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The Complete Guide To Getting Enough Iron In Your Kid’s Diet

flickr / U.S. Department of Agriculture

If you know anything about rust, then you may think that iron and oxygen are a bad mix. And while that might be true for the continually diminishing body of a 1965 Dodge Dart, it definitely isn’t true for the most recent toddler model making vroom vroom noises in your living room.

In fact, your kid’s ability to use oxygen to do stuff like grow and run around is pretty dependent on iron. Which means you need to take special care to make sure they’re getting enough. That’s totally metal.

The Importance Of Iron

In junkyards (or anywhere, really) the fact that iron and oxygen love each other leads to rust. In the body, the fact that iron and oxygen love each other leads to oxygen-rich blood cells (hemoglobin) and oxygen storage in the muscles (myoglobin). These work in concert to ensure the body is using oxygen as efficiently as possible.

When iron levels are low, it affects how well the body uses oxygen for energy and growth. As you know from your scientific toddler observations, your kid requires buttloads of energy. It’s the only possible way they can keep doing backflips off the couch and growing out of their pants every hour.

What Happens When Iron Isn’t Absorbed

When your kid doesn’t have the iron they need, it can lead to some troubling issues. These may include behavioral problems, slow or stunted growth, and trouble learning.

That said, those indications of iron deficiency don’t become truly apparent until a kid has developed full-blown anemia. That’s the most severe form of iron deficiency. Other signs may include:

  • Pale skin
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Constant tiredness
  • Cravings for non-food items
  • Unusually rapid breathing

Milk Drinkers May Not Be Getting Enough

There are kids who need a little extra attention when it comes to iron. Toddlers who drink a lot of cow’s milk during the day may have elevated risk for iron deficiency. That’s because milk doesn’t contain iron. And if your kid is replacing meals with a couple big cups of moo juice, they may feel full, but they haven’t slurped up the full complement of nutrients their body needs.

Toddlerhood Is When Iron Really Shines

Iron is particularly important when your kid hits toddlerhood. That’s around the time most kids are transitioning to solid food. Up until that point they’ve been getting enough from fortified formula or your partner’s breast, which makes her a true iron maiden. So, between one and 4 years old, your kid needs 7 milligrams of dietary iron per day.

Animal-Based Iron Sources Are The Way To Go

There are tons of foods that contain iron, but there are 2 distinct types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is easily absorbed by the body, while non-heme iron is a little harder for the body to take in. However, no matter how the body absorbs it, both types of iron serve the same purpose when they get into your kid’s system.

Meats and fish contain both types of iron. Plants contain only non-heme iron. That’s not to say you should lean heavily on animal-based iron sources for your kid. In fact, in many circumstances, your kid would need way more calories from lean meat to equal the amount of iron found in far few calories of a plant source, like spinach. But, yeah. Good luck getting your kid to eat spinach.

The Vitamin C Connection

Your kid’s body will absorb iron easier when it’s paired with vitamin C. So combining your kid’s iron sources with a source of vitamin C will help matters quite a bit. What makes this particularly handy is that kids tend to love foods high in vitamin C, which is why you’ve been eating those freaking Cuties like they’re some kind of citrus candy for the past few months.

Pairs That Bring On The Iron

The sources for iron are pretty diverse. The trick is in pairing foods your kid will eat in order to get a full complement of iron and an absorption assist from vitamin C. So consider a peanut butter and jelly sando paired with a tangerine. Or fortified breakfast cereal with some berries.

For a big iron hit, pair two iron sources in one meal. A chicken burrito with beans will make it happen. So will scrambled eggs with ham. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has plenty more suggestions that will help you out. Put them on your fridge with the latest masterpiece of a 6-legged dog under a purple sky.