Spinach: It’s not just for Popeye!

This week’s theme is spinach- borrowed from the secret ingredient at a recent PTA event where two local chefs battled it out in cafeteria kitchen stadium.  The delicious spinach was provided by a local farmer who participates in our small town’s farmers market every Saturday morning.  The two chefs were absolutely fabulous and WANTED kids in the kitchen helping them prepare the dishes.   To top it off,  the chefs were totally happy to make vegetarian dishes!!  Somehow both girls managed their way onto the chefs’ teams, http://www.flickr.com/photos/watz/2715424972/sizes/l/so the dinners we made yesterday for the week were their recollections of the competition dishes.

It was so neat to see the girls taking charge in the kitchen and confident of what needed to happen.  One daughter is mostly hesitant to help with cooking (unless it’s dessert) – she started out by asking where a pot was.  So making dinner was a huge step that I took a lot of pleasure in watching and serving as sous chef for.  They took a lot of care with plating and were brimming with pride to describe and present their dishes.

So why should we eat spinach?  For its iron and calcium?  To be like strong like Popeye?  For all of these reasons and many more, but today we’ll focus on calcium.

Despite what the dairy industry has been advertising for years, there is evidence that dairy consumption is not linked to bone health and that increased dairy consumption is related to prostate cancer.  If you’re interested in your own search, check out http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed or research-based evidence summarized in The Cancer Survivor’s Guide by Neal Barnard, MD, or The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD.  I’ll highlight three studies here, two studying bone health in women and one studying prostate cancer in male physicians.

In a study assessing exercise and calcium intake in adolescent girls during their peak bone-building years, getting extra calcium made no difference at all in bone growth, whereas exercise fostered bone growth.Lloyd 2000  A Harvard study followed 72,337 postmenopausal women for 18 months and demonstrated that dairy calcium did not help bone strength at all, as measured by protection against hip fracture.Feskanich 2003   Harvard’s Physicians’ Health Study investigated the association between dairy consumption and prostate cancer risk in over 20,000 male physicians and concluded that dairy products and calcium are associated with a greater risk of prostate cancer.Chan 2001

Although the mechanisms for these deleterious effects of dairy on bone and prostate health are not known, it is believed to be due to the interference of excessive calcium intake on vitamin D activation.

The best plant-based sources of calcium are legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and the leafy greens (kale, mustard greens bok choy, and cabbage).  Although spinach is not the best source of calcium among the leafy greens because its oxalic acid content hinders calcium absorption, spinach is still a good source of calcium and may be considered by veggie novices to be more palatable than some of the other leafy greens.

When eating a whole food, plant based diet, there isn’t a concern about adequate calcium intake, as long as you are including calcium-rich legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and leafy greens in your diet.  So cut down on dairy if you haven’t already eliminated it, and rely on legumes and leafy greens for your calcium needs.  Upcoming posts will address dairy alternatives- but for now, enjoy these spinach recipes!


Play on Sushi

For 4 light servings:

Cream cheese, 1 container (vegan)

Black beans, 1 can (or 1.5 cups) rinsed

1 Red and 1 yellow pepper, cut into thin strips

1 Carrot, cut into thin strips

2 Celery stalks, cut into thin strips

2 Large handfuls of spinach

4 Whole wheat tortillas


Soften the cream cheese and blend/process with the black beans.

Roast the pepper, carrot, and celery strips on a lightly sprayed baking sheet for about 15 min at 400’F, sprinkling with salt and freshly ground pepper if desired.

Spread the cheesy bean mixture on the tortillas.

Add ¼ of the veggies to the bottom half of each tortilla and top with the spinach.

Starting at the bottom of the tortilla, roll tightly.

With the seam down, cut the roll into 1” pieces, using the ends as “tasters” if there’s not enough filling or if the little chefs are hungry.

Use the extra cheesy bean dip to serve with carrots and celery as a side OR double the recipe and use it for Mexican Lasagna.


Mexican Lasagna

For 8 servings:

6 Whole wheat tortillas

1 Can diced tomatoes

4 Large tomatoes, seeded

2-4 Cloves of garlic

½ Onion

1-2 Carrots, optional

2 Large handfuls of spinach


Pinch of salt

Cream cheese, 1 container (vegan)

Black beans, 1-2 cans (1.5-3 cups) rinsed

Avocado, sliced or diced


Blend or process the canned tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, and carrots if using to make salsa.

Soften the cream cheese and blend/process with the black beans.

Lightly spray two glass pie pans (or a casserole dish).

Layer a tortilla, cheesy bean mixture, spinach, and salsa.


Top with another tortilla, (cheesy bean mixture if you have any leftover), salsa, and cilantro.

Bake at 350’ for 20 min or until heated through.

Top with avocado if desired.

Using two pie plates provides the opportunity to add jalapenos into one dish or to freeze the second dish if only 4 servings are needed.  This dish may not be substantial enough to serve as a standalone entrée for 4 unless you use 3 cups of black beans and 1-2 avocados.


Veggie Pasta

For 6 servings:

1 Bag of spiral pasta

4 Large tomatoes, seeded and diced

2 Red bell peppers, seeded and diced

3-4 large handfuls of spinach


Bread crumbs


Optional sauce:

Cream cheese, 1 container (vegan)

1 Jar of spaghetti sauce


Make pasta and add veggies 2 min before pasta is finished cooking.

Drain pasta and veggies and return to pot.

Blend or process the cream cheese and spaghetti sauce, if using.

Pour sauce over pasta and veggies.

Top with parsley and season with salt and freshly ground pepper if needed.

Sprinkle bread crumbs over each serving.

Optional variation: When we had leftovers from this meal, we added diced non-GMO vegan Italian sausage into the pasta.


Homemade Chips and Dip with Fruit and Veggie Kabobs

One of the chefs also made baked tortilla chips and a spinach dip that my younger Iron sous chefs Apr 2013daughter can’t remember the ingredients for (except spinach and cream cheese).   The whole wheat tortillas were cut and baked for a few minutes on a lightly sprayed baking sheet.  I’ll work on a spinach dip recipe separately, substituting white beans for the bulk of the cream cheese used in the competition recipe.  In addition to making the dip creamy, the white beans will add calcium, selenium, vitamin E, protein, and fiber to the dish.

The chips and dip were served with fruit and raw veggie kabobs- a great kid-friendly meal for no fork Fridays or a picnic.  Chef Jenny (creator of veggie pasta, homemade chips and dip, and fruit and veggie kabobs) won the competition by appealing to her audience.  The student judges were randomly selected to represent their grade level after having correctly answered nutrition word problems.  Although some looked a bit concerned when the secret ingredient was revealed, afterward, they all seemed more open‑minded about eating more veggies.  And that means the event was a great success.



Lloyd T, Chinchilli VM, Johnson-Rollings N, Kieselhorst K, Egglie DF, Marcus R. Adult female hip bone density reflects teenage sports-exercise patterns but not teenage calcium intake. Pediatrics. 2000; 106:40-44.

Feskanich D, Willet WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:504-511.

Chan JM, Stampfer MJ, Ma J, Gann PH, Gaziano JM, Giovannucci EL. Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk in the Physicians’ Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;74(4):549-554.

Popeye Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/watz/2715424972/sizes/l/