Is your fussy eater iron deficient as they don’t eat meat?
When I speak to parents of fussy eaters, the worry that their child is iron deficient is often front of mind.
Not eating meat is common for young children. It’s a lot of chewing for very little reward. This is also part of the reason chicken nuggets and pre-cooked sausages are so popular, the meat just mushes in the mouth without a lot of effort.
I not very politely refer to it as ‘pre-chewed meat’.
They may also not eat meat as a conscious decision, even if quite young.
Don’t eat meat? What next? How to not be iron deficient.
Although animal food sources are an easy way to obtain bio-available iron, people can of course get it from other foods even if you don’t eat meat.
Let’s look at some of the places where our child can obtain some iron and then, before you panic, look at some fussy eater friendly ways to add these to the diet:
1. Fortified cereals, rice, wheat, and oats
2. Legumes – beans, peas, and lentils
3. Tofu, tempeh, and soybeans
4. Nuts and seeds.
Pumpkin, sesame, hemp, flaxseeds/linseeds, chia seeds, almonds, cashews, pine nuts and macadamias.
5. Vegetables especially green leafy ones. Broccoli, cabbage, avocado and Brussels too.
6. Tomato paste.
7. Potatoes and sweet potatoes (kumara)
9. Whole grains – amaranth, spelt, oats, quinoa
11. Fruit. Especially dried fruit like prunes, raisins, and apricots.
Olives, which are technically a fruit!
12. Coconut milk
13. Dark chocolate
16. Cooking in a cast iron pan
Tips to help absorption
Eating iron-rich foods alongside those with Vitamin C aids absorption.
Dark chocolate orange anyone? 😉
Calcium-rich foods can impede uptake so it’s best to eat these separately, if possible.
How to present foods for your fussy eater
You may be looking down the list and freaking out because none of them are on your child’s list of foods they will eat. But sometimes, thinking outside of the square can make them easier to add in than you’re expecting.
1. Finding foods that have iron added is one way to increase the amount eaten.
Many commercial cereals, for example, are fortified with iron. There is some debate about how effective fortifying is, and getting it directly from food is better if possible, but if not this is a good stop-gap.
2. Peas, beans and lentils are often not top of a picky eaters list! Hummus though is frequently accepted and made from chickpeas and tahini (sesame seeds) so is perfect. Beans can be added to baking (black bean brownies – yummm).
Roasted chickpeas can be a win. They are easy to make and sort of chip/crisp-like.
Frozen peas are often accepted by children as they do not have the same smell or taste as a cooked pea. Most importantly, the texture is often easier as it’s hard and crunchy. I have supported a lot of selective eaters to eat new foods when they’re frozen.
Orange lentils mush down to nothing so can be mixed into sauces. In fact, my favourite trick is to grind them into a powder and then they can be added to sauces or mixed into dishes without a textural element.
3. Tofu. There are choc mousse recipes using tofu.
There are also a fair number of children who will accept crumbed tofu nuggets. Very easy to eat!
4. Nuts and seeds are often accepted by fussy eaters as they are crunchy and dry. If they’re not accepted on their own can we dip in chocolate? What about nut butters? Bliss balls?
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds easily replace flour in baking. I grind first to make a flour. You can swap a small percentage to start with to gain acceptance.
Linseeds/flaxseeds can replace eggs in baking too.
5. Vegetables. Green leafy veg like spinach can be added to smoothies or baking as can avocado.
Roast kale in the oven to make ‘crispy kale’.
Avocado makes great guacamole. My boys started eating avocado when I mixed a nano portion with a LOT of Philadelphia for ‘guacamole’. It can also be added to desserts.
Baby spinach leaves are surprisingly often an okay food for fussy eaters. They are texturally easier than lettuce as the leaves hold the shape. You can also cut them into tiny pieces and add to anything from pizza to wraps.
6. Tomato paste. I listed this separately as for those children who like tomato sauce it can be a fairly easy sell. You can use on pizza, in sauces etc. But also it may be possible to mix some ketchup with tomato paste.
7. Potatoes, especially in the skins. Crispy potato skins – yum!!
8. Rice, particularly brown rice. If regular rice is not on the menu what about rice pudding?
9. Whole grains. Porridge, baking, or bread made from wholegrains.
Pancakes – eggs (iron rich), milk and wholemeal flour for a pancake.
Wholemeal spelt pasta is very soft and not like the other wholemeal pastas which can be very chewy and off-putting for a less confident eater.
Oats can be perfect for anything from Anzac cookies to thickening up sauces (I put in a spice/coffee grinder to turn into flour).
10. Mushrooms. Agreed, these are a tough sell if you’re not a mushroom lover. But if you are …
11. Dried fruit can be eaten as is, or added to baking instead of sugar. If you soften and blitz them first you can even remove the textural element for children that find that challenging. Adding dried fruit to porridge or pancakes is a great way to start the day.
One trick I love is dried mango cut into shapes. It can be marketed as very much a ‘sweet/lolly’
12. Coconut milk is iron-rich and a good swap for milk for popsicles, baking, pancakes etc.
13. Dark chocolate may not be as readily accepted as milk chocolate but can be broken up and added as choc chips to all sorts of foods.
14. Molasses is a great bioavailable source of many vitamins. I add to baking, to desserts, to soups, stews, pies!! It does have a strong flavour so proceed with caution.
Please also make sure you’re buying ‘real’ molasses and not the cheaper version which is just coloured sugar ☹
15. Vegemite, which you either love or don’t! You can, however, use instead of salt in some dishes and to add flavour to sauces.
16. Cooking in cast iron, especially moist, acidic foods does transfer iron into the system.
Yeah! Something that doesn’t require eating a new food …
Our children not getting all the nutrients they need can be a constant worry and I know iron is a worry if they don’t eat meat. However, thinking outside of the box can be really helpful.
If you still feel your child is not eating enough of the foods that fuel them you can look at supplementing with either vitamin tablets or liquid iron. Remember this is most effective if you take alongside vitamin C and go easy on the dairy.
Please also feel free to get in touch for a chat about how we can help. There are some very effective and proven strategies for supporting even the most hesitant or stubborn of eaters to add new foods.
We also have an amazing new weekly program starting 30th May. You do not want to miss out on this. You can check out all the details here: https://theconfidenteater.com/creating-confident-eaters/
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/