Toddlers are known to reject foods for all kinds of reasons – maybe it's too red, it's too mushy, or it touched something green. This can lead caregivers to worry about toddlers not getting the nutrition that their growing bodies need.
Iron deficiency is common in children, and an estimated 8 percent of toddlers may have an iron deficiency.
In this article, we look at how much iron toddlers need, list 11 iron-rich foods suitable for toddlers, and offer ideas for recipes or ways to include these foods in a healthful diet.
How much iron do toddlers need?
According to the National Institutes of Health, children should get the following daily iron intake in milligrams (mg):
- infants 7–12 months, 11 mg
- toddlers aged 1–3 years, 7 mg
- children aged 4–8 years, 10 mg
However, the daily iron recommendations differ depending on the foods that a toddler eats.
There are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is only available from animal products, such as meat and seafood. Non-heme iron comes from non-animal sources and fortified foods.
Both forms of iron can help a person meet their daily iron needs. However, heme iron is easier for the body to break down. For this reason, people who get iron only from non-meat sources—including vegans, vegetarians, and very picky toddlers—should consume 1.8 times more iron than recommended for their age group.
Pairing iron from plant sources with vitamin C, such as lemon or orange, can increase how well the body absorbs iron.
11 iron-rich foods for toddlers
Oatmeal is an iron-rich food suitable for toddlers.
Many children are incredibly fussy and will refuse food many times before they will eat and enjoy it, so do not be discouraged — keep offering healthful meals.
For a balanced diet, try rotating iron sources and encourage toddlers to eat a wide variety of foods.
The following foods are an excellent source of iron that many toddlers will eat:
1. Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Many breakfast cereals, including those made for children, are fortified with iron. They often contain 100 percent of the daily iron intake recommended for adults. Check the label to find out the specific iron content.
Note that many breakfast cereals are also high in sugar and sodium. Consider offering these cereals as an occasional treat, or in small portions as part of a more balanced meal.
Oatmeal is a nutritious snack that many toddlers love. According to one source, ¾ of a cup of oatmeal contains 4.5 to 6.6 mg of iron.
Oatmeal is also rich in fiber, making it an excellent choice for kids with stomach or digestive problems, including constipation.
Try sprinkling some cinnamon and a pinch of brown sugar on top of oatmeal to make it more appetizing for a toddler. Add a handful of raisins for an extra boost of iron.
All meat products are rich in iron. However, many toddlers often reject meat, but these simple strategies might convince them that meat is worth a try:
- Use cookie cutters to make slices of deli meat into fun shapes. Increase the iron content even more by putting the meat on a slice of fortified white bread, which can offer around 1 mg of iron.
- Try chicken nuggets. Many toddlers who refuse other meats will happily eat chicken nuggets. However, be cautious as they often contain high levels of sodium and saturated fats.
- Try mixing ground beef or turkey in a food processor with a little milk before cooking it. This offers a creamier texture that is more appealing to many toddlers.
4. Peanut butter sandwiches
The amount of iron in peanut butter varies between brands, but usually contains about 0.56 mg of iron per tablespoon. For extra iron, make a sandwich using a slice of whole wheat bread that can provide around 1 mg of iron.
Peanut butter is also relatively high in protein, making it a great option for toddlers who will not eat meat.
For a sweet alternative to cookies and other nutritionally poor snacks, make toasted peanut butter and honey or peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
5. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate offers an antioxidant-rich treat that can help boost your child's iron intake. Other than meat, dark chocolate is one of the most iron-rich foods your toddler can eat, offering 7 mg of iron per 3-ounce (oz) serving.
Some toddlers do not like the more bitter taste of dark chocolate. Encourage them to give it a try by melting it and mixing it with peanut butter; then spread it on to bread for an iron-rich treat.
A hard-boiled egg offers 1 mg of iron. Some toddlers love peeling eggs. Try making snack time even more fun by dyeing the eggs using food coloring before eating them.
