We know babies and toddlers need adequate iron to thrive, but parents are still often left with questions about iron for babies, especially if they’re trying to feed their kids mostly plant-based foods. How much iron do small children need? When should parents start incorporating iron-rich foods in their children’s diets? Can you get enough iron on a plant-based diet? And if so, what are the best plant-based sources of iron rich food for babies and toddlers? We cover all of this and more so you can rest easy about meeting your kiddo’s iron needs.
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OK, well it’s not just babies and toddlers who need iron. Iron is an important part of any diet, at any age. But iron for babies is especially important for those growing bodies.
Iron is an essential mineral that our body uses to support its natural functions. Specifically, it’s a key component in hemoglobin, the molecule that red blood cells use to transport oxygen throughout your body.
If you don’t have enough iron, then your body can't make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This leads to iron deficiency, which for children can look like:
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Slowed growth and development
- Poor appetite
- Abnormally rapid breathing
- Behavioral problems
- Frequent infections
- Pica, a condition in which your child craves non-food items like dust, chalk, etc.
The good news is, most healthy full-term babies are born with enough iron stores in their bodies to last typically about six months. Breastfed babies do better with iron absorption than formula-fed babies for a few reasons. First, the Vitamin C and lactose levels in breastmilk aid in iron absorption. And second, cow’s milk can irritate the intestinal lining, which results in a small amount of bleeding and the loss of iron whereas breastfed babies don’t lose iron through their bowels.
Around 6 months of age, breastfed or not, the iron stores babies are born with typically begin to dwindle, which is why it’s often recommended for parents to focus on iron rich foods for babies when introducing solids (iron deficiency anemia is most common in children aged 9 months to 24 months).
Note: check with your healthcare provider if you’re worried about your child’s iron levels. It is not often recommended you introduce solids before six months of age.
While iron deficiency certainly isn’t good for growing minds and bodies, meeting the iron needs of babies and toddlers isn’t too difficult.
Iron needs for small children are as follows:
- Infants 6–12 months = 11 milligrams of iron a day
- Toddlers 1–3 years = 7 milligrams of iron each day
There’s a common misconception that in order to get adequate iron from food, we must eat red meat. While yes, steak and other meats are rich sources of iron, there are plenty of plant-based sources, too. Though animal and plant-based sources of iron do differ.
Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron — What’s the Difference?
Heme iron is found in animal products, like meat and poultry. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods, like legumes and vegetables. Non-heme plant-based iron makes up about 85% - 90% of the iron intakes in Western populations.
Heme iron has a more efficient absorption rate in the body, which is why people often think that meat or other animal sources of iron are superior to plant-based sources. But the absorption rate doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, meat consumption is linked to increased risk of metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and cancer.
Second, you can increase your child’s absorption of iron simply by serving more Vitamin C-rich foods alongside their iron-rich plant-based foods. 100 mg of Vitamin C (one large orange) alongside your little one’s plant-based iron can increase absorption by 67 percent.
There is also some evidence suggesting vegetarian and vegan children need to consume 1.8 times as much iron as omnivore children, though studies show that vegan children are no more likely to be iron-deficient than any other children.
Like so many things in nutrition, we tend to get bogged down in the details (especially if we’re new parents. The good news is, when it comes to iron for babies, simply offering iron rich foods 2-3 times a day will typically ensure your child is getting all the iron they need.
But what iron rich foods for babies are best if you’re going the plant-based route?
We asked Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian, Addie Dulaney Majnaric, about the best sources of iron in plants.
Here are some of the best plant-based sources of iron rich food for babies and toddlers, plus our top tips for getting your kiddos to actually eat them:
1. Legumes and Beans
- You can serve beans as a finger food once your baby develops the pincer grasp
- Whip up some oil-free hummus and serve it on whole grain toast or with bell pepper strips (for older toddlers)
- No time to cook? Order MamaSezz Millie’s Chili and just heat and eat. It’s the perfect vegan chili for young kids because it’s not spicy. Pro tip for parents with babies and younger toddlers: Strain a big scoop of MamaSezz Millie’s Chili before serving your child to make it into finger food.
