Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Iron is a tricky one, but after a bit of research I reckon the best solution is to eat a WIDE RANGE OF HEALTHY FOODS every day.

Recently a reader, Violet Tingle, requested a Billie Bites Iron Special after she ditched cooking meat at home. This spurred me to dig around and clear up some confusing information surrounding iron absorption in foods. Below the facts and figures you'll find links to Billie Bites iron-rich recipes.

The best iron tip is to  always eat vitamin C at the same time - necessary for absorption, particularly for non-meat iron forms. This is easy and straight forward, and you probably do it without thinking. But keep these in mind:

  • Eat fresh fruit with cereal. 
  • Slice up a fresh tomato to include in your sandwich or on whole grain toast, with hommus
  • Serve fresh tomatoes with spinach salad, or just on the side with dahl, chili beans, tofu, lentils etc
  • Squeeze lemon or lime juice over meals - only cut open fruit just before serving
  • Vitamin C diminishes during cooking and over time. So those juice bars are a rip-off

But what's been bugging me is the warning by my midwife when I was pregnant to keep calcium away from iron. One midwife even said to avoid ice cream after a steak, if you were so inclined.

For a while I tortured myself trying to follow this rule. And I enforced it with Billie for a while too. But I'm sorry, nachos without cheese or yoghurt/sour cream? Spinach pie without feta? Dahl without yoghurt? No. Wrong. Very wrong.

I was a little suspicious that I had been duped when this warning about mixing calcium and iron didn't come up anywhere else.

Wandering around on the internet this month, sticking to reputable government and university sites, I had to look pretty hard to find this calcium/iron warning repeated. The Australian government health sites did not mention it. 

However, a minerals fact sheet put out by MIT in the United States, does report that ''calcium and iron combined in a meal may decrease the absorption of iron''. And other US government sites mentioned it. 'Decrease' i think is the key word. You'll still get some.

But then the MIT fact sheet goes on to warn against mixing your iron with phosphates (sodas), polyphenols (red wine, purple grape juice, coffee, tea, spices, some fruits, some vegetables), wheat bran, phytates (phytic acids found in legumes, grains and rice can decrease absorption by 50%), tannins (teas, coffees), manganese, cobalt, copper, cadmium (in cigarette smoke), calcium, legume protein (soybeans, lentils, black beans, mung beans, and split peas), lignin (fibrous tissued vegetables) and soy protein. Nonheme - vegetarian - iron is more affected by the above inhibitors than heme - meat and seafood - iron.

It turns out many foods we eat for iron, also contain calcium, and also polyphenols and phytates (found in legumes and whole grains). So clearly, nature didn't intend us to bother leaving cheese off our nachos. (This is my opinion, after doing the reading. Please seek advice from your GP to be certain, particularly if pregnant).

And look at all the food sources for iron, from our friends at MIT:

Kelp, curry powder, brewer's yeast, shellfish, fortified cereals, blackstrap molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, parsley, almonds, canned sardines, dried apricots, prunes, cashews, tomato paste, artichokes, brazil nuts, beet greens, dandelion leaves, walnuts, whole wheat bread, semisweet chocolate, lentils, peanuts, eggs, bean curd, beef, great northern beans, corned beef, watercress, kidney beans, green peas, brown rice, ripe olives, Boston baked beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, red wine, white fish, wheat germ, soy flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, firm tofu, raisins, light tuna, oysters, dark meat of chicken, shrimp, and baked potato with skin. (Their highlights, not mine).

Source:  MIT Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (US) Last updated 5/30/2007 

But a very important one they have missed is QUINOA. Perhaps because this ancient super food has yet to make it on to the mainstream stage. But it's up there with the best of them, Quinoa offers at least as much iron as kidney beans. See below for recipe suggestions.

We need iron to carry oxygen around our bodies where it is used for energy. There are two types of iron:
  1. Haem iron - found in red meats, seafood and poultry
  2. Non-haem iron - predominantly found in:
    • Legumes eg beans, lentils, tofu, dried peas/split peas, hommus
    • Wholegrain breads and cereals.
    • Green leafy vegetables.
    • Nuts and seeds. eg peanut butter and tahini
    • Eggs.
    • Dried fruits.
    • Breakfast cereals with added iron.

