How amazing are babies? Seriously… their little bodies are so capable, their every move so purposeful, and the way they develop couldn’t be planned more perfectly. For example, just as their need for certain nutrients becomes greater than what breast milk can provide, they start showing interest in solid food. It really is the most impeccable system. The two nutrients that are commonly focused on (in terms of bub’s need exceeding what milk provides) are iron and zinc. These critical minerals are so important for many functions within the body including normal growth, neurological development, immune function, energy as well as mood and behaviour regulation to name a few!
While in utero, your baby accumulates plenty of iron and these stores are continued to be replenished via milk feeds until you wean – however around 6 months of age, their daily requirement of iron starts to exceed what can be provided by milk feeds, and those stores may start becoming depleted (Berglund and Domellöf 2021; Domellöf et all 2014; Miniello et al 2021; Van Elswyk et al 2021).
Did you know that your baby’s iron needs between 6-24 months old are THE HIGHEST they will EVER be in their life (outside of pregnancy and menstruation)!? They actually require more iron during this time than an adult male – 11mg/day with vegetarian or vegan bubs requiring even more (NHMRC 2022).
You may have noticed that rice cereal is still a leading recommendation from many health practitioners when discussing first foods to introduce to your little one. This is because rice cereal has been fortified with iron, aimed to meet your baby’s iron needs. While this is valuable, it is important to note that these synthetic forms of iron are often a cause of constipation – not to mention the fact that rice cereal as a food is highly processed, not a nutrient dense option, and also is missing the other important mineral zinc. You can read more about rice cereal and why I don’t recommend it here. If you do choose to offer rice cereal to your baby, you will need to be aware of also offering zinc rich foods to avoid a deficiency.
Another point that can cause confusion for many families is that if you choose not to offer rice cereal, many of the most common first foods offered to babies (soft fruits and vegetables) are also low in iron and zinc. While they are great foods that we do want to incorporate into our child’s diet, we want to put an emphasis on these critical nutrients as much as possible in the early stages of eating when the amount ingested may not be huge – we are aiming for nutritional bang for our buck with every mouthful.
So what should you feed your baby?
The easiest way to incorporate both iron and zinc into your child’s diet in the most bioavailable way (meaning the easiest way for your child’s body to assimilate the nutrients) is by feeding your baby meat and other animal products as their first foods. Red meat and liver have greater zinc and iron concentrations than unfortified plant foods, so offering this regularly will help to meet your baby’s requirements. Some plant foods will also contain iron, but this is in the form of non-haem iron which is not as easily absorbed by the body..
So what’s the difference between the two forms of iron?
The two different forms of iron are known as haem (found only in animal foods) and non-haem (found in plant foods). While both of these are iron, the chemical structure differs which is what impacts the body’s ability to absorb the iron. Haem iron is usually found in the form of haemoglobin or myoglobin in the animal tissues – without going into a biochemistry lesson, essentially the way this iron is presented in the foods is close to the end product the body wants to utilise, and the absorption rate is high (around 15-35%). In comparison, non-haem iron is poorly absorbed (approximately 2-10% depending on the food), and is usually also found alongside other compounds such as phytates and polyphenols which can further inhibit the absorption. At the end of the day, once converted and absorbed by the body, iron is iron no matter which form it started in, so if you follow a plant based diet it is possible to consume adequate amounts of iron with a little extra thought and consideration. (You may like to read our blog on plant based diets HERE).
How much should I offer, and what are the best foods?
Ideally you want to aim to include one iron-rich element per meal. While it is difficult to know exactly how much iron your little one would be ingesting (and absorbing), by regularly offering these types of foods you are maximising your chances of them consuming the recommended daily intake (RDI). And as perfect, purposeful mother nature would have it, you will often find foods high in iron are ALSO high in zinc!
