Disclaimer: please note this article is general advice only; it is not intended to replace the personalised management plan from your GP. If you suspect your child has an iron or any other nutrient deficiencies please consult your GP for further advice.
Iron us one of the commonest nutrient deficiencies in children. There are many causes of iron deficiency including blood loss, the inability to absorb iron and dietary deficiency. Therefore, it is important to fully investigate any suspected iron deficiency with your GP before putting it down to dietary deficiency.
Why is iron important?
Iron is a mineral used by our bodies to make haemoglobin. Haemoglobin in our blood helps to move oxygen from our lungs to the rest of the body’s organs and muscles. Haemoglobin also takes carbon dioxide waste away from the body’s tissues back to the lungs to be exhaled. Iron also plays a key part in muscle function, energy production, DNA synthesis and in our immune systems. Iron is therefore essential for children’s growth and development.
What are the symptoms of Iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency can present in many different ways, tiredness and lack of energy, shortness of breath and pallor. If you suspect your child may be iron deficient – please do seek advice from your GP.
How much iron do children need daily?
- Infants 7-12 months: 7.8 mg
- Toddlers 1-3 yrs: 6.9 mgs
- Children 4-6 yrs: 6.1 mgs
- Children 7-10 yrs: 8.7mgs
Remember this is a guide to what is enough for most toddlers & children. What is most important is to eat a balanced diet and not just focus on one nutrient alone.
Which foods are high in Iron?
Red meat such as lamb or beef and organ meats such as liver (limit to once a week) are very high in iron. In addition, shellfish such as clams, mussels and oysters also contain a high level of iron as do eggs. The darker cuts of poultry such as the legs or thighs will also contain more iron than the breast meat. The iron found in meat is in the ‘heam’ form which is much easier for the body to absorb.
Vegetarian forms of iron are found in the non-haem form in food. This can be harder to absorb and I will talk about increasing absorption of iron shortly. Legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, soyabeans are all high in iron. As are dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale. Tofu, quinoa, dried fruits such as apricots and nuts and seeds are also good sources of vegetarian iron.
How can you increase your child’s iron intake?
Here are some of my top tips to increasing your iron intake. Just a few simple switches can make a huge difference to how much iron you incorporate into your diet and how your body absorbs it efficiently.
1. Avoid dairy with at least 1 meal per day. Did you know milk can decrease your body’s absorption of iron?
- Avoid milk drinks at mealtimes – water is the best drink for mealtimes.
- Avoid yogurt puddings
- Try to keep 1 meal ‘dairy free’ and make that your main ‘high iron’ meal. For preschool children I find this is best done at lunchtime when they are most likely to eat well.
2. Add Vitamin C to your ‘high iron meal’. Vitamin C increases your body’s absorption of iron so adding food high in vitamin C to high iron meals will help you to maximise your iron absorption.
- Add a side of broccoli, kale, peas, sprouts or a tomato salad to your meal
- Satsumas, blueberries, grapefruit, mangos all make fantastic desserts high in vitamin C
- Add a splash of orange juice or a squeeze of lemon or lime to your dish?
3. Make simple food switches. Adding new foods to a child’s diet cannot always be easy… sometimes is easier to start with just changing the way we serve food they are accustomed to or adding them ‘hidden’ to begin with…
- Switch chicken breast for chicken thigh or leg cuts which contain more iron
- Add more iron rich foods to sauces – finely chopped or minced apricots and dates add a delicious flavour to pasta sauces
- Ground almonds or quinoa make great easy to hide additions to breakfast porridge
- Frozen chopped spinach – this is my freezer staple… add it to sauces, smoothies or make green scrambled monster eggs - iron & vitamin C in one!
4. Consider high iron healthy snacks in between meals.
- Nuts such as cashews, almonds make fantastic high protein, high iron snacks
- Seeds such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are incredible nutrient dense high iron snacks.
