Your child’s body and brain are growing and developing right before your eyes, and you can better help support these changes by providing them with plenty of high-nutrient foods, especially foods rich in iron. Iron is a big component of hemoglobin, the protein that gives blood its ruby color and is responsible for transporting oxygen all over the body.
Keep reading to find out why iron is important, how much your child needs, and what gluten-free iron-rich foods to offer them.
Why is iron important for gluten-free kids?
Gluten-free grains usually lack iron
Much of the gluten-filled grains you pass in grocery aisles are fortified with iron⸺foods such as whole wheat bread, fortified cereals, and wheat pasta. But many gluten-free grains aren’t fortified with iron. A 2016 review in Current Developments in Nutrition says that corn masa flour is the only gluten-free grain required to be fortified in the United States. While some gluten-free grains contain some natural iron, the point is making sure your gluten-free child is getting enough nutritious gluten-free foods with iron is crucial to their health.
Kids are at risk for iron deficiency which can cause health problems
If kids don’t get enough iron, they could develop iron deficiency (ID) or, worse, iron deficiency anemia (IDA). ID is the #1 nutrient deficiency in children globally, and though rates in the U.S. are lower, ID is still common.
If nothing is done to improve ID, it can lead to IDA, where the body produces too few healthy red blood cells. According to StatsPearls, ID limits the ability to effectively use oxygen in breathing, which could make your child more drowsy and have pale skin. On top of that, having low iron can disrupt your child’s normal routine by causing poor appetite, behavioral issues, and strange cravings.
Digestive diseases can make it tough to absorb iron
Children with digestive diseases, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and others, may have a hard time absorbing iron in the digestive tract. Diseases like these can cause poor nutrient absorption because of damage to the intestinal lining or diseased intestinal cells. Some families will learn about their child’s ID or IDA during a celiac disease diagnosis. If that’s the case, it’s possible your child’s pediatrician may recommend upping iron-rich foods in the diet or a gluten-free iron supplement to help restore their iron levels.
Types of iron
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Animal foods contain heme and non-heme iron, while plant foods contain only non-heme iron. How do heme and non-heme iron differ? Well, heme iron is the easiest form for your child to absorb. Examples of heme iron are meat, chicken, fish, seafood, and eggs.
Plant-based foods contain non-heme iron, like those in the legume family (think beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas). Non-heme iron differs from heme iron because it isn’t as easy to absorb. But don’t fret! It’s still important to offer legumes to your child to increase iron intake, provide plant-based protein, and offer high fiber sources.
How much iron does my child need?
According to the NIH, here’s a breakdown of your child’s iron needs.
Iron needs for young children:
Iron needs for older children and teens:
Gluten-free foods high in iron
In our list, all daily value calculations are based on children between 4 and 8 years old. A daily value is a percentage that represents how much a specific nutrient contributes to your child’s daily intake. Here are the best gluten-free iron-rich foods for kids.
1. Red meats, chicken, fish, seafood, and eggs
Whether it’s grilled chicken, ground beef, or flaked salmon, this group contains the most accessible form of iron. For the red meat group, it can help to select lean cuts of meat such as tenderloin, sirloins or 90 percent ground options to limit the saturated fat in your child’s diet and protect heart health.
Two ounces of lean ground beef contains 1.6 mg of iron or 16 percent of the average child’s daily value for iron. For another boost of iron, whip ground taco meat into eggs and serve with a side of salsa for a southwest-inspired breakfast.
Beans, lentils and peas are members of the legume family and perfect for any gluten-free diet to boost your child’s iron intake. Varieties like lentils, pinto beans, black beans and chickpeas are versatile and nutrient-dense meal options since they’re also teeming with other nutrients kids need, including folate and magnesium. Tofu, a gluten-free food made from soybeans, also offers ample amounts of iron, along with protein and calcium to boot.
There are 2 mg of iron in every half-cup of chickpeas, giving the average child 20 percent of their daily value of iron. Serve up some cinnamon chickpeas at snack time for a slightly sweet, high-iron treat.
Because of their round shape and small size, chickpeas pose a choking risk for kids under age 4. For younger kids, You can cut them in half or fork-mash them for easier eating.
3. Gluten-free whole grains
You’ll find non-heme iron in gluten-free whole grains, including quinoa, brown rice, and amaranth, and in gluten-free iron-fortified cereal, like Rice Chex and Corn Chex.