As mentioned, Vitamin C helps the body to absorb more iron. Foods that are high in vitamin C include some fruits (rockmelon, strawberries, pineapple, citrus fruits, oranges, mandarins, kiwi fruit and tomato) and some vegetables (broccoli, capsicum, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts).

The tables below are from the United States Food and Drug Administration:
Table 1: Selected Food Sources of Nonheme Iron

per serving
% DV*
Ready-to-eat cereal, 100% iron fortified, ¾ cup18.0100
Oatmeal, instant, fortified, prepared with water, 1 cup10.060
Soybeans, mature, boiled, 1 cup8.850
Lentils, boiled, 1 cup6.635
Beans, kidney, mature, boiled, 1 cup5.225
Beans, lima, large, mature, boiled, 1 cup4.525
Beans, navy, mature, boiled, 1 cup4.525
Ready-to-eat cereal, 25% iron fortified, ¾ cup4.525
Beans, black, mature, boiled, 1 cup3.620
Beans, pinto, mature, boiled, 1 cup3.620
Molasses, blackstrap, 1 tablespoon3.520
Tofu, raw, firm, ½ cup3.420
Spinach, boiled, drained, ½ cup3.220
Spinach, canned, drained solids ½ cup2.510
Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled, 1 cup1.810
Spinach, frozen, chopped, boiled ½ cup1.910
Grits, white, enriched, quick, prepared with water, 1 cup1.58
Raisins, seedless, packed, ½ cup1.58
Whole wheat bread, 1 slice0.96
White bread, enriched, 1 slice0.96

DV = Daily Value. The DV for iron is 18 milligrams (mg). A food providing 5% of the DV or less is a low source while a food that provides 10-19% of the DV is a good source. A food that provides 20% or more of the DV is high in that nutrient. It is important to remember that foods that provide lower percentages of the DV also contribute to a healthful diet. For foods not listed in this table, please refer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Database Web site:

What affects iron absorption?
Healthy adults absorb about 10% to 15% of dietary iron, but individual absorption is influenced by several factors.

Storage levels of iron have the greatest influence on iron absorption. Iron absorption increases when body stores are low. When iron stores are high, absorption decreases to help protect against toxic effects of iron overload. Iron absorption is also influenced by the type of dietary iron consumed. Absorption of heme iron from meat proteins is efficient. Absorption of heme iron ranges from 15% to 35%, and is not significantly affected by diet. In contrast, 2% to 20% of nonheme iron in plant foods such as rice, maize, black beans, soybeans and wheat is absorbed. Nonheme iron absorption is significantly influenced by various food components. 

Table 2: Recommended Dietary Allowances for Iron for Infants (7 to 12 months), Children, and Adults [1]

7 to 12 months
1 to 3 years
4 to 8 years
9 to 13 years
14 to 18 years
19 to 50 years
51+ years

Billie Bites Iron-rich Recipes

This is just a selection from this blog - some of my recipes containing ingredients with high iron scores. More to come. Looks like if you eat Billie Bites-style, you'll be doing alright for iron.

Red Summer Quinoa Salad with Lime, Olives and Mint

Three Sisters Stew with Quinoa

Super Patties with Tofu, Brown Rice and Walnuts 

Nutty Fritters with Tofu and Sweet Potato

Monday, March 14, 2011


Tahini used to scare me a little, unless it was in the context of hommus. But lately I've discovered it's a fine partner to various condiments and can be the back-bone of many tasty salad dressings.

Don't worry about the 'creamy' - it's an extremely healthy dressing. One I encouraged Billie to repeatedly dip her sweet potato into.

This was the first dinner in a week that Billie left not a scrap. It might have had something to do with the fact I starved her all day - well, she had a small lunch and only blueberries for afternoon tea - but I think it's safe to say this was a Winner with a capital W.

It's also one of those Under-30-Minute-Meals - a crucial selling point.


Serves three

Two large kumara or sweet potatoes
olive oil
handful cherry tomatoes
handful fresh mint (optional)

1/2 lemon
1 Tablespoon honey (leave out if child under one year)
3 T yoghurt
3 T Tahini
1 T tamari (or soy sauce)
3 T peanut butter (optional)
1/2 teaspoon cumin

Preheat oven to medium hot - about 220 c. Cut up kumera - no need to peel -  into large bite sized chunks (mine were a little over-sized tonight so ignore pictures). Spread out on oven tray and rub generously with olive oil. Roast until browned and crispy - they don't take long at all. 

