17 Iron-Rich Vegetarian Meals

Recipes for a Meatless Iron-Rich Diet Plan

As a vegetarian, you need to pay attention to a few nutrients in your diet. Some key ones are:

  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Zinc
  • Iron 

It's not that they're impossible to get—other than 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, among other symptoms.

A simple blood test—nothing complicated—can confirm if you have iron deficiency anemia. If so, your doctor may recommend that you get additional iron through your diet as well as from a supplement.

Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron

A supplement is easy to take, but it's harder to know where to start with your diet.

First, you should know there are two types of iron:

  1. Heme: This form of iron comes primarily from animal sources—red meats and seafood, for example. This type is easily digested by your body.
  2. Non-heme: This form of 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.

As a vegetarian, the non-heme 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 foods such as citrus and citrus juices, fruits 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, the amount you take in 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?

The amount of iron you need depends on your age.

Daily Iron Needs for Healthy Adults
GENDER AGE/CONDITION MG/DAY
Male 19+ 8
Female 19-50 18
Female 51+ 8
Female Pregnant 27
Female Lactating 9

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 18 mg of iron per day. A meal with 6 mg of iron per serving, for example, offers six out of 18 recommended milligrams, or 34% 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

Verywell

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% of the daily iron target (that's at least 4 mg 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.

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

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

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

For 417 calories you also get 18 g protein, 55 g carbohydrate, 8 g fiber (34%), and more than 20% 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.

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

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

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

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

Lunch and Dinner

iron rich meals

Verywell

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% of the daily iron target. Seven of the 11 also provide over 20% 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:

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% iron (6 mg).

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

Legumes are once again the star of the recipe. The lentils in this dish contribute to 30% of iron per serving (about 5 mg). 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 12 g protein, 32 g complex carbohydrate, 10 g fiber (40%), and more than 20% of your target for 12 different vitamins and minerals, including 52% of vitamin C.

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

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

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% iron per serving (5 mg).

This dish contains 330 calories, 18 g protein, 59 g carbohydrate, 16 g fiber (64%), and more than 20% of your target for eight different vitamins and minerals.

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

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

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% of your daily iron goal (5 mg).

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

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% of your target (4 mg).

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

A whopping 22% iron (4 mg) 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 9 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber (16%), and more than 20% of your target for 9 different vitamins and minerals. The variety of vitamin C-rich veggies racks in 107% of your recommended value.

Eat up this salad and add 21% of iron (4 mg) 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, 14 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate, 9 g fiber (36%), and more than 20% of your target for 11 different vitamins and minerals.

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

There are 410 calories per serving, 20 g protein, 39 g carbohydrate, and 5 g fiber (20%). Twelve different vitamins and minerals contain more than 20% 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.

Choose 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.

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% iron per serving (about 4 mg)

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: 5 g and 3 g, 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.

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% (about 4 mg) of iron.

The overall nutrition profile of this dish is also impressive. It rings in at 415 calories, 20 g protein, 40 g carbohydrate, 17 g fiber (68%), and has more than 20% 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. Supplements are available over the counter and are generally pretty affordable.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010 Dec;25(6):613-20. doi:10.1177/0884533610385707

  2. National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron Fact Sheet. Updated October 16, 2019.

  3. 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. doi:10.1007/s12011-011-9207-6

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