Iron-rich foods for kids and infants
Between 9 and 15 months of age most children are screened for iron-deficiency with a toe or finger prick test.
Why are they torturing your little one? Well, I promise it’s for a good reason.
What is iron deficiency?
Iron is an essential mineral necessary for carrying oxygen in the blood. Deficiency of iron can lead to anemia, a condition where the amount of blood cells is decreased. Children and adults with anemia can feel fatigued or have a harder time playing or exercising. Anemia can cause significant developmental delays because less oxygen is getting to the growing brain. It can lead to ADHD, learning disabilities or other behavioral problems – simply because the brain isn’t happy without its precious oxygen.
Infants are especially prone to iron deficiency after 6 months of age. In the last few weeks of pregnancy a significant amount of iron is stored in the growing infant, enough to last 6 months after birth. After this time children typically need more iron than is provided by formula or breastmilk. Fortunately, this is precisely the time when solid foods are introduced. Combining iron-rich foods with other tasty foods will make them more palatable.
Dr. K’s favorite iron-rich foods
Beans – Lentils, black beans, kidney or lima beans are all high in iron. Cook until very mushy if giving to an infant.
Quinoa – this ancient supergrain is a complete protein (containing balanced amino acids), and has nearly as much iron as fortified cereal! Cook well with extra water to form a cereal before giving to an infant. Older children may enjoy cooked quinoa with almond milk, cinnamon and a touch of real maple syrup.
Blackstrap molasses – only 1 tablespoon of blackstrap molasses has as much iron as fortified cereals. Make sure to get organic molasses (no pesticides), and mix a teaspoon or two in with sweet potatoes, quinoa, or “greensauce” (below).
“Greensauce” – mix apple or pearsauce with pureed green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, spinach and turnip greens. Yum!
Sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds – are high in many minerals, including iron, calcium and zinc. Tahini and pumpkin seed butter are delicious spread on crackers, toast or cut vegetables.
Meats – are completely appropriate early foods for 6 months+ infants (who are in meat-eating families). Ground turkey or lamb can be mixed with potatoes, yams, squash, or another pureed food for infants.
Iron-fortified cereals like rice cereal (Cream of Rice), fortified breads and pastas are options for children older than 9 months. Some children younger than 9 months do not have enough enzymes to break down starches in these foods, so waiting until 9 months is advisable. Also, iron-fortified foods are more likely to cause constipation unlike foods naturally high in iron. Remember – sometimes nature knows best!
Adding food sources of vitamin C like lemon, kiwi or bell pepper can increase absorption of iron. Sometimes a squeeze of lemon over the food can be just enough to make a big difference.
Remember, supplemental iron should only be given if a child has a documented case of anemia or iron deficiency. Iron is a pro-oxidant (as opposed to an anti-oxidant), which can cause oxidative stress. Accidental ingestion of iron-containing supplements is still the number one cause of poisoning in children – so keep the iron supplements locked up and away from reach of children. Iron also tends to worsen any kind of gut dysbiosis, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or yeast overgrowth in the gut. Remember that iron is a critical nutrient for gut bacteria and yeast – so iron containing products may make bad gut bacteria/yeast overgrowth much worse. This does not tend to happen with iron containing foods! (Yet another way that nature knows best!)
RDA for iron:
7-12 months: 11 mg/day.
1-3 years: 7 mg
4-8 years: 10 mg
9-13 years: 8 mg
14-18 years: 11 mg for males, 15 mg for menstruating females.
USDA National Nutrient database for Standard Reference: www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/
Insel P, Turner RE, Ross D. Nutrition. 2nd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett; 2004.
Office of Dietary Supplements: National Institutes of Health.”Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron” http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron/. 27 July 2011.
Riod E, et al. “Relationship of maternal and infant iron stores as assessed by determination of plasma ferritin.” Pediatrics. 1975 May; 55 (5:) 694-9
Brenda MartinezFebruary 8, 2023 at 4:27 am
Hello, is it ok to add the Blackstrap molasses in yogurt for toddlers?
ericaDecember 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm
My 10 month old was a 32 week preemie and is showing a level of 7. His doctor prescibed 22mg twice a day. That seems a little high to me, especially after reading your chart. I really don’t want to give it to him, but he’s been not doing well, and hoping it’s related just to the anemia.