Meanwhile, combine dressing ingredients in jar and shake well, or mix in small bowl.

Chop mint and add to kumera and tomatoes in a platter dish or bowl. Stir dressing through and serve warm. 

FOR BABIES 6 MONTHS AND OLDER: Reserve a little sweet potato and puree/mash
BABIES 8 MONTHS AND OLDER: Mash some sweet potato with the dressing (leave out peanut butter if you're unsure, but current recommendations say it's fine) but please do omit the honey
BABIES/TODDLERS 10 MONTHS AND OLDER: Serve salad as is (without honey)
TODDLERS ONE YEAR AND OLDER: Serve salad as is (honey okay after one year)

Friday, March 11, 2011


Since mid-February we've been harvesting cherry tomatoes, grown from seed

I can tell you a lot about what NOT to do when growing tomatoes. This summer I opted for the garden-by-feel method, learning from mistakes rather than researching 'correct' methods and following instructions.

Despite this list of stuff to do that I didn't, we are managing to pick approximately one punnet of cherry tomatoes every second day. That's about 15. That's more than two adults and a toddler  - who is not partial to tomatoes - can actually eat.

And we're sharing our fruits with the birds, worms and possums. I have not got around to covering the rambling plants with netting, so for every one I pick I leave one in the garden for the wildlife to finish nibbling. Some with worm holes we cut up and cook, but it's getting to the point where we have so many I'm just leaving them for the bugs. What comes around goes around, especially in the garden.


1. While planting seeds in egg cartons is fabulous, be sure to transplant once seedlings are established - after a couple of weeks, when they are a few inches high and a bit leafy. Otherwise they will dry out and shrivel up and die

2. Transplant to little pots, rather than straight into the garden. Unless you have great soil and conditions, the seedlings don't seem to cope well in the big wide world until a little bigger

3. Fertilise every week or so with organic products - there's one commonly available made of seaweed, and another combining nitrogen and fish oil etc

4. After another couple of weeks, move seedlings to the big garden or a very big pot. Make sure you cluster the tomato plants together and keep well away from herbs, lettuce, spinach, aubergine, capsicum plants etc. Why? The tomato plants will grow very big and shade everything. I started off with salad greens and basil, and now I just have lots of tomatoes. Plus a few aubergine and pepper plants that were far enough away from the tomatoes to grab some sun.

5. Stake all the tomato plants immediately. Not when they get big. Use thick, strong and tall stakes and tie loosely with old panty hose, or socks if you don't wear the former. I waited until the plants were bending over backwards, and then used bamboo that was too thin and short. I wound up with a jungle and some of the plants pulling out of the ground as they bent over

6. Pick out the laterals early. What's a lateral? It's where the plant tries to grow in directions and places other than purely necessary. If you don't pick the lateral shoots out when they are new, you wind up with a rambling tomato plant that's very hard to stake because it's shooting off in all directions. Look for the shoots between two stems.

7. Fertilise after each transplant, and then every two weeks. 

8. Sun and water are obviously a tomato's best friend. However, I read this week that antioxidants are created when a plant is stressed, ie dry for a bit, so don't fret if you skip a day or go away for a weekend.

9. Cover plants with netting, perhaps pegging to couple of tall stakes - I'm not an expert on this as not done yet

10. If you opt not to net - a bit of a pain as harder to access - perhaps harvest tomatoes before fully ripe and leave in a sunny spot inside. I found when my tomato harvest began a few weeks back that surprisingly few were being eaten by 'pests'. Last week this changed, so I began picking them green-orange and ripening on the sunny kitchen windowsill. Then a neighbor said this makes for more acidic fruit. This week we've left a load to ripen on the plant as an experiment, and this morning I picked 15 red fruit unscathed by bugs and animals. Conversely, there were lots of green and yellow tomatoes sporting worm holes. So perhaps bugs are colour blind...

Lone pepper  after rest were shaded by tomato plants
Billie shows Melissa how to water the tomatoes

Thursday, March 10, 2011


When a Melbourne friend announced she was in town and popping in for lunch with her 7.5 month-old baby, I knew it was time to really test out the Billie Bites philosophy.

