How can I ensure my child is getting enough iron in their diet?
Iron is an important nutrient, especially during childhood when a child is undergoing rapid periods of growth. Again, at HNK we often receive messages from parents who are worried about their child’s iron intake, especially due to meat rejection.
Firstly, it can be helpful to understand the types of iron found in food. Heme iron is the iron found in meat, fish and poultry and is mostly easily absorbed. Non-heme iron is the iron found in plant based foods (as well as some meat, fish and poultry) and may require some assistance to be absorbed effectively (such as adding a source of vitamin C or eating alongside a source of heme-iron).
What are the guidelines for iron?
Current dietary intake guidelines for children (NRV 2021):
1-3 years old: 9mg/day
4-8 years old: 10mg/day
A way we suggest to parents for a child to meet their iron needs is to simply aim to include an iron-rich food at every meal (or as close to every meal as possible). The bonus here is that many iron-rich foods are often also a source of protein.
Before we talk about iron, it’s important to note the current recommendations specific to red and processed meat. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends that people limit their intake of red meat and avoid processed meat and Cancer Council Australia recommends moderate (small portions no more than 3-4 times per week) consumption of unprocessed lean red meat and limiting or avoiding charred, burnt and processed meats. Processed meats refer to sausages, Frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham as examples. Finally, they recommend including fish and plant based foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals. As a mother please know I understand that ham, bacon and sausages are highly desirable food for many children and on occasion, my kids eat these too. Do your best and opt for alternatives when you can.
With this in mind, you might have noticed that our recipes at HNK do not contain red or processed meat and the recommendations below also do not include processed meats.
Here are some example iron rich foods for kids you may wish to incorporate into your child’s meals :
- Chicken liver - note chicken liver is high in vitamin A and should be limited to once per week, if you choose to offer it.
- Hard boiled egg
- Chicken mince
Non-heme iron (to increase absorption, consume with a source of vitamin C and ideally avoid serving at the same time as calcium-rich foods).
- Red Lentils
- Sourdough bread
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cooked spinach
- Rolled oats
- Kidney beans
- Chia seeds
- Dried apricot
- Almond butter
- Cooked brown rice
- Wholemeal bread
- Raw spinach
- Cooked quinoa
- Dried fig
- Green peas
- Peanut butter
- Other seeds and nuts such as sesame seeds, hemp seeds, cashews and pistachios
- Other dried fruits such as sultanas, prunes
Other sources of iron typically consumed by children:
- Cocoa powder
This is not an exhaustive list
TIP: Soaking, sprouting or fermenting beans, seeds, nuts and grains may help to reduce phytic acid (a naturally occurring substance), which can bind to iron and inhibit absorption. For example, sourdough is a greater source of iron than wheat based bread due to the fermentation process. Note - phytic acid is not 'bad' and foods that contain phytic acid should not be removed from a child's diet unless otherwise advised by a health care provider.
If you are worried about your child’s iron levels at any time you can seek advice from your doctor or book a consult with a nutritionist (HNK Clinic now open) to review your child's diet. A doctor may request a blood test to explore iron levels further and in some cases, supplementation may be necessary. Iron supplements for children should always be prescribed and monitored by a health care provider.
Cancer Council Australia. Meat and cancer risk. https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/causes-and-prevention/diet-and-exercise/meat-and-cancer-risk (accessed 16 March 2021).
Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Australian Food Composition Database - Iron, https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/science/monitoringnutrients/afcd/Pages/foodsbynutrientsearch.aspx?nutrientID=FE (accessed 16 March 2021).
Nutrient Reference Values, Iron, https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/iron, 2014 (accessed 16 March 2021).
World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Washington DC: AICR; 2007.