Some favourite sources of haem iron for babies include:
Chicken liver (10 mg per 100g)
Beef (3.4 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
Lamb (4 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
Sardines (6 mg per 100g)
Bone marrow (4.5 mg per 100g)
Kangaroo (4.5 mg per 100g)
Some favourite sources of non-haem iron for babies include:
Egg yolk (4.5 mg per 100g)
Lentils/kidney beans (2-3 mg per 100g)
Parsley (8mg per 100g)
Spinach (3mg per 100g)
Prunes (8mg per 100g)
Almonds (4mg per 100g)
Pepitas (10mg per 100g)
Tahini (5mg per 100g)
Whole grain bread (4-5mg per 100g)
Some cereals (10mg per 100g)
So for a serving this might look like:
3 sardines = 0.9mg
1 tbsp chicken liver pate = 1.6mg
1 egg yolk = 0.5mg
½ cup lentils = 3mg iron
½ cup cooked spinach = 3.5mg iron
½ tbsp tahini = 0.5mg iron
When it comes to zinc, the RDI for our little ones is 3 mg per day although 1.5-2 x this amount is considered to be optimal for those on plant based diets due to the poorer absorption of plant based sources of zinc. Some foods rich in zinc include:
Chicken liver (4 mg per 100g)
Beef (5 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
Lamb (5 mg per 100g – depending on the cut of meat)
Sardines (3 mg per 100g)
Egg yolk (2.5 mg per 100g)
Pepitas (8mg per 100g)
Tahini (10mg per 100g)
Chia seeds (5mg per 100g)
Cashews and pecans (5mg per 100g)
Whole grains (zinc is found in the outer layer of the grain so opting for whole grains over processed grains will provide a higher amount of zinc – approximately 5 mg per 100g)
Tofu (2mg per 100g)
Hemp seeds (10mg per 100g)
Flaxseeds (4mg per 100g)
So for a serving this might look like:
1 egg yolk = 0.35mg zinc
1 tbsp chicken liver pate = 0.5mg
6 cashews = 0.5mg zinc
1 tbsp chia seeds = 0.7mg zinc
1 tbsp pepitas = 0.9mg zinc
Improving iron absorption
While the amount of iron being ingested is important, it isn’t the full story. The metabolism of iron (and zinc!) relies on good absorption – something that we can influence through food (as well as our gut health). The following have been shown to be useful in improving iron absorption:
Vitamin C (found in foods such as capsicum, seaweed, citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, broccoli, and strawberries) (Teucher et al 2004; Fidler et al 2009; Dasa and Abera 2018)
Lacto-fermented vegetables (such as sauerkraut, beetroot kvass or other traditionally fermented foods vegetables) (Scheers et al. 2016)
Malic acid (found in apples and pears) (Shah et al. 2003)
It is interesting to note that studies have demonstrated the probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum 299v improves iron absorption (Axling et al. 2020) – although we don’t recommend supplementing without professional guidance.
Did you know…that iron and zinc can compete for uptake and inhibit each other’s absorption when given in a supplement, but this same effect is not observed when they coexist in a food (whether natural or fortified)!
We can’t talk about iron absorption without mentioning the effect of cow’s milk consumption. Excessive consumption of cow’s milk is a major contributor to iron deficiency in toddlers over one year of age (Bondi and Lieuw 2009, Sandoval et al. 2002). This is due to a few reasons; cow’s milk is low in iron; children often ‘fill up’ on cows milk and therefore it may displace iron rich foods in their diet; and lastly, cow’s milk can interfere with the absorption of iron (Ziegler 2011). For this reason it is best to limit cows milk consumption to less than 500 mls in 24 hours (Domellöf 2019, Bondi and Lieuw 2009). However cow’s milk as a beverage is not recommended in children under 12 months of age (you can read more in our blog HERE), so when initially starting solids this should not be a concern.
Factors that influence the absorption of zinc
Like iron, there are factors that will increase or decrease the bioavailability of zinc too. One of the most significant factors to note is the presence of phytates. Phytates (or phytic acid) are compounds found in plant foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Phytates are antioxidants (a good thing!), but can also act as binders to some nutrients, particularly zinc (Jen et al. 2010) . The effect of this is so significant that The European Food Safety Authority has actually set 4 levels of guidelines around zinc intake based on the level of of phytate intake (EFSA 2014). The removal or reduction of these phytates by soaking, fermenting or sprouting these foods significantly improves zinc absorption (Budrick et al. 2014).
