Reel in Tonight's Dinner

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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



Now that you know the guidelines for safe seafood, your next step is getting your toddler to eat it! “Start with fish that doesn’t have a strong smell,” suggests O’Leary. “Exposing your toddler to fish is like exposure to any other food—it needs to be in a form that’s friendly and manageable for a child.” Here are O’Leary’s fish tips for tots:

» Pick-up sticks. Fish sticks are made of cod (a safe seafood) and they look like French fries. Served with ketchup, what toddler could possibly resist?

» Build burgers. Create a hamburger out of canned salmon. Serve it with ketchup, mustard or a store-bought yogurt-based dip and your tot may not notice the difference!

» Shun sushi. Opt for teriyaki chicken or tempura at sushi restaurants. A toddler’s gastrointestinal tract isn’t as developed as an adult’s. Raw foods may contain microbes that an adult system can handle, but a toddler’s may not.

» Flake it. Fish is the perfect finger food because it’s easy to flake into bite-size pieces. Try wild salmon, cod and chunk light tuna to start.

» Opt for the old standby. When in doubt, go with a universal tot-pleaser: chunk light tuna sandwiches. They’re easy to pick up and chew—and they don’t smell!

For great toddler and adult-friendly recipes, click here.

Nancy Gottesman and her son Robby enjoy fish tacos every chance they get in Santa Monica, Calif.


Follow these tips for which fish to eat, the ones to avoid, and how to get your tot to eat it!

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