The benefits of iron-rich foods for toddlers are numerous as iron plays a key role in vital physiological functions. Most full-term babies have adequate iron levels from birth until four to six months (1). After that, their iron stores start to deplete as they grow, and weaning helps them meet their iron needs.
Food sources contain two types of iron – heme and non-heme iron. Plant-based sources such as legumes, vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals provide non-heme iron, and animal sources such as meat, seafood, and pantry add heme iron to a toddler’s diet. The iron requirements of most babies are met by eating a well-balanced diet. However, consult a pediatrician if you are concerned about iron deficiency in your toddler.
Read on to know more about the iron requirements for toddlers, functions of iron, iron-rich foods for toddlers, and a few iron-rich recipes to try.
How Much Iron Do Toddlers Need?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), infants aged between six and 12 months need 11mg of iron each day. Toddlers aged between one and three years require seven milligrams of iron every day (2). Some of the iron-rich foods that babies and toddlers should consume are legumes, poultry, meat, fortified cereals and grains, and green leafy vegetables (1).
The non-heme iron is less readily absorbed by the body when compared to heme iron. Consuming vitamin C-rich foods with non-heme iron foods enhances iron’s absorption and bioavailability. A few vitamin C-rich foods are lemon, cauliflower, guava, kiwi, orange, tomato, and potato.
Why Do Toddlers Need Iron?
Iron is an essential mineral required to produce hemoglobin, an essential protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to tissues, and carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs (3). Besides this, iron facilitates (4):
- Myoglobin production: Myoglobin is a protein present primarily in striated muscles providing them their characteristic red color. The body uses myoglobin to bind, carry, transport, and store oxygen in the muscles (5). Besides this, iron supports muscle metabolism and the development of healthy connective tissues.
- Energy production: Cells require iron-containing enzymes to convert energy from the ingested food into ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). ATP, also known as the cell’s “energy currency,” is the body’s primary energy source (6).
- Neurological development: Iron is considered an essential nutrient for healthy neurological development in infancy and early childhood (7). Research shows that iron-deficiency in the fetal stage or during infancy can negatively affect cognitive, physical, social-emotional, and neurophysiologic development (8).
Besides these, iron helps in DNA synthesis, thermoregulation, immunity, and producing some hormones (4). Inadequate consumption of iron increases the risk of IDA (iron-deficiency anemia).
What Is Iron Deficiency And Iron-Deficiency Anemia (IDA)?
Iron deficiency is a condition in which an individual has low levels of iron in the body. If left unattended, the deficiency can become severe, leading to iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). IDA is a state in which the hemoglobin levels drop to below-optimal levels.
In the absence of adequate hemoglobin levels, the body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells, resulting in anemia (9). Toddlers consuming high amounts of cow milk along with insufficient iron intake are at risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia (10).
Note: Calcium-containing foods consumed with iron-rich foods can hinder non-heme iron absorption by approximately 50 percent (11). Serve milk to your toddler at snack times and vitamin C-rich fruit and vegetables with iron-containing foods at mealtimes for optimum iron absorption.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of IDA In Toddlers?
- Pale, yellow-colored skin, especially around nails and eyelids
- Brittle nails bent inwards like a spoon
- Cracked corners of the mouth
- Swelling or soreness of the tongue
- Moodiness and irritability
- Inability to concentrate for a longer duration
- Frequent fatigue and exhaustion
- Loss of appetite
- Fast heartbeat
- Enlarged spleen
- Eating disorders, such as PICA, wherein a toddler compulsively eats inedible items, such as chalk and sand.
In severe cases, IDA could lead to irreversible abnormalities of behavior and brain functions. If you observe any of the IDA-related symptoms in your toddler, consult a pediatrician.
Do Toddlers Need Iron Supplements?
Most healthy toddlers can acquire iron from a well-balanced diet containing iron-rich foods. However, if your toddler exhibits iron deficiency, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements.
Remember, just like iron deficiency, iron overload or excess can lead to health complications. Therefore, give your toddler iron supplements as directed by your doctor.
Iron-Rich Foods For Toddlers
Here’s a list of iron-rich foods that you can add to your toddler’s diet in age-appropriate ways for adequate iron intake.
Seafood contains a wide assortment of food items, such as fish, shellfish, oysters, clams, and shrimps. These foods are rich in high-quality, lean protein and micronutrients, such as iron, iodine, and selenium. For instance, three ounces of canned clams, oysters, and shrimp contain 23.8mg, 13.2mg, and 2.6mg of iron, respectively (14). You can prepare healthy curries, soups, casseroles, pasta, and salads with seafood, if there the toddler is not allergic to them.