Could I come up with a dish that would inspire and nourish two adults, a toddler and a baby newish to solids?

BINGO. Mission accomplished. And while this is similar to other salads listed here, it's different enough to warrant fulfilling my guest's request for the recipe.

Oscar hadn't had lentils or ricotta before, but he happily consumed a fair serving of the two, mashed with some roasted pumpkin. I chose ricotta because it doesn't have any added salt - good for babies under one year.

Billie chose on this occasion to pick out the lumps of fresh ricotta. But we know she normally devours anything from the pulse/bean family. Pumpkin these days goes down if it's mixed in with other stuff, or is the only thing on offer.

And Emily and I devoured my cherry tomatoes freshly picked from the back-yard.

Here we have a meal for all. Family friendly, vegetarian and gluten-free.


1 cup French puy lentils, rinsed
1/4 pumpkin, skinned and chopped into bite-sized chunks
olive oil
large handful French green beans, topped and tailed and cut in half
handful cherry tomatoes
few slabs of fresh, firm ricotta (avoid the runny stuff in the tub)
1 lime, juiced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to hot. Place lentils in small pot with 3./4 cup water and bring to boil. Turn to low and simmer with lid until water absorbed or just soft - about 20-30 minutes. Place pumpkin on oven roasting tray and rub with olive oil. Roast until soft and crispy around edges. 

Steam beans until just soft. Mix lime, balsamic, olive oil and salt and pepper and stir through drained lentils, beans and tomatoes in a large serving platter dish. Top with pumpkin and slabs of ricotta.

FOR BABIES 6 MONTHS AND UP: Reserve some pumpkin and puree
BABIES 7 MONTHS AND UP: Reserve some lentils and pumpkin and mash or puree with ricotta
BABIES/TODDLERS 1 YEAR AND UP: Serve salad as is - let them pick what they like. It's all good

Friday, March 4, 2011


Pizzas ready to go in the oven - although Billie couldn't wait

Showing you how to make pizza could be like telling you how to suck eggs. But there are some superb tricks here. And today when my friend Anna (who's a very good cook) was impressed and inspired sampling a cold left-over piece, I decided it was a valid exercise. Oh, and I have to credit Miles here as I was inspired by his innovation.

The two main tricks here are: 

*For the base, use thin round flat 'Lebanese bread' - they are cheap, cook very quickly and retain a nice texture

* Instead of straight tomato, pack some super foods into the base sauce. It tastes nice, but most importantly toddlers can't avoid the vegetables

Pizza post-oven

Now, I'm not normally a fan of pumpkin on pizza. However, Miles created a delicious pumpkin-based vegetable blend to spread over our vegetarian pizzas this week. HIs motivation was a lack of tomato stuff in the cupboards, but also to get some more veggies into young Billie.

Last night I followed up with a full head of fairly well-steamed broccoli, blended in with a few dollops of tomato paste. Billie scoffed back most of her large pizza before it even went near the oven.

(And yes, those are cherry tomatoes from our garden. Grown from seed. Very proud of myself.)

Obviously you can follow the vegetable paste with any topping you fancy, but here's what worked very well last night:


Makes three pizzas, feeds about four
Large, flat, round and preferably wholemeal Lebanese breads
Head of broccoli, cut into large chunks and steamed until softish
4 tablespoons tomato paste
Small bunch English spinach, washed and chopped
5 spring onions, top and tailed and finely sliced
4-5 cloves garlic
1/2 block feta
several big handfuls grated cheddar cheese
handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced in thirds
Fresh basil and oregano - lots
black pepper
Olive oil

Preheat oven to medium hot.

Lightly saute spring onions and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add spinach and remove from heat after 30 seconds - you just want to shrink it down a little, but it will get plenty of cooking in the oven. Blend broccoli and tomato paste. Spread generously on bases. Sprinkle a little cheddar on each. 

Spread the spinach mixture over the three pizzas, followed by a sprinkling of capers on each and some chopped fresh herbs. Crumble the feta over each, a good grind of pepper (no salt needed with feta), the rest of the cheddar, and distribute the cherry tomato slices. 

Place on oven trays and cook until cheese well melted and bases crispy around the edges - they will blacken a little. Slice and serve immediately. 

Pizza pre-oven