It has also been shown that protein consumption with zinc rich foods helps to improve the absorption of zinc (Maeres et al. 2020) – thankfully protein and zinc are packaged up together in many of the rich sources of zinc.
How to prepare and offer some zinc and iron rich foods
Liver is an incredible source of many nutrients – it is packed with vitamin A, very high in iron (with a powerful combination of folate, iron and B12), B vitamins (especially B12) zinc, copper, brain-building choline, anti-inflammatory omega-3s, rich in antioxidants, serotonin-making tryptophan and so much more.
Chicken and duck livers have the mildest taste and are nice and small, so they are more commonly used, but whatever type of liver you prefer or can source is fine. Sometimes it can be hard to find good quality sources of liver, or any liver at all – so for this reason, you can also use desiccated liver – read this blog for more information and recommended brands.
The humble liver has been often misunderstood due to it’s vitamin A content, but is an amazing food to eat if you are low in iron, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive (as it’s so high in folate, iron, protein and other key nutrients for reproductive health) and for your baby. You can read more about liver in pregnancy in this blog.
How to prepare
Liver can be frozen (raw) and then finely grated into babies meals. It is important that the liver is still cooked through, but because it is grated it will cook very fast, even when just stirring it through the warm meal.
You can also pan fry livers (in butter or ghee if tolerated, coconut or olive oil) and offer in strips to your baby. These strips can also be blended into a pate which can then be served as a dip for finger foods, or mixed into a vegetable puree.
Liver can be added finely chopped or grated into foods like meatballs, spaghetti bolognaise, lamb koftas etc – a great (and well disguised) way to incorporate it for the whole family.
Is liver safe for babies?
Many people are curious about the safety of liver consumption and cod liver oil consumption for babies due to the high Vitamin A content. Most of the modern diet is actually quite low in vitamin A, so it is unlikely you or your little one will be consuming it in excess. For a detailed response you can read this blog and this blog.
* Fish is an allergenic food, recommended to introduce between 6-12 months. Only offer when baby is well, and not just before bed. Don’t offer too much too soon, start with a small taste and wait 10 minutes for any immediate response, if no reaction occurs offer the rest of the food. Read this blog post for more information on introducing allergens.
Sardines are so quick and versatile to offer to your baby. Tinned sardines will not require any cooking, but be sure to mash the bones very well before feeding them to your baby (the bones are rich in calcium so we want to keep them there). Sardines can be mashed with avocado and offered as a dip, or spread onto fingers of toast or roasted vegetables. They can also be made into fritters – a fantastic finger food that can be served to the whole family.
This might have been the last thing you think of when introducing food to babies – however, it is so nutrient dense, full of good fats and high in haem iron which makes it a perfect first food. It is also very versatile, and easy to add to any of your baby’s foods to increase the nutrient density. When purchasing – ask for a long cut of the bone, and choose cuts from the centre of the bone if possible. You can then use those bones for a broth after scraping out the marrow – win win!
HOW TO PREPARE
1. Preheat the oven to 220C (425F).
2. Place the bones on a baking sheet, marrow side up, and cook for 20-25 minutes or until much of the fat has rendered out and marrow is pulling away from the sides.
3. Remove from the oven, allow the bones to cool slightly to touch. Then scrape out the marrow with a spoon or fork. The marrow should be soft and mashable.
HOW TO USE
You can add the mashed marrow directly to your baby’s puree meal and mix through.
You can add the marrow to a glass bowl (and the fat from the baking tray) and refrigerate, and then use this like you would use butter—as a spread, or served on steamed or baked vegetables. Once your baby has been introduced to butter, you could try the bone marrow butter recipe or the delicious marrow stew (both found in my book Milk to Meals).