Quinoa has naturally occurring iron at 1 mg per half-cup, giving your child 10 percent of the average daily value. Gluten-free quick oats make a convenient iron-rich option for your child, offering 1.5 milligrams in each half-cup serving, or 15 percent of the average child’s daily value for iron. Make them kid-friendly and fun by blending oats into flour for pancakes, waffles, muffins, or any other baked goods they love.
4. Dried and dehydrated fruits*
Dried and dehydrated fruits make gluten-free eating easier when you’re on the go. The shelf-stable snacks tend to be chewy or crunchy and all-around sweet because of the removal of water during processing, concentrating its sugar.
Dried apricots, raisins, and dehydrated strawberries are among the highest in iron and make tasty packable snacks for your little muncher. One quarter-cup of dried apricots packs 1 mg of iron or 10 percent of the average child’s daily value for iron.
*Dried fruit is a choking hazard for children under four due to its tough texture and shape/size, You can always blend dried fruit into your little one’s smoothie for easy eating.
5. Nuts and seeds*
If you want to offer loads of iron to your little one in one fell swoop, look no further than nuts and seeds. Cashews have lots of iron, protein, fiber, and healthy fats, as do walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds will also supply significant amounts of iron, so this group has much to choose from.
A quarter-cup of raw cashews provides 2 mg of iron, or 20 percent of the average child’s daily iron intake. Like dried fruit, nuts and large seeds (pumpkin seeds) are also a choking hazard in children under four. You can grind up nuts and seeds and sprinkle them into curries, rice dishes, hot cereals, smoothies, or batters.
6. Dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens are most notably known for their high vitamin K, folate, and vitamin A contents, but some varieties, including Swiss chard and spinach, are teeming with iron. Spinach is a source of vitamin C which may help your child’s iron absorption, more on that later.
A half-cup of cooked spinach has 3 mg of iron, or 30 percent of the average child’s daily iron intake. Spinach goes nicely cooked in pasta sauce, egg souffle or quiche, stuffed chicken breasts, soups, and smoothies.
3 ways to boost your child’s iron absorption
1. Offer high-iron foods with vitamin C foods
Iron and vitamin C are nutrition pals in that vitamin C helps the body absorb iron better. After eating iron-containing foods, the mineral needs an acidic environment to dissolve for absorption, which vitamin C willingly provides. Consider offering scrambled eggs (iron-rich) with a glass of OJ (vitamin C-rich) or halved cherry tomatoes with ground chicken nachos for a potential iron absorption booster.
2. Prepare food using iron kitchen supplies
Iron-based kitchen cookware such as cast iron skillets or iron cooking tools such as Lucky Iron Fish products can be helpful to increase the iron content of the foods you prep for your gluten-free child. Earlier research found snacks cooked in iron pots had 16 percent more iron than snacks cooked in Teflon-coated cookware.
3. Monitor milk intake
Calcium, a major mineral in milk, works against iron absorption when they’re consumed at the same time. If your child is swigging milk throughout the day, it could affect their iron intake if you’re working to normalize their levels. Further, offering iron-rich meals can help offer water or juice instead of a glass of milk. So, it may help save their milk glass for post-meal dessert or the next snack time.
The bottom line
Not only will you benefit your child’s health by adding in more high-iron foods, but you’ll also get more adventurous in the kitchen and out of the rut of making the same meals daily. Get creative, involve your child in cooking, and turn mealtimes into a fun, gluten-free, iron-rich feast for the whole family.
Frequently Asked Questions
What snacks have iron for kids?
Iron-rich snacks for kids include raisins, dehydrated strawberries, GF oat granola bars, and dry cereal.
How can I increase my child’s iron naturally?
Many gluten-free foods are iron-rich and can help up your child’s iron intake. Nuts and seeds, meat, chicken, fish and seafood, dark leafy greens, beans, and lentils are a few options. You can also try cooking your child’s food in a cast iron skillet https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8266402/
Does gluten-free help with iron absorption?
It may help those who have celiac disease, according to research. A 2015 review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology says untreated celiac disease limits iron absorption, but a gluten-free diet improves it.
What kid-friendly foods are high in iron?
Kid-friendly high iron foods are scrambled eggs, tuna salad with rice crackers, GF iron-fortified cereal (Rice Chex, Corn Chex), fish sticks, and taco soup made with meat or beans.
What are the best sources of iron for celiac disease?
The best sources of iron for celiac disease would be the ones from our list: meats, fish, chicken, seafood, legumes, gluten-free whole grains, dried and dehydrated fruit, nuts and seeds, and dark leafy green vegetables. If your child has celiac disease, their pediatrician may encourage an iron supplement, which is also a top source.