Child and Adult Care Food Program


Iron is used to help the blood carry oxygen to the cells of the body. Without enough iron to carry oxygen, the energy in the muscles cannot be used, and the muscles are weakened.

Iron is a nutrient that is often lacking in children's diets. Meats are the richest sources of iron, and many preschool children consistently refuse meats. When children are deficient in iron, they are physically fatigued and have less energy for learning and playing. This is called "iron deficiency anemia."

Good Sources of Iron from Each Meal Component

Bread / Bread Alternates Meat / Meat Alternates Milk Fruits Vegetables
  • Enriched or whole grain breakfast cereals
  • Enriched or whole grain breads
  • Beef
  • Dried beans
  • Dried peas
  • Dried lentils
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish
  • Veal
  • Lamb
  • Liver
Not a source of iron
  • Dried apricots
  • Prunes
  • Raisins
  • Beet greens
  • Collard greens
  • Dried beans
  • Dried peas
  • Dried lentils
  • Green peas
  • Lima beans
  • Mustard greens
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Wax beans

The iron content of foods can be increased when cooked in iron pots. This is especially true for dishes with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, vinegar, and lemon. Tomato sauces, soups with tomatoes or vinegar, and chili can all have the iron content boosted by preparing them in iron pots.

The iron in meat, fish, and poultry is more easily absorbed by the body than the iron from plant sources. The absorption of iron from plant foods such as grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits is enhanced when vitamin C is eaten at the same meal or snack. For example, the iron in cereal is better absorbed when strawberries are served with it. (See the table on page X for a listing of vitamin C-rich foods.) Conversely, coffee, tea, and calcium supplements may hinder the absorption of iron.

Two common practices contribute to low iron intake in children: drinking too much milk and poor snack selection. As can be seen in the preceding table, milk is not a good source of iron. When the child drinks too much milk, the child is not likely to eat enough of other foods that provide iron. Similarly, because snacks provide a large percent of a child's daily diet, snack foods should be carefully chosen to provide the nutrients, such as iron, that may not be adequately provided in other meals.

A curious symptom is seen in some children with iron deficiency anemia. These children will have an increased appetite for non-food substances. This is known as pica. Although most children will taste non-food substances, iron deficiency anemia and pica should be suspected when the child eats substantial amounts of ice, clay, starch, or paste, and the child appears to lack energy. The child's family should be alerted if the child exhibits pica behavior.

Sample STEPs to Improve Iron Intake and Absorption

Strategy for foods served: To assure adequate iron intake, review and revise snack menus to pair whole grain or enriched cereals and breads with vitamin C-rich foods.

Teaching children: Have children plant different kinds of beans. As the plants grow, tell the children that the iron in beans gives them energy for play. Discuss with them other foods that help them stay strong such as collard greens, mustard greens, lima beans and pinto beans.

Educating families: Provide information in a newsletter or handout to help families understand the importance of adequate iron intake and learn about foods and beverages that increase or decrease iron absorption.

Planning for change: Provide staff with a short training on iron deficiency anemia and PICA. Using the Table on page ?, emphasize the importance of providing adequate iron in the diet to assure adequate growth and energy. Discuss the factors that decrease iron absorption such as coffee or tea as well as the factors that help to increase iron absorption such as pairing vitamin C rich foods with iron rich foods in a meal or snack. Be sure to familiarize the staff with the "Iron for Energy!" newsletter so that they can answer any questions that family members may have.

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