Is Fish Healthy for My Child?

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND
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What if someone told you there was a food that could improve your child's brain and heart health, takes only minutes to prepare and is packed with protein? Fish does all this and more, yet many families are strangers to this nutritious 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 will follow along.

Children as young as six months may consume fish and parents should monitor children for signs of an allergic reaction when they try fish for the first time.

But What About Mercury?

Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, an environmental contaminant. In large amounts, all forms of mercury are toxic to nerve cells and can cause vision problems, poor coordination and learning impairments.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency advise serving 1 to 2 two-ounce servings of fish to children per week, beginning at age two. Fish lowest in mercury include salmon and tilapia, while fish highest in mercury include swordfish and orange roughy. For a complete listing, visit the FDA website.

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 from the time of conception to about age 20. 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 two to three servings of fish per week for adults. 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, sole or halibut.

Think Fresh

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.

Go Fishing

When kids are able to catch their own fish, and it's legal and safe to eat, they'll be proud and more motivated to prepare and eat it. The FDA and EPA advise eating just one serving of self-caught fish at a time and 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 and more tasty and nutritious than packaged options. Dip strips of cod, salmon or halibut 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!

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