- Your kid doesn’t like tofu? This is the secret to making tofu taste really, really good.
- Skip the chicken nuggets and make tofu nuggets instead. Your little one won’t know the difference and this oil-free healthy vegan tofu nugget recipe from Sarah’s Vegan Guide is super easy to make.
- No time to cook? Order MamaSezz Salt-Free Ricotta Style Mushroom and Tomato Bake and add it to your favorite whole grain or gluten-free pasta for a kid-friendly dinner. Pro tip for parents with babies and young toddlers: choose short-cut pasta like elbows, ziti, and rotini to make it easier for those little fingers to pick up.
3. Rolled Oats
- You don’t need to buy iron-fortified oats; regular oats (whether quick, rolled, or steel cut) are a great iron rich food for kids as is.
- Try these chewy oatmeal banana pancakes for an iron rich food for toddlers. They’re refined sugar-free and super easy to whip up. You can even make a big batch to freeze then reheat pancakes in the toaster, air fryer, or microwave as needed throughout the week. Score!
- No time to cook? Order MamaSezz Veggie Loaf for a kid-friendly meal that takes 3 minutes to prepare. Top with your favorite refined sugar-free ketchup to make it extra toddler approved. Pro tip for parents with babies and younger toddlers: chop MamaSezz Veggie Loaf into cubes for easy self feeding.
- Switch up your kiddo’s morning oats with a big hearty bowl of this cinnamon quinoa.
- Keep things simple with this no-recipe lunch or dinner. Simply make quinoa according to package instructions, let cool, and serve with steamed or roasted veggies for a baby-approved stir-fry!
- No time to cook? Order MamaSezz Lentil Dhal With Quinoa and just heat and serve. While traditionally dhal is pretty spicy, our take is fairly mild though did you know pediatric feeding experts recommend babies and toddlers are introduced to multitude of subtle spices and flavors? In fact, exposing your babies to different types of foods can help you avoid having a picky eater later (and help them really enjoy eating!). Just start small!
5. Leafy Green Vegetables (Spinach, Kale, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Collards)
- Make green veggies fun by spreading this creamy green avocado hummus on your child’s whole grain toast.
- Need to sneak greens past your picky eater? Blend leafy greens into your favorite marinara sauce for pasta night and they’ll be none the wiser. Bonus: the tomatoes are a Vitamin C rich food which means they’ll help your child absorb the iron from the leafy greens.
- No time to cook? Order MamaSezz Creamy Broccoli Soup for a comforting lunch the whole family can enjoy.
6. Nuts and Seeds
- Whole nuts and seeds are considered a choking hazard until the age of four so choose nut and seed butters until then.
- Nuts are a common allergy food so check with your pediatrician on how and when to introduce these to your child, though the standard recommendation is around 6 months.
- Sick of serving peanut butter toast? Order MamaSezz Mama’s Mac for a kid-friendly dinner you don’t have to cook. Made with our delicious cashew cream sauce, it’s the ultimate vegan mac and cheese and our customers tell us it’s even a win for picky eaters.
- Whether you’re a full on vegan family or simply trying to feed your kiddos more plant-based foods, you can rest assured that there are great plant-based iron rich foods for kids to choose from, including: beans and legumes, tofu, rolled oats, quinoa, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds.
- Non-heme sources of iron (AKA plant-based sources of iron) are better absorbed when paired with Vitamin C rich foods.
- A good rule of thumb to ensure your baby or toddler gets enough iron: offer iron-rich food 2-3 times a day to your child.
- While vegan children don’t appear to be more anemic than any other children, it is sometimes recommended for parents to feed vegetarian and vegan children 1.8 times the iron RDA for kids their age.
- Top plant based sources of iron rich food for babies and toddlers include legumes and beans, tofu, rolled oats, quinoa, leafy dark greens, nuts and seeds.
- No time to prepare iron rich food for babies? Make mealtime easy with the MamaSezz Family Bundle. Ready-made and healthy plant-based meals with all the nutrients your little one needs to thrive. Delivered right to your door, and all you have to do is heat and eat.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a mom, wife, and nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor. She has her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.