Young children risk developing an iron deficiency starting at about 1 year old, an age when they have typically ceased drinking iron-enriched formula and eating enriched baby cereal. Heavy consumption of cow's milk can also contribute to iron deficiency, because milk is low in iron, prevents iron absorption and can leave toddlers too full to eat other, iron-rich foods. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, pale skin, irritability, decreased appetite and a rapid, fluttery heartbeat. Prevent this condition by feeding your toddler a variety of iron-rich foods. The recommended daily allowance of iron for a 3-year-old child is 7 mg.
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Iron is more efficiently absorbed by the body from animal-based foods than from plant-based foods, so incorporating red meat of some sort into your toddler's diet is a good idea. A 3-ounce portion of beef contains about 2.2 to 3 mg of iron, depending on the cut. For toddler-friendly fare, try mini meatballs, sloppy joes, high quality sausages and even all-beef, preservative-free hot dogs.
Beans and Lentils
One cup of black beans provides 3.6 mg of iron. Lentils offer 6.6 mg per cup. Other beans are similar in their nutritional profile. Serve beans and lentils whole or mashed in chili, soup or as fillings for wraps and quesadillas.
Iron-Fortified Cereals and Grains
Many breakfast cereals and some commercial sandwich breads are fortified with iron -- check the label for exact amounts. Whole grains and whole-grain breads are also naturally endowed with a small but significant amount of iron. Oatmeal may be the richest of these sources, with 2 mg of iron per one-cup serving.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables -- such as spinach, chard and kale -- contain high levels of iron. One cup of cooked spinach holds over 6 mg of iron; one cup of cooked kale has 1 mg of iron; and other greens are comparable in their iron levels. If your child won't eat sauteed greens or creamed spinach, add chopped greens to dishes such as meatballs, macaroni and cheese, rice casseroles, and scrambled eggs or omelets.
Soybeans are a rich source of iron. One of the easiest ways to access soy's nutritional benefits is to incorporate tofu into your diet. A cup of firm tofu contains 4 mg of iron. Stir-fry tofu with vegetables; serve it in cubes as a snack; or add it to smoothies. If you don't think you can get your child to eat tofu, try whole fresh or frozen soybeans, also known as edamame. They're fun for preschoolers to pop out of their pods and they contain 7 mg per cup.
Dried apricots, prunes and raisins offer high levels of iron and are also the perfect snack food for 3-year-olds. A half-cup of raisins offers 1.5 mg of iron. A half-cup of dried apricots has 1.8 mg. A half-cup of prunes has 0.8 mg. Choose unsweetened and preferably unsulphured fruits, and brush your child's teeth afterward to prevent tooth decay.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are a convenient snack food for toddlers that also happen to be high in iron. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds offer high levels of iron. Cashews are especially iron-rich, with a half-cup providing 5 mg of iron. Pistachios offer 2.5 mg per half-cup; sunflower seeds have 3.2 mg of iron per half-cup; and pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, supply 10 mg per half-cup -- that's 3 mg more than your child's daily iron needs.