June 2023 – Supporting Healthy Iron Intake

"Little girl sitting at breakfast table, with arms on the table, looking frustrated."

In the United States, about 7% of children ages 1–5 have iron deficiency anemia—and this number is even higher for children ages 1–2. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when there is not enough iron in the body to produce healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Our bodies only need a small amount of iron, but without it, a child can appear pale in color; suffer from frequent headaches; or feel cranky, tired, and weak. This Mealtime Memo reviews good sources of iron and how the CACFP Meal Pattern supports a healthy intake of iron.

Sources of Iron

There are two main types of iron found in the food we eat. Heme iron is found in animal products like meat, seafood, and eggs. Non-heme iron is found in plants like dried beans and peas, tofu, and green leafy vegetables. Heme iron is absorbed better in the body than non-heme iron. Let’s explore ways to serve foods so that the body best absorbs iron.

CACFP Meal Patterns and Iron

Infants and Iron

Infants are born with a certain amount of iron in their bodies. Over time, they need additional iron from their diet for proper development. As the infant is developmentally ready, the CACFP Infant Meal Pattern allows for serving foods that are good sources of iron, such as iron-fortified infant cereal, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and cooked dry beans and peas.

mother feeding adopted baby daughter

Transition From Infant to Toddler

As infants become toddlers, they transition from getting a large portion of calories from formula or breast milk to getting most of their calories and nutrients from food. You may notice that some toddlers rely on milk in a bottle or sippy cup to fill them up. While milk is a source of many nutrients, it is low in iron. Filling up on milk may increase the risk of iron deficiency anemia. The CACFP meal pattern supports the transition to more iron-rich foods by requiring that all meal components be served starting at 1 year of age. Encouraging toddlers to eat all of the components offered in a meal can help them get more iron.

An eighteen-month old drinks milk from a sippy cup.

High Iron Meats/Meat Alternates

In the CACFP, meats and meat alternates may be served as a breakfast component up to three times a week, are required at lunch (and/or supper), and are an option at snack. Yogurt and cheese are not good sources of iron, but the following meats/meat alternates are good sources of iron.

  • Lean meat, poultry, and fish*
  • Tofu and soy products
  • Eggs*
  • Cooked dry beans or peas
  • Peanut butter, soy nut butter, or other nut and seed butter (These can be choking hazards and should only be offered when developmentally appropriate.)
Selection of protein sources in kitchen background, closeup

*Heme iron sources (noted above with an asterisk) are better absorbed than non-heme sources. However, eating non-heme and heme iron sources together helps increase non-heme iron absorption. For example, serving chicken thighs and baked beans together will increase the absorption of the non-heme iron in the baked beans.

Fruits and Vegetables and Iron

Many vegetables are a source of non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well in the body as heme iron from animal sources. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption. To help the body better absorb non-heme iron, serve these foods with fruits and vegetables that are good sources of vitamin C.

Good sources of non-heme iron:

  • Broccoli
  • Lentils
  • Potatoes
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes

Good sources of vitamin C:

  • Bell peppers
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

Examples of pairing a source of non-heme iron with a food high in vitamin C:

  • Bean burrito and tomatoes
  • Spinach salad with strawberries
  • Stir-fry with broccoli and bell peppers

Whole and Enriched Grains as Sources of Iron

Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal are natural sources of non-heme iron. Refined grains have the bran (outer part of the grain) removed, which is where most of the iron is. However, many grains are enriched, which means that iron and other nutrients are added back into the product. The CACFP meal pattern requires that all refined grains served be enriched. Therefore, providing and encouraging grain products as required by the CACFP will add to the overall iron intake.

whole grain brown bread, three slices in front of half loaf, isolated on white

Mealtime Discussion Prompts

During mealtime, raise children’s awareness about the importance of iron using the questions below.

  • Has anyone ever felt really tired? What was that like?
  • Has anyone heard of something called iron that is in some foods? What foods on your plate do you think contain iron?
  • Does anyone know why eating iron is important?
A high angle image of a diverse group of children holding baskets with the food groups of fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and grains.

Menu Ideas

The following menu ideas provide a variety of foods, colors, and textures that are appropriate for young children and have at least one component that contains iron. Some recipes contain multiple food components listed in parentheses after the recipe.


Vegetable Frittata
(Meat Alternate, Vegetable)

1% Milk


Barbeque Chicken or Turkey Salad
(Meat and Vegetable)
Whole Grain Roll
Cantaloupe Chunks

1% Milk


green soybeans on white background



Recipes Clipart 800x533



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Iron. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/vitamins-minerals/iron.html

Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). Food sources of iron. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials/food-sources-select-nutrients/food-1

Gupta, P. M., Perrine, C. G., Mei, Z., & Scanlon, K. S. (2016). Iron, anemia, and iron deficiency anemia among young children in the United States. Nutrients, 8(6), 330. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8060330

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Barbeque chicken or tuna salad – USDA recipe for child care centers. Child Nutrition Recipe Box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/recipes-for-centers-salads/barbecue-chicken-or-turkey-salad-usda-recipe-for-cacfp/

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Child nutrition recipe box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). New CACFP lunch/supper recipes. Child Nutrition Recipe Box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/2022-cacfp-recipes/

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Vegetable frittata – USDA recipe for family child cares. Child Nutrition Recipe Box. https://theicn.org/cnrb/recipes-for-homes/recipes-for-homes-main-dishes/vegetable-frittata-usda-recipe-for-family-child-care-center/

Institute of Child Nutrition. (2022, July 7). Child and adult care food program infant meal pattern. https://theicn.org/resources/1482/cacfp-meal-pattern-posters-and-infographics/115250/cacfp-infant-meal-pattern-poster.pdf

Previous 2023 Mealtime Memos


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