable the body to absorb more iron, serve iron-rich foods alongside foods rich in vitamin C.
Examples of foods high in vitamin C include:
- orange juice and oranges
- bell peppers
- sweet potatoes
Feeding your toddler iron-rich foods alongside foods high in vitamin C can help decrease their risk of developing iron deficiency.
1. Lean meats
Meat and poultry contain large amounts of heme iron, which is easy for the body to digest. Beef, organ meats, and liver in particular have a lot of iron. A 3-ounce serving of beef liver, for example, contains 5 mg of iron.
Dark chicken and turkey meat are also rich sources.
Make your toddler a stew or casserole with soft, well-cooked lean meat. Make sure to remove the fatty part of the meat since there is very little iron in the fatty parts. Spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce is another iron-friendly option.
Related: Top lean proteins you should eat
2. Fortified cereals
Fortified cereals and oatmeal are a good way to ensure your toddler gets enough iron.
A serving of iron-fortified cereals typically has 100 percent of the daily value for iron in just one serving. The exact amount will vary, so be sure to check the label. Dry cereals, like Cheerios, are usually fortified as well.
One cup of plain, uncooked, rolled oats contains around 3.5 mg of iron.
You can top your toddler’s iron-fortified breakfast cereal or oatmeal with some blueberries or strawberries for added vitamin C.
Note that while fortified cereals and juices can provide extra iron, they’re often high in sugar, too.
If you are aiming for a vegetarian diet or your child isn’t a fan of meat, beans are a great compromise. Soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans, lentils, and other beans and pulses contain iron, fiber, and other essential vitamins and minerals.
- a half cup of white beans has 4 mg of iron
- a half cup of lentils has 3 mg of iron
- a half cup of red kidney beans has 2 mg of iron
Mash some cooked lentils or make a soup or mild chili. Try mashing in some enriched rice with your beans for a complete protein and high-iron meal.
You can also try serving your toddler some low sugar baked beans with a piece of whole wheat bread for a high iron lunch. A side of mashed sweet potatoes adds vitamin C to the dish.
Chickpeas, known to some as garbanzo beans, are another type of bean high in iron and a great snack for toddlers (and adults!). You can blend the chickpeas to make your own iron-rich hummus.
Be aware that some people have a chickpea allergy. If you’re not sure about giving your child chickpeas, ask your doctor first.
Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, and spinach are among your best vegetable options for iron.
A half cup of boiled, drained spinach contains about 3 mg of iron.
Try serving your toddler finely chopped, steamed spinach or add chopped spinach or other greens to their:
- mac and cheese
- scrambled eggs
Related: Which is better, spinach or kale?
5. Raisins and other dried fruit
Kids love to snack on raisins. The good news is that the dried fruit can give your toddler a boost in iron, while also helping prevent constipation. A quarter cup of raisins has about 1 mg of iron.
Related: Are dried fruits good or bad?
6. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, fiber, healthy fats, and minerals, including iron. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains 2.5 mg of iron.
Try making a trail mix with raisins, prunes, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Keep in mind that raisins and seeds may be choking hazards for very young children. Mash or cut these foods into small pieces and keep watch on your toddler while they munch on them.
Related: Super healthy seeds you should eat
Eggs are a good source of essential protein, vitamins, and minerals, including iron. One hard-boiled egg contains 1 mg of iron.
For years, people tried to limit their egg consumption because eggs also contain cholesterol, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Current
Toddlers can eat eggs in many ways, such as:
- soft boiled with toast sticks
- hard boiled, whole or mashed
- as an omelet
- in rice and noodle dishes
You can add chopped spinach and other iron-rich foods to omelets and scrambled eggs. Try different ways to see how your toddler likes them best.
Always make sure the egg is fresh and well cooked. If you can, use fresh, locally sourced organic, free-range eggs.
Related: Top 10 health benefits of eggs
8. Green peas
Green peas contain protein, fiber, iron, and other nutrients. Many toddlers love them, they’re easy to prepare, and they pair well with many dishes.
A half cup of green peas provides 1 mg of iron.
You can boil peas and serve them as a side, mash them with root vegetables for infants, or add them to soups, stews, and savory rice.
Keep a bag of peas in the freezer or get fresh peas in the pod in season. Ask your toddler to help you shell the fresh peas.
Peas may pose a choking hazard for young children, so consider mashing them for infants.
Canned light tuna is a low calorie and low fat addition to your child’s diet that also supplies iron and other important nutrients like protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Three ounces of light tuna, canned in water, contains 1 mg of iron.
Combine shredded tuna with pureed vegetables to boost your toddler’s iron intake, but hold off if seafood allergies run in your family.
Tofu is a mild and versatile plant-based food that provides complete protein, calcium, iron, and other nutrients. It can provide some of the essential nutrients your toddler needs if they don’t eat meat.
A half cup of tofu contains 3 mg of iron.
Tofu comes in different forms. Firm tofu you can chop and add to salads or stir fries, bake or use to make nuggets. Silken tofu has a softer texture. You can mix it with salad dressings, add it to smoothies, or put fruit with it for a dessert.
There have been concerns about whether isoflavones, an ingredient in tofu, could be harmful for hormone balance.
According to the National Institutes of Health, around 12 percent of infants in their first year, and around 8 percent of toddlers have low iron levels.
It is always best for your child to get their nutrients from food, but if your doctor thinks your child may have iron-deficiency anemia, they may prescribe iron supplements.
Follow the instructions your doctor gives you and keep all supplements out of the reach of children. Consuming too much iron can lead to serious health problems.
Never give your child iron supplements without first consulting a doctor. Most children don’t need supplemental iron.