17 Iron-Rich Vegetarian Meals

Recipes for a Meatless Iron-Rich Diet Plan

As a vegetarian it's important to pay attention to a few nutrients in your diet, among them protein, calcium, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron. It's not that they're impossible to get—besides vitamin B12, plenty of plant-based foods contain these nutrients. However, these foods may not always be top of mind, and plant-based sources of iron in particular come with a caveat.

When you don't have enough iron you'll likely experience fatigue, weakness, and feeling cold, amongst other symptoms. A simple blood test—nothing complicated—can confirm if you have iron deficiency anemia. At this point your doctor may recommend additional iron through your diet as well as a supplement.

Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron

A supplement is easy to take, but where do you start with your diet? First, you should know that there are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes primarily from animal sources—red meats and seafood, for example. This type is easily digested in your body.

Non-heme iron is primarily from plant sources—legumes, leafy greens like spinach, enriched cereals and grains, tofu, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and vegetables like asparagus and broccoli have plenty of it. As a vegetarian, these are the foods you should focus on getting more of. Luckily, they're all easily accessible and offer impressive nutrition stats, in addition to iron.

Nutrient Interactions

Here comes the caveat: although non-heme iron is easy to obtain, the body doesn't digest it as easily as heme iron. You can help your body out by pairing these foods with vitamin C-rich fruit like citrus and citrus juices, fruit like strawberries, and vegetables like bell peppers. They'll help your body take up more of the iron and get your levels back to normal.

You may have heard that calcium reduces iron absorption. When it comes to non-heme iron, the research is mixed, but the interaction may be dose-dependent. In other words, calcium may reduce non-heme absorption when consumed in large amounts.

Some iron-rich foods like spinach are also high in calcium, but unless you're taking a calcium supplement amounts usually won't affect absorption. Also, the typical western diet is high in enhancers like vitamin C, which may balance these effects.Your dietitian can help you determine how much calcium is too much and if you're getting enough calcium from non-animal sources.

How Much Iron Do I Need?

It depends on your age.

  • An average healthy male 19 years and older needs 8mg per day.
  • Women 19-50 years old need 18mg.
  • Women's needs drop to 8mg after 51 years.
  • Pregnant women need more iron—about 27 mg.
  • Lactating women need less iron—about 9mg.

Remember that these recommended daily intakes are for the average healthy adult. Although your specific needs may vary, know that the iron percentages estimated below are based on a recommended intake of 18mg iron per day. A meal with 6mg iron per serving, for example, offers 6 out of 18 recommended milligrams, or 34 percent of your daily total. You may not be absorbing it all, but the recipes and pairings below are a good start.

Breakfast

iron rich breakfasts

Classic breakfast foods—enriched cereals, enriched breads, oatmeal, and eggs, for example—contain iron. Pair them with other high-iron vegetarian ingredients like leafy greens, beans, and veggies to create decadent bowls, pizzas, tacos, and more.

You'll start your day strong with these recipes. Per serving, they provide at least 20 percent of the daily iron target (that's at least 4mg or more). A few other nutrition highlights are listed as well.

Round out each meal with a vitamin C-rich sweet treat to help you absorb the iron. A glass of orange or tomato juice, half of a sliced orange or grapefruit, or a cup of strawberries, melon, pineapple, or kiwi are smart choices.

Charred White Bean Breakfast Pizza

Most ingredients in this pizza contribute a bit of iron— you get a whopping 6mg (34 percent) between the white beans, whole wheat pita, marinara, and spinach.

For 393 calories you also get 23g protein, 58g carbohydrate, 12g fiber (47 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 16 different vitamins and minerals.

Kale and Potato Hash With Fried Egg and Tomato

Kale and potato are the star contributors to most of the iron in this dish. It provides 27 percent of the daily target (about 5mg).

For 417 calories you also get 18g protein, 55g carbohydrate, 8g fiber (34 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 17 different vitamins and minerals. There's also almost triple your recommended vitamin C amount here, helping you absorb iron more efficiently.