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RobinJanuary 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm
For the “greensauce”, are the leafy greens cooked first?
Dr. Erika KrumbeckJanuary 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm
You can do it either way. Cooked greens are softer (obviously), and more “sauce”-like, but if you cook kale or other brassica veggies it ends up tasting a lot like cooked cabbage – not so delicious to mix with applesauce. Lightly steamed or raw veggies impart less flavor, though they are less sauce-like. For Annika we microwave a leaf of chard or kale for about a minute (in a little bit of water), then run it through a baby food grinder and add it to her food. She doesn’t even seem to notice it is there! (Plus it really helps prevent constipation, since most baby food is extremely pureed).
KathleenJanuary 24, 2013 at 6:56 pm
I’ve really been enjoying your blog, Erika. As a person who will likely be having a baby in April, I’m finding this advice really thoughtful and convincing. Also, in case you are answering questions from blog comments, I will ask mine: pregnancy heartburn, any suggestions?
Dr. Erika KrumbeckJanuary 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm
Ummmm – congratulations??!!? I have plenty of suggestions, but my policy is to not diagnose or treat via the internet or social media – for obvious legal reasons. (Check your inbox!)
Maureen DunnJanuary 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm
Great post, thanks for writing something concise on this topic! Already passed it on to folks I know will be interested.
JonJanuary 24, 2013 at 5:06 pm
Are there any kinds or brands of blackstrap molasses that you would recommend? Casey has a little bit of iron deficiency and she is starting to supplement with blackstrap.
Dr. Erika KrumbeckJanuary 24, 2013 at 6:04 pm
I use “Wholesome Sweetener’s” Molasses. It is fair trade and organic. I’m sure any organic brand would work, though.
jasonJanuary 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm
So why are supplements so bad then? Why is it better to get through the diet?
Dr. Erika KrumbeckJanuary 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm
Supplements aren’t necessarily bad. But anyone who has been prescribed Ferrous sulfate for iron deficiency can tell you the most common side-effect: constipation. Really, really really bad constipation. Some people just can’t tolerate iron supplements for that reason (by the way, there are other forms of iron that can be used for supplementation that are not constipating. Iron picolinate or heme iron are much better.) Plus the liquid iron supplements meant for children are generally full of artificial colorings, flavorings and sweeteners. Nature’s high iron foods are also high in other minerals and nutrients that are important – like calcium, potassium and folate. Sometimes when iron deficiency is severe you just can’t get enough from foods, but it is still the best place to start.
AlexMarch 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm
Our now 15 months old son was diagnosed with slight anemia at one year check up. He is still being breastfed. Ferrous sulfate was prescribed initially by our pediatrician, but we decided to up his iron via iron rich foods instead. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to raise his iron enough in 3 months. We started him on ferrous sulfate 4 days ago and severe constipation followed. You mention above iron picolinate as an alternative. Can you please suggest other forms of iron for a toddler as well as brands names under which they come? I am calling our pediatrician about this and wanted to be armed with specific recommendations in case she tells me to stay the course with ferrous sulfate. Thanks.
Dr. Erika KrumbeckMarch 24, 2013 at 3:56 pm
I believe there is also an iron gluconate which is less constipating. You can also find Heme Iron (basically iron from animal products). My favorite, of course, is iron picolinate which as far as I know is only produced by a company called Thorne. They make professional-grade products so you would have to find a naturopathic doctor/chiropractor/integrative doctor near you that stocks them. I believe Pharmaca also sells their products online. E-mail me if you have a hard time getting it ([email protected]) and I’ll try to find a source for you. They are in capsule form but you can open up the capsules and put it in applesauce – it tastes a little iron-y but isn’t too bad (I’ve tried it!). Make sure your child is getting their iron levels checked regularly, it can increase their iron quite rapidly (high iron is dangerous).
CallieMarch 22, 2019 at 2:40 pm
My 16 month old daughter was prescribed ferrous sulfate drops by her pediatrician after lab tests showed her iron levels were low. I chose to attempt to raise them with diet and the levels did go up, although not as high as her pediatrician would have liked. I am very opposed to giving her the ferrous sulfate and wonder if you have an opinion on NovaFerrum Liquid Iron Pediatric Drops.
Ali Carlson KellyJanuary 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm
Great information, I can’t wait to pass it on!