Great question! Having enough iron in the diet is important for your child's brain development, immunity, energy levels and growth. Red meat is a particularly good source of iron, but it's not something that kids need to eat every day. In my experience, most kids get enough iron from eating a variety of different foods. In fact, there are plenty of other foods that we can substitute for red meat to provide iron. However, if your child is particularly fussy about meats then she may be not getting enough iron. So, how much is enough...
On average, a toddler aged 1-3 years needs just one serving of meat or meat alternatives per day. If you split this across lunch and dinner (ie/ half a serve at each main meal) then the amounts are often much smaller than you might expect.
A half serve of meat or alternatives includes:
Half a sausage
Half a small tin of tuna
40g (2tbsp) chicken
1 slice of roast meat
85g of tofu
1/2 a cup of beans or lentils
1 tbsp nuts or nut paste (FYI- this is not a great source of iron)
I generally recommend including an amount like this into two meals per day, and it usually fits well with lunch and dinner. However, if your child isn't eating this much then you don't need to panic. Instead, it's really important to not pressure your child to eat these meat foods or encourage them in preference to other foods. I find that an extra focus on meat makes it less likely to be eaten and enjoyed.
How to improve iron absorption
Instead of pushing your child to eat more meat foods, there are some other ways to make sure they get enough iron. For example, you can try offering iron-rich snacks. Foods like breakfast cereals can be an excellent source of iron and most kids like to munch on dry cereal pieces. To see if a cereal has iron add to it, you can check on the nutrition information panel. Some cereals with useful amounts of iron include: Weetbix, Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Special K.
One of the most effective ways to improve iron uptake is to offer a food high in Vitamin C at the same meal as the iron food. These might be foods like tomato, orange or berries. Vitamin C really helps the body to absorb iron, particularly from non-meat foods. So having a fruit or veggie at each meal will help with this absorption.
The calcium in dairy is really important for strong bones, but it actually reduces the amount of iron that the body absorbs at each meal. So, if iron is a concern then try to offer milk and yoghurt separately from main meals.
We can also use an iron supplement if all of these ideas aren't enough. The one we choose would depend on your child's needs and current intake.
In summary, consider including meat and alternatives with a fruit or veggie at most main meals, keep milk and meat separate if iron is a big concern and think about trying breakfast cereals as snacks.