Savory Spinach and Feta Oatmeal Bowl

Here, the oatmeal, spinach, and egg combine to offer 23 percent of your iron target (about 4mg).

For 309 calories you also get 19g protein, 34g carbohydrate, 5g fiber (20 percent), and and over 20 percent of your target for 14 different vitamins and minerals.

Roasted Root Veggie Breakfast Tacos

A cup of canned black beans generally provides 27 percent of your iron target (about 5mg). In this recipe, they contribute to a total of 22 percent (4 mg).

What else do you get? For slightly under 300 calories, enjoy 10g protein, 48g carbohydrate, 12g fiber (47 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 8 different vitamins and minerals.

Lunch and Dinner

iron rich meals

Continue racking up iron throughout the day by focusing on fortified whole grains, legumes, and dark leafy vegetables such as spinach. They boast impressive nutrient profiles so should be incorporated into your diet whether or not you're looking to add more iron.

Each of these meals offers at least 20 percent of the daily iron target. Seven of the 11 also provide over 20 percent of the daily recommended vitamin C amount, helping you to absorb the iron more efficiently.

You can also pair your meal with one of these low-calorie, vitamin C-containing drinks:

Black Bean Arugula Tostadas

Almost any dish with beans is sure to be high in iron. Here, the salsa adds a bit as well for a total of 26 percent iron (6mg).

Along with that you get 461 nutrient-dense calories—19g protein, 70g carbohydrate, 21g fiber (84 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 11 different vitamins and minerals. And although the amount of vitamin C isn't quite over 20 percent, it's pretty close at 18.

Vegan Red Curry Lentil Soup With Kale

Legumes are once again the star of the recipe. The lentils in this dish contribute to 30 percent of iron per serving (about 5mg). Kale also contains a bit of iron and, along with the tomatoes, contributes a substantial amount of vitamin C.

For 232 calories you also consume 12g protein, 32g complex carbohydrate, 10g fiber (40 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 12 different vitamins and minerals, including 52 percent of vitamin C.

Kale and Lentil Stuffed Sweet Potato

The same star ingredients from the dish above are transformed into a completely different dish with 29 percent iron (about 5 mg).

For 237 calories you also get 13g protein, 42g carbohydrate, 10g fiber (40 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 13 different vitamins and minerals, including 136 percent of vitamin C!

Yellow Dal With Quinoa

You'll get quite a bit of iron whether you choose peas or lentils for this dish. Along with the quinoa, the numbers stack up to about 25 percent iron per serving (5mg).

This dish contains 330 calories, 18g protein, 59g carbohydrate, 16g fiber (64 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 8 different vitamins and minerals.

Spring Vegetable Quinoa Salad

A cup of asparagus is surprisingly high in iron—it offers about 16 percent of your daily goal. You'll meet 25 percent of your daily goal (4mg) when you pair it with peas and quinoa for this dish.

The 265 calories per serving come with 10g protein, 37g carbohydrate, 8g fiber (32 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 9 different vitamins and minerals.

Spring Baked Pasta With Lemon Ricotta

Asparagus isn't the star of this dish, but this iron-rich vegetable is sneaked in among whole wheat penne and kale. Together the three foods rack in 25 percent of your daily iron goal (5mg).

The 344 calories per serving offer with 19g protein, 44g carbohydrate, 6g fiber (24 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 13 different vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C rings in at 95 percent of your daily goal.

Mediterranean Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

Bell peppers are usually stuffed with iron-rich beef or chicken. This vegetarian version skips the meat but doesn't lose the iron. The quinoa and chickpeas contribute plenty—25 percent of your target (4mg).

There's 346 calories, 13g protein, 51g carbohydrate, 11g fiber (44 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 12 different vitamins and minerals. The bell peppers and tomatoes stack up plenty of vitamin C—220 percent of your target!

Stir Fried Asparagus With Bell Peppers and Cashews

Twenty-two percent iron (4mg) is impressive for a dish made only of flavorful veggies and nuts. Asparagus and cashews in particular offer plenty of the nutrient.