2. Fortified cereals
One cup of fortified cereals contains 4.5 to 18mg of iron (15). About 28g of fortified oats contains 6.92g, and 12g of fortified puffed wheat contains 3.8mg of iron (16) (17). Check the label before buying a fortified cereal to know how much you offer your toddler per serving. Oatmeal, rice flakes, muesli, and sprouted grain cereals are a few options you use to prepare delicious sweet and savory recipes.
3. Lean meat and poultry
It is one of the richest iron sources, which is relatively easy to digest for older babies and toddlers. Skinless chicken, turkey, and lamb are good options to try. Three ounces of lamb has three milligrams of iron, whereas three ounces of chicken breast has 1.1mg of iron (14). You can give your toddler lean meat curry, stew, and casserole with spaghetti or steamed rice during lunch or dinner.
Whole eggs are a good source of high-quality protein and micronutrients, such as iron, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin D. One whole cooked egg contains 1.68mg of iron (18). Toddlers can reap the egg’s nutritional benefits by consuming whole egg recipes, such as an omelet or scrambled egg with veggie, devilled eggs with pancakes, or an egg sandwich with lemonade.
5. Green leafy vegetables
Spinach, kale, collards, beet greens, and broccoli are good sources of iron and other vital nutrients, such as vitamin A, folate, and bioactive compounds (19). Toddlers between two and three years are advised to consume at least one cup of raw or cooked veggies per day (20). Add lemon juice to green leafy vegetables or serve them with vitamin C rich foods to enhance their iron’s bioavailability.
6. Dried fruits
Raisins, dates, figs, and prunes are iron and fiber-rich dried fruits containing several micronutrients. Add chopped dried fruits to cereals, porridge, shakes, smoothies, or prepare a trail mix. Your toddler can also eat a handful of these delicious, nutrient-rich foods as snacks instead of processed foods, such as biscuits and chips.
Fresh seasonal fruits, such as watermelon, apple, apricot, pomegranate, strawberries, mulberries, and black currant, are some iron-rich foods that your toddler can consume daily. You can add fruits to different recipes or feed them to your toddler as it is. Besides iron, these fruits can provide dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting phytochemicals.
Pumpkin seeds are good sources of iron for a toddler. You can powder these seeds and add them to different foods, such as soups, cereals, smoothies, and shakes. One ounce (28.3g) of pumpkin seeds offer 2.3mg of iron, which can significantly contribute to your toddler’s daily iron needs (21).
Whole-grain, such as whole wheat, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, and spelt, are good sources of iron, offering dietary fiber, B-vitamins, and bioactive compounds (22). You can prepare several tasty and healthy recipes across meals using whole-grains and their products, such as bread, cereals, and pasta. Add lots of seasonal vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds to enhance the recipes’ taste, texture, and nutritional value.
The Dietary Guidelines of American 2015-2020 recommends eating half a cup of legumes (beans, peas, or lentils) per 1000 calories a week (23). Curries, soups, stews, sandwiches, salads, and casseroles are delicious dishes you can prepare using cooked and sprouted legumes. Some of the iron-rich legumes you can add to your toddler’s daily diet are soybean, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, and split peas.
Almonds, cashews, pine nuts, walnut, macadamia, and hazelnut can offer good amounts of iron per serving. You can add raw, soaked, roasted, or powdered nuts to foods, such as milk, yogurt, smoothies, and cereals. Homemade nut butter and nut spreads are other ways to let your toddler enjoy the benefits of nuts.
Tasty And Healthy Iron-Rich Recipes For Toddlers
Below are some mouth-watering and healthy iron-rich recipes that your toddler can relish comfortably.
1. Lamb soup
You will need:
- 200g lean lamb leg steak (diced)
- 100g squash or pumpkin (peeled and chopped)
- 100g parsnips
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 small onion (peeled and chopped)
- 8 to 10 cups water
How to prepare:
- Put all the ingredients into a big pot over medium heat. Add around eight cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Reduce the flame to low and let the mixture simmer for two hours, adding extra water if necessary.
- After two hours, pour some soup with lamb pieces into a feeding bowl. Feed this sumptuous soup to your toddler at lunch or dinner.
2. Beef stew with veggies
You will need:
- 100g chuck roast (trimmed and cut into cubes)
- 1 cup diced frozen onion
- 300ml reduced-sodium beef broth
- 1 can (14.5oz.) tomatoes
- 4 potatoes (peeled and quartered)
- 3 carrots (peeled and chopped)
- 1 rib celery (chopped)
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup cold water
- ½ cup frozen corn
- ½ cup frozen peas
- 2tbsp dried parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- 1tbsp canola oil
- 1tbsp unsalted butter
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
How to prepare:
- Apply salt and black pepper to the beef. Set aside.
