What if someone told you there was a food that might improve your child’s brain and heart health, takes only a few minutes to prepare, and is packed with protein? Fish has the potential to do all this and more, yet many families are strangers to this power food. Kids and adults may be turned off by fish’s smell or they haven’t developed a taste for it. However, if parents have a positive attitude about serving and eating fish, their kids may follow along.
But What About Mercury?
Parents often wonder if they should feed their children fish. After all, nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, an environmental contaminant. In large amounts, all forms of mercury are toxic to nerve cells and may cause vision problems, poor coordination, and learning impairments. However, there are many types of fish that may be safely consumed within the recommended amounts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency provide guidance on serving fish to children two years and older. Smaller portions are recommended, which vary depending on the child’s age. And choose fish low in mercury, such as salmon and tilapia. Fish high in mercury, including swordfish and orange roughy, should be avoided. For a complete listing, visit the FDA and EPA websites.
A Healthy Dose of Omega-3 Fats
Fatty fish are a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Children need these fats to build the structure of their brains starting from the time of conception. And they continue to play a role in brain health throughout life. Without an ample supply of omega-3 fats, the body incorporates other fatty acids which do not confer the same benefits to the brain and nervous system.
Omega-3 fats aren’t the only nutritional reward; fish is a great source of protein that growing bodies need and also provides varying amounts of iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium.
If you’d like to make more fish meals happen in your home, try some of these tips.
Make It a Regular Event
Health experts recommend including a variety of fish that are low in mercury—two to three servings per week for adults and one to two times per week for kids. If seafood is a new addition to your family’s table, it may take a few tries to win over everyone’s tastebuds. Over time, children may be more interested in fish if it’s prepared in a variety of ways. Kids also may be more receptive to eating fish if starting out with a mild fish such as tilapia or sole.
Fishy smells are a turnoff to anyone—and for a good reason. Those odors are a sign that seafood no longer is fresh. Fish should smell briny, like the sea. Because seafood spoils more quickly than meat, make sure to eat it within two days of purchase. It should be cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 145 °F, or until it becomes opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
When kids are able to catch their own fish, and it’s legal and safe to eat, they’ll be proud and may be more motivated to prepare and eat it. Be sure to check local fish advisories before eating any type of fish that is caught by family or friends. If no fish advisory is available, the FDA and EPA advise limiting consumption of self-caught fish and eating no other fish that week. If a fishing trip isn’t easy where you live, try a family outing to your local fish counter and let everyone pick their own single-serve portion of their favorite fresh fish in season.
Try a New Spin on Familiar Foods
Homemade fish sticks are easy to make, taste better, and are more nutritious than packaged options. Dip strips of cod or salmon into egg whites, coat with whole-wheat breadcrumbs, bake, and serve with honey mustard sauce. Or dish up kid-friendly fish tacos or a salad of canned fish with pasta, frozen vegetables, and light Italian dressing. Sprinkle tilapia filets with garlic and chili powder and grill or bake. Then, serve them in corn or whole-wheat tortillas with sautéed peppers, onions and guacamole—and watch them disappear!
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, is a nutrition writer based in Virginia.
Reprinted with permission from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Please visit www.eatright.org for more information.