If your toddler is not a hard-boiled egg lover, try scrambled eggs instead. Use cookie cutters to cut the scrambled eggs into fun animal shapes.
Some kids love fried egg sandwiches. Lightly fry an egg, then put it in a sandwich with a bit of ketchup. The bread adds about 1mg of iron.
7. Beans and pulses
Beans and pulses are great sources of iron. White beans are one of the richest sources of iron, offering 8 mg per serving.
Encourage toddlers to eat beans, using the following recipes:
- cook white beans and sweet potatoes, then puree them and add a little cinnamon
- shape the beans into patties, then either cut them into unusual shapes or put them in a sandwich
Nuts, including cashews and pistachios, are an excellent source of iron, protein, and other essential nutrients.
However, nuts can be a choking hazard, so never give whole nuts to toddlers who are just learning to chew.
Try crushing nuts, or spreading nut butter on crackers or whole-grain bread.
Try to introduce fish into a toddler's diet as it is a highly nutritious food. Fish is also an excellent source of protein, and some fish, such mackerel and salmon, are high in heart and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Canned tuna offers 1 mg of iron per serving. Try serving it on crackers with relish, or in a sandwich.
Canned tuna even works well as a dip for kids who love dipping one food into another. Try mixing tuna with avocado for a creamier version that is easy to dip crackers or chips in.
Toddlers not eating their vegetables is a widespread problem. Try blending veggies into a smoothie to create an iron-rich, nutritionally dense snack that even fussy toddlers will love.
Try one of the following recipes:
- Boil and puree spinach, which offers 0.81 mg of iron per cup. Mix in watermelon, frozen blueberries, frozen raspberries, and a slice of avocado for a filling and nutritious smoothie.
- Blend a tablespoon of honey, boiled and pureed broccoli and chard, honeydew, cantaloupe, and figs into a tasty treat.
Certain fruits are a great source of iron. You can find the following iron amounts in about 1 cup of these fruits:
- raisins, 4 mg
- dried apricots halves, 3.46 mg
- red tart cherries, 0.71 mg
- diced watermelon, 0.36 mg
- prunes, 0.36 mg
A fruit smoothie tastes great blended with a little yogurt or honey.
Try pureeing a toddler's favorite iron-rich fruit and putting it in a popsicle mold. Freeze for 2–3 hours, then enjoy an iron-rich popsicle.
What are the signs of iron deficiency in toddlers?
Very low energy levels in toddlers may be a sign of iron deficiency.
Anyone who is worried that a toddler might be deficient in iron should not wait for symptoms to appear. Instead, ask a doctor to test a child's blood for iron. Continue feeding the toddler iron-rich foods and ask a doctor about adding an iron supplement to their diet.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- very pale skin
- cold hands or feet
- a painful or smooth tongue
- very low energy levels
- a rapid heartbeat
- craving things that are not food, though it is common for all toddlers to put things in their mouth
- muscle weakness
Children with certain medical conditions can struggle to absorb iron regardless of diet. Talk to a doctor or dietitian about preventing iron deficiency in a child with gastrointestinal disorders, frequent diarrhea, a heart disorder, a metabolic disorder, or cancer.
Caregivers may feel overwhelmed by the nutritional needs of a toddler who will only eat a few foods. The key is to keep trying.
The Ellyn Satter Institute, which researches and publishes best practices for feeding children, recommend the following; strategies:
- choosing and preparing healthful meals on a regular schedule
- avoiding offering extra food between meals and snacks
- avoiding using food as a reward or punishment
- encouraging children to eat as much or as little as they want
- avoiding telling children to have "just one more bite," or urging them to eat more of one thing they dislike to get more of something they like
- being a role model for healthful eating
- eating dinner together as a family
Toddlers are new to healthful eating. Like every skill, learning to eat healthfully takes time. With commitment and a willingness to keep trying, people can help toddlers enjoy a wide range of nutritious, iron-rich foods.