- Heat canola oil and butter into a pressure cooking pot over medium heat.
- As the butter begins melting, put beef chunks and fry them until the pieces turn brown. Once done, transfer all the chunks to a plate.
- Then, add chopped onion to the cooking pot and saute for about two to three minutes, until they turn translucent.
- Add beef broth, crushed tomatoes, parsley, bay leaves, and beef chunks. Lock the lid and cook the mixture at high pressure for ten minutes.
- After ten minutes, let the pressure release, and once done, remove the lid.
- Add the potatoes, carrots, and celery. Lock the lid again and cook the mixture again on high pressure for two to three additional minutes.
- After three minutes, remove the pressure cooker from the heat. Let the pressure release. Remove the lid and discard the bay leaves.
- Whisk all-purpose flour and cold water into a lump-free, smooth paste. Add the flour paste to the beef mixture with frequent stirring until it thickens.
- Add corn and peas and bring the mixture to a boil for ten minutes over low heat.
- After ten minutes, turn off the heat and transfer the stew into a serving bowl.
3. Spinach and oats pancakes
You will need:
- 1 cup oats flour
- 1 cup spinach (finely chopped)
- 2tbsp pumpkin seeds
- 2tbsp jaggery powder
- ½tsp baking powder
- ¼tsp baking soda
- ½tsp sea salt
- ½tsp cinnamon powder
- ¾ cup whole milk
- ¼ cup plain Greek yogurt
- 1 large egg
- 2tbsp ghee or clarified butter
How to prepare:
- Blend pumpkin seeds, baking powder, baking soda, salt, jaggery powder, cinnamon powder, and oats flour into a fine powder using a blender. Ensure no lumps are present.
- Add milk, Greek yogurt, and spinach and blend again to make a lump-free, smooth batter.
- Lastly, add egg and blend again to mix everything well. Set aside.
- Then, heat ghee in a skillet over medium heat.
- Once the ghee warms, spread a cup of pancake batter onto the skillet. Cook each side of the pancake for five minutes until it turns brown and crispy.
- Transfer the pancake to a plate and serve warm with a cup of milk or applesauce.
4. Veggie sandwich
You will need:
- 2 slices whole-grain bread (toasted)
- ¼ cup fresh baby spinach (chopped)
- ¼ cup bean sprouts (cooked)
- 2tbsp peanut butter
- 1tsp toasted sesame seeds
How to prepare:
- Spread peanut butter on both slices of bread.
- Layer one slice with spinach, sprouts, and toasted sesame seeds. Put another slice on the top. The sandwich is ready.
- Cut the sandwich into four pieces, place it on the serving plate, and feed your toddler as healthy finger food.
5. Fruit and nuts smoothie
You will need:
- 1 cup fortified whole milk
- ½ cup strawberry (chopped)
- ½ cup banana (chopped)
- ½ cup blueberries (chopped)
- 2tbsp rolled oats
- 2tbsp dried fruit powder
- 1tsp jaggery powder
How to prepare:
- Blend all the ingredients into a lump-free smooth liquid using a blender.
- Pour the smoothie into a cup and feed.
6. Tuna pasta
You will need:
- 50g anellini pasta (cooked)
- 30g frozen pea (boiled)
- 20g unsalted butter
- 20g wheat flour
- 200ml whole milk
- 1 cup tuna (shredded)
- ½ cup spring onions (chopped)
- ½ cup tomato (chopped)
- ¼ cup sweetcorn
- 2tbsp cheddar cheese (grated)
- 1tsp Dijon mustard
- 1tsp Italian seasoning
How to prepare:
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add flour and cook for two to three minutes while stirring continuously.
- Add milk and bring the mixture to a boil with occasional stirring until the mixture thickens.
- As the mixture begins boiling, turn off the heat and add Dijon mustard and Italian seasoning. The sauce is ready.
- Pour half of the sauce into a shallow baking dish and stir in tuna shreds, spring onions, tomato, sweetcorn, and pasta. Pour the remaining sauce over and top with grated cheddar.
- Heat a grill to medium heat and place the dish under the grill for five to eight minutes, until the crust turns golden brown and cheese begins bubbling.
- Switch off the grill and serve hot.
Iron is a vital mineral that supports critical body functions. Toddlers should consume a well-balanced diet consisting of iron-rich foods for healthy growth, development, and sustenance. You can feed various heme and non-heme iron foods to babies and toddlers. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, provide vitamin C-rich foods with non-heme iron foods to aid adequate absorption of iron by the body.
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