Iron for infants

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina MS, RD and Kristen Yarker, MSc RD

Portrait of Vesanto Melina
• Things have changed in the world of infant nutrition. In the past, strict sequences were suggested for introducing solid foods, however, these rules have been abandoned as our understanding of food allergies and infant nutrition evolved. In families with plant-based diets, the timing and sequence for starter foods are similar to those in non-vegetarian households. Whatever your family’s eating pattern, it is recommended that, when baby’s diet expands beyond breast milk or formula, you offer your baby iron-rich foods twice a day.

Why the focus on iron? This mineral plays a crucial role in growth and development. It is especially important for an infant’s cognitive development. For the first six months, babies rely on the iron stores that were stockpiled when they were in the womb. At about six months of age, these stores start to run low and it’s time to add iron-rich foods. While breast milk is superb as the sole food for the first four to six months of life, it is naturally low in iron. Thus, iron-rich starter foods can be added. For those using infant formula, most contain iron; check the labels.

Iron-rich plant foods include beans, lentils, tofu, nut and seed butters and iron-fortified infant cereals, also known as mush or pablum. Green beans and peas contain some iron. Cooked spinach contains iron, however, the mineral is bound with oxalate and less available. The iron (and calcium) in cooked, pureed kale are more readily absorbed.

Beans or lentils can be mashed and smaller beans or lentils served whole as finger foods. Avoid offering larger whole beans that can be a choking hazard. In fact, take care to avoid any chunks of food or spoonfuls of peanut butter that may be difficult to swallow and cause choking.

Spread nut and seed butters thinly on toast, strips of tortilla or crackers. Babies tend to be able to grasp pieces of foods that are cut into finger-shaped pieces.

Cook tofu before serving it to babies less than 12 months old; steaming is one good way to heat it. Babies enjoy the texture of soft tofu and medium and firm tofu can easily be mashed. Cut firm and extra-firm tofu into long, thin strips; they make great finger foods.

Read ingredient lists when choosing infant cereals; many contain cow’s milk (often as skim milk powder). Natural foods stores and grocery stores with a focus on natural foods are good places to find milk-free infant cereals. These can be mixed with iron-fortified formula or breast milk.

In general, vegetables, fruits – apart from apricots and raisins – and unfortified grains are relatively low in iron, but they add a great deal to the overall menu. Once you’ve introduced a few iron-rich foods, start including a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and grains to provide a variety of nutrients and for your baby to experience all the amazing tastes and textures of food.

April 29: Meet Vesanto Melina at Banyen Books, 6:30pm. Vesanto is the co-author of the 2014 Canada Book Award winner Becoming Vegan: Express Edition.,

Kristen Yarker is known as the “dietitian who transforms picky eaters into food-confident kids” from the introducing solids stage through the picky eating years. Get scientific evidence-based answers to real questions from real parents (recipes too). Sign up for her 101 Healthy Snack Ideas at

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