Incredible Iron

Are you feeling tired and lacklustre, or does your child seem unusually lethargic, have cracks in the corners of their mouth or seem to catch every virus that comes their way? Well, this could be due to an iron deficiency, and with a simple change in diet you could both regain your Popeye strength!

Lack of iron is the most common single nutrient deficiency worldwide, and New Zealand is no exception. Essentially, lack of iron means lack of oxygen to the body and brain, and mothers and preschool children are at particular risk.


You may end up with an iron deficiency if you don’t eat iron-rich foods for a long period of time, or it could be due to a lengthy illness or blood loss (this can catch out mums who begin to get heavy periods after having children). You should bear in mind that at certain times in your life (such as in adolescence, pregnancy or when exercising a lot), you will need to increase your iron intake.


Iron deficiency is extremely common in preschool children in New Zealand, with up to a quarter of those under 3-years of age suffering from iron-deficiency anaemia. If your child feels unusually tired and weak with low energy levels, you should try including more iron-rich foods in their diet. A lack of adequate iron (or iron absorption) in your child’s diet can mean they will also get sick more easily as they have less immunity than kids eating plenty of iron-rich foods. If you are concerned that your child isn’t reaching their milestones, such as sitting, rolling and talking, or in fact their development just doesn’t seem right for their age, this could also be a sign of low iron. Lowered intelligence and lack of growth in children are also signs, so it’s essential to get this mineral into their diet.

How much do we need?

The RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) varies depending on age. Infants from about 7 months old need 7mg/day of iron, while younger babies have an average intake of 0.2mg/day. It should be noted that the iron in formula is 5 to 10 times less available to the body compared to the iron in breast milk.

Iron requirements are higher during periods of rapid growth in early childhood and adolescence. Children aged 1- to 3-years need 9mg/day of iron, while those aged 4- to 8-years need 10mg/day. The RDI for boys and girls 9- to 13-years-old is 8mg/day, and increases to 11mg/day for boys and 15mg/day for girls for those aged 14- to 18-years. Women under 50-years of age need to have an iron intake of 18mg/day to meet their needs.

So how can you ensure that your family’s iron intake meets their daily needs? Well, the good news is that we can get iron from a variety of food types. Meat and vegetables are both good sources, but you need to know a little about the chemistry of this mineral to make sure you absorb as much as possible when you need it. Iron from meat sources is generally better absorbed than that from plant sources. Vegetarians and vegans may get too little iron, so if you are concerned, talk to your doctor or to a dietitian for advice. That said, research has shown that if the body’s stores of iron are depleted or needs are higher than usual, absorption from plants increases.

Another factor to take into account where iron absorption is concerned is the iron content and composition of a meal. Foods rich in oxalates (for example, spinach, rhubarb and chocolate), and in insoluble dietary fibre (for example, wheat bran and whole grains), can all hinder iron absorption, as can calcium and the tannin found in tea and coffee.

How can we maximise iron absorption?

Vitamin C aids iron absorption and some foods such as dark leafy greens, which contain both iron and vitamin C, are therefore an ideal choice to increase the body’s iron stores. Other iron-rich foods should be eaten with foods rich in vitamin C if possible to maximise iron absorption, for example by drinking a glass of orange juice during a meat-rich dish or by having a kiwifruit with your breakfast cereal. Consumption of meat, fish and poultry can also increase the absorption of iron from plant foods consumed at the same time.

What about getting too much?

Excess iron can cause stomach upsets, constipation and even kidney damage. High iron intakes can also affect the absorption of other nutrients such as zinc
or calcium.

Foods that are good sources of iron include:

  • Lean beef
  • Lean lamb
  • Lentils
  • Red kidney beans
  • Baked beans
  • Cocoa powder
  • Dried apricots
  • Lambs’ liver
  • Fish and shellfish, particularly Paua, oysters and mussels
  • Sesame and pumpkin seeds
  • Couscous
  • Brown rice
  • Soya beans
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

The best way to meet your children’s iron needs is to make them meals that combine iron-rich meat and veges, so they get better overall absorption of the iron. This lamb and lentil cannelloni meets all the criteria, and is very popular with kids.

Cannelloni is a type of pasta that is probably not as widely used as more popular ones like macaroni and spaghetti, but it reminds me of the delicious meals my mum used to make. Cannelloni is very versatile and can be filled with virtually any ingredient you fancy. Pasta is a good source of carbohydrates, releasing energy slowly and over a long period of time, so it is a great ingredient to serve to active children and teens. The fact that it is also inexpensive and an all-time favourite with children make it an essential staple ingredient that can be used in many different ways in a wide variety of dishes.

The filling for this recipe combines meat with fresh and canned vegetables. In addition to its iron content, lamb is a good source of B vitamins and zinc, and is therefore a meat of choice for growing children, busy mums and top athletes, such as Anthony Boric and Sarah Walker, who are very careful to regularly include lamb as an iron-rich food in their diets. Lentils contain not only vitamin B6 and folate, but several important minerals such as potassium, manganese and, of course, iron.

Lamb and lentil cannelloni

Makes 10

  • 1 pack cannelloni
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 courgettes
  • 1 shallot
  • 200g skinless lamb steak
  • ½ × 410g tin lentils in brine
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 100g cheddar cheese
  • 1 × 410g tin tomatoes in juice


  1. Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Grease a deep 35 × 27cm (14 × 11 inch) rectangular  oven dish. Peel and grate the carrot. Wash and slice the courgettes. Peel and chop the shallot.
  2. Mince the lamb steak and place in a frying pan along with the prepared vegetables and olive oil. Cook over medium heat for 7-8 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. Add the drained lentils, bay leaf and 100ml / 3½fl oz water.
  3. Cover and cook for a further 10 minutes over low heat. Discard the bay leaf. Fill each cannelloni with the lamb and vegetable mixture. Place in the prepared dish with any leftover filling.
  4. Blend the tomatoes in juice and pour over the cannelloni. Sprinkle with the grated cheddar cheese and fanbake for 35 minutes. Enjoy!
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