Updated: May 10, 2022
Babies need a high amount of iron between ages 6 months to 12 months because of their rapid growth during this time. In fact, at 11 mg per day, babies require more iron than older children! It isn’t until teen years (another period of rapid growth) that iron needs are this high.
Some professionals may say that meeting iron needs is harder on a vegan or plant-based diet. The reason this is stated is because plant-based iron (non-heme) may have lower absorption than iron from animals (heme). However, some studies show that the short-term measurements of absorption overestimate the difference in bioavailability between the two. Additionally, research has shown that iron from meat can get stored in the body when consumed in excess, raising the risk of several chronic diseases.
Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in infants, regardless of diet type, so all parents should be aware of how much iron they are serving. With that in mind, I’ve put together five iron-rich foods that you could start out with when introducing solids.
My favorite first food for babies! Extra firm tofu can be easily served warm or cold in chunks large enough for your baby to grab. I recommend cooking the tofu in a pan (plain or you can experiment with salt-free flavors). Tofu has a fun squishy texture that babies typically love. If nothing makes it into their mouth right away, that’s okay! Getting used to the feel of a food is a great first step.
2. Lentils or beans
To start I would serve mashed (refried bean texture) with a spoon for the baby to self-feed. Babies can also dip their hands in and explore. Take a deep breath and embrace the mess! Beans and lentils can also be made into veggie burgers or nuggets.
Chickpeas can be made into falafel patties or hummus (a messy but enjoyable first food for babies!). If making hummus with tahini (sesame) be aware that sesame is one of the top allergens and should be introduced separately from other allergen foods. A simple homemade recipe of chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil, water and paprika (no salt needed) could be served with roasted vegetables and falafel for a great first meal!
4. Iron-fortified baby oatmeal
Often thought of as the standard first food for babies, iron-fortified oatmeal is a well accepted first food. Although you can certainly serve as-is with a spoon, my favorite options are to mix it in with low/no-sugar baked goods like muffins or substitute for part of the flour in pancakes. Another great way to use the oatmeal is as a vehicle to introduce peanut and other nut butters (small amounts mixed in smooth). Note - be aware of nut allergens (only one should be introduced at a time).
5. Banza (or other chickpea/lentil) pasta
Yes, a six month old can eat pasta! Noodle shapes like penne and rotini are easiest for babies to hold. Serve along with cooked veggies and try a salt-free tomato sauce!
Iron rich foods should be included as an option at all meals for your baby. Some foods may take a few introductions before they make it into babies' mouths and that’s perfectly normal. If they decide not to eat it, try to refrain from encouraging them (this is a habit that will backfire in negative eating behaviors later on). Instead, eat with them! Babies learn how to eat by watching how you eat!
When making your meal, be sure to include something rich in vitamin C (most fruits and vegetables) along with your iron food to increase absorption of the iron. For more information on this topic: click here to purchase my Iron & Vitamin C checklist for plant-based babies. And to learn everything you need to know about starting solid foods, check out my course: Confidently Start Solid Foods!
Iron needs of babies and children. (2007). Paediatrics & child health, 12(4), 333–336. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/12.4.333
Janet R Hunt, Zamzam K Roughead, Adaptation of iron absorption in men consuming diets with high or low iron bioavailability, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 71, Issue 1, January 2000, Pages 94–102, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/71.1.94