Sneaky ways to add extra iron to your toddler’s diet

Toddlers are doing so much growing at this age, and the nutrients from a balanced, nutritious diet help toddlers grow and develop in amazing ways. Iron, specifically, is helping Baby‘s body get the oxygen it needs – it’s important for producing hemoglobin, which is the part of red blood cells that binds to oxygen in the blood, and carries it from the lungs to the rest of the body. Not getting enough iron can put children and adults at risk for iron-deficiency anemia. Since iron is also important for immune system function, a lack of iron could also mean more illnesses for your little one – and no one wants that.

As you work to make sure that Baby eats nutritious meals, you may notice that toddlers can have unpredictable tastes. Though these sort of behaviors can easily turn mealtime into a challenge, it’s important that your little one continues to have some control over what they eats.

Yes, you’ll want to continue to offer Baby a variety of nutritious foods – including things they might have refused yesterday or last week – but you don’t want to turn mealtime into a battleground. You can help to keep mealtime from turning into a power struggle by not forcing things – for example, not making your tot eat all their green beans or polish off those last few bites of meatloaf. However, respecting your toddler’s appetite doesn’t mean that you need to be above creatively sneaking some iron into your little one’s meals.

Toddlers between the ages of one and three need about 7 milligrams of iron each day. Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and nonheme – and nonheme iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body.  Many plants are rich in iron, and plants contain nonheme iron. Meats – seafood included – contain both heme and nonheme iron. What this means is that if your little one is eating a diet that is primarily vegetarian, twice as much iron is recommended, since it won’t be absorbed into their system as easily. Iron is best absorbed by the body when accompanied by Vitamin C, so it’s also helpful to serve iron alongside foods rich in Vitamin C. 

So just how can you be sure your little one is getting enough iron? You don’t necessarily need to go the Popeye route and aim for spinach at every meal!

  • Leafy greens: Dark leafy greens are a fantastic source of iron, though not all toddlers are always fans of eating these regularly. It can be helpful to mix cooked greens in with eggs or pasta.
  • Eggs: A great source of iron on their own, you can serve eggs fried, scrambled, in quiche form, or whatever way your toddler is most likely to take a bite!
  • Potatoes: Another food that can be served in a lot of toddler-friendly ways – mashed, baked, French fried – potatoes contain both iron and vitamin C. Most of the iron lives in the skin, so aim to serve skin-on potatoes if possible.
  • Beans: Maybe your little eater is happy to snack on beans on their own – they’re pretty fun, after all. If you need to be a little bit sneakier, beans can find their way into chilis or soups, quesadillas or toddler-sized wraps, pasta salad, or even a dip or paste-like hummus or a white bean dip – to be eaten on top of toast or with pita chips or crackers.
  • Meat: Lean red meats (like beef, pork, or lamb) and dark poultry meat can be eaten on their own or served as part of a larger meal, if that’s more appealing to Baby. Meats can be mixed in with pastas, soups, sandwiches, meatballs, burritos, dumplings – the possibilities are endless, and give you a lot of options for adding Vitamin C-rich foods into the mix alongside the iron.
  • Tofu: Tofu can be used in most of the same ways that meat can. You can even mix silken tofu – a soft form of tofu – into smoothies to be really sneaky.
  • Seafood: Oily fish like fresh tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, or trout is another great source of iron. Much like the meat, this can be eaten on its own or as part of a larger dish, like a tuna sandwich, pasta salad with salmon, sardines on crackers, or whatever else your little one might go for.
  • Nuts: Kids under age five shouldn’t be eating whole nuts, which are a choking hazard, but your toddler can have nut butter in sandwiches, on toast, or on crackers. You can even serve it in less obvious ways, like in a peanut sauce on noodles or in a smoothie with banana and yogurt. 
  • Dried fruits: Dried fruits like raisins are a popular, toddler-friendly snack, but prunes, figs, and apricots are also great choices. You can mix these in with dry cereal pieces for a fun, iron-rich snack.
  • Fortified cereals and breads: A lot of fortified breads and cereals contain extra iron – you might have even noticed this with Baby’s first cereal mix as a baby – which saves you from having to sneak in any extra iron on your own!

If you’re offering options for Baby to eat these kinds of foods throughout the day, your little one will probably be getting all the iron they need. Whether you serve your little one ground beef meatballs with a vitamin C rich tomato sauce, or have to sneak some silken tofu into a berry smoothie, remember that your little one might sometimes refuse the food you offer, and that’s totally normal. If you keep trying, they will get the nutrients they need in the end.

  • Robert D. Baker, Frank R. Greer, The Committee on Nutrition. “Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children (0–3 Years of Age).” Pediatrics. 126(5):1040-1050. November 2010. Retrieved January 4 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Iron deficiency anemia.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, November 11, 2016. Retrieved January 4 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Iron deficiency in children: Prevention tips for parents.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, November 29, 2016. Retrieved January 4 2017.
  • “AAP Offers Guidance to Boost Iron Levels in Children.” American Academy of Pediatrics, October 5 2010. Retrieved January 4 2017.
  • “Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your 2-Year-Old.” American Academy of Pediatrics, March 16 2017. Retrieved January 4 2017.
  • “First AAP recommendations on iron supplementation include directive on universal screening.” AAP News & Journals Gateway. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 5 2010. Retrieved January 4 2017.
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