Enjoy this meal for only 302 calories, with 9g protein, 25g carbohydrate, 4g fiber (16 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 9 different vitamins and minerals. The variety of vitamin C-rich veggies racks in 107 percent of your recommended value.

Ultimate Mediterranean Chopped Salad

Eat up this salad and add 21 percent of iron (4mg) to your daily count. Like all beans, chickpeas are a rich source of this nutrient.

The salad offers an entire meal. It has 383 calories, 14g protein, 32g carbohydrate, 9g fiber (36 percent), and over 20 percent of your target for 11 different vitamins and minerals.

Black Sesame Tofu Summer Rolls With Peanut Dipping Sauce

Tofu is a common meat replacement in vegetarian dishes. Made of soy, it also contains protein. These summer rolls have 21 percent iron (about 4mg). The peanut butter contributes a bit, too.

There's 410 calories per serving, 20g protein, 39g carbohydrate, and 5g fiber (20 percent). Twelve different vitamins and minerals contain over 20 percent of your target for them.

Snacks

iron-rich snack
Stephanie Lang, MS, RDN, CDN

Splitting up any goal into smaller, more manageable pieces is the best way to achieve it. When it comes to meeting nutrient goals, this means getting a bit of the nutrient at every meal, including snacks.

Reach for dried fruit like dry apricots, nuts like cashews and almonds, seeds like pumpkin or sunflower, enriched cereals, or even a small salad or raw broccoli dipped in hummus or tahini. These are all snackable foods that contain a bit of iron. Pair them with a few slices of citrus or a handful of strawberries to increase the iron's availability.

You can also combine a few of these foods to make a trail mix-type dish.

Savory Spiced Nuts Snack Mix

The recipe is straightforward. Combine enriched cereal with iron-rich nuts like cashews and almonds, a bit of sweetness, and anti-inflammatory spices for a finger food treat that has 21 percent iron per serving (about 4mg)

As a snack, it's a bit higher in calories, ringing in at 226 per serving. But it does provide a bit of protein and fiber: 5g and 3g, respectively.

Dessert

peanut butter chia pudding
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

You can't omit dessert if you're spreading out your iron intake throughout the day. An iron rich dessert will contribute to your daily total.

Peanut Butter Cup Chia Pudding

Chia seeds are impressive all around. They're a great source of fiber, contain protein, heart-healthy omega-3s, and iron. Along with the peanut butter, they contribute 22 percent (about 4mg) of iron.

The overall nutrition profile of this dish is also impressive. It rings in at 415 calories, 20g protein, 40g carbohydrate, 17g fiber (68 percent), and has over 20 percent of your target for 11 different vitamins and minerals.

A Word From Verywell

It's possible to get enough iron on a vegetarian diet if you choose nutritious foods and pair them with absorption aids like vitamin C. Mix and match the breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, and desserts outlined here to create a complete meal plan that satisfies your tastes.

If your blood test results still show lower iron or if you don't notice a change in how you feel, do your best to work with a dietitian. He or she can recommend solutions that fit your specific situation and may recommend iron supplements to help you balance your levels. They're available over the counter and luckily aren't too expensive.

Sources:

Gaitán DA, Flores S, Pizarro F, Olivares M, Suazo M, Arredondo M. The effect of calcium on non-heme iron uptake, efflux, and transport in intestinal-like epithelial cells (Caco-2 cells). Biol Trace Elem Res. 2012;145(3):300-3.

Grinder-pedersen L, Bukhave K, Jensen M, Højgaard L, Hansen M. Calcium from milk or calcium-fortified foods does not inhibit nonheme-iron absorption from a whole diet consumed over a 4-d period. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;80(2):404-9.

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron Fact Sheet. 2016.

Thompson BA, Sharp PA, Elliott R, Fairweather-tait SJ. Inhibitory effect of calcium on non-heme iron absorption may be related to translocation of DMT-1 at the apical membrane of enterocytes. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58(14):8414-7.

Ríos-castillo I, Olivares M, Brito A, De romaña DL, Pizarro F. One-month of calcium supplementation does not affect iron bioavailability: a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition. 2014;30(1):44-8.

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