Reel in Tonight's Dinner

By Nancy Gottesman

With all the recent caveats surrounding seafood, you might be thinking you’ll play it safe and avoid serving fish to your child altogether. But this would be a big mistake. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and other sources are vital for neurological development and growth in early childhood. Seafood is also an excellent source of protein.

“Omega-3 intake for toddlers is important for neural development,” says Ellen O’Leary, M.S., R.D., a nutrition coordinator at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Their brains, nervous tissue and entire neural-muscular system are all growing at this stage of their lives.” Omega-3 fatty acids have proven to be so beneficial that the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has established a dietary recommendation for toddlers: children ages 1-3 should consume 0.7 grams of omega-3s daily; 4-year-olds need 0.9 grams daily.

So that your child can reap the nutritional benefits of fish without the risks, both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend that you follow these guidelines:

» Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tile fish.

Larger fish such as these have longer life spans than smaller varieties and, hence,  have more time to accumulate mercury. It’s best to avoid serving these to children.

» Feed your toddler up to 12 ounces a week of seafood that is low in mercury, such as shrimp, wild salmon, pollock, catfish and canned light tuna.

White, or albacore, tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. As for salmon, much of what you find in supermarkets and restaurants is farmed Atlantic salmon, which is associated with both contamination and environmental concerns. Instead, buy chinook, coho, pink, sockeye or canned salmon, which are safer to eat.

» Check advisories about the safety of locally caught fish.

Visit the EPA’s Fish Advisory website or contact your state or local health department. Mercury is the greatest toddler threat in our seafood supply because it can harm a young child’s developing nervous system. But some fish may also contain industrial compounds (called PCBs) or pesticides. To learn which seafood is lowest in contaminants, visit