- Add a dose of vitamin C by mixing up these snacks with strawberries, blueberries, Satsumas or cherry tomatoes to increase your iron absorption
5. Avoid ready meals or processed food and make your own meals. I truly believe healthy food does not need to be time consuming, expensive or difficult. I hope to show you with a few simple recipes below how you can make healthy nutritious meals and snacks for the whole family in under 30minutes. Oh and my mantra… ‘Cook once… east AT LEAST twice’ I ALWAYS make extra… to pop into a lunch box for the next day… or to pop into the freezer for next week. As a working mum… I understand that time is precious and if I’m cooking for 4 its just as easy to double or triple the recipe and save myself some time another day!
Healthy Iron rich Recipes:
Practising what I preach, here are some of our family favourite recipes which I hope will help you to incorporate more iron as well as other nutrients into your mealtimes. I also hope to show you how I have used almost the same ingredients for all our whole family but presented it in a slightly different way or tweaked the odd ingredient to please everyone. As a working mum, I certainly don’t have time to make separate meals. I also believe it is important for children to be introduced a wide variety of food from an early age… but that’s another blog post in itself!
Beetroot Bean burgers
Ingredients (makes 4-6 burgers):
Cost: 52p per burger
- 200gms cooked beetroots - chopped
- 1/2 a finely chopped red onion
- 1 tin organic black beans
- 50gms walnuts
- 50gms cashew nuts
- 3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
- 3 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon of ground toasted cumin
- 2 cloves fresh garlic - finely minced
- salt to taste
Pulse all above in a food processor for a few seconds at a time. You want to break the ingredients up to a coarse texture but not mash them fully to keep some crunch. However, for fussy eaters, I find blitzing the nuts and seeds to a fine powder first to avoid ‘bits’ can help the first time you introduce this burger.
Form into shape and cook in oven for 25-30 minutes at 200 degrees.
For the children I’ve served this in wholemeal multi seed burger with olive eyes and a red pepper tongue (adding that vitamin c!) I’ve used hummus instead of butter and some salad leaves but choose your child’s favourite salad – cucumber or tomato slices? Alternatively, serve with a side of sweet potato wedges.
For us, we had it in an avocado bun with some hummus, gut healthy sauerkraut, jalapenos & gherkins!
Lamb Meatballs (with hidden spinach) in a tomato sauce with spaghetti & courgetti
Ingredients: (Serves 4)
- 400gms organic lean lamb mince
- 8 balls frozen spinach – thawed (microwave for 2 mins)
- 1 egg
- 1 onion – finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic finely minced
- 1 tin finely chopped tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- Salt & pepper to taste
Mix the spinach, egg and lamb in a bowl and form into small meat balls – makes about 16. Fry these in a frying pan to brown for about 10-15mins. Remove from pan and place on kitchen paper to drain of the excess fat released.
Fry the onion in olive oil under soft and golden and then add the garlic. Stir a couple of minutes and add the tomatoes, salt & pepper to taste.
Add the meat balls into the tomato sauce base, cover and cook for a further 25-30 minutes until fully cooked. Add water if the sauce is too thick.
For the children I served this with some whole wheat spaghetti with courgetti hair and peas (adding a dose of vitamin C into the mix)
For us, served with black bean spaghetti and courgetti and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. Black bean spaghetti is another fantastic protein & iron rich spaghetti, my children love it and the novelty of it being black is a bonus for them – why not give it a go or try a pea or lentil pasta as a high protein alternative?
Protein Lego Bricks – Our favourite family snack!
Ingredients: (makes about 20 bricks or balls)
Time: 20 mins
- 180 grams juicy medjool dates
- 6 tablespoons ground linseeds
- 6 tablespoons ground pumpkin seeds
- 6 tablespoons ground sunflower seeds
- 250 grams nuts (I used almonds, cashews, walnuts)
- 4 tablespoons of cacao powder
- 1 tablespoon of coconut oil
I simply blitzed all the ingredients together in a fod processor and pushed into the lego moulds. You could of course just roll them into balls for adults… but I much prefer the lego version!
If you find it isn’t sticking together well, just add a little bit more coconut oil. And to form perfect lego shapes, pop the moulds into the freezer for an hour before turning out.