Incorporating spirulina is a great way to increase the nutrient density of your baby’s food (and your own too), and a great plant based source of iron for vegans and vegetarians. Spirulina is a complete protein, high in iron, calcium, zinc and beta-carotene. Spirulina is also a prebiotic food, which helps feed the good bacteria in the gut.
HOW TO SERVE
Spirulina can be added to a pesto sauce, into smoothies, or sprinkled into bub’s puree.
You can mash directly into a food like banana – use 1/4 tsp spirulina with one banana.
This recipe is for a probiotic, prebiotic and iron rich ‘nice’ cream. Appropriate from 6 months.
Green dinosaur ice cream
Mix 1/4 cup coconut yoghurt with 1 frozen banana and 1/2 tsp of spirulina.
Blend and enjoy! You can also freeze some into moulds for ice blocks.
Red Kidney Beans
Another great vegetarian/vegan source of iron is red kidney beans offering 4mg of iron per cup. Preparing kidney beans from dried so they can be soaked to reduce the phytate content is preferred, but if this isn’t possible then canned beans are still great too! To soak the beans, just put the amount of beans you want to use in a bowl and cover with water and a tiny pinch of salt. Leave for 8 – 12 hours or overnight, then rinse well when ready to cook.
Lamb is a beautiful and nourishing meat for your baby. It is considered to be very low-allergenic, and is a beautiful tender cut of meat that is great for slow cooking. Preferred cuts for babies are slow cooked lamb shoulder, leg of lamb, lamb chops or lamb shanks – bonus that the whole family can enjoy these too!
Although the iron in chia seeds is in the less well absorbed non-haem form, these little seeds contain many other valuable nutrients too – 1 tsp of chia seeds contains .0.27mg of iron, and also contains zinc, omega 3, calcium and fibre.
Chia Seed Pudding
Serves 1 adult, 1 toddler and a baby (or it can make approximately 8 baby serves)
2 cups coconut milk (or for toddler/yourself could use a nut milk, or breastmilk) the carton or refrigerated version will be best for this recipe instead of a canned coconut milk as the canned milk solidifies too much
6 tbsp chia seeds
1/2 tsp vanilla paste (or you can use vanilla bean powder, or the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 mashed banana
1 tbsp sweetener such as maple syrup or honey (not for babies under 1)
In a mason jar mix together all ingredients. Put a lid on and shake vigorously until no clumps are left and the mix is combined.
Leave to sit for 5 minutes then give it another good shake
Put it in the fridge overnight (or at least a few hours)
Serve and enjoy!
This recipe will last in the fridge for around 5 days.
You can add SOAKED chia seeds to any puree that you make – the key word here is soaked. If you add them dry, they can cause constipation as they will draw a lot of fluid to themselves leaving your stools dehydrated. To soak, make a ‘gel’ out of water and chia seeds.
Chia Gel Recipe:
1 cup filtered water
3 tbsp chia seeds
Add the water and chia seeds to a small jar. Shake well to combine.
Let stand for 5 minutes then shake again to break up any clumps. Leave for a further 5 minutes and shake again. Once the chia seeds have soaked up most of the liquid they are ready to use.
This gel can be refrigerated to use later. It will last covered in the refrigerator for about two weeks.
Egg yolks are an incredible source of iron for babies – as well as a great source of omega 3 fats, vitamins k, a, d, e, choline, zinc and calcium. The yolk is the most nutrient dense part of the egg, and is easy to incorporate into many meals. Some ways to offer to babies include:
Spoon feeding: boil an egg for 3 minutes, allow to cool then crack open, peel the shell off, then peel the white away and you’ll be left with a runny egg yolk (like a poached egg). You can then add that egg yolk to any purée to increase the nutrient density. Top it with some grated liver and you have an iron packed meal! (note – to reduce the risk of salmonella contamination please ensure you source good quality eggs, or if you have any concerns please cook the egg fully before serving).
BLW : separate the egg yolk from white and then cook the yolk in a small fry pan with some ghee or coconut oil like an omelette. You can then cut this into finger shaped slices for your baby.
Kate Holm (Naturopath & Nutritionist)
Luka McCabe (RN/RM/Nutrition Consultant)
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